Two stories shape our lives: the stories we tell about ourselves, and the master social narrative that defines our relationships and roles within society. A defining moment for people of color and women comes when they recognize they either are not included in the dominant social narrative or are belittled and disempowered by it. When people in marginalized groups offer what’s known as a “counter narrative,” they open up new worlds of possibility for themselves and others in their group. I’ve always been most inspired by those with the courage to bring forth a counter narrative that creates a new social narrative into which I could step. This series of stories features such people. I hope you find them as inspiring as I have. For more on the importance of the stories we tell—and believe—about ourselves, and the power we can claim when we re-author those stories and offer counter narratives, please see The Power of Counter Narrative.
In the 1950s, as a minister for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X (1925-1965) was sure of himself and his views. But by 1964 he was rethinking every aspect of his public life, opening himself to new experiences and thoughts. The last year of his life was a hero’s journey of self-discovery.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm X (birth name: Malcolm Little) grew up an athlete and leader, a hopeful soul with aspirations to become a lawyer. This ambition, writes Malcolm in his autobiography, was crushed by a white teacher, who instructed him that black folks shouldn’t aspire to careers in the law. He advised young Malcolm to become a carpenter.
Malcolm’s fragile adolescent ego was crushed and he spiraled into a life of crime. In 1946, when he was 21, he got caught burglarizing a house, and was sent to prison. And there his life changed. He met a man who said, “You’ve got some brains, if you’d use them,” and this bit of insight was a pure and instant tonic. He began reading books in the prison library and eventually came upon the ideas of the Nation of Islam (NOI; also known as the Black Muslims). This theology helped him develop self-respect and extraordinary self-discipline. Upon his release from prison in 1952 he took the name Malcolm X, choosing to discard the “slave name” Malcolm Little. By 1954 he was a rising star in the NOI, preaching in Harlem from street corners and lecterns, telling big crowds of blacks that all whites are devils and enemies, and sounding a clarion call to white America about black anger.
White America didn’t know what to make of this. The website HistoryAccess.com notes:
“The idea of black rage was new in the 1950s—the ‘Sambo’ myth of black docility was still current, promulgated in studies of the antebellum South by a racially-biased historian named Ulrich B. Phillips, finding wide circulation in college textbooks.”
As he spoke, Malcolm combined fierce passion, historical precedent, and political consciousness. For example:
“The black people of this country have been victims of violence at the hands of the white men for four hundred years, and following the ignorant Negro preachers we have thought that it was God-like to turn the other cheek to the brute that was brutalizing us. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad is teaching black people in this country that, just as the white man and every other person on this earth has God-given rights, natural rights, civil rights, any kind of rights that you can think of when it comes to defending himself, black people—we should have the right to defend ourselves also.”
By the early ’60s, Malcolm was changing. He was as strong and eloquent as ever about black pride and identity and the need for self-defense, but he saw that some whites were worthy of respect, such as M.S. (Mike) Handler, who covered the group for the New York Times and wrote accurately and intelligently about its beliefs and aspirations. Malcolm questioned NOI separatist doctrine in the early ’60s and got angry about the personal foibles of the senior leadership. On March 8, 1964, he announced he was leaving the group. The leadership was embarrassed and furious at the departure of their star spokesman; Minister Louis X (known later as Louis Farrakhan) wrote, “Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death.”
Malcolm now embarked on his remarkable year of self-discovery, setting aside the dogma that had been at the center of his life, “seeking better answers,” writes a historian, “to his questions about life, America, race, revolution, and God.” He traveled widely, meeting white people whom he felt he could trust. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca and became an accredited minister of Sunni Islam. He explored socialism. He was arriving at a new understanding of the world’s complexities. He learned a lot that year; he felt that, in coming years, he had so much more to learn. A reporter asked him about his future plans. “I have no idea,” he said, other than to keep investigating things.
He believed himself to be a marked man because of his feud with the NOI. On February 21, 1965, he was shot and killed. Three Black Muslims were convicted in the murder. Malcolm’s grandson, Malcolm Shabazz, believes the American government was involved in his death.
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was published in 1965. Co-written with Alex Haley (later author of “Roots”), this book became a major bestseller, with a riveting cover, a photograph of Malcolm preaching, his forefinger pointing upward, and his face “brooking no interference,” writes a historian. The book is widely read and studied to this day. The film “Malcolm X” (1992) found a large global audience.
Cavanaugh-Simmons was well aware, as a teenager, that Malcolm was vilified by many or most white people, but she was drawn to him, and to his story, grasping the depth and breadth of his quest for truth.
She kept secret her interest: “As a young white girl growing up in the protected world of Catholic private schools, I felt I had to secret away my profound attraction to this seemingly exotic personage!” She laughs at the memory of a different time and place. “But I somehow believed I would have found love and acceptance standing at his side.”
As she read about Malcolm, Cavanaugh-Simmons found in his life a “map of guidance for finding and claiming an identity, even out of the ruins of a life.” She notes, “He had taken the painful steps, from the inside out, to achieve wisdom and author his own identity, even in the face of those who would attack and eventually kill him. He sought, and found, a truly coherent narrative to live into. This is rare!”
He constituted, says Cavanaugh-Simmons, a “new narrative for black folks.” She continues, “I wish he had lived longer; I believe he was always going to evolve, and re-author a greater and broader story of self.”
Cavanaugh-Simmons finds echoes of Malcolm X’s message in the 2015 book “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. “Every white person in America should read this book,” Cavanaugh-Simmons says. “It is so painful, so uncomfortable, so eloquent and beautiful. I see something of ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ in this book. Malcolm’s superb consciousness lives on.”