“…And we will know him then for what he was and is – a Prince – our own black shining Prince! – who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”
Today marks the day, 46 years ago, that Malcolm X was killed. With the recent passing of Martin Luther King Day here in the U.S., I wanted to make sure that Malcolm X’s memory isn’t forgotten either.
Although I am not black myself, and I was born long after he was killed, I’ve always been proud to call Malcolm X a hero of mine since I was a teenager. I’ll never forget the time my mother took us to see Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X, and I remembering crying when Malcolm first met face-to-face his mentor, the Elijah Mohammed, and even more so when he was killed. That movie left a powerful mark on me, and I carried it with me over the years. I pored over his Autobiography three times in my youth, and every word he spoke, even the ones that really stung, really meant something.
I think what I’ve always admired about Malcolm X over the years is that he was an incredibly brilliant mind. Once society finally gave him a chance to learn, to really learn, he never wasted that opportunity and learned faster and more thoroughly than many other bright men of his time. He was incredibly adaptable too, and never took himself too seriously. His cause was the cause of his people, and he never gave up, never got complacent, and never was afraid to question his own beliefs. Every stage of his life, from the earliest days as a thug, to his time in prison, the Nation of Islam, and his conversion to mainstream Islam was Malcolm transforming into something more brilliant and powerful than before.
I’ve always believed the essence of religion is that need to really apply all your energy into the world around you, and always be adaptable, flexible and open-minded, always willing to grow and never slacking in one’s efforts to make the world a better place. I think that’s the only true person, the only true human. And Malcolm X was, in my opinion, a truer “human” than many famous contemporaries of his time.
People like to focus on his angry words in his earlier years, because it wounds their own pride. Being white myself, I remember reading his autobiography at times feeling uneasy. But then I’d reflect and see what he said was true, but I just didn’t want to admit it to myself. The problem wasn’t necessarily Malcolm X’s teachings, it was my own sense of pride and sense of security as an ethnic majority in this country. So, for those who think Malcolm X was just another “angry black man”, study his works and his words and stand back and reflect. Self-reflection is another important part of religious growth, and if a person can’t reflect on their own ugly behavior, they will remain forever blind-sided by it.
In ancient Chinese culture, some of the scions of Confucian teachings were the ones who’s virtue remained intact, and were not afraid to cry foul on bad leaders or problems in society. As Professor Yao wrote in his survey of Confucianism, Confucian scholars were often the watchdogs of society and the government. And I think Malcolm X, through his life lived as a kind of watchdog that was badly needed at the time. He was tough, and as many people realized, he was often right. We were just too stubborn to admit it.
As Malcolm X often said in his autobiography: the truth cuts like a sword.1
But also consider his words late in life, two days before he died:
[L]istening to leaders like Nasser, Ben Bella, and Nkrumah awakened me to the dangers of racism. I realized racism isn’t just a black and white problem. It’s brought bloodbaths to about every nation on earth at one time or another.
Brother, remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant—the one who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together—and I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying? Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then—like all [Black] Muslims—I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years.
That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days—I’m glad to be free of them.
To the end of his days, Malcolm X’s mind was ever searching, ever broadening beyond the confines of petty human struggles, and never afraid to admit when he made a mistake. There are too many stiff necks in politics and religion who would do well to follow his example.
I can’t and won’t speak on the subject of racism. I am a unqualified person to speak on it and the world doesn’t need yet another personal, ill-informed opinion on the subject. What I will say is that Humanity lost a great shining prince, a Black Prince, that day 46 years ago, and it was something that wounded us all. But please, whoever you are, study Malcolm’s life and words, and follow his example. Never stop making the world a better place, never get complacent, and never be afraid of the truth, even when it hurts.
Malcolm X has always been a hero of mine, for all these fine qualities of his, and I am always sad when I consider that he was killed long before I could ever meet him, shake his hand, and say “thank you” for his contributions to the Human Race.
Namu Amida Butsu
P.S. Speaking of my mother, Happy Birthday!
1 Interestingly, in Buddhism, the imagery of the Bodhisattva Manjushri is often him carrying a sword to “cut through” ignorance and dispel delusion. Powerful imagery indeed that transcends any one culture.