I don’t know how or why Malcolm Shabazz died last week in Mexico. I also don’t pretend that someone is better or worse than they actually were, just because they recently died. When my older brother (technically my uncle) died last year, I saw him in the exact same light after he died as I did when he was alive. There was no need to allow nostalgia to alter the truth, and no need to see him as being any different from the challenged, loving, disturbed, loyal and conflicted man he actually was.
We’d be lying if we didn’t acknowledge that the late Malcolm Shabazz had a troubled life. He’s been arrested on several occasions, and was described by a judge as “brilliant, but disturbed.” On the other hand, we also know that some of the so-called conspiracy theories about the way our government does business against domestic and foreign enemies is not a theory at all. Before he died, the younger Malcolm felt that the US government was dealing with him in an underhanded way. I don’t doubt it; our government certainly is underhanded.
I didn’t know Malcolm personally, but I followed his life enough to know that I was very concerned about how his story was going to end. I can also say that his death didn’t surprise me.
Malcolm X is my greatest hero of all-time, right next to Muhammad Ali and Angela Davis. I have his picture on my living room wall, and have often read about his life as a guide to help me get through troubled times or controversy. But as a scholar, I’ve always believed that you should critique your role models nearly as much as you praise them, since we can learn a great deal from the mistakes of others (that’s how my older brother taught me so much). Our job is to learn from Malcolm and continue his work, not to sit around and worship him. I truly believe he would want it that way.
When I honestly reflect on the tragic end to the peculiar life of Malcolm X’s grandson, a few thoughts come to mind:
1) Much of his life was very sad: Malcolm’s mother, Qubilah Shabazz, struggled with addictions and a series of personal problems for much of her life. When parents struggle, the ones most directly impacted are their children. Because of his mother’s personal problems, her son suffered the pain that comes from feeling abandoned and unloved as a child. It’s hard to overcome these emotional obstacles, especially in a single parent household. No matter how great a man is meant to be, his mother has the capacity to shape the child’s destiny in any way she chooses. This is especially true if the father chooses not to be around, as was the case with Mr. Shabazz.
2) Malcolm X’s family paid a huge price for his sacrifices and activism: It appears that some of the problems between Malcolm Shabazz and his mother might have been intergenerational, since I wonder how much time Qubilah got to spend with her famous father who was out saving the world. When I’ve heard the children of civil rights leaders talk about life growing up, the stories don’t sound all that appealing. Knowing that your father might be killed at any moment, and then seeing that nightmare turn into a reality is enough to traumatize anyone, especially if he is not as actively involved in your life as you would have liked. I don’t believe Qubilah to be a bad person, but it seems that she was a damaged person, and as Terrie Williams says in her book, “Black Pain,” “Hurt people hurt people.”
3) We are correct to question whether Malcolm made the correct tradeoffs: Malcolm was a great man, every bit as great as Martin Luther King, Jr. I appreciate his message even more than Dr. King’s, largely because he taught the importance of concepts like economic self-sufficiency, which is a serious problem in the Black community right now. But in order for us to learn from Malcolm, we must view his life honestly. We have to question whether a man who could be killed at any moment should put a wife and children in danger along with him. We must wonder if Malcolm was as good of a father as he appears to be in the beautiful picture of him holding his two daughters. We can’t be afraid to admit that Malcolm might have made huge mistakes that have had a ripple effect to this day.
4) Malcolm Shabazz’s life and death were a lost opportunity for all of us: We wanted the younger Malcolm to be a great man through and through. He was born with a platform larger than anything most of us could ever hope to possess, and people looked up to him the way citizens look up to their next king. Most of our hearts were broken after seeing him struggle with legal problems and all the other issues the family dealt with over the years. His grandfather died too soon, and most of us hoped that his first male heir would at least be in a position to try to fill the powerful shoes left by his grandfather.
There were hints of greatness, but it’s difficult to match the expectations of a giant as large as Malcolm X. It’s even more difficult to do so when you were not given the proper emotional, strategic and educational tools in order to do so.
Frederick Douglas once said, “It’s easier to build strong boys than to repair broken men.” I am sorry to say that the young man who died this week was broken as a child and seemed to stumble through life. Toward the end, he was working to get educated, writing books and doing all the things that we’d hope he’d do. But I hate admitting that it just seemed that life never gave him the preparation necessary to become the kind of man that he wanted to be.
When I think about Malcolm Shabazz, I think about all the millions of young Black men who have the brilliance to be kings, but are never taught how to tap into that brilliance at an early age. The radio feeds them toxic messages of self-destruction, teaching them that Black men should spend their lives in a bottle, a strip club or on the corner with a gun on their hip. The prison industrial complex, as well as the War on Drugs, has zapped our community of many of its male role models, creating a generation of young men who don’t have a clue about the expectations and responsibilities that come along with manhood.
Not only was Malcolm Shabazz expected to be a man, he was being compared to the ULTIMATE man, Malcolm X. This is a tall order for anyone. It was also a wasted opportunity to see someone positioned to lead all of Black America not fulfill his destiny because of a slew of social problems. Even worse, we are killing thousands of potential Malcolm X’s everyday with the school-to-prison pipeline, genocidal messages on the radio, urban violence and a host of other unresolved issues. Their spirits are being aborted at an early age, and we must put an end to this epidemic right now.
Being a man, a father and a husband is hard work. Being a leader in the community is even more difficult. Entering the world of men without these tools is like going onto the field of battle without a sword, a shield or adequate training. The strength, discipline, courage, education, leadership, focus and tenacity that comes with manhood may not have been taught to young Malcolm Shabazz, as its not taught to most Black boys in our society. So, rather than being built as a strong boy prepared to lead a family, a community and a nation, Malcolm Shabazz was a broken man trying to play catch-up. I can only imagine the pressure he must have felt inside.
There are other little Malcolms in our community, and they must not be allowed to die. Society plans a spiritual death for these boys before they are even born, and we must come together as a community to protect them. To use the words of the great Malcolm X, we must complete this task “by any means necessary,” for it will impact the future of our community.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the author of the book, “Black American Money”.