Dear Elder El Hajj Malik El Shabazz,
I write to you from the twenty-first century, the year 2017 to be exact. I am a twenty-nine year old female, just a decade younger than you when you took your final breaths that fateful day in Harlem. I tell you my age because I have never occupied earth at the same time as you. Yet when I close my eyes I can see you towering above me with beige skin and reddish brown hair, wearing your distinguished glasses and serious noble expression. I would say that I wish I could meet you, but I feel as though I have. Your autobiography, speeches and debates are a gift to the black collective, because it acquaints you with the millions of blacks born after your departure. Perhaps more importantly your words function to narrate the stories of so many who mirror your experience, although sadly those who need your teachings most may never read a single word. Not because you have become obsolete, but because your work still remains outside the cannons of what the western world labels “education.”
I teach your “Ballot of the Bullet” speech in a writing course at a predominately white university. It is always a favorite of my students, yet I feel like a bit of a hypocrite teaching this. Unlike you, I do not work for black people. I do not possess economic freedom. In fact, I am a twenty-first century slave, chained to western soul by student loans and credit card debt. But in hearing your speech, I prioritize mental freedom. This is why I teach this text. I teach it for its brilliance, but also because my current state of being would be vastly different had I become acquainted with your teachings ten or eleven years ago.
Although I would become immersed in your teachings as a graduate student, isolated at a predominately white and non-heteronormative environment, I remember first seeing you as a child watching the “Eyes on the Prize” series. I remember passively watching one Sunday afternoon until I saw you. The footage was black and white and I don’t think I ever saw someone so handsome. Yet, it was not your exterior that enthralled my pre-pubescent mind. You were unlike anyone of whom I had ever cast my naive eyes. You were unapologetically confident, effortlessly present, and oozing with immorality. You had that something about you that was destined to live forever. Twenty years later, I still feel the same way.
I remember you speaking similarly of your sister Ella in your autobiography. Of her blackness and pride as filling every doorway she walked through. Years later, you’d become similar in resonance illustrating that you become what you see. I used to think that finding someone like you in the world would make things better for us all. However, Elder Malcom, the world has not changed. You’ve been gone so long, yet there is still no place for those possessing your courage and pride or what the white world calls “radicalism.” I used to wonder: What’s radical about self-love? But walking through the streets now nearly every black woman I see has a wig or weave, and our society celebrates it. Black men continue to be shot down like hunting prey, their murderers returned home to speak of their killings over a hot dinner. Anyone possessing your attributes is on borrowed time, and those who fail to mirror your fear inducing strength, transparency and courage are seemingly around forever.
They killed you and tried to replace you, only they can not. You are a once and a lifetime figure Elder Malcolm. I would say that I hope my words bring you peace, or at least a small smile, but you were never in it for the vanity—and this only makes you more admirable.
Speaking of vanity, there is something on my mind that I wish to articulate. Before I do, allow me to apologize for its possible offensive nature. I invited your daughter to speak to my students this semester. I met her last year at a book signing, and it gave me chills to look into a face so much like your own. I’m sorry to report that the similarity stopped there. To speak, she request five thousand dollars– a “discounted” fee. While I understand the need to make a living, especially given the expensive cost of living in New York, when I think about you I think about someone who did what he did for the good of the collective not a coin. I was disappointed because who are our heroes if just a means to make money? All lives should mean more than making a living, but black lives in particular should not covet western wealth.
I do not mean to speak badly of your daughter, but as you once said:
Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.
My assertions speak to a trait nurtured by the world you knew so well despite being relatively young at the time of your transition. It just seems that much of “honoring our ancestors and elders” has become about keeping individuals alive, rather than the spirit of our elders. This behavior forecasts an eventual erasure, where the celebrations and speeches continue but the message and subject are ultimately buried in empty gestures and decorative words.
*** Nevertheless, I digress.***
A bus left from Harlem this morning to transport a number of your admirers to your earthy resting place in Mount Vernon. I attempted to go last year with my father , but the enslaved nature of my previous employer, would not let this twenty-first century enslaved African off the plantation. In hindsight, I do not regret my absence because while robbed from the black collective fifty-two years ago—you my beloved Malcolm are not dead.
To believe that you are dead is to believe that you have never lived. For to truly live is to share an experience not started with life or ended in death. Your life planted a seed in the black collective, a seed also planted by Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey and the many other black men and women whose names we do not know, but whose hot revolutionary blood runs through our veins. This seed grows the conscious of the brazen and shields those acquiescent to the sour fruits of western colonialism from the searing rays of white supremacy with its leaves.
Because you existed, so many enslaved Africans see the contemporary chains that bind them to the white man. Because you were, we are.
I could say I thank you, but somehow the words seem far too week to express the magnitude of my sentiments.
I am trembling as I write this because Elder Malcolm, learning about and loving you has enabled me to love myself and my people in a way so deeply that I do not even know how I functioned previously. You make the isolation worth it. You make the nights I can not sleep because of frustration or collective heart break worth it, because I know that even though I can not go to Harlem to hear you speak— I am not alone. The contemporary conscious community knows that alongside your spirit they are not alone either.
Your transition casts “death” in a new light, because in your transition I see so much life. You are not dead because a piece of you is in all of us. A piece of you lies in the conventional “hustler” standing on the corner, in the academic striving for inclusivity, in the young men and women “coming to consciousness,” and the sacrificial lambs whose spilled blood broke our hearts and ignited our plight. You’ll live forever.
While I hope where you are has brought you peace, I know you are doing everything but resting. Once a revolutionary, always a revolutionary.
Many who share my hue, pray to a man they call Jesus, claiming that he died for their sins. I can not say I identify with this, but I do know that you and others like Medgar Evans, Dr. King, Fred Hampton, George Jackson etc died for the black collective. I can only hope on the anniversary of your birth that you all sit along the mountaintop and celebrate. As you blow out your candles please wish for all of us currently in the mortal battle of blackness to stare death in the eyes like you did, because to do so is the only way to live.
If you live on your knees, or lie on your back, you never have to worry about being short down. You lived on your feet Elder Malcolm and the only way to reconfigure you stature was to literally shoot you down. Your life teaches anyone willing to learn that cowardice, nor death, is the only fate worth fearing.
I hope to one day join you at the mountaintop. But for now, I’ll settle to at least catch a glimpse of you on my climb.
Rest in power Black king, and happy birthday.