Happy birthday, Malcolm X

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Today is the birthday of Malcolm X. He would have been 87 years old.

Malcolm rarely receives the kind of mainstream press attention that his better known counterpart, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. does. And perhaps that is best. Unlike King, Malcolm has been not been subjected to the ahistorical nostalgia machine of American hero-making. His radicalism remains intact.

Let me be clear by what I mean when I say radicalism.

I do not mean that Malcolm X sought to overthrow the American state. He did not. What he did seek was the undermining the structural inequality on which so many practices of the American state rested. At various points in his political career he advocated for separatism from a country he found irredeemably racist. He also evolved into a more nuanced thinker. He embraced a broad internationalism that sought to hold the United States accountable to world standards for human rights and free democracy.

I do not mean that Malcolm X advocated violence. He did not. Malcolm was a staunch believer in the rights of citizens to defend themselves and their homes. He was, in some ways, a true second amendment theorist who believed that men, women and communities have a right to self-defense when their government fails to adequately protect their lives and families.

I do not mean that Malcolm hated white people. He did not. He often used extreme rhetoric to make a point, to drive a conversation, to clarify his differences with other leaders, and to illuminate the painful realities of urban life and poverty.

When I say “radical,” I mean that Malcolm X was unflinching in his insistence on the inherent worth of black life. Malcolm criticized the powerful rather than the powerless. He pointed to the pathologies of the privileged instead of the failings of the oppressed. More than a decade into the 21st century, living in a nation where the majority of babies born today are not white, it is easy to forget just how radical it has been in America to insist on the humanity of black people. Public policy from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration has denied the inherent humanity of black bodies, but Malcolm’s work was consistently on behalf of restoring it.

And because he has been largely rejected by mainstream America, Malcolm’s radicalism has not been co-opted by conservative political movements. His words have not been turned into greeting cards. His image has not been used to sell consumer goods. Malcolm still belongs to those of us who find power and insight in his life and work.

But this doesn’t mean Malcolm has been completely free from historical myth-making. In April of 2011, my dear friend and mentor Manning Marable passed away just days before his greatest and most anticipated work was published. Manning’s triumphant, and Pulitzer Prize-winning text, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” intervenes in the nostalgic image of Malcolm constructed by many of us in the post-civil rights generation.

Those of us who met Malcolm through the prism of popular culture first embraced him as a commodity – a movie hero, a hat with an “X” – and embraced him a symbol of our own disenchantment with the crumbling American dream.

Manning’s book challenges the commodity of Malcolm with a thorough, and sometimes uncomfortable, rendering of his life. He reminds us again of Malcolm’s extraordinary capacity for reinvention. Malcolm was born into poverty, madness and racial violence. His youthful arrogance, crime and indulgence led him to jail, but prison was no end for him; through a religious and political awakening, he found freedom in the context of imprisonment. He became an organization man, an orator, a world citizen and a free thinker with a cosmopolitan vision of the world.

Malcolm displayed the capacity to learn, to grow, to discern and to change direction. It takes courage to admit that society’s approach to old subjects has grown rigid and needs to evolve and change. It is hard for leaders to admit that they have been wrong in the past.  His life is a reminder that greatness is not found in arrogant self-righteousness or intellectual hubris, but in the willingness to be open to our own limitations.

As Malcolm’s definitive biographer, Manning Marable was more than an academic, he was an activist. It was Manning’s great wish that his biography would reopen the investigation of Malcolm’s assassination. While writing the book, Manning became convinced that we do not know the whole story. On Malcolm’s birthday, reintroduce yourself to him through Manning’s book. (You can watch a C-SPAN discussion of that book in which I took part here.)

Happy birthday, Malcolm X

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