Malcolm X: Beyond Your Dorm Room Poster

The CAIR for New York Blog
Maryam Ramadan  |  February 14, 2013

On my first trip to New York, there was no doubt that Harlem was on the top of my list of places to visit.  Despite the Hollywood glorification of Times Square and all the touristic gluttony that defines downtown New York City, I identified New York as nothing more than the home of one of history's most influential human beings—Malclom X.

Upon arriving to New York I wanted to see, experience, and reflect on every trace of Malcolm’s legacy. I yearned for the connection to the person that books could not satisfy.

As a young girl who grew up in Europe, I was asked many times why I was so drawn to Malcolm X. But I always knew my connection to his life transcended geography, ethnicity, and time. My connection to Malcolm X was a spiritual journey of my own evolution as a person, through his evolution as an icon.

While many Americans are familiar with the story of Malcolm Little’s transformation to Malcolm X, very few are familiar with the story of Malcolm X's transformation to Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Unfortunately college dorm room posters and T-shirts purchased on street corners glorify the pop icon of Malcolm X, and do little to enlighten us to the entire legacy of Al-Hajj Malik El- Shabazz.

When speaking about Malcolm X, Americans are usually referring to the man who converted to Islam in prison and the spokesperson for the Nation of Islam. A radical activist in contrast to the peaceful Martin Luther King of the American civil rights movement.  While King has his name and image memorialized across America, Malcolm is often limited to pop culture images such as pointing his finger while yelling at a microphone, standing behind a window with an assault rifle, ...or even Denzel Washington.  

But it was Malcolm’s religious pilgrimage to Mecca -not his imprisonment- that transformed his vision of the Muslim Umma (community) in a way that would ultimately influence my own understanding of Islam. While in Mecca, Malcolm was amazed by the diversity of the global Muslim community. His experiences forced him to rethink his earlier positions with regards to race relations in America, and he began to put greater thought and reflection on faith, rather than skin color. This transformation also entailed his name change to Malik El-Shabazz.

“I saw all races, all colors, blue eyed blonds to black skinned Africans in true brotherhood! In unity! Living as one! Worshiping as one! No segregationists, no liberals; they would not have known how to interpret the meaning of those words” Malcolm X

After his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964—12 years after he began preaching about Islam and less than a year before his assassination—Malcolm X visited Europe and met people who would change his understanding of Islam, and his future as an activist. He would also visit more than fourteen African nations within five months as he tried to build the connections of an international movement. In this time he created the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU)—a pan-African movement designed to unite people of African origin in the Western hemisphere with the African continent.

Malcolm’s vision and beliefs were no longer isolated to “Black and White.” He did not abandon his activism nor temper his demand for respecting the human rights of Black Americans, but he enhanced them by focusing on building bridges across the world between various communities. 

That was the Malcolm X that was assassinated in Harlem in 1965. The Malcolm X that wanted to combat racism against anyone, with everyone. The Malcolm X that elevated America’s understanding of Islam. The Malcolm X that elevated my understanding of Islam. 

As chilling as the scene of his assassination may have been, I hope people would consider visiting that scene today in honor of his legacy. Visiting the Audubon ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated has been somewhat of a pilgrimage for me. The ballroom, which is now part of the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, continues to promote the message that Malcolm was conveying up to the moment of his assassination.

This year, on February 21, 2013—the anniversary of Malcolm X’s martyrdom—I plan to spend the day at the Audubon ballroom where guest speakers will reflect on the transformations Malcolm X experienced just before his death. The featured speaker, Professor Tariq Ramadan, will share the experiences he understood from his father who was a friend and spiritual guide to Malcolm X in his final years. I look forward to learning about the Malcolm he knew. The Malcolm his father mentored. The Malcolm that transcends civil rights. The Malcolm that transcends American pop culture. The Malcolm that transcends a college dorm room poster.  

Maryam is the Outreach and Event Specialist at CAIR-New York. She received a Masters in Gender Studies from the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and she recently developed a presentation titled "Why all Muslims Should be Feminists."