Malcolm and Me
I’d like to begin by thanking JHR and the TMA for inviting me to speak today about the Legacy of Malcolm X. It is truly an honour not only to speak here in the company of you all but also to speak about a man who I can honestly say is one of the most influential in my life. Those of you who know me know that I tell stories for a living. Primarily stories about human rights and society.
And as a filmmaker and writer I have often found the words of Malcolm X as a sort of strange solace and as education is the theme today, I thought I might speak about what Malcolm X has taught me and for that, we’ll begin at the beginning.
I was 14, in my high school history class when I first heard the story of this man, Malcolm X. I remember the first picture I saw of him, his face was stern, defiant and unbowed against the backdrop of history.
That is the image that ingrained itself on my mind. It’s still the same image that resurfaces when someone mentions his name. That day, that image that I remember.
There were few stories that would quieten a usually rowdy, apathetic Year 8 History class at my school in North London. But on that day, the day we learnt about Malcolm – silence.
We all watched as our History teacher Mr Wood would play videotapes of some of his speeches. I heard his voice for the first time, intercut with grainy news reel footage, images of riots and streets ablaze in America. Those images made quite an impression on me aged 14.
The 60s: Just picture what I saw that day. Images: One wash basin for whites, another for coloureds, police dogs and protest and stock images of black men and women, leather jackets and leather gloves. Panthers. And the names; Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, King. Ali. It’s difficult to disconnect these names with the times they lived in isn’t it?
Suddenly, at the age of 14, History became less about facts, dates and dead monarchs but more of people and action, and courage and strength. I use the same word now as I did then to describe what I felt in that classroom but use that word in it’s true form today: It was awesome, truly. He was awesome.
I believe that every young man in that class, myself included, at an age where testosterone, anger, pride and some peculiar will to ambition, listened to the story of Malcolm X and placed our faces on his. Such was the nature of his story.
That is what I think of when I think of the legacy of Malcolm X. His story. A story that inspires awe and breeds a fire in the gut. He was a torch – extinguished before his time.
The Many Malcolms
Now I want to speak about this idea of Malcolm X and his story for a minute. Those images, our collective images of that time, are powerful things charged with influence. They can mould the story of a man and his place in history so viscerally that we sometimes are guilty of neglecting the parts that hold less focus. Today I’d like to talk about the chapters of Malcolm’s story that many people dismiss as parentheses.
And I’ll tell you why.
Here is a battered dog-eared old copy of Malcolm X’s autobiography. It usually sits in my library at home but I wanted to bring it along to illustrate a point. If anyone knows the story behind the writing of this book you’d know that at the time of it’s writing he was one of the most recognisable faces in the world and he was determined that his story would be told on his terms.
Malcolm X and the books writer Alex Haley would actually fight about the interpretation of the events in his life and the book itself reads as almost a psychological tale of inner struggle of a man trying to pick apart his own reflection by describing it. He was organising his life into a story arc: Beginning on the streets of Harlem, where he turned to street-hustling, that period would be followed by his years in jail, his conversion to Islam would come next and it was then that he became one of the most influential political figures of his time.
As his story is told and re-told today it has become a story of many Malcolm’s. As with most public personalities we tend to choose which of his contradictory incarnations we prefer to remember. Malcolm Little the homeboy, the hoodlum, the young Malcolm the hustler who called himself Red, Malcolm the thief, the prisoner, Malcolm the Muslim, Minister Malcolm X, Malcolm the follower, the devotee, Malcolm Anti-white Demagogue and finally Malcolm the martyr.
I ask all of you which of these Malcolm’s comes closest to your interpretation of him?
We define our heroes by their stories and when I was young, it was the Minister Malcolm X that attracted me most. His words were so charged with passion and a sense of himself. I guess as a young man trying to define myself, an image of a man with such purpose was inspiring. And his words, his were speeches that enflamed with every word, shocked the status quo, thundered the air. How could anyone at that age, not be enraptured?
This was Malcolm at his most fierce but also his most divisive. He made a great impact on me. The Malcolm of that period of his life was all I needed at that point in my life. I became more and more politically active and engaged in discussion, about the important issues and debates of the day.
But the something happened. I got older and – the older I became, and the more and more I read, the less and less I agreed with that particular incarnation of Malcolm X. The man of that period, as Minister Malcolm X of the Nation Of Islam said some incredibly incendiary things, some would say even dangerous. He was so bound by The Nation that I felt less and less enamoured with his ideas as he would in fact become as he grew out of being a follower and become a true leader, unbound by doctrine in later life.
I have often wondered what would have become of my understanding of Malcolm and my own political views if I hadn’t read beyond that point. Had I stopped at Malcolm at his most dogmatic. But then I remember coming to a passage in his book where he almost as an aside wrote this:
“People are always speculating, why I am as I am? To understand that of any person, his whole life from birth must be reviewed. All of our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that has ever happened to me is an ingredient.”
Suffice to say I read on having understood that Malcolm the “angry man on the soapbox” was only an ingredient of what he would later become.
Now it does, I know, feel strange talking this way, of a story, and a legacy of a real flesh and blood man that walked the earth. But such is the weird fascination we have over our icons that we allow ourselves to define them and be defined by our alignment with them.
But the thing I learnt was that Malcolm X was someone who was constantly learning, examining and re-examining his own views, thinking critically about how he saw the world around him. It made me wonder why we don’t do the same when we discuss his life and his legacy. Why is it when we think of Malcolm we always gravitate toward that one image.
This was a man for whom education meant keeping an open mind. That it was necessary for the intelligent search for truth, as he called it. He was dedicated to intense study of himself as well as the world he lived in.
A man like this is destined never to stay the same.
Malcolm The Moderate
I ask today to try to re-examine Malcolm’s Story and thus reassert his legacy for our times. For I believe there is a far more provocative, powerful incarnation of Malcolm X that most people have barely gotten to know. It’s the Malcolm of his final chapters. No longer the familiar personality of his Nation days – the Malcolm of his final chapters was, yes, a moderate.
The man whose insatiable curiosity had him leave the United States, broadening his horizons still further when in 1964 he made his Hajj, his pilgrimage to Mecca. The Malcolm whose experience in the holy land had changed him.
As always we go to his own words. In a public letter sent from Mecca, Malcolm X writes about this life changing experience. In his words you can hear almost the sense of relief he feels having seen a form of brotherhood that encompasses whites and blacks, something he thought never possible.
“Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white.’ I have never before seen a more sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colours together.
You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on pilgrimage what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to ‘re-arrange’ much of my thought patterns and toss aside some of my previous conclusions. Despite my firm convictions I have always been a man who tries to face facts and to accept the reality of a life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it.”
He signed the letter not as Malcolm but as El Hajj Malik El Shabbazz. Yet another transformation.
Education is the constant re-arrangement of conviction, this is what Malcolm’s story teaches us. An openness of mind that allows you to transforms yourself, again and again, forces you to shake loose the rigidity of thought. You get the sense that this is the Malcolm X that he himself wanted to be defined by, that this was what those ingredients of past experiences had lead him toward – that moment in Mecca where he saw the truth staring up from in front of him: that the struggle he had dedicated his life to, the struggle of civil rights was actually a struggle for human rights.
That is the final lesson he left us with, a lesson that many of our political figures today could do well to heed: it’s the difference between principle and absolutism.
There are those who through some indefinable quality can grasp the narratives of their own time, brilliant minds that can command their will to a purpose. That is what Malcolm shows us is possible, with his story, not just a period of his story, his entire story.
The tragedy though is that we were robbed of the Malcolm he would become. A figure in the centre ground that called for those on both sides of the racial divide to come together to forge a stronger union. We will never know what that figure of Malcolm could have gone on to achieve.
Which brings me to my final point. There are many out there who believe that those who do not prescribe to a fixed political designation, who don’t fall on the left or right of the spectrum but inhabit instead what is derisively termed the grey area in between, lack somehow the same sense of urgency needed for action. They claim that the voices of the centre ground are forever condemned to be drowned out by the passion of those on the extremes. As if passion in politics are exclusive to the fringes.
Where are the firebrand leaders of the centre ground, they ask. Well, how I wish Malcolm would have lived long enough to represent that figure.
For me, Malcolm X is a teacher. A needle on a compass. His story has taught me many things but the most important lesson is this: People are not fixed products of their circumstance. They can change, evolve, transform into better representations of themselves and so can our politics. By casting ignorance aside and forging ahead with education. By being open to struggling with ourselves sometimes, with constant re-evaluation and critical thinking.
I finish with a quote in Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast Of The Goat that encompasses this most human truth in words better than my own:
“Nothing that a man has been, is, or will be, is something he has been, is, or will be forever.”
As many of you here, I’m sure are still trying to figure yourselves out, are at the beginning of your own stories, chapter 1, first paragraph. You’ll choose to prescribe to figures out there who you think have the ability to inspire the best in you. Good teachers, mentors. Or indeed public figures like Malcolm who have the ability to influence the way we see the world.
Great lives leave an imprint and what, I think, finally Malcolm’s story has taught us is to always, always, finish the book.