A man who constantly remade himself can’t be captured on a T-shirt
HE IS A BLACK MAN WHO NEVER played a minute in the NBA or sang in public. He never led a civil rights march or acted on TV or in movies. Yet 27 years after he died in a spray of gunfire, Malcolm X has become an all-purpose icon unique in the history of African-Americans. He has been celebrated in an opera and evoked in the angriest rap songs. Streets and schools bear his name, and his words are read in hundreds of college courses. He has been on the cover of several national magazines, and his defiant, single-letter surname is stamped on T-shirts, baseball caps, even potato chips and automobile air fresheners.
It is surely a measure of our time that a man who spent much of his pub-lie life calling white people “blue-eyed devils” is suddenly a mainstay of American pop culture—and now the subject of a major motion picture directed by Spike Lee. But there is also a fierce struggle to control Malcolm X’s image and his message. Depending on where one places emphasis in Malcolm’s colorful evolution from hoodlum to convict to demagogue to orthodox Muslim, he can stand for the extremes of black rage—or for racial reconciliation.
Lee’s nearly 3½-hour film offers up all these Malcolms, hewing closely to Malcolm’s own version of his life, co-authored in 1964 with Alex Haley. But such black radicals as writer Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, have argued that Lee is “too bourgeois” to handle this material, since Malcolm was a spokesman for the angry underclass—or, in Malcolm’s own parlance, the “field niggers,” not the “house niggers.” Meanwhile author Bruce Perry, in a meticulously researched biography of Malcolm published last year, has found evidence that challenges Malcolm’s version of key events in his life.
In his autobiography, for example, Malcolm describes his earliest years as filled with intense racial persecution. His father, Karl Little, he writes, was a laborer who was hounded from town to town in the Midwest by whiles who resented his spreading the black-pride message of Marcus Garvey. On one occasion, Malcolm claims, Ku Klux Klansmen broke all the windows of his family’s house in Omaha. Another lime, he says, racists torched the Little home. When Malcolm, the fourth of seven kids, was 6 years old, his father, he reports, died under the wheels of a streetcar, allegedly killed In angry whites. According to him, meddling white social workers then fanned the Little children out to foster homes, driving his mother to insanity.
In Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America (Station Hill)—which Lee has criticized—Perry reports that Malcolm’s mother has denied that the Klan ever attacked the Little home. Father Earl, in Perry’s revisionist view, was a habitual criminal who may have fallen under the train.
Malcolm writes that, as a foster child, he was the only black in his class at a school near Last Lansing, Mich.—and an outstanding student until eighth grade, when a while teacher derided his ambition to be a lawyer as unrealistic for a “nigger.” He soon dropped out and drifted into a life of crime. In 1941 he moved in with a half sister in Boston, where he shined shoes at a dance hall, dressed in outlandish zoot suits and sold marijuana to the musicians.
Too young to be drafted in World War II. Malcolm landed a job as a railroad porter and started hanging out in Harlem. He sold drugs, pimped and ran numbers until he tangled with a bigger gangster over a bet and had to leave town. Back in Boston, Little, then 20. and friend Malcolm Jarvis and their white girlfriends burglarized the homes of the wealthy. When they were caught, the two women got light sentences; the two Malcolms, though first offenders, pulled the maximum 8 to 10 years because, Little believed, they had been sleeping with while women.
Sentenced to Charlestown State Prison in 1946, Malcolm, not yet 21 years old, began to remake himself. He studied voraciously and joined the Nation of Islam, a black separatist religious sect that was recruiting heavily in prisons. Upon his release in 1952, Malcolm X—a name that symbolized his unknown African origins—went to work for the group’s leader. Elijah Muhammad, and quickly rose to the rank of minister and chief spokesman.
By 1964, Malcolm X was a familiar face on television and one of the most popular college speakers. Like the good soldier he was, Malcolm preached Elijah’s doctrine that a mad scientist named Yacub had created whites as revenge against his fellow blacks and that Elijah had spaceships orbiting the earth, waiting to rain down destruction on white folks unless blacks were given their own country. But this crackpot theology is omitted from Lee’s film in favor of the other key element of Malcolm’s riveting public rhetoric: his eloquent description of the brutal plight of black Americans and his harsh attacks on more conciliatory civil rights leaders. Presaging Black Power militants to come, Malcolm dismissed Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington as “a picnic” and the lunch counter sit-ins in the Deep South as “a cup of coffee with a cracker.” He scorned as naive the goal of integration with white society and exhorted blacks to become self-sufficient—with their own businesses, their own schools and their own strict moral code: no drugs, alcohol or extramarital sex. By all indications, Malcolm himself adhered to these rules. He says in his autobiography that he didn’t touch a woman from the time he got out of jail until he married Betty Sanders, a nursing student, in 1958. He turned over all money he earned to the Nation and lived with his wife and daughters in a sparsely furnished house in Queens, N.Y., that was provided by the Nation.
What most frightened white America—and many middle-class blacks—was Malcolm’s rejection of the nonviolent philosophy of Dr. King. Yet if at one point Malcolm encouraged his followers to form “rifle clubs,” he was careful never to advocate armed insurrection, which frustrated the FBI’s hopes of building a case against him. But he made; much of the Nation’s willingness to defend itself—in his famous phrase—”by any means necessary.” “If I go home and my child has blood running down her leg, and someone tells me a snake bit her,” he said once, “I’m going to go out and kill snakes, and when I find a snake, I’m not going to look and see if he has blood on his jaws.” With his clean-cut looks, biting rhetoric and unshakable seriousness, Malcolm had a way of making the most outrageous things sound reasonable.
Then he went too far. In the wake of the John F. Kennedy assassination, while the entire world was still in shock, Malcolm announced that the white man, by perpetrating a culture of violence against blacks, had set the stage for such a tragedy—that “the chickens were coming home to roost.” Elijah silenced Malcolm for 90 days, which marked the beginning of his permanent exile from the sect. Within weeks, Malcolm, disturbed to learn that Elijah had fathered children with two of his secretaries, broke with the Nation of Islam.
Spiritually adrift, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he was profoundly affected by the sight of black, white and Asian Muslims sharing bread and praying together. On his return, he announced that he had embraced Orthodox Islam and changed his name to El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. He repudiated Muhammad’s racial demonology and made overtures toward civil rights leaders. But even as he set about building a new movement, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm knew he was a marked man. The Nation of Islam newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, proclaimed that “Malcolm will not escape. The die is set.” He received death threats, and a mysterious fire started in his house. Yet Malcolm declined offers of police protection and refused to allow security searches at his rallies.
His wife—pregnant with twins—and four daughters, aged 2 months to 6 years, were in the front row of dusty Audubon Ballroom in upper Manhattan for Malcolm’s speech on Feb. 21, 1965. Suddenly several men stood and began firing guns at Malcolm. He died instantly—his heart shredded by shotgun pellets.
Six months later, Betty Shabazz gave birth to two more girls. She raised her six daughters alone, in a house in a New York City suburb that she bought with royalties from her husband’s book. She went back to school and earned a Ph.D. in education in 1975, and is currently the Director of Institutional Advancement and Public Affairs at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. Her oldest daughter, Attallah, now 34, often lectures about her father’s vision.
Betty, who was a consultant on Lee’s film, has clashed with him over the marketing of X paraphernalia. She recently signed with Curtis Management Group, which controls the commercial use of James Dean, Babe Ruth and Humphrey Bogart, to regain control of her husband’s image. “I never thought anyone would invade my privacy to this extent,” she says. “A lot of people have been doing it for so long they thought they owned him.”
Shabazz is very much aware that the Malcolm who appears in music videos and sells millions of baseball caps is the angry black man who would not compromise with white America, not the more conciliatory leader who returned from Mecca. “Malcolm was the great spokesman and prophet of black rage,” says Cornel West, a professor of religion and director of Afro-American Studies at Princeton University, “and you have a lot of black rage out there. This reality of drugs, guns, despair and decrepitude generates a raw rage that, among past black spokesmen, only Malcolm is able to approximate.”
What Shabazz—and Spike Lee—clearly hope is that a new generation that is drawn to Malcolm’s righteous and fearless fury will stick around long enough to learn that, as Shabazz puts it, “there was more to Malcolm than just anger.”