Schools Have an Issue With Teaching Malcolm X and it Shows

Lindsay Labady, Staff Writer

“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it.” – The autobiography of Malcolm X

I don’t remember learning much about Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) in school. For me and most students, our education on the Civil Rights movement revolves around images of nonviolence, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and an integrationist dream. Even when schools mention Malcolm X, little is covered and that limited amount usually portrays him as Dr. King’s violent alternative, a man who marginalized whites while contributing little to the movement’s success as a whole.

Seems things haven’t changed much since I was a kid: Clare Trapasso of The Daily News reports that teachers at a Queens, New York elementary school forbade their mostly black students to write about the revolutionary black nationalist leader and thinker. Why? According to Trapasso, the teachers did not allow students to write about him because they told them he was “violent” and “bad.”

When Malcolm X is brought up, which is often during February in recognition of Black History Month, it’s only in contrast to King and not about what Malcolm X believed in and taught. The story that a whitewashed American history teaches students is one in which Malcolm plays the part of the hateful Muslim radical, the unreasonable foil to King’s appeasing Christian liberal. Of course, any honest account of Dr. King’s thoughts and teachings should acknowledge that he grew to share many of Malcolm’s positions including that Black people should use self-defense (peaceful or not), and economic separation, which is widely seen in one of Dr. King’s speeches about the “new phase” of the civil rights struggle.  

However, for young adults in higher education throughout the United States, The Autobiography of Malcolm X has long been a part of the curriculum. However, in order to teach Malcolm X, professors have had to sanitize his anger, compromise his “hate” and dilute his impact. Most classes stress the change Malcolm X is said to have experienced after his return from Mecca, which is documented in the final chapters of his autobiography and that contrast to his former self, “always calling white people devils and always saying black people are superior.” 

Malcolm X did change however, according to an interview Malcolm did coming back from Mecca, Malcolm’s hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) didn’t move him closer to advocating “integration” or reconciliation with Whites – it only inspired him to link the struggle of Blacks in the US with the struggles of colonized peoples the world over. But as taught in most classes, this change somehow absolved all the “good Whites” from blame. Thanks to Malcolm’s trip, he was no longer mad at the good Whites who felt Blacks were equal as long as they did not try to live in their neighborhoods, date their children, or start running things. This is where the teaching of Malcolm X goes astray from a true understanding of the origins of his place in the framework of Black America’s movement for equal rights. 

For the better part of his years in the national spotlight, Malcolm X was a spokesperson. Consequently, in the study of Malcolm X, schools should not minimize or neglect the role that the Nation of Islam played in shaping and influencing both his life and his philosophy. Schools too easily reduce the civil rights movement’s entire Black nationalist strain to a single person, Martin Luther King, Jr. All too often, Malcolm’s contribution is then disassembled into a single phrase: “By any means necessary” which schools use to shape students’ views to make Malcolm X seem like a ruthless, cold-hearted man towards any white person, good or bad, that came his way.

One of Malcolm’s most famous quotes debunks the context that schools use regarding the “by any means necessary” comment. He stated: “We are peaceful people, we are loving people. We love everybody who loves us. But we don’t love anybody who doesn’t love us. We’re nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us. But we are not nonviolent with anyone who is violent with us.” Malcolm’s method was a way to make blacks know they had a choice, that they could stand up for themselves and defend how they were going to be governed. His goal was to empower individuals rather than allow them to simply take a passive stance and beg for equality. 

Mr. Ellis, an English teacher at Paint Branch, finds it hypocritical how schools pick and choose what and who to teach students about. “I think we are highly hypocritical when it comes to who we choose to cover in school. We have no problem endorsing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (despite rampant inappropriate sexual innuendo, and characters engaging in sexual misconduct), yet are afraid to talk about Malcolm X’s stance on certain ‘controversial issues.” Mr. Ellis adds, “One only has to look as far as one of his interviews, where he is asked to comment on the origin of his name.”

Malcolm X was and is still an equally important figure who should be valued as much as all the other Black civil rights leaders we learn about in school all the time. Malcolm brought a renewed sense of pride and dignity to a people oppressed by hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, terrorism, propaganda, and systemically imposed poverty. America is better for the legacy Malcolm X left us. We’ll be even better the more we begin to teach this and teach it right.