Commentary: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama

Al-Qaeda's No. 2 man sought to stir the pot recently, releasing a video in which he compared President-elect Barack Obama unfavorably to a certain icon of American black nationalism. "You represent the direct opposite of honorable black Americans like Malik al-Shabazz, or Malcolm X (may Allah have mercy on him)," said Ayman al-Zawahri. The turbaned eminence also labeled Obama a "house negro."

Perhaps Allah will have mercy on you, Ayman. You're gonna need it. But since this poster boy of Islamic terrorism has brought the subject up, it's worth considering how Islam transformed the person we know as Malcolm X, and what that may have to do with the man we will know as the 44th president of the United States. It's safe to say that Malcolm X would have been revolted at the twisting of Islam that is al-Qaeda. Oh, sure, some of his more quotable lines feature "blue-eyed devils" (i.e., white folks), "chickens coming home to roost" and, yes, house negroes. But he later abandoned that fiery rhetoric. And it was his trip to Mecca to make his hajj that began his understanding of Islam as a religion not of division, but one that was global and multiracial, as James H. Cone, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and an expert on Malcolm X, has written.

Consider this Malcolm X quote after he returned from Mecca: "I am against every form of racism and segregation, every form of discrimination. I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color." So much for hatred and separatism.

At the time, Malcolm X had split from the Nation of Islam, and had spent most of what became the last year of his life traveling and living in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The exposure to different viewpoints and to Muslims of all races and nationalities had a profound effect.

One of the more interesting aspects of Malcolm X's identity, given the evolution of his ideas on race, was his own biracial background. He was once known as "Red" because of his red hair. He believed his hair color and light skin were the result of the rape of his grandmother. It was a source of consternation and self-identity issues for Malcolm X.

It is to Malcolm X's credit, however, that he rose away from the very type of hatred Zawahri wishes to incite.

He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Neb. The Ku Klux Klan chased the Little family from Omaha, and white supremacists burned the family's next house in Michigan, according to Cone's book, "Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare." These early experiences stoked his hatred of white people. But it was the Islamic faith that he adopted later in life that helped reshape these feelings.

If he were open to knowledge instead of false ideology, Zawahri could also learn a thing or two from the life of Malcom X's widow as well. I met Betty Shabazz in 1995. She was eloquent, endearing in her manner.

And, she expressed the exact opposite of the sentiments that Zawahri assumes of her husband.

"America is a great country," said Shabazz, then an administrator at Medgar Evers College in New York. "We are the richest country in the world. The brain power here is tremendous, but it should be reinvested into the country." She also touched on prejudice in America. "It's incredible that we should go into the next millennium with our race issues," Shabazz said.

"God must be a little upset with his creation that we can't get along together." Shabazz died two years later in a fire that tragically had been set by her grandson. So we are left to wonder what she would say to the election of Barack Obama to the nation's highest office. Here, too, is a man with a biracial background who in his youth struggled with the question of where he fit in America. Here, too, is a man who made full use of his powers of intellect, his moral faculties and his determination to change his country for the better.

Malcolm X died in 1965, when Obama was a child. This nation is far from perfect. But the massive changes that have occurred since – not the least of which is the election of our first black president – are undeniable. And no amount of dribble by the likes of Zawahri will turn that progress back.


Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez@kcstar.com.