March 2, 2011 by Crystal Tennille Irby
In 10th grade I did my book report on Malcolm X. In a small town in South Carolina in 1992, it didn’t go over well. Then, I didn’t have the linguistic skills or intellectual depth to match my teacher. So today, I thought I’d write her a letter saying what I wish I knew how to say then:
I’m sure you’re wondering why I, a seemingly well assimilated, well behaved Black girl who always uses “proper” English, would choose to do my book report on Malcolm X. This may shock you but I know I’m Black. There a lot people at this school who think I don’t know that or who think I don’t think about it or care about it at all when, in fact, the opposite is true. Being the only Black in some classes or one of a few in others, makes me feel my Blackness, profoundly, everyday. It may also shock you to know that I feel racism, heavy, consistently. I know that it’s alive and healthy. Although not always obvious to others, I see racism clearly. It enrages/saddens/exhausts me all at once. So I search for people who remind me that there is more to life than being Black and being White. I was introduced to Malcolm X by my favorite uncle long before the hype surrounding Spike Lee’s film. What I remember least about him is the phrase “by any means necessary” and the X that follows his name. When I think of Malcolm X, I often think of his mother. I think of a woman, much like my mother, trying to raise children with love and a sense of self while it seems every force in the universe is fighting against you. I try imagining the depth of her sadness when her husband tragically died, children absorbed into a system she’d fought to protect them from. I think of a woman locked inside her mind, her children grappling with their mother’s mental illness, tortured by her institutionalization, carrying the unfair shame and stigma attached to mental illness we as a nation have yet to lift. The evolution of Malcolm X, for me, personified the word revolution. He was a teenager a lot like young men I know. Young men who aren’t bad but lost, searching for their manhood in a country that promises they can be anything they want, which isn’t a lie but it’s not the whole truth. Young men who salivate at the American dream because they know not how to dream for themselves. I remember a man clinging fiercely to his faith when all around him crumbled. We witness religious icons fall from grace every day. We witness their flock wrestle with their faith. Some of us have set in pews; felt the agony and disappointment of a faith leader’s betrayal, while everyone around us continues to praise them. Malcolm X is a shining example of how to be fearless, how to live truth once it is revealed; how to be brave when it is easier and safer to cower and remain in the bliss of ignorance. Malcolm X resonated with me because his journey of self-awareness is the path so many of us take. It begins with neglect and lack of worth channeled into negative anger, then positive anger. But if we stay the path, pray for peace, forgiveness and have the courage to admit our mistakes, we find ourselves and all the ingredients we need to begin healing ourselves and possible a people, maybe even a country.
I find it interesting the political tactics used by Malcolm X are being used today by his polar ideological opposites. They characterize themselves as “real” Americans fighting for their constitutional rights, while Malcolm is still regulated to the position of an unpatriotic, angry Black man. He deserves more. History deserves more. Children deserve more. It is a disservice to Malcolm X and ammunition to the ignorant to demonize or memorialize him with a symbol and a quote. It is his personal journey that reveals this man is not too much different from me and if he can channel his talent, passion, and intelligence to impact the world, why can’t I?
I chose the book because I wanted to learn more about history, life, and faith. If you’re interested in those things, I encourage you to read the book and then let’s have a real conversation about Brotha Malcolm.