The story of Malcolm X Shabazz, as his daughter, Attallah Shabazz calls him, is- well, it is embarrassingly prescient- of what has transpired since X’s assassination, and the direction we are headed in- we’ve allowed White patriarchy (the “white devil”) to separate and conquer us. We were not able to rise above by rising together. Instead, we have fractured as each group has sought to use the tools of White patriarchy to attempt to gain privilege over the other. Whenever tools of White patriarchy- white supremacy- are used, it is only White patriarchy that benefits. From his days as a hustler, X could see a fixed game from a mile away- White patriarchy is about as fixed a game as you can find.
Elijah Muhammad, whom X always viewed as his savior, even after his rift with the Nation of Islam (NOI), had employed White patriarchy in his leadership of the NOI. As X rose in prominence, to maintain personal control, Muhammad hobbled his strongest leader, in order to keep the power of the patriarchal religion in his hands. It is clear, in The Ballot or The Bullet Speech, given to two thousand people before he left on his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, that X had already begun to consider the failures of requiring fealty to religion and religious leaders. At the same time, X stopped short of completely condemning Muhammad, the man whom he still saw as his savior even as he knew Muhammad had ordered his death by the NOI. Perhaps it was because X had sunk so low in his life, and had humbled himself in acknowledging how low he had become, that he was able to see his hero as human, as well; capable of even unthinkable (especially to X) grievous faults.
He saw his heroes as human- those men (and women, though it was tough for him to admit) whom he looked up to or leaned on- he exalted what he saw as their gifts and strengths, while at the same time recognizing their humanity- their own struggle to reach (or fail to reach) what they could become. A struggle X was intimately knowledgeable of; one he never gave up. A philosopher continues to question what others take for granted; even after they have studied exhaustively, they continue to question, always knowing there is more to know. X was a philosopher- he continued to question what he knew, and he continued to change what he knew to be true as he sought and learned new information. Who knows, in the end, he may have even become a feminist, as well as a Civil Rights leader! It was his intelligent flexibility and drive to find and accept new information and adjust direction, to accept the flaws of others as he valued their strengths, that made Malcolm X Shabazz the uniquely deliberate, graceful, and powerful force he was, that still reverberates through our communities today.
Removed from the NOI, and immersed in the practice of Islam on his journey to Mecca, X gained deeper perspective on the religion he thought he had known through Elijah Muhammad; and a wider perspective on how people of different races may live peacefully together. X began to “reappraise” the “white man,” clarifying, “the ‘white man’ as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it described attitudes and actions. In America, ‘white man’ meant specific attitudes and actions toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men. But in the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been” (The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley). In America, the white man had destroyed his family: murdering his father (a Civil Rights fighter as well), driving his mother to a breakdown then sending her to a mental hospital for over 25 years, and separating the children; the white man called him a n**ger and told him a n**ger couldn’t be a lawyer, jailed him for sleeping with a white woman (and robbery, though the length of the sentence was clearly a message), and consistently treated him as a threat. The “white man” had no idea just what kind of threat Malcolm X was. Elijah Muhammad knew, and had him assassinated for it.
Helen Handler, wife of M. S. Handler, an international reporter and one of few white men whom X trusted and respected, said of Malcolm after meeting him for the first time in the Handler’s home, “You know, it was like having tea with a black panther.” (This was before the Black Panther Party or the super hero existed.) M. S. Handler explained, “The black panther is an aristocrat in the animal kingdom. He is beautiful. He is dangerous. As a man, Malcolm X had the physical bearing and the inner self confidence of a born aristocrat. And he was potentially dangerous. No man in our time aroused fear and hatred in the white man as did Malcolm, because in him the white man sensed an implacable foe who could not be had for any price.” Ruby Dee, as well, was awed by X’s graceful power, one of her regrets in life was muffling that power when she asked him to store his iconic rifle away during a meeting and press event in her home. Ossie Davis, her husband, who eulogized Malcolm X Shabazz, perhaps summarizes who X was to us, who he continues to be, most succinctly when he wrote: “…Malcolm kept snatching our lies away. He kept shouting the painful truth we whites and blacks did not want to hear from all the housetops. And he wouldn’t stop for love nor money” (Negro Digest, February 1966). X was good at snatching our lies away because he was constantly snatching his own lies away. No one knew better than X that he was a flawed human living among other flawed humans, that he was not always right, that knowledge is a constant and arduous task- with awesome rewards.
“Our Shining Black Prince,” our black panther, our Muslim brother, our Malcolm X Shabazz left us his human story, a legacy and a battle cry (Eulogy, Ossie Davis). “All of our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that ever happened to us is an ingredient. … I am spending many hours,” he wrote, “because the full story is the best way that I know to have it seen and understood, that I had sunk to the very bottom of the American white man’s society…” and then he rose (Malcolm X).