From Detroit Red to Malcolm X

Lessons from his instructive life occupied Penumbra’s ‘Talk’

Keith Mayes
Keith Mayes

Malcolm X’s legacy — over 50 years after his tragic death in 1965 — is still not fully understood by either Blacks or Whites.

“Each of us has been touched by Malcolm’s life,” noted Penumbra Theatre Co-Artistic Director Sarah Bellamy on the late civil rights leader who “became a beloved symbol of Black power, self-determination and self-love,” reading from the event program as she opened the February 15 installment of the theater’s monthly “Let’s Talk” series.

Although they seemed polar opposites, both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted the same thing: the eradication of Black oppression in America. Bellamy told the mixed-generation audience that the former would have been held in more esteem if he hadn’t been a Muslim.

She later explained to the MSR, “People definitely at that time period saw them as polar opposites. It was not right to cast them that way, but in the end of their lives, both of them arrived at a place that actually was much more similar than dissimilar. Martin Luther King became more ‘radical’ and Malcolm X in some ways became more open.”

“They were the same age [39] when they died,” noted AsaleSol Young, the Sankofa Underground North Academy founder and executive director. She, History Professor Emeritus Mahmoud El-Kati, and University of Minnesota African American and African Studies Professor and Chair Keith Mayes also appeared with Bellamy and discussed the man who was assassinated in 1965.

Malcolm X challenged Black people, said El-Kati. El-Kati and his “three good buddies” heard Malcolm speak in Cleveland in February 1963. “I just missed him on 125th Street and 7th Avenue [in New York City]” a few years earlier. “I didn’t run into him until [his scheduled appearance in] Cleveland. Most of the crowd was non-Muslim, young progressives, café intellectuals…and ministers from the traditional Black church.”

(l-r) AsaleSol Young and Luz Maria Frias
(l-r) AsaleSol Young and Luz Maria Frias

The retired professor said he “politely” disagreed with Malcolm on something he said about religion. “He had a winning smile,” said El-Kati on how he responded to his question.

“Malcolm X was at the center of Black political thought… [He] was just as critical on Black America as he was on White America,” noted Mayes, who admitted that he originally wanted to be a civil engineer but changed course after he discovered Malcolm’s works.

“I purchased [The Autobiography of Malcolm X] on the street and read the book. I couldn’t put it down. I read it over and over again. I bought [his speeches] on cassette tape. This set me up for what I ultimately want to do; I wanted to be like him.”

Young, whose North Minneapolis charter school will open in August, said, “He talked about [the] need to have a Black revolution. I think he would say we are not brave enough…”

This includes President Barack Obama, said Mayes. “He is not above reproach and [should] be held accountable,” Mayes said of Obama.

“He’s still a breath of fresh air” despite his failings to meet Black America’s expectations, added El-Kati on Obama. “The odds were against him to do things for Black people and people of color” once he was elected.

When an audience member asked what part of Malcolm X’s philosophy America needs today, Young responded, “Courage. Never be afraid to speak your truth, no matter how old you get.”

El-Kati added, “Moral courage is what this country lacks.”

Mayes afterwards told the MSR that the present generation “can take a lesson out of [Malcolm’s] earlier life as Detroit Red. Before he went to jail, he was involved in prostitution, number running, and all kinds of stuff that young folk would get caught up in today. He claimed that as part of his identity — didn’t celebrate it or lionize it, or view it as some kind of street cred. He transformed himself into a new man.

“I would say that maybe it’s not good for young people to start with Minister Malcolm X but [rather] with Detroit Red, and maybe that resonates with them.”

“I want people to remember that Malcolm really wanted us to believe in each other as people of color. I think it is really important in this moment of our history that we learn to be self-reliant,” stated Young.

“His life is a life worth studying,” said El-Kati. “He learned from his mistakes. Malcolm X lived an instructive life that we can learn from.”

“Coming here, I wanted to learn more, especially about Malcolm X,” said Michael Bryant, age 19, of St. Michael, Minnesota afterwards.

“One thing we can’t do in an hour and a half is demonstrate the complexities of his thoughts and the expansiveness of his vision,”’ said Bellamy. “He was in many ways very prophetic on what we are dealing with today. I hope people have a renewed interest in him and his work. We could continue this for a very long time.”


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