Some people see the leader of the Nation of Islam who preached black separation and self-determination.
Some people see the hustler, thief, and criminal that ran the streets of Boston and New York before getting sentenced to years in Jail.
Some people see a black extremist who taught hate and that all white people were devils.
Some people see a Muslim man who while taking his Hajj became aware of the oneness of the human race in the eyes of God.
Some people see a great Civil Rights leader whose life was taken away and believe his message still resonates today.
Which Malcolm do you see?
Malcolm X has long been one of my favorite historical figures and I recently finished The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne. This biography and every other one I have read, including his autobiography, describe Malcolm’s personal transformations over the course of his life. His ability to grow and change has always been something I admired. And upon another reflection of his evolution, I was reminded of another lesson.
People are going to see the version of you that they want to see.
After my first read of the Autobiography of Malcolm X as a Junior in high school, I only saw the militant leader of the Nation of Islam. His aggressive stance against racism and calls for black separation spoke to a militant 16-year-old. That was the Malcolm I saw when I looked at his poster hanging in my room. That was the Malcolm I quoted.
However, years later I saw a different Malcolm after rereading the Autobiography. I began seeing the person I still see today. The Malcolm who wrote a letter from Mecca during his Hajj. A letter often not mentioned but needs to be read to understand his personal evolution. In it he says:
Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad, and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.The Autobiography of Malcolm X
The Malcolm I saw was forced to change his beliefs and be more open to the humanity of all human beings. He describes how people
“may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions.”The Autobiography of Malcolm X
This may not be the Malcolm X that most people see but, it is the one that I see and that’s my point. People can look at Malcolm X and see whichever Malcolm they want to see. I was more spiritually open when I reread his Autobiography and saw a spiritual Malcolm. At 16, I saw a militant Malcolm. If I wanted to discredit him I would see criminal, hustler, or extremist Malcolm. How you view Malcolm is based on several factors and the same is true for how we are viewed as individuals
The version of us people see and remember is based on their personal experiences with us, where they are currently in their life, and what may fit their narrative. My brother and sister will see me differently than the kid I bullied in 3rd grade. My students will see me differently than a woman whose heart I broke. My former teammates may see me differently than the people at my church.
People will view me, you, and Brother Malcolm through whichever lens they choose and there is nothing we can do about it. Malcolm X will never be able to control which Malcom you see and I can’t either. There is a sense of peace that comes with that understanding.