Do you know Malcolm X? I mean, do you know his message beyond the popular rhetoric and co-opted slogans of organizations claiming to uphold his legacy?
If you're like me, you would naively respond yes when asked the two questions that opened this blog post.
We have convinced ourselves of a limited perspective of the late el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, Malcolm X. Yes, perhaps we understand his famous quote, “by any means necessary,” as more than a call to arms. We know his words indicate that we must be willing to attain freedom through whatever resources we have at our disposable.
Brother Malcolm did not see violence as the only route to liberation. Instead, he understood self-defense as one of many pathways or responses to human rights violations.
In reading Ilyasah Shabazz’s memoir, Growing Up X, I learned a lot about the man I studied in undergrad. Although she was two years old when she witnessed her father's murder at the hands of hired assassins, Ilyasah’s book revealed multiple layers to the revered leader. She wrote about how his intimate roles at home informed one of the most notable public figures of the Black liberation movement.
Ilyasah is one of six daughters from the union of Malcolm and Betty Shabazz. The names of their children include Attalah, Malaak, Gamilah, Quibilah, and Malikah.
In November of 2021, Malikah passed away during the same week a court overturned the convictions of two men accused of participating in her father's assassination. Ilyasah and the other four sisters remain alive and active in continuing their parents' legacy.
On the day Malcolm was killed, Betty was pregnant with twins, Malaak and Malikah. In the book, Ilyasah reveals how her community rallied to help her mom raise six girls and earn a doctoral degree.
From Ilyasah's conversations with her mom, she learned marriage to Malcolm was tough. The constant death threats and busy traveling schedule made Betty leave him multiple times throughout their relationship. However, Malcolm's deep love for Betty always guided him to find his queen and convince her to stay with him.
To help maintain the romance in their relationship, Malcolm often left his wife gifts under her pillow when he traveled. Sometimes it was money, and other times it was a special trinket.
X was a committed family man and in tune with his family’s frequencies. Malcolm X was gentle and loving in his interactions with his daughters and wife. Using words such as gentle and loving to describe brother Malcolm contradicts popular perspectives of his life.
For many, he is the embodiment of Black masculinity. We see him as an intellectual powerhouse full of strength and courage. One of the pictures of him holding a rifle while looking out of his home’s window comes to mind when I think about Malcolm.
The admired image of him with a gun in his hand stays with me because of his fiery and poignant speeches. You can find it on posters and t-shirts. A few years ago, Niki Minaj had some issues with the image, because she used it to promote her music.
In the famous picture from the 60s, you see Malcolm willing to defend his family, but it doesn't capture the fullness of the message he sacrificed everything for during his short lifetime of thirty-nine years.
Contrary to what I assumed about Malcolm X’s children, they shared a similar childhood to other middle-income African American families. Ilyasah and her sisters attended integrated camps where they were one of few children of color. Their suburban home offered them access to decent schools in a safe environment.
Growing up as X in the suburbs did not protect Ilyasah from rape. Regardless of her father’s legacy, it did not prevent the Y in toxic masculinity, which convinced a boy to take her virginity without consent.
We must do a better job of teaching boys and men to value women.
Ilyasah and her sisters knew the history of African people and trusted members of their community. They learned about Africa, slavery, and the civil rights movement from their mother and other caring adults. Still, they remained unaware of the significance of their father’s contributions. The unwanted attention Ilyasah received as Malcolm X's daughter at college encouraged her to dig deep into her roots.
Peer pressure pushed Ilyasah to learn more about her father. Alex Haley's autobiography of Malcolm X proved itself as a helpful resource. As an adult, Haley's book became more than the toy she played with as a child.
Ilyasah’s memoir, Growing Up X, deepened my appreciation for Malcolm X and the roles he personified as husband, father, and leader. But unfortunately, it did not provide much insight into his political life. Given that Ilyasah was two when he died and one of six children, her mom had limited time and attention to share everything.
I am one of six children and a father of three. I get Betty Shabazz's parenting struggles.
They killed Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, at 39-years-old in front of his wife, children, and colleagues. I am 39-years-old, and it’s difficult to think about dying like Malcolm.
Can you imagine being murdered because you want to improve conditions in underserved communities?
Yes, I know death is inevitable. However, I am also aware of the many things I still want to experience with my family and share with folks like you.
Without a doubt, Malcolm had goals on that awful morning at the Audobon Ballroom in New York when they killed him. He was working on developing the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Moments before Malcolm stood on a stage for the last time, he asked his wife and children to attend the event. From Ilyasah's descriptions of the love he carried with him for Betty and her sisters, I assume he wanted them to hear about the vital work that forced him away from home.
Fate prevailed, and we lost a great man who led a movement for justice, self-respect, and self-defense. Betty Shabazz, who partnered with Malcolm to raise their children and served as an educator and activist, passed away after succumbing to burn wounds.
We must revisit our history to prevent past tragedies from happening again. Economic inequities, racial disparities, and educational deficiencies are among the human rights violations that Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz fought against during their lifetime. Unfortunately, Malcolm and Betty’s causes persist; we must keep ourselves and young people informed.
Because of Malcolm’s impact, I keep his picture on my office wall. It reminds me to sharpen my mind, strengthen my spirit, and keep pushing toward liberation.
To show up as the best versions of ourselves to advocate with and for people in need, we must embrace self-improvement "by any means necessary."
How will you do better at honoring the legacy of your heroes in your personal and professional life? Leave a comment below.