Books May 2011

The Legacy of Malcolm X

Why his vision lives on in Barack Obama

In his lifetime, Malcolm X covered so much ground that now, 46 years after his murder, cross-sections of this country—well beyond the conscious advocates of my youth—still fight over his footprints. What shall we make of a man who went from thoughtless criminal to militant ascetic; from indignant racist to insurgent humanist; who could be dogmatically religious one moment, and then broadly open-minded the next; who in the last year of his life espoused capitalism and socialism, leaving both conservatives and communists struggling to lay their claims?

Gripping and inconsistent myths swirl about him. In one telling, Malcolm is a hate-filled bigot, who through religion came to see the kinship of all. In another he is the self-redeemer, a lowly pimp become an exemplar of black chivalry. In still another he is an avatar of collective revenge, a gangster whose greatest insight lay in changing not his ways, but his targets. The layers, the contradictions, the sheer profusion of Malcolm X’s public pronouncements have been a gift to seemingly every contemporary black artist and intellectual from Kanye to Cornel West.

For virtually all of my sentient life, I have carried some talisman of Malcolm—key chain, audiotape, or T-shirt. I came of age not just among the black and conscious, but among that slice of the hip-hop generation that witnessed Malcolm X’s revival in the late 1980s and early ’90s, bracketed by the rapper KRS-One’s appropriation of Malcolm’s famous pose by the window and Spike Lee’s sprawling biopic. For those who’d grown up in hardscrabble inner cities, Malcolm X offered the promise of transcending the street. For those who’d been the only black kids in their classes, Malcolm’s early and troubled interactions with his own white classmates provided comfort. For me, he embodied the notion of an individual made anew through his greater commitment to a broad black collective. When I first lived alone, at the age of 20, I purchased a giant black-and-white poster of Malcolm with the phrase No Sellout! scrawled at the top.

But my life grew in ways that did not adhere to slogans. Raised in de facto segregation, I was carried by my work into the mostly white world, and then to the blasphemies of having white friends and howling white music. In 2004, I moved to Malcolm’s adopted home of Harlem, and though I occasionally marveled at Malcolm’s old mosque at 116th and Lenox, or the YMCA where he roomed as an aspiring Harlem hustler, my years there passed without note. I declined to hang my giant Malcolm poster in my new digs, stuffing him and all my conscious days in the closet.

I spent Election Night 2008 with my partner and our son, at the home of two dear friends and their young son. That they were an interracial couple is both beside the point, and the point itself. By then, my friends were so varied in hue, and more varied still in their pairings, that I’d stopped thinking in ways I once took as elemental. I joined in the spectacle of America—a country that had incorporated the fact of African slavery into its Constitution—handing its standard to a black man of thin résumé and fantastical mien.

And the next day, I saw black people smiling. And some conscious part of me died with their smiles. I thought back on the debate running from Martin Delany and Frederick Douglass through Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and I knew a final verdict had been reached. Who could look on a black family that had won the votes, if not the hearts, of Virginia, Colorado, and North Carolina, waving to their country and bounding for the White House, and seriously claim, as Malcolm once did, that blacks were not American?

The opportunity for crowing was not missed. Writing three weeks after the election in the New York Daily News, Stanley Crouch, the pugilist and contrarian who’d earlier argued that Obama was not black, dismissed Malcolm X as “one of the naysayers to American possibility whose vision was permanently crushed beneath the heel of Obama’s victory on Nov. 4.” Last year, offering up on The New Republic’s Web site a listicle of those whose impact on black people he wished he could erase, John McWhorter gave Malcolm X the top spot.

But from the shadows, still he looms. Bull Connor’s world fell as the fortunes of Barack Obama rose. Yet its collapse was not assured until November of 2008. Now I see its amazing doom in ways both absurd and replete—Will Smith’s conquest of cinema, his son as the new Karate Kid, the wild utterings of Michael Steele, the kids holding out for Lauryn Hill’s mythical return. As surely as 2008 was made possible by black people’s long fight to be publicly American, it was also made possible by those same Americans’ long fight to be publicly black. That latter fight belongs especially to one man, as does the sight of a first family bearing an African name. Barack Obama is the president. But it’s Malcolm X’s America.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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