If you knew him, you would know why we must honor him: Malcolm was our manhood, our living black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves.
--Ossie Davis, From his eulogy of Malcolm X
Today in African-American communities across the nation, events will be held in honor of Malcolm X's birthday. Some people will take off work; others will simply find a quiet time during the day to reflect on his life and its meaning.
Most of these events will not make the 6 o'clock news, for--nearly three decades after his death--Malcolm X is still largely misunderstood by White America.
Perhaps no speaker, lecturer, poem or essay will honor Malcolm X more fittingly than did a group of young African-Americans in South Los Angeles during the days after the verdicts in the Rodney King case.
At a community center on Vernon and Normandie avenues, in the shadow of burned-out buildings and boarded-up stores, these young men and women came together to serve their community.
Working with the Stentorians, an organization of African-American firefighters, they handed out groceries and meals, swept floors, picked up trash and, though they probably didn't know realize it, gave hope to the stream of people who had gone to the community center.
Exhausted from the weekend effort that eventually fed 2,000 people, four of the youth--members of African Youth in Action--sat in a circle talking about their reasons for being there.
"It's our responsibility; it's our duty," a 15 year-old named Tamara Benefeild said matter-of-factly. "If we don't do it, who will?"
Sitting next to Tamara, wearing a Malcolm X T-shirt that declares, "Do the Right Thing" and "By Any Means Necessary," was 17-year-old Yaya Fanusie, a student at Cleveland High School who will begin UC Berkeley in the fall.
"Everything that Malcolm X was saying is still true today," Yaya said. "Basically, it's our community. If we're going to advance ourselves like Malcolm wanted us to do, we have to organize among ourselves. We have to do it ourselves."
They spoke with informed voices of the need for black-owned businesses and of the need for adequate jobs, schools, health care, access to college. Amid the destruction around them, they spoke of building and creating.
Much has been written about Malcolm X's growing popularity among African-American youth. His image stares out from T-shirts and buttons, backpacks and jackets, and now there are baseball caps marked with a single all-telling "X."
Malcolm is everywhere.
But wearing a T-shirt with his image and understanding the man behind the image are quite different. One requires very little effort; the other requires a diligent attempt to research, read and then sort out fact from fiction.
Listening to Yaya and other members of African Youth in Action, it became clear that for them, Malcolm is more than just a fad. They had taken the time to read and understand his painfully simple message:
Respect. Dignity. Self-Determination. Freedom. "By any means necessary."
"Malcolm wanted us to liberate our minds," Yaya said. "To think for ourselves."
That weekend, they acted upon his words--the greatest tribute anybody could ever give him.
It is not so hard to understand why a group of African-American teen-agers would turn to the teachings of Malcolm X 27 years after he was assassinated while speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Their world, our world, is not so different from the one that Malcolm lived in.
Emett Till and Latasha Harlins, Rodney King and the Scottsboro Boys, Fannie Lou Hamer and Eula Mae Love; decades after his death justice is still a specter that African-Americans seek with desperate hands, only to watch it slip away, time and time again.
We have saluted the flag and pledged allegiance and paid taxes and fought America's wars and died for her arrogance--and still we are denied basic rights that supposedly all Americans possess.
We have prayed and marched and loved our enemy and appealed to their conscience, and still the quality of life in America is determined by race and class.
This alone explains why we \o7 must\f7 honor Malcolm and why so many--whether they fully understand him or not--have found in him guidance and inspiration. He remains a symbol of black manhood--bold, intelligent, incorruptible, a "shining black prince," as Ossie Davis said, "who didn't hesitate to die because he loved us so."
By encouraging us to understand and embrace our true history as people of African descent, Malcolm instilled in us a sense of pride. Then he forced us to acknowledge America for what it is--a Dorian Gray that keeps its crimes hidden while displaying a forever young, beautiful face to the rest of the world. But in a secret place, behind a locked door in his house, Dorian Gray's portrait kept a tally of his crimes and grew more gruesome with each.