Who Was Malcolm X?

Article excerpt

He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Neb., on May 19, 1925. But the world came to know him as Malcolm X, a provocative spokesman for Black nationalism whose words inflamed the passions of thousands of Black Americans struggling to wrest free from the disabling grip of poverty and racism.

In his all-too-brief life--snuffed out by assassins on Feb. 21, 1965--El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz became a figure of almost mythic proportions: feared and revered with like intensity by observers on both sides of the political fence; misquoted and misunderstood equally by followers, foes and ravenous American reporters, many of whom absorbed his controversial speeches but were never quite able to fathom the depth of his continuously evolving quest for a route to Black empowerment.

And so it is today, in the midst of a powerful surge of renewed interest in the life and legacy of Malcolm X, that a generation of young people--some born more than a decade after his death--has latched on to kernels of what was his developing philosophy and helped generate a new groundswell of public and media attention.

"Young Blacks love Malcolm X almost to the point of uncritical adoration," states James Cone, professor of systemic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York and author of Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare, an examination of two of the most charismatic figures of the civil rights struggle. "He expresses the anger they feel about White America and about the Black leadership establishment. That is why Malcolm is popular among rap artists and street-preachers and why his image, and saying adorn buttons, caps and T-shirts."

Indeed Malcolm X today is the focus of a vastly more commercial kind of attention than he was treated to in his lifetime. An appreciation and conversational knowledge of Malcolmian quotations is no longer "radical chic," it's just plain chic, especially on college campuses where his popularity is perhaps greater than it was 20 years ago. Baseball caps emblazoned with a large "X", the logo for director Spike Lee's anxiously awaited film treatment of Malcolm's life, are sported by just about every homebody in every 'hood.

Yet for all of the youthful and commercial enthusiasm, few of the new Malcolm X converts really understand how complex and multifaceted a figure he was.

The trouble is that Malcolm X's personal history, like his philosophy, defies easy categorization. Even scholars who knew him and have spent considerable time studying his life and speeches maintain that Malcolm is not readily accessible to them.

"He was a complex person--constantly growing, disavowing old views and affirming new ones," states Cone. "His meaning, therefore, cannot be reduced to the political rhetoric of any group."

There are, of course, well-documented bench marks in Malcolm's X's life that suggest what influences were key to his development. The racial violence he witnessed during his youth in Lansing, Mich.; his reckless youth which led to his conviction on a burglary charge at age 21; his conversion to the Nation of Islam while in prison; his 12 years of dedicated service to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad; his break from the Nation of Islam in 1964 and his subsequent formation of the Organization for Afro-American Unity; and his adoption of an orthodox form of Islam following his trip to Mecca shortly before his assassination.

But even these watershed events only hint at the complexity of Malcolm X.

"It's difficult to look with accuracy behind somebody else's veil," says C. Eric Lincoln, professor of religion and culture at Duke University, whose 1961 book, The Black Muslims In America, provided many with their first in-depth look at Minister Malcolm X. "Though Malcolm X and I spent a lot of time together, he was still a veiled figure."

But behind what outsiders perceived as a veil, was an affectionate family man who delighted in unguarded moments at home, says the oldest of his six daughters, Attallah Shabazz, a producer, writer and lecturer. …