Today I am older than my father, Malcolm X, ever was. For the rest of my life, I will be older than my father ever had the opportunity to be, living the experiences age brings that he never had the chance to enjoy. As I look back on my life, I see how profoundly different it has been from his.
The America in which he lived for a mere 39 years, until his death in 1965, is one that I cannot ever truly understand—despite having spent my life thinking, writing and speaking about it. During my father’s lifetime, daily life for Black Americans was far more brutal and unjust than it is today. I went to prep school, I rode horses, I travel freely. I’ve lived in an America, and a world, forever altered by my father.
Many images the public saw of Malcolm X were of him responding to heinous acts: bombings, murders, fires, attack dogs. He metabolized and articulated the grief and anger of Black Americans facing harsh discrimination, violence, terror in their own country. The media portrayed him as an aggressive, provocative leader. If he was provocative, it was because he was pointing out harrowing realities that America at large was too fearful or unwilling to confront. Certainly that was going to be provocative.
But my father wasn’t led by anger. He was filled with faith, love and compassion. And on a day-to-day basis, he didn’t speak in the same manner in which he spoke to a crowd. That wasn’t the Malcolm my family and I knew.
The man we knew was warm, gentle, empathetic, with a famously electric smile. He was a family man. I remember his great sense of humor, and that he loved jazz music, literature and possibility. He studied history, nature and the arts. He had a butterfly collection! He read poetry to his wife. He was a bright intellect, influenced by his upbringing.
His parents, Reverend Earl and Louise Little, were members of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, which commanded millions of followers worldwide in the 1920s. Just as his parents had passed down their values to Malcolm, he did the same with my sisters and me. My father’s faith enabled him to believe in the resilience of the human spirit. He taught us that self-love—one that comes from an education in history based on facts—is crucial and allows us to love others in turn. We believed in the oneness of God and hence the oneness of humanity, and never relied on others to determine our self-worth. Committing harm against another is essentially the same as committing harm against ourselves.
Malcolm brought human rights into the Civil Rights Movement, and that is a legacy we can see clearly in the contemporary language and ideology of activism.
Recently, while reflecting on my own hajj, I reread the letter that my father wrote while on his. It moved me to tears. “Never have I been so highly honored,” my father writes in the letter, “and never has such honor and respect made me feel more humble and unworthy. Who would believe that such blessings could be heaped upon an American Negro!”
It made me weep to read both his reality as a “Negro” and his elation at being granted deference and peace outside of the perverse racism of America. While on his hajj, for the first time in his life, Malcolm stood equal with all men to share the dignity and respect, as well as the rights and privileges, of first-class citizenship. He knew that upon his return to America, there would be danger waiting for him. But he returned anyway, because he believed in his mission to insist America live up to her promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
To the public, the letter functions as a historical document written by a great human rights advocate, a brilliant thinker and a political strategist. But it’s also the heartfelt thoughts of a young man on a spiritual journey having profound personal experiences as he circled the globe searching for solutions to the human condition. He was received as a worthy peer by kings, presidents, prime ministers and potentates alike. He met with African heads of state to internationalize the plight of African-Americans. World leaders listened to his ideas for ending the atrocities caused by war and unequal distribution of the world’s wealth.
My favorite speech that my father ever gave took place at the Oxford Union Debate in 1964. It was within a year of his assassination. One reason the speech has always appealed to me is that it was not a response to a particular brutal act. Often, his news bites were a reaction and broadcast without context. But in this debate, he focused on building a better world.
When I was younger, I would watch and rewatch the recording. In the video, my father stands before a crowd of students and faculty. He is tall, distinguished, dapper and handsome, his face flitting in turns between a wry grin and a gentle, somber stoicism. He is surrounded by engaged young scholars who are attentive, cheering, applauding, learning.
As with the letter Malcolm wrote from the hajj, I love this speech because it shows my father for who he really was. As a young girl, I envisioned that it was the kind of conversation he would have had with me as I got older, had he still been with us. He would have appealed to my humanity, as he does in this debate. He would have encouraged my sisters and me to love and to be our best selves. He would have wanted me to help make a difference, to be a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves.
Now, decades after his death, my dad is still waiting for the justice he deserves, not just as the leader of a movement but as a citizen and a human. History has made my father into an icon, but he was also just a man. A young man who knowingly put his life on the line because, above all, he believed in justice, and he believed until his last breath in our capacity to love.
This story appears in the May/June 2023 issue of ESSENCE Magazine.