Why Schools Should Use the Malcolm X Phenomenon

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Teenagers often express hostility to history lessons and dusty books. As Twain's Huck Finn put it, "I don't take no stock in dead people.'' What, then, explains the spread of X-caps and Malcolm T-shirts, the youthful enthusiasm for a man who died 27 years ago?

For Walter Dean Myers, the author of Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary (Scholastic, 1993, $13.95), a riveting biography for teenage readers, the answer is simple: Malcolm lives. Malcolm's defiant image, his goal of African-American self-determination, his teachings about drugs and self-destruction are as relevant today as when he delivered wake-up speeches on the corner of 125th Street in Harlem years ago.

Rap groups like Public Enemy, Ice-Cube, X-Clan, and Boogie Down Productions celebrate Malcolm in song and dance. But unlike the adulation for rock stars, this youthful respect for Malcolm is not a passing, or ignorant, fad. The rise of interest in Malcolm X reflects a quest, a yearning for new kinds of leadership, especially a desire for a drastic change in race relations.

Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary blends four phases of Malcolm's pulsing life into "one dynamic personality that is distinctively American in its character.'' There is Malcolm Little, an alert 8th-grade student, a class president whose childhood is shattered by teacher rejection and his father's death; there is Detroit Red, the blade-sharp teenager imprisoned for burglary; there is the self-taught disciple of the Nation of Islam, the voice of black independence; and there is El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, merging black empowerment and racial harmony into a single hope and vision.

Mr. Myers, who grew up in Harlem with parents too poor to send him to college, had, like Malcolm, a turbulent period in his youth that included gangs and trouble. No author of teenage books today may be better equipped to understand the disillusionment, the hopes, the pent-up power of urban youths. Many of his novels for young people speak to these topics. Scorpions, the story of a Harlem kid who acquires a gun, is a Newbery Honor Book. He has won the Coretta Scott King Author Award four times.

I always knew Walter Dean Myers had a lot to say to kids. In a recent interview, I learned he also has a lot to say to teachers. We talked together at length about the "X" phenomenon and the undeclared state of war in many schools:

ROCKWELL: Why did you decide to write a biography of Malcolm X?
MYERS: I was doing a book on African-American history (Now is Your Time, 1991), and I would discuss points in the book with kids in a writing workshop. We came to Malcolm X; they didn't know what X stood for. It was really a shame.
ROCKWELL: Why didn't they know?
MYERS: The kids are not taught. They are taught about the 60's relative to the mainstream civil-rights movement, that from that movement came Martin Luther King. Malcolm at best is mentioned as another civil-rights leader.

ROCKWELL: Why is there suddenly such an upsurge of interest in Malcolm X, especially among teenagers?
MYERS: For one thing, his image is not tarnished in their eyes. Dr. King's image seems, from this point of view, a very passive one for young people. Malcolm's is a strong image, and they need a strong person. In his day, Malcolm appealed to very young people who felt alienated from the mainstream.

Today, kids can hear Malcolm on the street corner. There is someone selling tapes on the streets. They can hear this man with his biting wit, his almost jeering message. It's a clear voice, and Malcolm spoke to alienated young people the way nobody else does. A teenage boy who might have been in some difficulty with the law can look at Malcolm's life and say, "Hey, Malcolm's been there. He was in jail. He knows what is going on in our lives." Even though it's 27 years later.
ROCKWELL: On the passive image of Martin Luther King. There's a tremendous amount of cultural information being passed on through television. The image of Dr. King, I feel, is a TV distortion. I remember one of Malcolm's anecdotes--I heard it on tape--about the power of distortion. He was sitting next to a lady on a plane. She noticed the "X" on his briefcase. After a few minutes, she asked meekly, "What does the X mean?" Malcolm explained the X. She remained quiet for a few minutes, then asked: "You're not Malcolm X are you?" She could not believe that this quiet-mannered, civil figure was Malcolm X. Malcolm was not what she was programmed to see. That anecdote could be applied to Dr. King in another way.
MYERS: "The Media" is TV, it's film, but it's also clothing. All of a sudden--and it's kind of funny to think of T-shirts as "media," but they are--kids can identify with Malcolm X. And the distance helps. They can wear an image of a black man on their shirts; they can wear the X and reclaim Malcolm.

What's been happening over the last two years is that Malcolm has been in the press. His tapes are being sold on the street corners. And once the movie started production a year and a half ago, it's been in the press.

ROCKWELL: There is a process of spontaneous education taking place outside established institutions, outside the schools.
MYERS: Yes, but I just hope--there's an old black spiritual that says, "Please don't let this harpist pass''--I just hope our educators can bring some critical-thinking skills to the idea of leadership, who Malcolm was.
ROCKWELL: How can librarians, teachers, those who work with young people, respond to the X movement? What can they do to broaden the education?
MYERS: They can relate X to other media, other parts of life. You remember what happened with [the television series] "Roots." You had black people running out to buy the book. We can do the same thing, using the Spike Lee movie. Kids want to know about Malcolm. When I talk to them about Malcolm, they are rapt, because this is one of their own. This is a wonderful chance.

ROCKWELL: I stood in a quarter-mile line in Oakland to see the film. There were senior citizens and 14-year-olds in the same line. There were African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, whites, everybody conversing together in one line. They came out with tears in their eyes.

Historical periods change when young people take initiative. You work closely with youths. What do you feel is happening? Is the dark period of the late 70's and 80's coming to an end? Is there a changing consciousness among young people?
MYERS: A couple of things are happening. The kids are much more interested in their past. They're trying to find a place for themselves in historical context. But at the same time they are running into enormous problems. You remember Toynbee's theory of history. People rise. They overcome obstacles. But the obstacles become too great. One of the things going on is that the youths have never had so much resistance to teaching black history.
ROCKWELL: There's a lot of resistance?
MYERS: A lot, because it's a challenge. It's a challenge to the power structure. ... We understand that there is a war going on. The kids understand that it's a war. But I hope a change in the Administration, some of [Clinton's] appointments, might signal a difference.

ROCKWELL: It is very hard in public schools for young people to get access to key materials on Malcolm X. As you noted, it is easier to acquire tapes of Malcolm's speeches on street corners than in record stores, bookstores, or libraries.
MYERS: And that surprises me. Those tapes are so important, because if you hear Malcolm speaking, it's a whole new ball game. If the teachers heard Malcolm, they would say: "Hey, wait a minute. This man is speaking very logically, very clearly, in good English." He spoke standard English, and he spoke extremely well. If they brought the tapes into the classroom and had discussions, I think you would get all the kids involved.

I was at a school in Denton, Tex. The kids were really tough kids, put out of the mainstream. I came in and talked about my books. Then I talked about Malcolm. And the kids, who were sitting there just sort of staring at the ceiling, suddenly came alive. They wanted to hear about Malcolm--black kids and white kids. I would tell them anecdotes, about the first time I ever saw him in Harlem. He would just speak to you in that quiet voice, that almost-mocking voice. The Denton kids responded. They asked questions. The teacher said later she was shocked at the sophisticated questions they asked. This is a great opportunity.

For teachers, librarians, or parents who want to respond to the challenge of teaching about Malcolm X, I recommend the following resources for young people:

There is no substitute for Malcolm's recorded speeches. "The Malcolm X Story" (seven speeches on three cassettes, including "Message to the Grass Roots," "The Ballot or the Bullet," "The Last Message") is the most exciting introduction to Malcolm available. The recordings are clear. Audience participation and the realization that we are listening to the words of a martyr give these tapes a sense of drama. They can be ordered from Sugar Hills Records, Englewood, N.J. "The Wisdom of Malcolm X," is a three-cassette set from Black Label, a company located in Collegedale, Tenn.

For teenagers, I recommend Mr. Myers's new biography, Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary. For elementary schools, Malcolm X, by Arnold Adoff (Harper-Trophy, $5.95) is a big-print, clear, and moving story. It's an excellent choice for grades 2-5. Malcolm X: A Force for Change, (Fawcett, $4.00) is a sympathetic story, full of anecdotes, by the children's author Nikk Grimes.

Please, don't let this harpist pass.

Vol. 12, Issue 21, Page 27

Published in Print: February 17, 1993, as Why Schools Should Use the Malcolm X Phenomenon
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