In this audio recording, Tyson Amir examines the battle over Malcolm X’s legacy. By weaving together personal narrative and Black social history, he complicates the reduction of Islam in America to its post-9/11 iteration. Rather, he turns his gaze toward the Islam “born, bred, and lived in the midst of the most heinous system of slavery in the history of our species.” Amir situates the figure of Malcolm X within this genealogy and demonstrates the ways in which his legacy is frequently reduced to (a misinterpretation of) his post Hajj moment. While these narratives claim Malcolm X as a post-racial advocate of non-violence, Amir articulates Malcolm’s firm commitment to self-defense, and the undying “black anger” that inspired many.
"None of us are able to dictate when, where, or to whom we'll be born. As circumstances would have it, I happened to be born a black man in the United States of America in the latter part of the 20th century. My family has been in this country for more than two centuries. It is possible that my family has been here even longer than that but due to the tendency of white plantation owners to disregard the humanity of the men, women, and children that they forcibly enslaved, it is hard to ascertain the exact details of the lives and times of my ancestors.
In spite of that, on my father's side we know that my great-great-great grandfather Bartlett was in the state of Georgia in the early 1800s. He was forcibly enslaved by a family named Flemister until the end of the Civil War. We also know that his religion was Islam. I am proud of that fact. My family has contributed to the rich legacy of the pioneers of Islam in this country. It was an Islam born, bred, and lived in the midst of the most heinous system of slavery in the history of our species. It was an Islam that instilled in the hearts and souls of the men and women who practiced it a fight for freedom, a spirit of endurance, and an unrelenting desire to see the end of the system which oppressed them and the millions of black men and women just like them. That spirit is alive and well inside of me.
Every Feb. 21st and May 19th we are reminded of the example of a man who when the light of Islam entered his heart picked up the mantle of our ancestors conscripted to plantations. Our dear teacher and brother El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, Malcolm X was born May 19th in the year 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. Another black soul in America. Malcolm's parents were both supporters of the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey's UNIA (United Negro Improvement Association) in the 1920s. Quick note, one of Garvey's mentors was black muslim of Sudanese and Egyptian parentage named Duse Mohamed Ali. Malcolm eventually found himself incarcerated and while incarcerated was introduced to the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and his Nation of Islam. This was an Islam firmly rooted in the black experience. The goals of Black America in the 1940s and 50s were not much different from their fore-mothers and fathers a century before. The fight then was for freedom, liberation, and self-determination of black people and the black community. The fight today is still the same.
Malcolm was beautifully shaped by the black experience. The racism his family endured that led to the murder of his father, the institutionalization of his mother, and the separation of he and his siblings, as well as, his eventual incarceration are all trademarks of that experience. The Nation of Islam that provided shelter and guidance for Malcolm was also shaped by that experience. The Islam those men and women practiced was not devoid of that context, and operated in a way to remedy the consequences of that context. This became so much a part of Malcolm that he dedicated his life to the struggle of his people. He lived and died upon that commitment.
There's a long line of people who wish to claim Malcolm and attempt to explain what his legacy meant to the world. The contemporary mainstream American muslim community is currently doing to Malcolm something akin to what white America continues to do to Dr. King by freezing him in his "I Have A Dream" moment; mainstream American Islam attempts to freeze Malcolm in his post pilgrimage moment. The narrative they frame is something like this, NOI Malcolm went on pilgrimage and then came back sans his justified black anger and replaced it with a post racial perspective. It is true that Malcolm had undergone a transformative experience during his travels that broadened his worldview, and in his new worldview he saw Islam as a potential way to unify people throughout the world. Had Malcolm had more time on this planet I'm quite sure his critique of the racism/tribalism rampant in many parts of the globe where Islam is practiced would've crystalized, and he would've realized that the most negatively impacted group by that racism in Islamic spaces are black people. It is possible that he had already began to realize that as Feb. 21st 1965 approached. Once again, the claim to his post racial perspective is also refuted by the fact that upon returning to the USA Malcolm participated in several organizations and directly created two, the Muslim Mosque Incorporated and a secular political body which he named the Organization for Afro American Unity (OAAU), modeled after the Organization for African Unity (OAU) in the African continent. Both organizations were committed to winning the struggle of black people in the USA and all throughout the diaspora by any means necessary. An interesting fact about membership in both groups is that Malcolm did not allow white people to join either organization but did allow white groups and individuals to work in alliance and coalition with his organizations. Lastly, neither organization claimed non-violence, they stood proudly on the principles of self defense and protecting the community by any means.
At no point in time did Malcolm's evolution in practice and understanding of Islam mute his fight for black people. This rewriting of Malcolm is a convenient narrative for a contemporary religious community that is attempting to legitimize itself in the post 9/11 American landscape while having aspirations of assimilating into the dominant white culture. Islam while under the leadership of black men and women never was out of sync with the concerns of black people in America because it wasn't seeking legitimacy in the eyes of its white oppressors. This black Islam never sought a path to assimilation either. Islam became the spiritual backbone of black people seeking freedom and a right to self determination from an evil/devilish regime.
This is the battleground, the war for the legacy of Malcolm is taking place upon. One camp seeks to divorce Malcolm from his blackness, militancy, commitment to the black struggle, and revolutionary fight against the racism and predatory capitalism of the US government. They desire to reshape his image into a watered down man with no politic to make it easier for them to ignore the responsibility of carrying on his legacy. Which is a legacy that goes back to my great-great-great grandfather and so many others like him whose Islam was an essential source of fuel in their fight for survival and freedom.
Malcolm's legacy and impact on my life and the politics of Black America doesn't end there. From my father I inherited the legacy of the Black Panther Party. He was a member in Oak Park Sacramento, California. The Panthers are important to this discussion although they were a secular organization because their founders Dr. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale believed they were carrying on the political legacy of Malcolm. While segments of the Muslim community are doing all they can to divorce Malcolm from his black politics and militancy there are those who were inspired by Malcolm to the point of organizing to help liberate the black community and all oppressed people throughout the world.
In reexamining past events things can easily become subjective. That subjectivity is going to be colored by the wants, needs, and desires of the people examining that history. In any examination of Malcolm there is no way to strip him of his blackness and his fight against the American superstructure which culminated in his US state sponsored assassination. Malcolm spoke at great lengths about the freedom of black people. Malcolm once said, "If you're not ready to die for it, put the world 'freedom' out of your vocabulary." Malcolm lived and died upon this logic for his people and all oppressed peoples of the world. If you are not willing to embrace Malcolm in all his magnificence and commitment to his fight for his people, then remove his name from your vocabulary. The question is: What Malcolm will you celebrate? Will it be the fabricated jig saw puzzle stripped of all his black and revolutionary pieces or will it be the Malcolm who was our own "black shining Prince" who fought and died for us. The man whose Islam was straight from the hearts of his foremothers and fathers who survived chattel slavery and endeavored to see full freedom for their people? Only you can answer that question, and the truth of your response will only be proven by your actions."
Tyson Amir is a poet, emcee, educator, author, political organizer, and freedom fighter. His book Black Boy Poems was published on October 15, 2016, the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. For more information please visit his website.