While the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is easily grasped and justly celebrated, Malcolm X remains more relevant 50 years after his assassination and his impact is greater than that of the Nobel Laureate, argues University of Toronto English professor and City of Toronto poet laureate, Dr. George Elliott Clarke.
One of the most influential Black Americans, Malcolm X was killed on February 21, 1965, shortly after renouncing the Nation of Islam, with which he had grown disillusioned.
He was 39 at the time of his death.
“The effect of his rhetorical devices was eventually to transform ‘Negroes’ and ‘Coloureds’, as I was called as a boy in 1960s Nova Scotia, into Blacks and Afro-Americans and thus African-Americans and African-Canadians,” said Dr. Clarke at a public lecture at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus last week. “Not only did X’s teaching and preaching catalyze a radical shift in Black consciousness and self-image, but it inspired the Black Power Movements in the 1960s that brought an expansion of Africana and Black Studies programs in Canada and the United States.
“X remains most vital for his insistence that the oppressed, whatever their background, practice ‘political maturity’ and undertake political analyses resulting in actions reflecting enlightened self-interest, not sentimental folderol.”
A former parliamentary assistant to retired politician and university professor, Dr. Howard McCurdy, the bespectacled Clarke was an admirer of the civil rights leader, who was a passionate advocate of Black unity, self-respect and self-reliance.
“He was a public speaker who wore Buddy Holly and Dilton Digby-like spectacles,” said Clarke. “But as a boy myself bedevilled by the other n-word – nerd – and wanting to feel cool and respected in my own limited roles as community activist, agitator, spokesperson etc. in Nova Scotia, it was great to have X’s stylish example validating the idea of a Black intellectual.”
Clarke, who is also a poet, playwright and literary critic, is concerned Malcom X is not celebrated in the same way as King and that very little attention was given to the 50th anniversary of his death.
“I happened to be in Quebec on the weekend of the anniversary of his death and there was a discussion in French about X’s legacy on the front page of Le Devoir,” said Clarke. “It’s interesting to note that the leading paper in French Canada bothered to have a front page analysis of the importance of Malcolm X while the Globe & Mail, which arguably is the leading paper of English Canada, ignored it completely. I think the reason is because he’s still viewed as a villainous demagogue, homophobic, sexist etc., etc. and therefore he does not need to be remembered.”
Malcolm X’s mother – Louise Little, who was a long-time member of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association – was born in Grenada.