Life Inspiration from Malcolm X

This morning, I re-watched Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X. I had seen it before, but it has been a number of years. Back in college, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X – As Told to Alex Haley. Prior to that I had read Roots and absolutely loved it. So I may have been more drawn to Mr. Haley’s penmanship rather then the life story of Malcolm X.

Either way, I loved the book. It was a demonstration that religion and faith could change people for the better. At that time in my life, I was beginning to align myself with the Jewish community via the Reform movement. So Malcolm X’s story was reinforcement to me that I did not have to accept that Christianity was my birthright. I did not have to be what White American society wished to define me as.

Helping to Define My Faith as an African-American

During my childhood in the late 80s/early 90s, Afro-centrism had a bit of a comeback. Malcolm X was a part of that…and you saw his image on t-shirts and posters everywhere. It piqued my curiosity in the Nation of Islam. The materials that I came across struck me as being preachy and really shoddy in regards to historic and philosophical scholarship. It also seemed to be tainted too much in vitriol for my liking. But I loved anything that highlighted the beauty and richness of being Black. The unbridled pride and unapologetic stance that was taken.

But most importantly, Malcolm X/Nation of Islam demonstrated that Black people did not have to be Christians. Malcolm X was not a Christian. Also, my Dad dated a Muslim woman (who converted) and I remember being so completely impressed with the fact that she could read Arabic. When learning about Judaism and trying to figure out how to become Jewish as a teenager, I remember calling the Commandment Keepers in NYC. As a 14 year old, I stumbled and stammered for guidance on the phone. The man that answered was surprisingly patient. He explained that I was quite far from any Black Jewish congregations, and that I might meet discouragement and made not to feel welcome in White Jewish congregations (boy was that an understatement). But overall, he encouraged me to not give up.

My black brothers and sisters – of all religious beliefs, or of no religious beliefs – we all have in common the greatest binding tie we could have. We are all black people!

Malcolm X

Malcolm X Demonstrated that People Can Evolve

Not that I am an expert or anything, but I think that the media created the narrative that Malcolm X saw the error of his ways, and became a new man when he left NOI and became a Sunni Muslim. Rather, I think he saw the fallacies of NOI and opted to step away from the hypocrisy. He still very much recognized that the plight of African-Americans stemmed from the utterly disrespect and low opinion of them that was held by the White majority.

I’ve experienced this in my own life. I was drawn to Reform Judaism because I fell in love with their discerning approach to Torah. It prided itself in letting its constituents pick and choose which Jewish customs and laws were meaningful to them and then go from there. However after several years I did not feel comfortable in a congregation that functioned more as a social club then a fellow group with whom to worship the Creator with. Also there are no real answers to offer when the blanket approach is to say, ‘Well, what you do/believe/think is up to you’. I mean that is a given any way. But you still need to have some sort of framework within which you can set up standards and a system of accountability.

So as time went on, I aligned myself with Orthodox Judaism. I still cherish many of the aspects of Judaism I picked up while in the Reform movement; such as making worship feel comfortable and accessible, seeing a diverse group of people in synagogue, etc. And that leap is never easy. Malcolm X once said something along the lines of ‘my time with NOI was a waste of all those years….’. I also have the same sentiment regarding my time in the Reform movement. But you cannot let that stop you from making a change. You have to live a life that you are fully comfortable with.

Exposing the Nation of Islam

Muhammad Ali seated with the ‘Fruit of Islam’ – a paramilitary wing of the Nation of Islam

As a Jew, I hold a pretty controversial view of Louis Farrakhan; I believe that he is an anti-semite…but I believe that this view is just an extension of general ignorance. I do not think that Farrakhan has any sort of power or influence to be a true threat to the Jewish people.

In spite of having some amazing core tenets, the Nation of Islam, got completely derailed by selfish interests. Elijah Muhammad’s children were more concerned with the monetary affairs of NOI and how they could benefit, instead of truly believing in a spreading NOI’s gospel. Malcolm X was more suited to that — but widespread jealously among the NOI leadership clipped his wings off in that regard.

Let’s be clear here – Malcolm X was not critical of the core message of NOI — but rather the hypocrisy being demonstrated by the members. This really came to a head after Malcolm’s candid remarks after the assassination of President Kennedy (which were pretty similar to was Rev. Jeremiah Wright said in his church). Rather you agree or disagree with the message, but it takes a lot of personal resolve to stand up for what you believe is right; and to do so even though you know it will jeopardize your job, your reputation, or even your life.

Intelligence Isn’t Always Demonstrated with Degrees

When Malcolm was a child, he remarked to a teacher that he wanted to be one of the best lawyers like Robert K Bratt. The teacher admonished him and suggested that he go into a trade, since he was a Negro.

Malcolm X in 3rd grade – top row, 5th from the right

50 years later, in the 1980s, I experienced these sentiments as well. For whatever reason teachers would suggest that I go to less competitive colleges, in spite of me being in the top 5% of my class year after year. As an adult 20 years later, people would remark to me, to my face, that they were surprised at how “smart and experienced” I was. Initially, I was hurt and took these remarks personally. Today I know better. I know that these remarks are a reflection of the ignorance of these individuals…and not of me.

Even though he dropped out of high school, Malcolm X grew to become very secure in his intellect. This resolved earned him the respect of journalists and even in academia. The culmination of this was his participation in a debate at Oxford University, which was televised nationally on the BBC. We’ll never know if he would have gone on to become an accomplished author, or been awarded an honorary degree. But even without this, Malcolm did not cower or doubt his intellect regardless of the company that he found himself in.

Not Being Afraid to Stand Alone

Towards the end of his life, Malcolm was truly a man on his own. Even though he had stepped away from the NOI and became Sunni Muslim, he was still primarily concerned with improving the status of his own people, African-Americans.

As a Jewish Black woman I am always cognizant that I am concerned with various people and issues; and in many cases, those different populations range from either not being particularly concerned with the other, to being outright discriminatory towards each other. Even so, at this point in my life, I have no interest in compromising one facet of my identity to the benefit of another. Rather I’ve learned to formulate a holistic worldview and spirituality that encompasses all of the key parts. As Maimonides teaches, “…one should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds.”

But even when you think that you are alone…many times, you really are not: