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Malcolm X: Lessons From The Ballroom By Modiu Olaguro

February 21, 2018

“We declare our rights on this earth to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being, in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”— MALCOLM X

“I'm not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn't make you a diner unless you eat some of what's on that plate.”—MALCOLM X

It’s been fifty three years since the Black activist and human rights leader, Malcolm X was killed as he stepped on the podium to give a talk at the gathering of the Organization of Afro-American unity (O.A.A.U) at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York City.

Born Malcolm Little on 19th of May, 1925, the life of Malcolm X followed a similar pattern of a typical black Negro—one lived in despair, fear, hustle, frustration, and servitude to the white man. Going through several transformations in his life from the ghetto Malcolm Little to the racist Malcolm X and finally, to El-Hajj Malik Shabazz, the life of Malcolm X stands as a vivid example of the redemptive power of man.

A skilled orator, Malcolm passionately advocated for freedom, justice and equality ‘By any means necessary’. Unlike the mainstream civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Farmer, he stressed the need for black Americans to arm themselves in self-defense. Speaking the night his house was bombed, Malcolm explained his misconstrued violent philosophy:

“I have never advocated any violence; I’ve only said that black people who are the victims of organized violence perpetrated on us by the Klan, the citizen’s council, and many other forms, we should defend ourselves. And when I say that we should defend ourselves against the violence of others, they use their press skillfully to make the world think that I’m calling on violence, period. I wouldn’t call on anybody to be violent without a cause”—Words from the frontline; delivered February 14, 1965.

This is why each time I read about the atrocities, injustices and degradation of human life being perpetrated under the guise of race, tribe, religion or neo-imperialism, although I am left with nothing but sadness inside of me, what gives me a ray of hope is the way and manner the 20th century Negro Clerics used their pulpits to denounce racism and embraced black pride.

Our 21st-century black pastors and imams hypocritically claim to be pro-masses while they rank top on the table of world richest clerics. Just a few decades ago, we could observe that the fight for civil rights, human rights, economic rights and voting rights were neither fought by the Negro teachers nor were they spearheaded by the doctors; on the contrary, the diverse nature of people who have made the US home today could not have dreamt to live within such a reality had the reverends, the pastors, the shepherds, the evangelists and the Muslim ministers not sacrificed their lives leading protests, fighting battles, defying court orders and even faced water hoses and police dogs. As Malcolm puts it rightly in his April 1964 speech:

“And when we realize that Adam Clayton Powell is a Christian minister, he’s the- he heads Abyssinian Baptist church, but at the same time, he’s more famous for his political struggling. And Dr. King is a Christian minister, in Atlanta, Georgia, but he’s become more famous for being involved in a civil rights struggle. There’s another in New York, Reverend Galamison- I don’t know if you’ve heard of him out here- he’s a Christian minister from Brooklyn, but has become famous for his fight against a segregated school system in Brooklyn. Reverend Clee, right here, is a Christian minister, here in Detroit. He’s the head of ‘Freedom Now Party’. All of these are Christian ministers, but they don’t come to us as Christian ministers. They come to us as fighters in some other category. I’m a Muslim minister- the same as they are Christian ministers- I’m a Muslim minister. And I don’t believe in fighting today in any one front, but on all fronts. In fact, I’m a black nationalist freedom fighter.”—The Ballot or the Bullet.

According to Wikipedia, Malcolm X beliefs centered on the following: “that the black people were the original people of the world, that the white people were devils and that the demise of the white race was imminent.” But on his return from the pilgrimage in 1964, Malcolm X denounced the racial beliefs he upheld while in the Nation of Islam.

He wrote: “I am not a racist. In the past I permitted myself to make sweeping indictments of all white people, the entire white race, and these generalizations have caused injuries to some whites and perhaps did not deserve to hurt. Because of my spiritual enlightenment, as a result of my pilgrimage to Mecca, Arabia, I no longer subscribe to make sweeping indictments of any one race.”

Speaking at the Militant Labour Forum, Malcolm acknowledged the immense benefit an individual could derive from travelling when he said that “travelling broadens ones scope”. His pilgrimage to Mecca and other Middle Eastern nations and Africa exposed him to the dangers of having a limited and narrow worldview. As a result of the interactions he had with African leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Sekou Touré of Guinea, he publicly apologised for his earlier remarks stating that he was ready to work with anyone who was genuinely interested in the cause of the blacks irrespective of skin colour.

Although, Malcolm X had been under surveillance by what The Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would later call “Government Chicken Boys”, the FBI and CIA, he had not grown into a full-fledged thorn in the flesh of racist America until his travels. Unlike Dr. King, Malcolm never minced words to expose the hypocrisy of the United States who gloat about the protection of the human rights of people across the world yet denies the 22 million blacks within her basic rights. He wrote this from Ghana:

“I arrived in Accra yesterday from Lagos, Nigeria. The natural beauty and wealth of Nigeria and its people are indescribable. It is full of Americans and other whites who are well aware of its untapped natural resources. The same whites, who spits on the faces of blacks in America and put their police dogs upon us to keep us from ‘integrating’ with them, are seen throughout Africa, bowing, grinning and smiling in an effort to ‘integrate’ with the Africans—they want to ‘integrate into Africa’s wealth and beauty. This is ironical”.

Stressing the importance of education and the need for Negroes to control the economy of the black community, he founded the Organization of Afro-American unity aimed at bringing restoration, reorientation, education and providing economic security. He said: “You and I build churches and let the white man build schools. You and I build churches and let the white man build up everything for himself. Then after you build the church you have to go and beg the white man for a job, and beg the white man for some education.”

Although criticized by some of his contemporaries, the passage of time had presented the whole world a great opportunity to come to realize and accept Malcolm X as an individual that stands tall among activists and martyrs. Fela, after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X  said: "This book, I couldn't put it down: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. This man was talking about the history of Africa, talking about the white man. I never read a book like that before in my life. I said, this man is a man!' I wanted to be like Malcolm X. I was so unhappy that this man was killed. Everything about Africa started coming back to me."

Lee Sustar wrote that while it's impossible to briefly summarize Malcolm X's legacy, three elements stand out: “an uncompromising opposition to racism and imperialism, a determination to expose the façade of U.S. democracy, and a commitment to the revolutionary transformation of society”.

Malcolm X never denied his gloomy and criminal past; he neither boasted on his pimping and drugging nor castigated perpetrators after his reformation. Instead, he highlighted the dangers inherent in them by establishing facts, showing empathy and sighting himself as an example of how an individual from the lowest of the low, could turn out to be a totally reformed person.

As I join millions of people all over the world to celebrate the 53rd anniversary of the transition of Malcolm X, it is imperative to point out that Malcolm’s greatness was neither his natural eloquence nor his powerfully built physique; it was neither his doggedness nor brilliance. It couldn’t have been the fact that he learnt the over 18,000 words in the dictionary. No! His rise to immortality and heroism was borne out of the fact that he never thought of himself as a Mr. ‘know it all’, he quickly adjusted and separated himself from his error and folly once identified. He apologized to everyone he felt he had offended either through his previously held racist beliefs or faulty black nationalistic philosophy.

This is a powerful lesson for us all especially the Nigerian youth. With the politicians herding us to the abyss like a lamb to the slaughter, members of the youth demographic must de-robe themselves of the parochial worldviews that have disallowed them from reinventing themselves; a worldview perceived as being imbued with sophistication, no thanks to its entrenchment in this system whose lifeblood is ethnic and religious hate.

The life of Malcolm X appeals to our collective humanity, one that propels us to embrace people of all tribe, culture and religion as one big family. It teaches us that being a tribalist makes one no less a sociopath than the slave masters and white supremacists of the previous centuries. A study of Malcolm’s life and what he stands for would remove all tribal tendencies and religious bigotry in us all.

What better time to shed those hefty baggage than now.

Modiu Olaguro can be reached on [email protected]