Malcolm X Doesn't Deserve A Day In His Honor
THE image of Malcolm X is everywhere these days. He is emblazoned on posters and T-shirts. The X cap is omnipresent. The controversial Spike Lee movie based on Malcolm's life is soon to be released, and in a commentary in The Seattle Times last February, Keith A. Owens goes so far as to suggest there should be a national holiday celebrating Malcolm's birth.
Actually, Mr. Owens is more oblique. He claims there will never be a Malcolm X holiday because of the current disinterest and disrespect accorded the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. And if King, whose doctrine of nonviolent resistance appealed greatly to middle America, is not respected by white businesses and government, then what hope is there for Malcolm, whose call for black rights by any means necessary sent shivers into the hearts of white people.
I do not know if Mr. Owens thinks there should be a Malcolm X Day; he never comes out and says so in plain language. To me, though, there is a good reason why we should not have a Malcolm X Day: Malcolm X was racist at a time when America was trying to dissolve itself of its racist past.
The following is an excerpt from a speech he gave in Harlem in the early 1960's:
"God is going to bring chastisement upon the American white man for tricking the so-called negro here in this country . . . God is the one that's making his ships sink in the sea. God is the one bringing his airplanes crashing out of the sky - full of white folks. God is the one that makes his cars crack up on the highway. God is the one that's given polio to his little children, and making his senators die with heart attacks. That's the work of God. Those are blessings from God. That's the reward that God has given him for the evil he has done. That's a wicked race. And God is making his children be born today deformed, demented, or dead . . . God doesn't love ugly, and there's nothing on this earth uglier than that blue-eyed, stringy-haired, bad-smelling race of devils."
In Webster's Dictionary, "racism" is defined as "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race." By this definition, for most of his public life, Malcolm was a racist, since he believed in the moral inferiority, without exception, of white people.
Truth be told (to use one of Mr. Owens favorite phrases), our country has only four national holidays celebrating specific individuals - and the impact of each holiday diminishes annually. Does anyone get Columbus Day off anymore? More to be pitied are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Unlike Dr. King, they don't even get their own day anymore. Their birthdays have been collapsed into one, which they are then forced to share with such luminaries as James Buchanan, Calvin Coolidge and Gerald Ford.
While Mr. Owens is certain that white racism will forever block the possibility of a Malcolm X Day in America, I would not be surprised if one day we do honor Malcolm on his birthday, for this would simply confirm my suspicion that most white people are temporarily blinded whenever they look at a black person, seeing only what they want to see, rarely what is there. Sadly, this is more true for white liberals than for white conservatives.
At a Malcolm X rally I attended last year, three documentaries were shown in which Malcolm was righteously seething in his hatred for white people. Afterwards there was a question-and-answer session. Armed with what I can only imagine was a monumental naivete, several white people stood and, rather than questioning Malcolm's current popularity, wondered aloud how white people during his time could suggest that Malcolm was a hate-monger. I was astounded. Hadn't they been listening?
But, of course, on a social level, they needed to distance themselves from the white people back then, to disown, as it were, their heritage. They found themselves momentarily in a new value system where the color of their skins, perhaps for the first time in their lives, was viewed negatively, and the only means of redemption was to align themselves with those they thought were accusing them - the black people in the room.
I do not think it odd that Mr. Owens admires Malcolm X. There is much to be admired there. Malcolm was an articulate and forceful man, a wonderful speaker, who loved black people and their blackness as clearly as he hated white people and their whiteness. And, though he was a racist for most of his public career, he had the courage to change his views.
In 1964, Muslim leader Elijah Muhammed exiled Malcolm from the Black Muslims. This act, coupled with a pilgrimage to Mecca in which Malcolm met white people whose eyes were not glazed with indifference or flickering with fright, led Malcolm to admit, publicly, that white people were perhaps redeemable.
Yet, even in the last year of his life, he still viewed the world as a zealot would: seeing one entity - white capitalist imperialism - as responsible for most of the trouble in the world.
I cannot accept the simplicity of this world view. And I will never be able to admire those, from Jesse Helms to Malcolm X, who ascribe the world's illnesses (whether AIDS or polio) to a vengeful God's wrath - who believe that they know what God is up to. To honor such a man with a national holiday is hardly worthwhile.
Erik Lundegaard's short story "Negro" appears in the Spring issue of the Arterial Reader. He lives in Seattle.
Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.