On this day, it will have been 46 years since shots rang out in Harlem's Audubon Ballroom. On that February 21, an armed man rushed forward toward a solemn platform to shoot a father, husband, and activist in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun putting an end to one of the world's loudest and most ardent voices for change. His shot would be the first of 16 that would ultimately kill El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X. His life and his purpose are inextricably tied to his very violent death. The 16 bullets that riddled his body before the eyes of his family and his people extinguished the developing narrative of a freedom fighter in transition, of a movement grown up, and of the unyielding nature of liberation.
It would seem that in death, Malcolm has been marginalized by one utterance, his famous, "By any means necessary." When I met his daughter, Ambassador Attallah Shabazz, the room flooded with an affinity that bespoke the texture of their short relationship as she described her father. She seemed to have, as most people will never, known the human behind the horn-rimmed glasses. More than anything, she explained that those words through which most people have come to understand Malcolm are as pliable as the man and intentionally so.
When asked whether he considered himself militant: "I consider myself Malcolm."
Every year, without much prompting, I find myself rethinking Malcolm X. As I've grown, so has his lingering specter in my life. I think the reason that he has been as indelible in my imagination (and the public's at large) is because, in life, he allowed himself the complexity of human existence. By most accounts, he was flagrantly flawed. He did not shy away from his sordid past and often said things that he would later amend. Malcolm lived and spoke as poet Audre Lorde once suggested. So that, what is most important was spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.
"The American white man’s press called me the angriest Negro in America. I wouldn’t deny that charge; I spoke exactly as I felt. I believe in anger."
Despite the peacefulness of Islam, to which he was devout, the notion that Malcolm was a hate-filled Black radical will persist as long as the American story will need it to. He was a dangerous thing: a man who would rather die than be denied freedom. In a world with so much injustice, it is a shame that such a person is seen as a threat. What if we could conceptualize a peaceful human being violently opposed to oppression? What if in the final act of his life, before his body was turned to a corpse, we heard the words he spoke to his assassins- his last words.
“Now, now brothers, break it up. Be cool, be calm.”
Watch "Bullet Cry" x Louis Reyes Rivera, a poem in memoriam