Excerpted from “Happy Birthday, Malcolm”, originally published at The Root.
Many of our modern leaders live by cynical double standards. They practice slippery personal ethics, while lecturing the masses about morality. They consume conspicuously, while telling ordinary folks to save their pennies. They father children outside of marriage, then blame single mothers for the violence in black communities. They blame individuals for their circumstances, rather than help them deconstruct, understand and overcome the historical, structural, political, reasons for their plight.
Malcolm taught us better. He criticized the powerful rather than the powerless. He pointed to the pathologies of the privileged instead of the failings of the oppressed. His own story of redemption was emblematic of the possibilities available to even the most disempowered, but when he pointed to solutions, they were consistently collective.
Fulfilling his religious responsibility of Hajj, Malcolm discovered that the United States looked very different when viewed from the other side of the Atlantic. Living abroad altered his understanding of race, politics and power. Worshipping in Mecca and living in Accra, he came to understand himself and black America as part of a larger, global struggle for human rights. That sort of world view is crucially important now, in an era in which the United States’ domestic and foreign policy has become woefully narrow.
Early in his public career, a young white woman approached Malcolm and asked him what role sincere white allies could have in the struggle for racial equality. He rebuffed her and told her that there was no role for whites at all. Years later, he said he regretted his response and spoke of the difficulty in building workable interracial coalitions. He remained committed to black empowerment and self-governance within African-American organizations, but toward the end of his life he also came to understand the critical importance of anti-racist efforts among white Americans. He taught us that we must acknowledge human interdependence if we hope to build enduring movements out of the fragile and complicated interests that we share.
More information on Malcolm X:
The Wikipedia Enty
The Malcolm X Project at Columbia University
Latoya’s Note: The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of the defining books in my life. The first time I read it, I was nine. Even now, though I haven’t picked it up in about five years, I can still remember whole passages by heart, and the basic wording of much more. What I find interesting is that as I grew older, my interpretation and understanding of the book changed. When I was younger, I was enthralled by ex-criminal, black nationalist Malcolm X; as I got older I began to wonder more about his transformation to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, his journey to Mecca, and his change in mindset and focus. It is his journey that inspires my own.