Why We Have to Reckon With the Real Malcolm X

When Anthony Davis’s opera “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” which is currently being revived at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, premiered in the mid-1980s, it seemed like a radical act of elevation: The opera lent grand pathos to the story of Malcolm X by giving his life the arc of a tragic hero. And at that moment, Malcolm X was a hero, achieving a grandeur on the world stage in death beyond what he had achieved in life.

As a proud member of Generation X, I witnessed firsthand the iteration of Malcolm X that exploded into popular culture during the 1980s and 1990s, peaking with Spike Lee’s virtuosic 1992 biopic, “Malcolm X.” By 1999, Malcolm X’s resurgence (remember “X” hats?) meant that his image had become mainstream enough — and safe enough — to be placed on a postage stamp. He had finally received the unofficial imprimatur of an American government that had imprisoned, harassed and surveilled him during his life.

My generation found in Malcolm a regal standard-bearer. But there was much we missed in Malcolm’s journey. His sense of humor, love for his wife and children, compassion toward strangers, his childhood trauma and fears and anxiety over impending death are all vulnerabilities we now understand as culled from strength. He still looms over our political and cultural ferment, as his call for Black dignity informs our understanding of everything from the election of Barack Obama to the murder of George Floyd, and his spirit radiates through political movements from Black Lives Matter to prison abolition. But when we revisit him, we may find we encounter, and even crave, a Malcolm X who is not omniscient, and who would not seem destined for a postage stamp, but one who dwells in an ambiguous world of doubt.

When, in the summer of 1989 as an eager 16-year-old, I watched “Do the Right Thing,” I remember sitting in stunned silence in a movie theater in Queens as two epigraphs appeared: one by Martin Luther King Jr. condemning violence and one by Malcolm X explaining the need for self-defense and dignity with an awe-inspiring clarity that elicited cheers from the theater’s Black patrons. A few years earlier, in 1987, the playwright Jeff Stetson had premiered “The Meeting,” a fictionalized account of an extended meeting between Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr. The play offered catharsis to a Black community still mourning the loss of both figures by imagining a historical past where they found a political rapprochement while still alive.

This 80s-era artistic rediscovery of Malcolm — which arrived, not coincidentally, as the nation embraced the political conservatism and neoliberalism of the Reagan-Bush years — also came with a wave of enlightening new considerations from scholars, writers and journalists, including the influential anthology “Malcolm X: In Our Own Image” and Michael Eric Dyson’s book “Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X.”

Will Liverman singing the title role in the opera “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Much of what we’ve learned about Malcolm X since would seem to undermine his mythology. The historian Manning Marable, for example, won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2011 biography, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” which stirred controversy with its examination of Malcolm’s purported marital strife and its suggestions that, as a young hustler, Malcolm may have engaged in homosexual sex. Les and Tamara Payne’s “The Dead Are Arising,” an in-depth and poignant retelling of Malcolm’s childhood, adolescence, hustling years and initial time in the Nation of Islam, further revised his origin story, showing us a figure shaped by profound depths of racial trauma, familial grief and personal ambition. And Michael E. Sawyer’s “Black Minded: The Political Philosophy of Malcolm X,” daringly reveals him to be a brilliant thinker who contributed original intellectual reasoning to a vibrant tradition of radical Black humanism that remains understudied.

Onscreen, audiences met a different Malcolm as well — most notably in Regina King’s 2020 film “One Night in Miami,” which dramatized an evening in 1964 that Malcolm spent with the gridiron legend Jim Brown, the soul music icon Sam Cooke and the newly crowned heavyweight champion Cassius Clay, who was on the verge of being rechristened Muhammad Ali by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm’s onetime surrogate father who’d become a mortal enemy. Rather than the swathed-in-righteous-dignity version of Malcolm X so familiar from previous portrayals, audiences were presented with a surprisingly vulnerable portrait of a husband, father and intellectual in the process of questioning, and losing, many of his long-held beliefs.

At a moment when the broader notion of identity as a fixed and immutable quality is undergoing a profound reconsideration, we are now better equipped to appreciate Malcolm X’s contradictions. His less laudable qualities — sexism, religious and political dogmatism, as well as his strategic mistakes — can coexist for us alongside the revolutionary human rights activism and his prowess as a by-any-means necessary radical organizer. When we see Malcolm X’s humanity in all its contingencies, complexities and vulnerabilities, only then can we relate to, and be inspired by, Malcolm’s story even when — especially when — he disappoints us.

In my own research and writing on Malcolm X, I have endeavored to peel back the thick layers of historical framing that have varnished the monument. And I’ve found that, rather than devaluing the myth of Malcolm X, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of the man. I’ve discovered a Malcolm who was more than a martyr. This is the Malcolm X who believed so much in human dignity and a revolutionary notion of freedom that he was willing to not only die for it, but to live for it — and to love for it.

Malcolm X exists now as a powerfully vulnerable figure, one whose personal missteps, as much as his political brilliance, shaped the course of his life. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm’s one-time rival, sometime adversary and timeless compatriot in the struggle for freedom, benefits tremendously from a similar consideration of his humanity in all its complexities. King’s personal flaws, far from diminishing his legacy, allow us to better recognize, wrestle with and finally embrace the human being behind the mythology.

Malcolm X is certainly a figure worthy of operatic veneration. But we must never lose sight of the man. In confronting the many facets of Malcolm X’s personal life, political activism and religious beliefs — along with his evolving understanding of race, class, identity and human rights — we offer grace not only to Malcolm but to ourselves. The more we recognize Malcolm X’s fundamental humanity, the more inspired by him we become.

Peniel E. Joseph is a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century.”

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