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Remembering Malcolm X Through the Women Who Knew Him

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Portrait of Malcolm X, 1950s, Photographer unknown. Courtesy of the Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

“do not speak to me of martyrdom,
of men who die to be remembered
on some parish day.
i don’t believe in dying
Though, I too shall die.”

These are the words of prolific poet, writer, activist, and scholar Sonia Sanchez from her poem “Malcolm.” As an ode to the man who will forever be embedded in the memory of Black history and culture, Sanchez doesn’t remember Malcolm X, or el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, as a martyr, because his legacy is still very much alive. She recounts Malcolm’s gentleness from when she met him for the first time in an interview from the Eyes on the Prize program series.

With Malcolm’s position as the leading spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, it can be discerned that much of his time, outside of the public eye, was spent with various men who were either civil rights activists, scholars, or public officials. As a result of being from a political, social, and cultural era that was male-dominated, the influence Malcolm had on women (and vice versa), and the ways he attempted to uplift women can be overlooked. In his 1964 interview in Paris, Malcolm explicitly revealed his political position on women, explaining that women should be given the tools necessary to become empowered.

Malcolm was not only adamant about uplifting women publicly, but on an intimate level as well. In his letter to friend Maya Angelou, he writes, “You are a beautiful writer and a beautiful woman. You know I will always do my utmost to be helpful to you in any way possible so don’t hesitate.” His sincerity and genuineness also left an impression on those women who worked with him. Vicki Garvin, who introduced Malcolm to ambassadors of China, Cuba, and Algeria, and served as his translator during his time in Ghana, wrote many essays about her experience with Malcolm and his impactful legacy. In her “Beacon For Young People” essay, Garvin wrote that “[Malcolm] liberated himself with self-love and self-respect and worked to instill these values with others.”

It was with these same values that inspired Malcolm to fight for human rights and social justice transnationally--not just at home in the states. Most people are not aware of Malcolm’s relationship with Japanese-American human rights activist, Yuri Kochiyama, and his concern for the third world.  In the documentary, Mountains That Take Wing,  Kochiyama recounts Malcolm attending a meeting in her apartment in Harlem, for the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.  A meeting attended by mostly Blacks and Whites, she described him as “gracious, and being as warm to Whites as he was to Blacks.” Kochiyama was also present the day Malcolm was assassinated, seen in photographs hovering his own slain body, an image not included in Spike Lee’s movie Malcolm X (1992).

As much of a public and international figure Malcolm was, his life and the very essence of who he was became much more amplified after his death more than fifty years ago. There are thousands of books, documentaries, periodicals, essays, and scholarly journals that attempt to interpret Malcolm. But remembering Malcolm through the women who knew him best reflects his ability to recognize the inherent power that women possess and their ability to not stand behind their men in the fight for freedom, but side-by-side as allies. We must therefore remember Malcolm X’s, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, message of solidarity, which is the true essence of brotherhood that he wholeheartedly embodied.

Our annual celebration of the birthday of Malcolm X will be held on May 19 in collaboration with the Malcolm X Museum. The all-women panel, Women Speak About Malcolm X, is sold out, but you may still join the discussion via LiveStream.

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thank you

I appreciate this slightly different way of looking at his legacy.

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