In Praise of Malcolm X

January 13, 2024
2 mins read


By Mark Anthony Neal, PhD.

Thursday, May 28, 2009.

I was born a little less than seven months after the murder of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X). Like so many of my generation—black and post-Soul—I’ve spent the last forty-something years rummaging through myth and mythology to derive some meaning from the man’s life that can be relevant to mine. With the exception of his contemporary, Martin Luther King, Jr., no one African-American has been the focus of a cottage industry the way Malcolm X has been. For good or bad, the Malcolm X cottage industry has made the late figure a recognizable icon—someone that many of us still have strong emotions for.

I have visceral memories of the sadness I felt, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time as a 19-year-old college student, and coming to terms with the narrative shift very late in the book, when it’s clear that Malcolm X was no longer present in his own story. It was like he was murdered a second time.

That sadness fueled much of the anger associated with my own political awakening, with the music of Public Enemy—who seemingly conjured Malcolm X with every lyric—serving as the perfect soundtrack for that process. It was an experience that I shared with many. Indeed Malcolm X, still remains for some, the very epitome of black rage and militancy, but to reduce him to just those human emotions is too miss why he remains such a timeless figure.

Sure, Malcolm X spoke back to white supremacy—publicly—in a way that was unprecedented, and giving the tenor of his times, perhaps only matched by the performance of another one of his contemporaries, Billie Holiday, whose “Strange Fruit” rarely gets credit for its own potency. When Malcolm X was arguably at the height of his popularity—some twenty years after his murder—many took for granted the freedom they possessed to express their anger and dissatisfaction; freedom that Malcolm X died, in part, to guarantee. But it behooves us, his spiritual and political children, to champion the full humanity of the man, no matter how expedient his own militancy is to our political desires.

That process began shortly after his death, with the late Ossie Davis’s breathtaking eulogy in which he responded to those who would have the black community distance themselves from Malcolm X’s legacy with the queries, “Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him?” In his eulogy, Davis gets at the everyday humanity of the man, knowing full well, that for so many, that would never see the inside of a mosque or adhere to Malcolm X’s still evolving black nationalism, the image of Malcolm X’s stroll—what we call today “swag”—was a lasting memory to them.

My favorite recollection of Malcolm X is from his daughter Qubilah Shabazz, who witnessed her father’s murder in February of 1965. Quoted in Jonetta Rose Barras’s Whatever Happened to Daddy’s Little Girl?: The Impact of Fatherlessness on Black Women, Shabazz remembers a father who “almost had me convinced that I was made of brown sugar…Every morning he’d take my finger and stir his coffee with my finger. He said it was to sweeten it up.” It’s a shame that we don’t often enough think of Malcolm X as a doting father or devoted husband, who surely as he began to hear the progressive critiques of racism emanating from White radicals, would have also took seriously the critiques of patriarchy and homophobia articulated by black women and queers.

It there is reason to pause, on this 84th anniversary of Malcolm X’s birth, it is because he was denied the opportunity to reach his full political maturity. That must be our mission now.

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books including What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture and the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities.

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