The man in the black and white photograph is looking to his right. The camera is positioned slightly below him, a position that emphasizes his stature. Caught in mid-speech, mid-sentence, mid-thought, he is intent on what he is saying. His gaze is focused; his right hand extended, the long fingers spread wide. The seriousness in his face is punctuated by his narrow tie, suit, glasses. His trimmed goatee is a new addition from his pilgrimage to Mecca.
On May 19, 1925, the man who grew to become El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was born. Today is his 97th birthday. However, like many modern-day prophets, he did not live past the age of 39. Better known as Malcolm X, he was a man celebrated and feared for his uncompromising stand and straight talk. No matter how uncomfortable his words made people feel, he refused to soft-pedal or sugar-coat his message.
And he did make lots of people uncomfortable—not only white people, but many Black people as well.
In 1963, in an interview with Afro-American journalist Louis Lomax, Minister Malcolm said, “Why would any black man want to marry a devil… for that’s just what the white man is.”
In response, Lomax confessed, “I have heard you say that a thousand times, but it always jolts me. Why do you call the white man a devil?”
Malcolm X retorted, “What do you want me to call him, a saint? Anybody who rapes, and plunders, and enslaves, and steals, and drops hell bombs on people…anybody who does these things is nothing but a devil.”
Because I was racialized to be white, I can never know how it felt to hear Malcolm X’s uncompromising words through the ears of a Black person. I can only bear witness to the enthusiastic reception of his speeches in the streets and halls of Harlem, in every film clip, in every audio recording.
But I do know how it felt–how it feels–to be on the receiving end, the white end, of Malcolm X’s razor-sharp observations. Even today, almost 60 years after his death, his words have the power to pierce me to the heart. I can sometimes gauge their power by the strength of my resistance to them, the desire to deflect, to defend myself. As James Baldwin writes in “The White Man’s Guilt,” most white Americans find themselves “impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves…. They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie….”
No wonder so many white people do not want the full story of American history taught in the schools. We are terrified of what we will find, what we will be forced to see–and what we may then, having seen, bear the responsibility for working to change.
I don’t have to believe in a fanciful story about an evil scientist who creates a white race of devils to puncture the illusion of superiority. All I have to do is allow the truth, the full story of what was done in the name of whiteness, to pierce my heart.
I remember I often heard my father quote someone—perhaps Dr. King, although I cannot find the quotation—saying that “the white man had better learn how to love before the Black man learns how to hate.” With the burgeoning of the Black Muslim movement under Malcolm X’s leadership, it appeared as though it might be too late. As James Baldwin writes, “…white people carry in them a carefully muffled fear that black people long to do to others what has been done to them.” (“The White Man’s Guilt,” in Baldwin: Collected Essays)
Or, as Minister Malcolm might have put it, white people fear that the chickens are coming home to roost.
…white people carry in them a carefully muffled fear that black people long to do to others what has been done to them.James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” Baldwin: Collected Essays
After Malcolm made his pilgrimage to Mecca in the spring of 1964, however, everything changed.
The hajj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, a holy obligation for every adult Muslim who is physically and financially able to make the pilgrimage. However, to make the pilgrimage is not only an obligation. It is a blessing. During the hajj, Malcolm X saw some of his most deeply held beliefs about people with so-called “white” skin challenged and changed by the “sincere hospitality and the practice of brotherhood as I have seen it here in Arabia,” he writes. (“A Letter from Mecca,” April 26, 1964). He continues:
“During the past days here in Mecca…I have eaten from the same plate, drank from the same glass and slept on the same bed or rug…with fellow Muslims whose skin was the whitest of white, whose eyes was the bluest of blue, and whose hair was the blondest of blond—I could look into their blue eyes and see that they regarded me as the same (Brothers), because their faith in One God (Allah) had actually removed “white” from their mind….”
I suspect that the transformation was not as sudden as it seemed, as he himself hints later on in the same letter:
“This ‘adjustment to reality’ wasn’t [too] difficult for me to undergo, because despite my firm conviction in whatever I believe, I have always tried to keep an open mind, which is absolutely necessary to reflect the flexibility that must go hand in hand with anyone [whose] intelligent quest for truth never comes to an end.”
When Malcolm X arrived back in the U.S., Alex Haley, the author involved in writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X, recorded an exchange between reporters and the newly-returned minister:
“Do we correctly understand that you now do not think that all whites are evil?”
“True, sir! My trip to Mecca has opened my eyes…. I have adjusted my thinking to the point where I believe that whites are human beings”—a significant pause—”as long as this is borne out by their humane attitude toward Negroes.”
…I have always tried to keep an open mind, which is absolutely necessary to reflect the flexibility that must go hand in hand with anyone [whose] intelligent quest for truth never comes to an end.Malcolm X, “A Letter from Mecca”
When I look at the timing of Malcolm X’s assassination; when I ponder the central role the U.S. was playing in international assassinations and coups throughout the 60s and well into the 70s; when I consider that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI had both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. in their sights, I am struck by the realization that Brother Malcolm was cut down at a time when he was talking about cultivating “an open mind” and working toward bringing people together, not only within the boundaries of the United States, but worldwide.
It is difficult not to be a conspiracist when I consider how his pilgrimage to Mecca unearthed such a profound change in him. It is difficult, when I listen to his speeches about working with other Black leaders he previously villified, not to think that that was the moment that tipped the balance for those who wanted him out of the way for good. I don’t know what powers were at play, whose hand was scratching the other’s back, when Malcolm X was gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. And my point here is not to speculate about who might have been behind the hand that pulled the trigger, encouraging and manipulating internal tensions and conflicts in the Nation of Islam to their own ends–
However, it is clear to me that those people whose inner compass is not set to some artificial magnetic field, but who follow the guidance of the Eternal as it speaks to them from beyond as well as within the depths of their own hearts—call it God, call it Allah—those people are dangerous. For everyone. And reading Brother Malcolm’s writings and speeches after the hajj, witnessing the actions he took, I am convinced that the Divine had a-hold of him, and he could do nothing else but follow the guidance that he received from the MOST HIGH.
And so I honor him today, on the 97th anniversary of his birth.
At the end of his life, Allah was leading him to bring people together rather than divide them. Divine guidance was leading Brother Malcolm to mend the rifts between him and the leaders of the SCLC and SNCC. It was drawing him to reach out beyond the narrow borders of the United States to the peoples of Africa and to bring them together with those who had been so cruelly ripped from African shores centuries before.
Bringing people together has always been a dangerous proposition. When people come together, those in power know that they don’t stand a chance.