Happy birthday Malcolm. Malcolm X, arguably the greatest Black man whoever lived (even without being elected to public office), has become a mere afterthought in mainstream American history. His grave site is shameful, and almost none of us know the day he was born. The neglect of Malcolm’s legacy makes it clear that America doesn’t love him as much as the more digestible Martin Luther King Jr.
Being unloved can actually be a good thing. Malcolm was feared by the establishment, and fear can be more powerful than love because sometimes your enemies can respect you more than your friends. The so-called “love” we received via friendly, polite integration has left us consistently disrespected by even our own black politicians. Malcolm taught us how be truly powerful, which is why White America never programmed you to accept him.
To celebrate what Malcolm left us with (much of which has been forgotten), I thought I’d lay out five things I learned from the life of Malcolm X:
1) The Value of True Independence: In our quest for integration, we quickly learned that it’s hard to earn respect in a capitalist society when you aren’t prepared to be self-sufficient. Freedom is not the same as independence: A man can be free to do whatever he wants, but if he’s not independent, he’ll end up going right back to his oppressor to get the things he needs in order to survive. That is what millions of black people are doing to this very day – we line up for jobs with companies not owned by us, and wonder why our unemployment rate is double that of White America. Malcolm warned us that this was going to happen, but many of us failed to listen.
2) Self-respect: You don’t need anyone to validate you with a fancy job title, a high income or a big house, especially if you must sacrifice your integrity in order to get them. You were already a valuable person on the day you were born. This is an important lesson to remember in a world where even our most powerful black public figures continue to seek mainstream validation in order to feel significant. When your adversary knows that you need him to pat you on the head in order for you to feel good about yourself, then he will always control the limitations of your possibilities.
3) The Necessity for Intelligence and Education: Intelligence and education are not one in the same, but both serve as armor for people of color in a world that is designed to destroy them. The worst thing that any man or woman can do is walk away from education, because when you do that, you are walking right into the grasp of slavery. Not only do black people need to embrace education, we must demand educational excellence from our children, where they pursue academic achievement with as much passion as they have when chasing after tickets to the next Lil Wayne concert. In addition to being formally educated, young people should be taught to seek knowledge from independent sources and to engage in critical thinking. If you can’t formulate your own opinion about the world, someone is always happy to give your opinion to you.
4) The Importance of Spiritual and Physical Health: This isn’t something you get from eating and consuming the food and ideas being fed to you by the descendants of your historical oppressors. Every day, your mind and body are being polluted by music teaching black men to murder one another, food that makes you obese, and media images designed to turn you into a greedy, selfish, capitalistic coon (see “Niggaz in Paris” as a case-in-point). It is critical to rise above this psychological poison, for it is essential for our very survival.
5) The Value of True Courage: Capacity, success, wealth, education and power mean almost nothing without the desire to commit to a cause greater than yourself. Part of what made Malcolm every bit as great as Martin Luther King (without all the white American fanfare) is that he figured out that, even in death, he could live forever by injecting the next generation with a spiritual energy that will exist for thousands of years. We are all his children, and he lives through us. His power and vision will live far longer than his physical body ever could.
In fact, Malcolm X will never die.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Syracuse University Professor and author of the forthcoming book, “The RAPP Sheet: Rising Above Psychological Poison.”