Black History Month: Malcolm X

NEWSLETTER WEEK 38 – FEBRUARY 16, 2021


Hi friends,

Happy Tuesday! We are back with another Black historical figure you’ve probably been taught to fear more than revere; this time, with one that we feel like has been used as a counter to all of the other Black historical figures we have been taught to admire: Malcolm X.

WHO WAS MALCOLM X?

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. His mother was the secretary to Marcus Garvey, a Pan-Africanist and Black political activist, and his father was a Baptist preacher and follower of Garvey. After the Ku Klux Klan made threats against them, the Little family moved to Lansing, Michigan, though the family continued to face threats in their new home. In 1931, the family’s house was burned down by members of the Black Legion, a white supremacist group that had been tormenting the family. Only months later, Malcolm’s father was found lying in the town’s trolley tracks after being run over by a car. Though Malcolm’s family knew all of this pain was intentionally brought on by the white supremacist group, authorities claimed it was an accidental killing and Mrs. Little and her children were denied her husband’s death benefits.

Six year old Malcolm was then placed in foster care, as his mother suffered continuous nervous breakdowns and was committed to a sanitarium and countless mental institutions for the remainder of her life (it feels important to make you pause here while reading this to consider why this Black woman, whose husband was just killed by white supremacists and who wasn’t believed by authorities about the cause of death to claim his death benefits, might have been placed in an institution. Hm.). Malcolm bounced from home to home most of his childhood and was later arrested on a burglary charge in Boston with his friend Malcolm “Shorty” Davis and incarcerated.

While serving a seven year sentence, Malcolm first encountered the teachings of Islam through visits with his brother, who had just converted to Islam. Intrigued, Malcolm began to study the teachings of Nation of Islam, a Black nationalist Islamic group, and their leader Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad taught that white society actively worked to keep Black people from organizing and empowering themselves to achieve political, economic and social success. Among other goals, the Nation of Islam advocated for a state of their own, separate from one inhabited by white people. By the time he was paroled in 1952, Malcolm was a devoted follower with the new surname “X.” (Malcolm considered “Little” a slave name and chose the “X” to signify his lost tribal name.)

“Concerning nonviolence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks.” — Malcolm X
After serving six of his seven years, Malcolm was paroled and went on to become the minister of Mosque No. 7 in Harlem. His oratory skills and sermons in favor of self-defense from the violence of white people gained the organization new admirers: The Nation of Islam grew from 400 members in 1952 to 40,000 members by 1960. 

His advocacy of achieving Black empowerment “by any means necessary” put him at the opposite end of the spectrum from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent approach to gaining ground in the growing civil rights movement and the two were often poised against each other, even during their lifetime. After Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Malcolm remarked: “Who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing ‘We Shall Overcome’ … while tripping and swaying along arm-in-arm with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against?” Despite their ideological differences about how to work toward Black liberation, however, Malcolm and Martin personally held each other in high regard. 
“Dr. King wants the same thing I want…. I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.” —Malcolm X, in a conversation with Mrs. Coretta Scott King.
Like King, however, Malcolm X’s politics also earned him the vitriol of the FBI, who put him under constant surveillance of him from his time in prison until his death. J. Edgar Hoover (you already know the one) even told the agency’s New York office to “do something about Malcolm X.” 


MALCOLM X’S PILGRIMAGE AND LATER LIFE

Malcolm grew disenchanted with the Nation of Islam after he learned that leader, Elijah Muhammed, was having as many as six affairs with women in the group. Since converting to Islam, Malcolm had followed the teachings of the Quran closely, remaining celibate until his 1958 marriage to Betty Shabazz. He was deeply upset by Muhammend’s insincerity, but also knew that he, Malcolm, was still invested in Black liberation, despite what felt like a crushing blow to his understanding of leadership. A few months later, he traveled to Mecca, which felt life-altering: “The true brotherhood I had seen had influenced me to recognize that anger can blind human vision,” he wrote. Malcolm X returned to the States with a new name: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

“The thing that you have to understand about those of us in the Black Muslim movement was that all of us believed 100 percent in the divinity of Elijah Muhammad. We believed in him. We actually believed that God, in Detroit by the way, that God had taught him and all of that. I always believed that he believed in himself. And I was shocked when I found out that he himself didn’t believe it.” — Malcolm X


The trip was the first time that Malcolm shared conversations with people of other races, and found the response to be surprisingly and overwhelmingly positive. When he returned, Malcolm said he had met “blonde-haired, blued-eyed men I could call my brothers.” He returned to the United States with a new outlook on integration and a new hope for the future. This time when Malcolm spoke, instead of just preaching to Black people, he had a message for all races. He realized that racism was the enemy, not simply white people. That racism, the driving force of the oppression that killed his father and took his mother into custody and that he experienced daily, was what was so insidious and painful ( it was a systemic problem, not just a bunch of individual bad actors). 

MALCOLM X’S ASSASSINATION
After leaving the Nation of Islam, the relationship between Malcolm X and the group became increasingly fractured. FBI Officials working undercover in Nation of Islam told officials that there would be an assassination attempt on Malcolm’s life (one officer even offered to plant a bomb in Malcolm’s family car). 

At this point, Malcolm and his wife, Betty, had four young daughters. Their home was firebombed on February 14, 1965. All six family members survived unscathed but the following week, Malcolm was killed by three armed gunmen who shot him fifteen times at close range. Weeks after his death, Betty gave birth to twin daughters. Malcolm’s assassins, Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, all members of the Nation of Islam, were convicted of first-degree murder in March 1966.

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X

Malcolm X began work on his autobiography in the early 1960s with the help of Alex Haley, the acclaimed author of Roots. The Autobiography of Malcolm X chronicled his life and views on race, religion and Black nationalism. It was published posthumously in 1965 and became a bestseller. Malcolm X’s life, as well as his autobiography, inspired numerous film adaptations, most famously Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X starring Denzel Washington.“I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation.” — Malcolm X

OTHER RELATED RESOURCES

  • LISTEN: This week’s episode of NPR’s Throughline is about Marcus Garvey (remember him from the beginning of today’s newsletter? The Pan-Africanist that Earl Little followed?)
  • READ: Honestly it wouldn’t feel right to write this whole newsletter and not plug the famous Autobiography of Malcolm X that he wrote in the years before his assassination
  • READ: Ta’Nehisi Coates’s 2011 piece on Barack Obama and Malcolm X’s legacy

THIS WEEK’S NON-FINANCIAL WAY TO TAKE ACTION

This, we’re talking about making care packages for unsheltered folks. Why? Because it’s cold-cold and this means two things: 1) that most of us are staying in even more than we already were, which means it’s a great time for cleaning our cabinets and closets and giving away what we’re not using to our neighbors who could get more use of it. And 2) that it is a particularly dangerous time for our unhoused neighbors.

SO, this week, we’re going through our homes, gathering what we don’t use, and making care packages for our neighbors to either give away directly to people or to deliver to the shelters near our home. Don’t know where to start? Reply to this email and we’ll help you set up an action plan based on your neighborhood. 

Know you have unhoused neighbors in your neighborhood and want to bring things they *actually need*? The general rules are this: small bottles are better than big bottles, aim for thicker socks and waterproof materials when possible, cash > gift cards every time, and treat people like human beings, not charity projects.

If you’re making a whole care package, find an old backpack or reusable shopping bag and fill it with any of these items that you already have around the house. Obviously you won’t be able to fit all of them so pick and choose what’s available to you!

Helpful items to include in care packages:

  • Socks (ideally thermal or wool but any sock is better than no socks)
  • Gloves (ideally waterproof or layerable but again, any glove is better than no glove)
  • Emergency rain poncho
  • Hand + foot warmers
  • Sleeping bag/mat
  • Blankets (can be emergency mylar blanket or cloth)
  • Beanie or other winter hat
  • Scarf
  • Umbrella
  • Underwear
  • Thermal clothes: base layers of long sleeve shirts, leggings, etc.
  • Coats or jackets: wool, sherpa, fleece, puffer, waterproof
  • Wash cloth/towel
  • Pants + shoes
  • No rinse bathing wipes
  • Menstrual products
  • First aid kits (especially the large bandages) 
  • Depends/incontinence briefs/adult diapers
  • Ibuprofen/Acetaminophen or other medicines
  • Lip balm
  • Deodorant
  • Lotion + sunscreen
  • Toothbrush/toothpaste/mouthwash
  • Soap, shampoo, conditioners 
  • Nail clippers
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Comb/brush
  • Face masks
  • Jerky or dried meat
  • Peanut butter crackers
  • Soft breakfast bars (avoid hard/crunchy items or hard to chew foods)
  • Tuna/chicken salad cracker kits
  • Really any ready-to-eat food in a pop-top can
  • EmergenC or Airborne packets
  • Water + Electrolytes
  • Reusable grocery bags
  • Lighter or matches 
  • Bus pas for your city
  • Pay-as-you-go cell phone with minutes (can be lifesaving)
  • Day pass to a campground or gym for a hot shower
  • CASH! 

WAIT, ARE YOU TELLING ME TO APPROACH HOMELESS PEOPLE DIRECTLY?

Maybe! Depends on your personal comfort/safety (especially traipsing around in the snow), your understanding of the issues affecting unhoused people in your community, and if you already know of a shelter or mutual aid fund that can take your items and pass them out there (hopefully most unsheltered folks have a warm place to stay this week). 

BUT if you know of an encampment or a spot where someone experiencing homelessness hangs out and might need support and you have a friend or family member willing to go with you, yes, we mean to walk up to people directly. It might feel intimidating at first to approach someone new, but it’s important to remember that people who don’t have housing are still people. And chances are, people who are unhoused are way more afraid of you than you are of them (living on the streets is scary and uncertain – people are at their most vulnerable). 

If you do choose the meet-your-neighbors-directly route, start with, “Hi! My name is _____. I noticed you looked cold and thought you might be able to use this.” Go from there.Remember: we’re aiming for solidarity, not charity. Don’t ask people to take pictures with them. Don’t talk in a patronizing or disparaging tone. Don’t get your feelings hurt if someone doesn’t want to accept your bag of your old stuff (there are so many shelters that would be happy to have it anyways!). We are truly just aiming to get potentially lifesaving supplies to people who need them (especially stuff you already have and are not using). You’re not a savior, you’re a neighbor. That’s a good thing. 


DIDN’T WE ALREADY TALK ABOUT HOMELESSNESS IN THIS NEWSLETTER THIS YEAR?

Yep! And it’s even more important now as cities with fewer emergency winter resources get hit by this week’s snowfall. 

PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR POSTS ARE

This week, we’ve learned more about the massive influx of acts of racist violence toward the Asian community in the United States this past year. Over the course of the pandemic, racist violence toward the Asian community has increased by 1,900 percent, according to the Queens Chronicle. (You can read more in this full report released by the Asian American Bar Association of New York.)

With that, we’re encouraging our readers to scroll through this list to find an organization near you that is run by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and for Asian American and Pacific Islanders, who need extra support in your community. The list has everything from COVID-19 relief funds in the most affected neighborhoods to legal defense funds to LGBTQIA+ support organizations to mutual aid funds. 

Hint: drop some cash next time you make a really good home cooked meal – treat it like you would tip your server in the before time. (This is Emily’s go-to for remembering to pay some direct aid. For example, this week scallops are on major sale at the grocery store. Tomorrow when she eats what would be a way nicer dinner than usual, she’ll be donating the $8 she would have tipped her server at a restaurant to Heart of Dinner, hand-delivering home-cooked meals to Asian elders across NYC).

MARK YOUR CALENDARS

This Sunday, February 21 at 7PM EST, we’ll be hosting Keiko Cooley, a soon-to-be MD who, fun fact, will be the first Black urology resident from her medical school next year! Keiko will be joining us to talk about all things Black History Month – it’s origins, traditions, heroes, and how we can incorporate its lessons more fully into our day-to-day lives. In addition to being incredibly knowledgeable about the human body (she is Emily’s go-to for quick instagram medical advice (thank you, Keiko!)), she is constantly learning and sharing Black history lessons on her social media and in every space she enters. Follow along for a daily lesson with @theblackmedstudent and reply to this email with any questions you have about Black History Month that Keiko can help us answer!

Alright friends, that’s a LOT of information for today. We’ll see you Friday with another Black historical figure that we think you should know more about!

In solidarity,
Ellie, Emily, and Hayden

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