on being named Malcolm X
“I AM X”
Who am I ? Who am I ?
Who am I ? Who am I?
I am X.
“The darkness that dwells in the mysterious corners of your mind where you refuse to look .
X-the loudness that only turns up the volume when you refuse to listen.
I am X.
The hate waste
washed up on the shores of humanity,
which you politely ignore and step over.
I am X-that which greedily hungers for light and sustenance
for legitimacy and substance
I am X-the seeker of truths and proclaimer of lies.
X-that which accepts nothing less
the ultimate embodiment of manhood.
I am X-a shaky balance
struck between man and myth Demagogue and Saint.
X-that which cries at the death of all I ever wanted to be.
X is you and I.
I am X and you are me.
Santa Cruz, California 1989
I wrote this poem as a college student, deeply embroiled in campus politics, during the height of the anti apartheid and Free Nelson Mandela Campaign. The movie “Malcolm X” had just come out, and many of us were trying to figure out what it meant to be Black in this new, young adult landscape.
Unlike many of my peers, I was never afforded the luxury of being politically innocent. I am blessed to be born into a family that is implicitly and explicitly committed to uplifting our people. I’m originally from a Bay Area town, East Palo Alto, aka “Little Nairobi” EPA is a city with the classic “other side of the tracks” history. That’s another story that other people have told really well. East Palo Alto was a Pan Africanist, progressive and radical community in the late 60’s through the early 80’s and my family was in the center of all of it. Many of us received African names, “Bakari, Lumumba, Halili, Mwosi, Muriithi, Lungusu, Kiazi. It’s just the way things are for us. Some of my earliest memories are attached to being Black and Proud. Because of what we were doing there, the availability of housing that would be sold to Blacks, and the proximity to Stanford, San Jose State and San Francisco State, we had a concentration of the best minds that the Diaspora had to offer. Kwame Ture, Angela Davis, Dick Gregory, Harry Edwards, Huey Newton, Bobby Seales, Tommy Smith, the names go on and on. If you were organizing back then, you knew what was going on in East Palo Alto.
I remember Alex Haley stayed at my Aunt Mary and Uncle Bobs house. I have a great memory of him reading me a bedtime story. I’m sure that he talked to me about our history and legacy, also the importance of my name. I want to say that he said I was kind, like Malcolm was and that I’d make him proud.
As the story goes, my parents never talked about any other name. Malcolm was someone they both loved and had followed, if not formally. Naming me Malcolm X El Hajj Malik Shabazz Hoover was just what they did. My birth certificate only includes “Shabazz” as a middle name, but I claim all of them. This name “Malcolm” for Black men, is a title that comes with great expectations. Malcolms either embrace this or we shy away from it, often using middle names to avoid the scrutiny. Malcolms have very little room for mediocrity. Malcolms are expected to love and serve Black people, and for our lives to bear witness to the same. I have really and truly strived to embody that love and service to my people, which in my heart are synonymous.
Malcolm was about us, was about elevating the Black Masses and pushing us forward into a new stage. He knew our ancient history, but he also knew first hand, what it meant for a people to lift themselves up from the servant class we’d been relegated to. He knew from his own observation that it was possible for a people and individuals to embark on the journey from a hellish to excellence. He had done so himself. This transformation, which Malcolm and so many of our elders undertook, was not accidental. Malcolm’s transformation came from his acute need to improve. His veracity in pursuing truth and personal excellence, even at the expense of all he held dear, even his own life is his gift. He changed visibly, and kept pushing himself to be better. This is Malcolm’s gift to all of us, to push further and further in pursuit of truth.
Even as a child, he knew that he was capable of being great. He’d dreamed of being an attorney, a master of the law. His teachers shut that down. It was dangerous for young black boys to dream. My parents told me from the womb that I was great. I grew up with a great sense of purpose and I have always known I am not average, my actions matter. Being anonymous has never been an option for me. I strive to make a positive impact with everything I do. I want to uplift Malcolms’ legacy of Black Excellence and in the doing, leave a positive legacy of my own.
I’ll tell you that it is becoming harder and harder to “chill”. I’m always thinking about ways to make my life better so that I can better serve my people. I feel isolated because a lot of people talk the talk of uplifting the people, but rarely do I see it reflected in their everyday actions. Not everyone has to show up as I do in the world, but don’t tell me you are about the people and that don’t show up anywhere in your life. Know that if you tell me something like that, I am looking to see where I can work with you, not to criticize you but to learn from and add on. If I can’t learn from you or add on to what you are doing, I’ll just keep it moving. Just know that I see you. We don’t have time for bullshit rhetoric. Being “woke” is not a fad, it is not a religion or series of books you can read. Being woke to me, is knowing as an African person, you come from a great people, that you have a legacy based in ancient and contemporary greatess. I want you to know that “I Am Because We Are; We Are Because I Am” My fate is not separate from yours, our conditions are tied together and we are obligated to one anothers care. It is the only way we have every truly made it. I am not above my people and my people cannot be without me.
In 1990, Dr. Betty Shabazz came to Santa Clara University. A bunch of us caravanned over 17 to see her and pay homage to this sister we had grown to love and admire. I really needed to see her, as I was just starting to come into my own as “Malcolm”. I knew that meeting her, would be a keystone experience for me. I needed to talk to someone who knew Malcolm in life, to assure me that I was on the right path, that I gave proper honor to the name. That night, Dr. Betty gave a great talk about the man who was her husband and how she had to pick herself up and move forward to support her young family after his assassination. She talked about the ways the “community” did and did not support her, she spoke about resilience and the beautiful love that Malcolm held for her, their children and our people.
After it was over, I waited patiently outside the circle of mostly young women talking to her. Some of them had no idea who she was until that night, a fact that I couldn’t understand, especially since the movie had been out for some time. She saw me at the edge of the crowd, motioned for me to come over and physically reached through the group of young women to hold my hand. When the crowd thinned she pulled me near and said “Yes?” I want to say she said “Yes, baby?” but that could just be my flawed memory. “My name is Malcolm X El hajj Malik Shabazz Hoover and I have been waiting my whole life to meet you.” I didn’t even get through telling her my whole name before I started tearing up. She held me and she told me “Oh…come here and give me a hug” We talked…she knew of my Aunt and Uncle, she’d heard of them through the movement. She gave me her information and I wrote her regularly. After that, if Dr. Betty came to the Bay Area, I was on the spot. More than once, I got to pick her up at the airport and drive her to her speaking gig. She told me the second time that I picked her up, that I was the kind of son Malcolm would have had, and that I should consider myself as such. I’ve not received a higher honor.
My book, “144 Poems and Essays for God, Love, Truth, Justice, Peace and Hip Hop” is the record of my attempts to reconcile my very different worldview from that of the world I live in. It’s my “Stranger in a Strange Land.” It is the legacy of another Malcolm Shabazz, one that is for me guided by the lessons I learned from El Hajj Malik El Shabazz and applied to this world the best I can.