Reflections on Malcolm’s 90th

(comments made at the Positive Black Folks in Action Birthday Celebration at Shaw Library, Washington DC)

Like most people of my generation, Malcolm X was merely, the fiery, brash counterpart to the genteel, if not accommodating Martin Luther King, Jr. This gave us the kind of bravado, toughness, coolness, from which to launch a politics of resistance. But we did not really know what we were resisting, at least not in the way that Malcolm did. What I would come to learn later was that Malcolm was a student, a scholar, and an organizer. We were just mad.

My introduction to the depth and the breadth of Malcolm X was with someone who knew and struggled with him: Maxwell Stanford. It was until I interacted with someone that Malcolm touched, someone who listened to his words, someone that acted his politics, someone who could barely utter his name without tears welling up in his eyes, that I knew the profundity of Malcolm X. It was that experience that allowed me to rediscover Malcolm in his full humanity. And in rediscovering Malcolm, in a way, I rediscovered Black radicalism, in its many forms, but constant rhythms.

In that moment of face-to-face interaction, Malcolm became more than what external mediated spaces sought to produce for our consumption. This is the danger of media: whether it be Hollywood, the New York Times, or even the book publishing industry. There is a certain feeling of being in space and in community with people that serves as the launching point for a truly liberationist politics. Something I doubt that social media can hope to replicate.

Everyone that I have come in contact with that knew Malcolm X always begins their recollection with this aspect of his life: his ability to be in community with people of African descent and others and the great deal of respect he had for their humanity. This may be his greatest legacy, but when we move it beyond mere interpersonal relations to a confrontation with the realpolitik of the modern world, we are able to see how his life might show us a way forward.

Malcolm was nothing if not an advocate for the idea that African people must assert, protect, and live their humanity as a precondition for any politics of freedom. This remains the central animating logic of Black radicalism. We must hold it dear. And we must resist the attempts to read Malcolm X as a caricature of rage or as an activist who would see us fight for equality in a fundamentally racist society. In other words, we must go beyond mediated interactions with Malcolm’s legacy and be in community with our great ancestor.

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