How Learning About Malcolm X Changed My Life

It was my interest in Spike Lee films that first made me conscious of Malcolm X. I think you could consider me one of the successes of Lee’s marketing campaign for his 1992 biopic about Malcolm. That film was my first history lesson about a person I would eventually consider to be one of my greatest heroes. My affinity for the life and teachings of Malcom X (or el hajj Malik Shabazz for those keeping score) led me to learn more about him, myself, and eventually make comments this.

I didn’t see Spike Lee’s Malcolm X until it was on HBO (or was it Starz?) but if I had known that he was advocating for kids to skip school in order to see the film when it was first released I would probably made more of an attempt to see it in a theater. Almost immediately after I watched the final closing credit scroll past I began thinking about the many questions and interest the film raised in me; Did the major scenes in the movie really happen as presented, the scene at the police station in particular? Was Malcolm really thugging like that? Did Malcolm’s friend Shorty really look like Spike Lee? It was one of the more obscure questions I had from watching the film that ended up making the deepest impression on me though. I wanted to know if Malcolm X went to Heaven or Hell. Here was a man who literally put his life on the line for the benefit of others well being which would make him a shoo-in for Heaven in my book, but according to the “Good Book” he was destined for Hell because he was an non-Christian and subsequently an non-practitioner of the Christian prerequisites to get into heaven. As a frequent church attendant, born Baptist, and about three years away from being a “preacher’s son”, this really did not sit well with me. I honestly see that revelation as the first step towards my transition into the Agnostic I am today, because it was the first of many questions I would end up having about religion where the answer would end up pushing me further away from the “arbitrary” tenements of organized religion as a mean of spiritual fulfillment. As I write this I realize the irony of learing about Malcolm being what starts my push away from religion considering that Malcolm X’s life brought a lot of people to organized religion through the Nation of Islam and the Muslim religion.

After reading Malcolm’s autobiography I learned about the subtle anti-blackness in the world around me. Using his autobiography as an example, whenever I would talk about the book with a white person (or someone seemingly Eurocentric in their thinking) they almost always mention how much they liked the book but didn’t like how racist he was. I think about those moments relatively often and as I’ve matured more I’ve been able to intellectualize more of what those statements could mean, but at the time the two main thoughts I would have in response were; “How can you see his views of white people as ‘racism’ and not ‘reactions’ to the racism he was experiencing?” and ‘Did you not read the end of the book where he talked about meeting ‘white’ people in Africa and the Middle East that were pro Africa revolutionaries and devout Muslims like him leading him to denouncing some of the sweeping racial generalizations he made?” I think that was my first recognized taste of what happens when you present white people in a less that perfect historical light, especially if it is from the perspective of a victim of white supremacy.

Shortly after reading his autobiography I began reading collections of his speeches, essentially receiving Malcolm X lessons straight from the source. The lessons have proven to be endless but one of the first was his views on American politics. Many (if not all) of his views on the American political system are still relevant today, so much so that during the 2016 presidential campaign there was a viral clip of him talking about sociopolitical manipulation used to get Lyndon Johnson elected in the 60s about a half century earlier. The very first piece of political advice I read from him that resonated with me was thoughts that black should people should not vote. Not in the lazy sense of just sitting home and doing nothing, but actually going to your voting station, signing your name to a ballot, and voting for what/who you feel truly have your interest in mind. If you don’t see anything that actually represents you on the ballot then leave it blank. That lets the politicians know that you are paying attention and you do not see anything that represents you. I still vote that way today.

From my very first viewing of Spike Lee’s masterwork I have been consistently filled with insightful knowledge from the life and thoughts of Malcolm X (el hajj Malik Shabazz if you’re keeping score) and I am still learning. I have not even read Manning Marable’s biography yet. I am sure I will be enriching my life with the things I learn from Malcom X for as long as I live. I will try to return the gift by contributing insightful and informative material to the vast catalog of work that explores the incredible life of el hajj Malik Shabzz (Malcolm X if you’re keeping score).