In the annals of history there are few figures as transformative and enigmatic as Malcolm X.
Born Malcolm Little in 1925, this charismatic leader, activist, and brilliant orator would evolve from a life of hardship and criminality to become one of the most influential voices of the civil rights movement in the United States. His journey of self-education and ideological transformation, from advocating racial separation to envisioning a world in which both races could coexist, is a testament to the power of knowledge, self-discovery, and the human capacity for change.
As a 10-year-old boy growing up in the vibrant Bendon district of Kitson Town, St Catherine, Jamaica, my journey into the world of knowledge and the art of public speaking began in the most unexpected way. I came from a mixed-race background, and my love for books was evident from an early age. I wasn't alone in my quest for wisdom, and I made sure to share this passion with my two younger siblings, encouraging them to become avid members of our local library.
Little did I know that this early affinity for reading would set me on a path as a young free thinker and budding writer. However, there was a time when I couldn't read with ease. I vividly recall my early days, when I would explore the pages of Jamaican stories like Johnny Crab Toe and the Magic Pen before fully mastering the art of reading.
Throughout my formative years, my reading journey introduced me to influential figures like Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, and many others who left an indelible mark on history. However, there was a conspicuous absence in my literary exploration — Malcolm X. His powerful words and ideas had never graced the pages of my books until my teenage years. It was during this period, as I embarked on the path of self-discovery, embracing my masculinity and black identity, that I encountered the profound impact of Malcolm X.
My discovery of Malcolm X came not through formal education but through my own quest for self-improvement. It made me question why his message had been withheld from me for so long. As I grew, I realised that there was a pervasive agenda aimed at undermining the potential of young Jamaican black men like myself. Without hesitation, I assert this truth: Malcolm X's message was deliberately suppressed because it possessed a power that transcended his era.
The Path of Self-EducatiON
Malcolm X's journey toward self-education was remarkable, particularly considering the societal limitations and barriers he faced as a young black man in the mid-20th century. Incarcerated in his early 20s for burglary, Malcolm turned to reading and self-education as a way to escape the confines of his prison cell. He famously said, "My alma mater was books, a good library… I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity."
Malcolm X voraciously devoured books during his prison years, expanding his intellectual horizons beyond the narrow confines of his previous experiences. His transformation into a voracious reader was not merely about acquiring knowledge, it was about empowerment and self-discovery. He saw education as a path to personal growth and liberation, an idea he would later espouse passionately.
The Power of Malcolm's Words
Malcolm X developed his capacity to express his ideas with unmatched eloquence as he was being released from prison. His writings and lectures were thrilling as well as powerful. Numerous black Americans who felt oppressed and marginalised could relate to the fervour with which he talked.
The Ballot or the Bullet, one of his most famous speeches, made in 1964, is still a tribute to his skill as a public speaker. In it, he stated, "A ballot is like a bullet." Voters don't cast ballots until they see a target, and they keep their ballots in their pockets if that target is out of reach. A generation was moved by the urgency and call to action in his words.
Malcolm X's eloquence was rooted in his deep understanding of history, philosophy, and the human condition. He once remarked, "You can't hate the roots of a tree and not hate the tree. You can't hate your origin and not end up hating yourself. You can't hate Africa and not hate yourself."
From Separation to Unity
Malcolm X's evolving perspective on racial segregation was one of the most fascinating aspects of his development. Malcolm was an early leader in the Nation of Islam and a supporter of segregating the black and white communities. He believed that the only way for black Americans to end the systemic injustice they endured was through complete autonomy.
However, Malcolm's opinions started to change once he travelled to Mecca in 1964, an encounter that would change him forever. He saw people of many ethnicities and cultures gather together for prayer and fellowship. His experience of the shared humanity was life-changing. He had a strong belief in the possibility of racial harmony and cohabitation when he left Mecca.
Malcolm X stated, "I believe in recognising every human being as a human being, neither white, black, brown, or red." This shift in perspective was not a betrayal of his earlier beliefs but a testament to his willingness to adapt and grow in the face of new experiences and knowledge.
While we celebrate Malcolm X as a symbol of resilience and change, it's essential to recognise his complexity as a human being. His public persona often overshadowed his personal struggles and complexities.
Malcolm X's sexuality has been a topic of discussion and debate. Some newspaper articles and rumours have hinted at aspects of his personal life that remain enigmatic. However, it's essential to approach such discussions with sensitivity and respect for the privacy of historical figures. What's clear is that Malcolm X's legacy transcends his personal life, and it's his ideas and actions that continue to inspire generations.
In today's interconnected world, young black men in Jamaica and around the globe have access to a wealth of information and technology of which Malcolm X could only dream. While smartphones and the internet offer incredible opportunities for self-education, the lessons from Malcolm X's life remain as relevant as ever.
*The power of self-education: Malcolm X's journey from a troubled youth to an intellectual giant illustrates the transformative potential of education. Young men today can use technology to access a world of knowledge, from online courses to digital libraries, to empower themselves and shape their futures.
*The art of oration: Malcolm X's mastery of oration remains a timeless lesson. Effective communication is a valuable skill in any era. Young black men can harness the power of their voices, using social media, podcasts, and other platforms to share their perspectives and advocate for change.
*Embracing change: Malcolm X's evolution from separatism to a vision of unity demonstrates the importance of being open to new ideas and experiences. In a world filled with division and polarisation, his journey serves as a reminder of the potential for growth and reconciliation.
*Resilience in the face of adversity: Malcolm X's life was marked by challenges and adversity, but he persevered. Today's young men can draw inspiration from his resilience and determination to overcome obstacles.
Malcolm X's life served as an example of the transforming power of self-education, the persuasiveness of language, and the potential for individual development. For young black males in the 21st century, his path from a tormented adolescent to a universal icon offers important lessons. Malcolm X's legacy stands as a beacon of hope in a world that still struggles with racial and economic inequity, showing us that change is possible and that we can achieve unity. Let us continue to work towards a more just and equitable world as we consider his life and teachings, one in which everyone is valued for who they are as a person, not because of the colour of his/her skin.