- Historic Sites
Discovering what a particular time in Harlem says about the whole nation
February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
Forty years after his death Malcolm has been reduced to a single gesture of defiance: the glowering face, finger thrust out toward the camera, over the caption of his famous vow, “By any means necessary!” His hagiographers would make him into the avenging specter the white mass media of his time would use to titillate its audiences, “The hate that hate produced.”
Yet in watching anyof the surviving footage of Malcolm, it’s impossible to be genuinely frightened by this man who never came close to killing anyone, who probably never committed any act of violence, as either a hood or a revolutionary. His intelligence and humor are too manifest, the need to engage too readily apparent, even when he is saying ugly, blustery things. One senses an anger stemming more from frustration than fanaticism, a continuing astonishment that white people could be so driven by the inane concept of race—and a need to goad them out of it, even if it means throwing the same idiocy back in their faces.
The life of Malcolm X was an essentially American story, even though he probably would have denied it even in the last, more questioning months of his life. It is the story of a man suspended between identities and haunted by race, a man forced to struggle for everything he got and to educate himself within a prison—and yet who ascended to undreamed-of heights.
It would be facile to say that it could have happened only in America, a country that rebuked and scorned him at nearly every turn. Rather, it was all the Malcolms, all of those once deemed unworthy of citizenship, black and white, who made America the place where such things could happen. In this sense, the black theologians surely were right, and the cornerstone of the building has indeed become the stone that the builders rejected.