The Duke Islamic Studies Center commemorates the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination this week with the conference “The Legacy of Malcolm X: Afro-American Visionary, Muslim Activist.” When I received the invitation to participate, I had just completed my new book Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam. There was no question: I would present the ways in which women have carried Malcolm X’s legacy.
Without doubt, his greatest impact on women comes through his autobiography which led thousands to embrace Islam. But also it deepened the faith of women of my generation, who were born Muslim. When I read the autobiography in high school, I wished for the entire world to read it, to know the depth of racism and African American struggle, and to know that Islam was brought to African Americans immediately as a religion of race liberation, and ultimately as a healing and a mercy to all humanity.
As a scholar, however, always looking for a new insight, I wanted to expand beyond the autobiography and provide other ways to celebrate and build upon Malcolm’s legacy. The Muhammad Speaks newspaper immediately came to mind.
Malcolm X started the Muhammad Speaks newspaper in Harlem in 1960. The newspaper was a stunning success and contributed immensely to the legacy of the black press and the popularity of the NOI. C. Eric Lincoln called it “by far the most widely read paper in the black community.” In the eyes of the African American masses, the Nation of Islam was the image of black men selling Muhammad Speaks newspapers on urban street corners.
As Ana Karim, the first female editor of Muhammad Speaks, stated,
“The militant, commanding FOI, Fruit of Islam, the brothers in the beautiful blue suits with the red insignias, the star and crescent, they were the dominant force of our community in terms of visibility. The sisters in the white silk-like scarves and uniforms, we were somewhat in the background, but the men were dominating.”
Today, Muslim women are no longer in the background but in the forefront. They have claimed Malcolm X’s legacy to use our own press to present images of Islam and Muslims. Ayesha K. Mustafaa has been the editor of the Muslim Journal, the contemporary version of Muhammad Speaks, since 1988. But this position came with struggle. During the transition to women’s leadership under the guidance of Imam W.D. Mohammed, women faced opposition from some male leaders. The Muhammad Speaks legacy served as a platform for women’s resistance and leadership, starting with Ana Karim.
|Support the legacy. Live the legacy.|
Given the violence and trials of our time, the late peace advocate Tayyibah Taylor and her creation Azizah magazine most notably represent Muslim women’s inheriting Malcolm X’s legacy, the legacy of an alternative press. While researching Malcolm X and Muhammad Speaks, I discovered that the legacy of the African American press is the legacy of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X. Malcolm X once stated, “The Negro press is our only medium for voicing the true plight of our oppressed people in the world.” He also stated, “If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
Standing on the legacy of the black press, Malcolm X unrelentingly condemned the dominant media as a vehicle of racial hatred and violence. It inflicted the worst form of hate upon African Americans: self hate. Malcolm X stated,
“The Black man in the Western Hemisphere . . . is the best example of how one can be made, skillfully, to hate himself. . . . And I say that this is a very serious problem, because all of it stems from what the Western powers do to the image of the African continent and the African people. By making our people in the Western Hemisphere hate Africa, . . . they have taught us to hate ourselves. To hate our skin, hate our hair, hate our features, hate our blood, hate what we are.”
Khuram Hussain, an expert on the radical black press, gets to the heart of why Malcolm X’s legacy matters today:
“Ultimately Malcolm X understood that undemocratically controlled, highly centralized media needed to be directly challenged. He, and the paper he started, sustained a relentless pursuit of dominant media narratives, identifying its collusions with state and corporate power and shedding light on the silenced aspirations of millions. In turn, this aspect of Malcolm’s legacy, may hold important insight for those who seek to speak the truth of the powerless, to the powerful.”
Mourning the savage killing of the beloved Muslim students in Chapel Hill--Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu Salha--I grasped most clearly the link between Malcolm X’s and Tayyibah Taylor’s legacies: challenging the prejudice and hate fostered by mainstream media. In an interview with altMuslimah, Tayyibah described the inspiration behind creating Azizah magazine:
“When I was about 12, I remember picking up a copy of Ebony magazine, and seeing people of color in positions of leadership, contributing to society. And I had a bit of an epiphany in terms of validation of self, of being, of black culture.”
Later when she embraced Islam, she similarly understood that the dominant media’s portrayal of Muslim women was a gross misrepresentation and that we needed our own Ebony.
As Malcolm X fought the mainstream media’s depiction of Africa and black people all over the world, Tayyibah fought against the dominant media’s portrayal of Muslim women as oppressed and silenced. She fought against the exploitation of the covered woman in hijab, used as a sign of Islam’s backwardness and threat to the West. She fought against the inescapable effect of this false image of Islam and Muslim women: self hate and external hate. She fought against the hate and violence inflicted upon Deah, Yusor, Razan, and their families and communities.
Tayyibah knew the truth, and as Malcolm X understood, the truth that we must portray in our own press because we live and experience it intimately. The truth that we must portray in our own press because we resist the structures that work to maintain the privilege of the powerful at the cost of those imagined voiceless. But through our voices, Tayyibah’s legacy continues, Malcolm X’s legacy continues, as do the legacies of Deah, Yusor, and Razan.
"Never consider those killed in the cause of God to be dead. Indeed they are alive, being sustained by their Lord. They are delighted with what their Lord gives them from His bounty. They rejoice for the sake of those coming after them who have not yet joined them, that no fear shall overcome them, nor shall they grieve." (Qur'an 3:169-170)
Note: This post is also dedicated to Kayla Mueller, who also joined the martyrs in this month that we remember Malcolm X.