Known at his death primarily to the laity as a fastball elocutionist with Black Nationalist intentions, Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925) has come to be favored in recent years as a lover of justice and a martyr for human rights. From Chuck D to Spike Lee to the Joe on the street, the rejuvenation of Malcolm as a Black history deity has been propelled to the head of Black freedom fighter lore. In this regard, it turns out that “demagogue” and “race-baiter” were only footnotes in Malcolm’s legacy.
Much is known about his peripatetic and felonious past, his recovery in the penitentiary, his autodidactic ways, his conversion to Islam under Elijah Muhammad, and his subsequent re-conversion from a separatist exclusionary to an ecumenical inclusive fighter for human rights. He discovered that the fight for black rights is indeed a human rights fight as well. But perhaps the most understated matter of Malcolm’s legacy was his renunciation of his entrenched sexist attitudes toward women.
Sexist attitudes were already pervasive in this era (feminist movement didn’t come until the seventies), but the Nation of Islam was no exception. Despite its claim of deviation from mainstream Christianity practice, the NOI subjugated its women into capes and minimal activity within their sect, with Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm (being the Nation’s most promulgated face) heading the charge. In his book, Message to the Black Man in America, Muhammad wrote that women should be kept off the street because “they are given to evil and sin, while men are noble and given to righteousness.” As to be expected at the time, Malcolm’s notions were not too far behind.
“The closest thing to a woman is the devil.”
– Malcolm X
Later, Malcolm would renounce these comments, professing regret for his vitriolic language towards women. Early in Malcolm’s career, he would largely describe black emancipation in masculine terms. Michael Eric Dyson, in Making Malcolm: The Myth & Meaning of Malcolm X, writes that “such a strategy not only borrows ideological capital from the white patriarchy that has historically demeaned black America, but blunts awareness of how the practice of patriarchy of black men has created another class of victims within black communities.”
Simplifying through explicit – and oftentimes implicit – ways the nature of the black struggle did much to further reduce the role of black females on the road to liberation (as well as place a pecking order on the priority of the black female struggle). Malcolm X played no small part in this; yet his metamorphosis, which was ironically spurred by the misdeeds of his patriarchal mentor, was laden with recantations of his prior-held views and true repentence from the damage he caused many, not the least of them being women.
“If you are in a country that is progressive, the woman is progressive. If you’re in a country that reflects the consciousness toward the importance of education, it’s because the woman is aware of the importance of education. But in every backward country you’ll find the women are backward, and in every country where education is not stressed it’s because the women don’t have education.”
Many remain unmoved by his rescinded views towards females. Because the prevailing notion of biological differences between the sexes was, well, extremely prevalent, many assert that it is impossible go against such a formidable grain and believe in the equality between the genders in such a time period of the 60’s. However, if there was any figure in history who was capable and courageous enough to take on this counterintuitive task, it was Malcolm (whose case of true contrition wasn’t hurt by the fact that he himself had six daughters). Valuing veracity over habit and ever self-critical, Malcolm’s life is a study in potent persistency. Staying loyal only to a cause, he left himself vulnerable and buttressed at the same time. Malcolm’s voice is one that sounds off as the booming bass in the harmonious medley of the 1960’s struggle for democracy and social equity. Though starting his post-prison path as the ideological counterpart to Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King, he ended his life as a man realizing that it is far more valuable to save souls rather than gain power. His late-life (or mid-life, if you will) mutation proves that life is not a race against each other. It is a marathon in maintaining the integrity of one’s self. By any means necessary.