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Malcolm Misunderstood

Episode Summary

“Why am I as I am? To understand that of any person, his whole life, from birth must be reviewed. All of our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that ever happened to us is an ingredient.”

In this first episode of Make It Plain, our hosts Taelor Gray and Phillip Holmes introduce us to Malcolm X, including how they came to understand who Malcolm is and why we misunderstand Malcolm X. Taelor grew up seeing Malcolm as a formative figure in his life who was unapologetically himself; Phillip, however, had an unfavorable view of who Malcolm was until later in life. Taking us into the heart of this episode and calling back to the quote above, Phillip says he learned that you “can’t understand someone as complex as Malcolm from a hot take or descriptions that are not his own.” Phillip suggests that those who wish to understand Malcolm should start with reading Malcolm X’s autobiography to get a good sense of who Malcolm was in his own words.

Malcolm had a keen understanding already in his life of how he was perceived by white culture at large. Malcolm predicted that he would be used as a symbol of hate. And this is what has happened. Where Dr. Martin Luther King is often held up and lionized as a loving, peaceful leader, Malcolm is often a foil to Dr. King. Malcolm is vilified and talked about as a man advocating violence, even though he and Dr. King were more similar in their views, especially later in their lives.

This negative perception of Malcolm X shows that people have not engaged with Malcolm’s writing or thinking. This lack of engagement with Malcolm leads to fear and misunderstanding. Taelor and Phillip point out that what people dislike about Malcolm is the accuracy with which Malcolm can diagnose a problem and give biting critiques.

The church, in particular, has a negative perception of Malcolm primarily due to Malcolm’s accurate critiques of the church. Malcolm grew up in the church, the son of a pastor, and spent time among white churches in the North. He saw how the white church, as an institution, was weaponized against Black people to uphold their oppression and the status quo for white culture.

Phillip and Taelor discuss Malcolm’s understanding of how the church is co-opted to keep people oppressed, but they also point out that Malcolm did not rightly understand Christianity. Christianity, as found in the person of Jesus Christ, is freedom for those under oppression. Malcolm’s critiques of the church are not accurate critiques of the person or gospel of Jesus Christ.

Phillip and Taelor also spend time in this episode talking about how the Black community perceives Malcolm X. Taelor says that Malcolm is a beloved figure in the Black community. Still, Phillip points out that that love is regional. Just like in Malcolm’s life, there is a discrepancy between how Black people in the North and Black people in the South view Malcolm X. This, Taelor and Phillip point out, has to do with the differences in the North and the South. Phillip points out that the South, predominantly Christian in terms of religion, is less diverse religiously than the North. Since Malcolm was a member of the Nation of Islam, his words do not carry much weight with Black Christians in the South.

Malcolm X was also fighting a different battle during his life than Black men and women in the South were. Malcolm could already go into white spaces in the North that Black people in the South were barred from entering due to segregation. The South, by and large, was behind where the North was, even though neither region was perfect. These regional differences affected how Malcolm X was perceived, especially when compared with Dr. King. Both men were fighting the same war for the equality of Black men, women, and children in America, but they had different battles. Dr.  King was arguing against segregation and things that were plain to the eye. Malcolm X had systemic arguments that still sound relevant today.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it essential to read Malcolm X in his words when trying to understand him as a person, an activist, and a thinker?
  2. How are Malcolm X’s critiques of culture helpful to those he is critiquing?
  3. Why is Malcolm X seen as such a violent and hateful man, especially when compared with Dr. King?
  4. How does locating Malcolm X in the context of the North, instead of the South, help us to understand what he was fighting and arguing for?

Phillip Holmes: Welcome to Make it Plain where we offer Christian reflections on the words and life of Malcolm X. I’m Phillip Holmes.

Taelor Gray: And I’m Taelor Gray.

Holmes: So, Taelor, I thought that it would be helpful for us to open up this podcast to talk a little bit about our experience with Malcolm. Talk to me a little bit about how you were introduced to Malcolm, and what he’s meant to you as a Christian thinker.

Gray: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, man. Malcolm has been in my life for a while, just as an influence; as a presence. And if I were to just condense it to a particular point in my life where it first started to click for me, is the age of nine years old. I was raised in the church—a black church—was kind of engulfed in what could be considered black culture at the time. And every now and then, my parents would just—we were growing up—and at nine years old we found ourselves just kind of hanging out together, and my mom popped in a tape of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington. And this would obviously eventually become an iconic role for Denzel, but for me, it was really, really formative. It was a movie that kind of captured my attention and, I mean, you know the running time is over three hours, but it held my attention. It was something that was really, really impactful for me, so, you know, I guess I’ll give you the superficial reason as to why.

And that’s just because I was a young, black kid and I was (laughs) a person who was wearing glasses. And that may not mean a whole lot to a lot of you guys, but there was a time where wearing glasses as a young child was not seen as fashionable, wasn’t seen as something that was socially as an accessory of fashion in society. I was a straight-up nerd. I was into comic books and all that stuff, so I just came with the whole nerd costume. But as a young dude who wore glasses and was pretty self-conscious about that, I saw Malcolm X, with his signature glasses, and it made me look at him differently. Ultimately look at myself differently. Here’s this bold, black man who had stature and impact in his community; in society, ultimately. And it gave me a sense of pride. Made me feel like somebody. It made me rethink whatever visual presentation I had out there, either to my classmates or to the world in general. And Malcolm X—bold, courageous black man who wore his glasses proudly. And he was probably just as blind as I am. So it made me feel good to see that kind of an image.

That image impacted me very early on. And there were a number of other things that impacted me, but I feel like I want to start there. As a young kid, nine years old, seeing that kind of an example in front of me. That was impactful, and it opened up a whole other world of education and influence that he would eventually begin to shape in me throughout the rest of my—that’s me, man. But what about you, Phil? What kinds of things intrigued you or when were you first intrigued by Malcolm X?

Holmes: Yeah, man. I was introduced to Malcolm X a lot later in life. As a matter of fact…you know, I grew up hearing about Malcolm, but I never actually studied or read his own words. You get excerpts here and there. You get interviews here and there. You can’t really comment—or really understand—someone as complex as Malcolm X from some particular hot take, or from descriptions of him that are not based on his own words, but are based upon caricatures. And that was my experience with Malcolm.

So the first time I heard somebody speak of Malcolm positively, it was actually my wife. The first time that I can remember—somebody that I respected, somebody that I knew was a Christian and all that. And she was—she had a Malcolm X poster in her room. So that was the first time I was like, huh. I guess there’s things I don’t know about Malcolm. But never really was curious to learn more at that particular point. I think you were one of the other—probably the second person that I can remember, that I actually respected, that was a believer that said, Malcolm was different, man. And you gave me your perception. I remember we were doing an Instagram live video maybe…I don’t know if it was six months ago.

Gray: Yeah, it wasn’t that long.

Holmes: It wasn’t that long ago, though. You were just like, Brother, so what do you think about Malcolm? And I was like, I can’t speak on Malcolm. Because I knew…you know, if you had called me in a different season in life, I would have probably gave you some caricatures and all that. But number one, it had become clear to me at that point that I did not know who Malcolm was. And I had enough maturity to read the room and say, all right, if I start spouting out these caricatures about Malcolm X, I’m about to get embarrassed.

Gray: And I got to give you props for that, bro. Because you definitely took a step back instead of going right in with the caricatures.

Holmes: Yeah. So what I did was—I think it was after that moment, where I was like, I need to pick up this dude’s biography. And I think the Laurence Fishburne one had just come out. And that’s my dude. So I was like, this is gonna be good. So I started listening to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I got schooled. I learned a lot about his childhood. I learned a lot about how he came to the Nation of Islam. And I had watched the movie, right?

Gray: Sure. Sure.

Holmes: With Denzel and all that, but movies…you can’t really do the guy justice. I became obsessed with him because I saw a guy—especially during the later years of his life—that evolved. When you begin to see the evolution of his life right before he passed away, you’re just like, this man has been done an injustice.

Gray: Yeah. Yeah.

Holmes: And he predicted that much in his book. How he would be perceived. He would be used as a symbol for hatred. I became obsessed with him. So after that, I read two other biographies. The name of that particular one was called Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Because there were some particular parts that he brings out, and I’m going to tempt you to go ahead and read it because I still think it would be helpful. But there were some particular parts that he points out that are not necessarily flattering parts—

Gray: Sure. Sure.

Holmes: —of Malcolm.

Gray: He’s a human being (laughs).

Holmes: Yeah. He’s a human being. So, I—but his…because it doesn’t matter to me one way or another whether or not it happened—but it was interesting because it was more so based on gossip, not based on definitive proof. Which is what a lot of people essentially critiqued about it. The other one, though, that I read is more recent. It’s called The Dead are Arising: The Biography of Malcolm X. And actually that one came out in 2020. It was written by someone who had more admiration, although, he was still very—I thought that he was still very thorough. I thought that the author did a good job in covering everything.  But then, he didn’t leave out—he didn’t keep in the stuff that couldn’t be proved definitively. Which I thought was fair.

Gray: So what I love about what you just articulated there…and, of course, the journey starts with The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Or I would say—

Holmes: Yeah, I think you gotta start there. You gotta hear a man in his own words, and then—

Gray: Yeah, I think that’s what’s really dope is—okay, so you say you’re later in life before you discover who Malcolm X is. But you have done what many people have—would not do—in that, you are going to read the autobiography—source material—first. But then you’re going to read critiques; you’re going to read wide-ranging perspective before you start to engage in a broader conversation about who he is and his effect on our society.

Holmes: Yeah, because I felt like…listen, man, if I tell you about my life, as honest as I would like to be about every single detail, there are a few things that are gonna be—that are just realities.

Gray: Yep.

Holmes: I’m gonna forget some stuff…

Gray: Yep.

Holmes: …I’m gonna intentionally forget some stuff, right?

(Laughter)

Holmes: Because there’s some things that…sometimes…I think some things you probably need to learn about people after they die.

Gray: Yeah. Yeah.

Holmes: I think it takes a bold individual to be able to be even as explicit and as honest as he was. But autobiography is a life based on one’s perception of who they are.

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: Right? And their perception of events. And you would think that an autobiography would be the utmost authority that could not be argued with, but we all have to recognize that our perception of ourselves isn’t as nuanced as we would like to think.

Gray: I mean, that’s social media, man.

Holmes: Yep.

Gray: We don’t tell our full story if we have control.

Holmes: Yeah.

Gray: We’ll filter what we decide to filter, and we’re not going to give the full, unfiltered or naked view of who we are.

Holmes: Yep. Yep. So I thought that it would be helpful—I was kind of excited because I knew that I was reading two different biographies on top of his autobiography that would be probably more affirming of Malcolm. And one was going to lean toward a more critical view of Malcolm.

Gray: Yep.

Holmes: To be honest, I still feel like those two descriptions are extremes. Because one was just a little bit more willing to say the stuff that others might not necessarily be willing to say, but… And the other one obviously had admiration. So even—but I think that’s helpful to point out—even though both books were written by scholars, both of them biases are going to be presented. So then you take Malcolm’s perception of himself.

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: You take the more affirming biographer, and you take the more critical biographer, and you come to your conclusion—

Gray: That’s it.

Holmes: —of who the guy actually was. And I still walked away after all three biographies respecting Malcolm X way more than I did when I didn’t know anything about him.

Gray: Yeah, man, and listen, again—later in life—you have the opportunity to engage with Malcolm X with a ton of perspectives and belief systems in tow. The things that make you who you are have already started to develop into a mature adulthood. And then with that adulthood, you take a nuanced approach about learning about Malcolm X.

Holmes: Right.

Gray: You take a nuanced approach in learning about Malcolm X. And I think that’s really healthy and cool. And for people on both sides of the train, like those who find some level of support, or identify with supporting Malcolm X and putting him on a pedestal, those who would lionize Malcolm X, and then those who would demonize Malcolm X—those two people still, in my opinion, should take the same approach. Make sure that you get the full scope, or at least as much as you can in understanding who a person is by—if you can—reading their own words—

Holmes: Yep.

Gray: And then also exploring critiques and affirmations. So, that’s where I land with the whole thing. I started off talking about this dude had glasses on, and that drew me in, and I’m a little kid. But over time, as I’m starting to understand more about who this guy is, rather than just squarely staying in the lionize camp, or drifting over to the demonize camp, I think I find myself now on the humanize camp.

Holmes: Yeah. No, that’s a really good—dude. That’s a really good way to say it. Because I think sometimes if you have too much admiration for a person—or I won’t say even too much. I would say more admiration than your average Joe. People accuse you of lionizing the person.

Gray: Yep. I think, based on how you just described your journey in learning about Malcolm X, versus how our society typically doesn’t do the work to understand the whole of a person. I did want to ask you: what do you think this country’s perception of Malcolm X is today?

Holmes: Yeah, man. That’s a good question. Well, the interesting part is that I started reading Malcolm in the middle of 2020, during the pandemic, and during a lot of the social unrest as it relates to race in America.

Gray: Yeah, because we’re not going to talk about it right now, but we’re going to eventually get to the point where you probably have experienced first-hand the demonizing versus the lionizing. People have a perception of you. And 2020 was a crazy year to start processing all of this stuff in light of what we’re going through in a country as we’re going—you know, we’re both black men. We’re going through certain things. So, yeah, that’s such—I just can’t let that go by quickly. You start processing this in 2020.

Holmes: Yeah, I started processing this in 2020. And there are those people who would say, come on, bro, you’re late to the game. You should—

Gray: That’s true.

Holmes: —You’re just waking up. You’ve been asleep. Right?

Gray: Yeah. Yeah.

Holmes: And then, there are other individuals who, due to their perceptions of Malcolm X, are essentially ready to excommunicate me—whatever word you want to use. And we’ll talk about both of those individuals at some point.

Gray: Well, it’s driven how people perceive Malcolm X.

Holmes: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. You’re right. One hundred percent. So, you got the guy who is saying, seriously? You’re just reading Malcolm X? Like, good for you. Pat on the back. Like, what you want? A cookie? 

(Gray laughs)

Holmes: Right? And then you got the other guy who’s saying, why are you quoting Malcolm X favorably, bro? We’re like, we need solutions. I’ll start the latter. Well, to the first one, I’ll just say: that perception alone—that arrogance alone that you have—shows that you haven’t read Malcolm X either.

Gray: Straight up.

Holmes: So, I’m—we’ll talk about that at some point later. Maybe even another episode. But the other person, who has a more negative perception of Malcolm is saying, hey, we need solutions, right? Malcolm was clearly one of the problems, right? He didn’t help the civil rights movement. What about Dr. King? We gotta have a whole episode where we contrast those two individuals, because—

Gray: Man.

Holmes: —I’ve—as I’ve been learning more about King, post-the Civil Rights Act—that brother was channeling some Malcolm, in a sense. Not in the sense of moving away from non-violence, but I think King was beginning to see the depravity of America in similar ways that Malcolm did.

Gray: Yeah. The system of America.

Holmes: Yep.

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: Yep. So, Malcolm says this. Well, let’s go—real quick—to that person who has a negative view. Especially when they want solutions. You can not get solutions if we’ve misdiagnosed the problem.

Gray: That’s good. Yep. That’s a fact.

Holmes: Right? And if you actually want a true solution—not a comfortable one, right? Because here’s the—at the end of the day—if the doctor comes back to you and tells you that the diagnosis is simply a common cold. You’ve been sick, or hey, you got the flu, man. But other than that you’re good. We’re gonna get you some medicine. You’re gonna feel better. Right? And sends you home. And you actually have, I don’t know, HIV, right?

Gray: Yeah. Sure.

Holmes: Or a terminal illness.

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: What’s going to happen?

Gray: I like that illustration. I like—

Holmes: Yeah, that works, right? Low immune system. I’m just trying to—

(Gray laughs)

Holmes: —off the top of my head. But what happens, right? He may give you some medicine that even may—you know, I’m not a doctor, but it might make you feel better temporarily.

Gray: Yep.

Holmes: It might make you comfortable. But he’s sending you home to die.

Gray: Yeah. Yeah.

Holmes: Right? If you think that—if you just keep drinking cough medicine, right? If he actually says, listen, you have a cold. You have the flu, but the reason why you’re so susceptible to that is because your immune system is under attack. And the only way that we’re going to fix that—and this is some new world, right, where we actually have—there’s a cure out there somewhere. Magic Johnson knows about it.

(Gray laughs)

Holmes: And the rest of—

Gray: It’s a cocktail.

Holmes: The rest of the people are trying to figure it out. But, you know, in a world where a solution exists, this is what we’re going to do. But even in a world where we can’t make it right—and I think that’s probably closest to the reality. To the analogy. When you come to this particular issue, he says, hey, these are some things that you’re gonna have to do. You’re gonna live a long life, but you’re gonna have to make some sacrifices.

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: And you’re gonna have to do some things that most aren’t gonna do. But for the most part, we’re gonna try to make it as normal as we possibly can. We’re gonna try to make you as comfortable as we possibly can. But this is your real diagnosis. Which one would you prefer?

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: Would you prefer the doctor that tells you you’ve got the flu? Go home. Take some medicine, and when the symptoms come back, just keep drinking that cough medicine? Right?

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: Or, would you prefer a doctor who says, hey, I’ve got some hard news for you. It’s HIV. Here’s how we’re going to treat it.

Gray: Yeah. Yeah. And I would even name our terminal illness, or our very debilitating diseases in the vein of racism, social inequity, oppression, injustice… And, as it relates to how Malcolm X spoke about these things, the perception people took away in our country from the information and even the stances that he took personally; morally—they looked at him as more of, I would say, in a kind way could be an antihero.

Holmes: Yeah.

Gray: But in the worst way, could be a terrorist.

Holmes: Yeah.

Gray: And that’s, I think, kind of a general way that Malcolm X was perceived in this country. And the history books, he was a very small footnote in my upbringing. Learning American history. He was named, but he wasn’t emphasized. And even as he was named, he was named as a cautionary tale, almost to a certain extent. So, it would not have been easy to see him within the full spectrum of complexity that you’re describing in this country if you were just going through general education about who he was as a figure in history. So, in this country, I think he’s either antihero or terrorist as a general presentation.

I mean, man, watching videos on YouTube where he was interviewed by others—a lot of times the interviewers would start out by asking him why does he preach hate? And then he’d have to spend at least the first portion of the interview explaining what he’s actually talking about. Instead of taking on the weight of causing other people to be uncomfortable, beginning to take the pressure and put it on the interviewer and say, well, do you know what we’re experiencing? I’m responding to the conditions that we’re actually in. And through the course of the conversation, gradually, in most cases, there’s understanding gained. In Malcolm speaking to what he’s actually saying, and why he’s actually saying it. Now that doesn’t mean that you agree with everything, but from a perception standpoint, if you’re not listening to those interviews, if you’re not reading his words, then you’re left with I would say the mainstream response to Malcolm X, which is fear. And ultimately exclusion from any real, important movement that the united states has experienced.

Holmes: Yeah. Yeah.

Gray: That’s the country, man. I think what you described is in the diagnosis element of it, that’s that extra step stuff that, man. If you’ve got HIV and you’re taking Ibuprofen, then I’m not really sure how far we’re going to get in understanding what we need to do to experience healing. So, the country. What about the church, man? What do you think the church—how does the church view Malcolm X? And I know that’s super complicated (laughs).

Holmes: Yeah, I mean, which part of the church, right?

Gray: I know, right?

Holmes: Are we talking about white Christendom, or are we talking about the black church? I think that most people, regardless of their particular church background—whether they grew up in a black church, or whether they grew up in white evangelicalism—it is usually gonna be negative. And I think some of that, honestly has to do with Malcolm’s ability to critique much of what he saw coming out of the church with precision. So, yeah, so a lot of people have to remember that Malcolm grew up in a Christian household. His dad was a pastor. He was also a social activist as well. After his dad passed away, he spent a lot of time in the church amongst white Christians in the north. So as he kind of became his own person, if you will, he completely left the church; abandoned Christianity. And then, once he came to the Nation of Islam, he associated Christianity with whiteness.

Gray: Yep.

Holmes: And white supremacy. Because he perceived it as a religion that had been used to oppress the black man.

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: Now, what Malcolm was clear—especially as he—as later on in life he discovered Sunni Islam, and he describes and compares them—we’re gonna do some episodes about that as well. But what becomes super clear is that Malcolm didn’t actually understand Christianity. He was never introduced to biblical Christianity, which says something about Christianity in America as a whole, right?

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: And so, you—I just can’t help but remember that scene in the Malcolm X movie directed by Spike Lee, where the black Christians are coming out of the church and Malcolm’s like just gotten out of jail, or at least is a scene away for him getting out of jail. And he’s out there preaching, but he’s preaching the Nation of Islam’s message, and he’s essentially saying, you come here Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. Ain’t nothing changed. Come on over. But, it’s a part of Malcolm that I thought Denzel got right because Denzel was still very much Denzel in that movie.

Gray: He typically is (laughs).

Holmes: Yeah, Denzel’s—Denzel’s everywhere. But Malcolm had a charm to him that most people don’t even think of when they think about even the caricatures of him. When people think about the caricatures of Malcolm—at least, my prejudice towards him was always shaped and created by this angry man.

Gray: Right. Right.

Holmes: Who never smiled. And who hated white people.

Gray: Boogeyman.

Holmes: When you actually go back and check out interviews with Malcolm, the brother was articulate and he was—he interviewed well.

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: And he oftentimes smiled as he spoke, because he knew how people perceived him. They perceived him as the angry black man. He did everything that he could to fight that false perception of him. And even though we have video footage and proof that that wasn’t who he was, right? He had strong words, but that wasn’t who he was. That perception is still the perception that the vast majority of not just Americans, but also churchgoers, have of him.

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: What about you? What’s your experience with Malcolm in the church?

Gray: I mean, you know, there is that question of, like, are we talking the broader evangelical perception? Because I think we can talk about the black church within that category because a lot of Malcolm’s critique of the church as a whole was he felt it was an institution weaponized against the black community to ultimately neuter the black voice, and the black expression of identity. And so, there are these ethics and values that were imposed upon black people in terms of our mannerisms—and ultimately our subservient posture in society—we felt like white evangelicals had employed as a measurement of religious devotion. So you were devoted to Christ if you were subservient to white people. And he felt like the black church was a mechanism to keep that social order. And, I think he looked at black people who were going to black churches and saying, you’re just keeping the peace. You’re maintaining the status quo. And a lot of that critique could exist up to this day. And I think it’s valid critique that we could explore another time, but the perception—I agree with you, man. I think there was fear, there was concern, there was avoidance. Because the critiques that he would level upon the church were heavy. And aggressive. Like you say, if you’re standing outside somebody’s after church service—if you’re in the parking lot after—

Holmes: You get slammed, bro.

Gray: Man, you ain’t playing. And the way, like you said, Denzel’s depiction. He’s like, hey, man. You know. I know you’re tired of all of this stuff.

Holmes: Okay, so you’re feet hurting, ain’t they?

(Laughter)

Gray: They got you all emotionally riled up and nothing’s changed about your— But to your point about how Malcolm was introduced into Christian theology—it’s something that is a modern critique now—where it’s just ideological and it doesn’t have application, or it doesn’t apply in such a way, or it’s not practiced in such a way to affect society. And I think if he was taught that Christian theology only leads to a maintenance of an oppressive status quo, then the critiques are something that we should pay a little bit more attention to. But at that time, that was dangerous. It was just flat-out dangerous.

Holmes: It was.

Gray: For black people. But, now, for white folks, it was just—you weren’t even conditioned to hear that kind of critique. I think looking at a black person speak that aggressively, and ultimately use language like “white devils” in an interaction—as an interaction with faith and a practice of serving God? You know, for white Christians, that was like an allergic reaction. There’s no way—there’s nothing reconcilable about that message at all.

Holmes: Right.

Gray: So, again he’s demonized. Again he’s seen as a monster. As the church is developing in that time, and ultimately the way the church exists now, to not engage with his content or the words that he spoke and the legacy that he left—it’s still largely the view. The church is afraid of him. We could probably step into how the black community proceeds—or perceives him, but what else did you—what else were you thinking along that line?

Holmes: Well, two things too, in relationship, because I think these things overlap. Well, number one, I grew up in the south. You grew up in the north. King was from the south. Malcolm was from the north.

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: So when you talk about the broader black community—I mean, because we both grew up in the church, right? What denomination did you grow up in?

Gray: Man, we were Pentecostal. I mean, it was called—it was its own kind of offshoot of a broader Pentecostal denomination.

Holmes: So it wasn’t COGIC or anything like that?

Gray: No, it wasn’t COGIC. No PAW. No Assemblies of God. But it was definitely Pentecostal in expression.

Holmes: I got you. I got you. Cool, cool, cool. So, yeah. But I wonder if that even was a factor. Because it’s not like you are like, yeah, man, I love King and Malcolm. You were like, I mean, King’s cool, but I’m a Malcolm dude.

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: Right? That was always your kind of initial expression. Is that fair? Do you think that played—do you think region played any role in our—what we were taught?

Gray: Yeah. I mean, looking back now, absolutely. Of course, when I was younger, I had no frame of references to how the south thought. But—

Holmes: Because the south didn’t really know Malcolm like that. We only saw what was on—in the media.

Gray: I mean, down in—you know, in Atlanta there are all kinds of ways to engage with King’s legacy.

Holmes: Right.

Gray: So in Georgia, throughout the state, and all across the south there are—I mean, that’s where he did a lot of work.

Holmes: Right.

Gray: Toward the end of King’s life, he started to venture up north. But what Malcolm represented was in kind of a—really ironically—kind of an intellectual argument against white supremacy and racism in society. And the reason I say “ironically” is because he wasn’t necessarily a scholar. Like he didn’t go—

Holmes: No, he didn’t.

Gray: He didn’t venture into academia. He was pretty much self-taught from prison. Whatever he read and devoured and was able to articulate, that’s what he had. And he gave himself wholly to the Nation of Islam, so… I think for the black community up north, there had to be some sort of an intellectual appeal because the circumstances experienced in the north were very different than the south. There was almost an appearance of progressivism and advancement. And I say “appearance of” because a lot of times in the north, black folks would fall into some of that same social separation and disparity that was not necessarily wide out in the open—you’re getting beaten in the street. But you won’t have access to certain things.

So Malcolm had to approach it, not necessarily from that direct experience, even though those experiences still happened. Of course, his father was killed. And yet, the way that he engaged with folks, is I think he appealed intellectually to audiences up north. Because he’d be willing to sit down and have the discussion. And he would feel fully equipped to argue against what was an oppressive reality.

But for the black community, I think what Malcolm represented was identification. He didn’t just preach to, or interact with, upper-crust black folks. Or what he would call uppity, or bourgeois—bourgeoisie or whatever you want to call it. He didn’t just interact with those kinds of black folks.

Holmes: Yep.

Gray: He was going into the inner cities. He was going into the places where people were actually suffering.

Holmes: Yep.

Gray: Recruiting in those places of direct experience of suffering.

Holmes: Yep.

Gray: So, I think the black community lifts him up to the highest degree. As we were talking earlier off the mic, I think there is an ownership that the black community places on Malcolm X. The black community, by and large—not saying everyone—but for the most part, owns the image and the legacy of Malcolm X because they felt like he identified with the struggle, and ultimately paid the price for it.

Holmes: Wow. Yep.

Gray: You know? So that, to me, solidifies his place. People see Malcolm and he’s automatically a sympathetic figure. He’s a person that evokes compassion from black people. He’s a person who still evokes inspiration and a sense of pride. Self-worth. Self-image. All that stuff. A lot of the things that I felt when I was nine years old still appeal to grown people now. And even the way he treats black women. And the way he has always spoken highly of black women. That’s huge for the black community. So he’s loved. Widely loved. Admired. His perception in the black community, I think, is set, man. I don’t think—there’s no documentary or book that could come out that could cause Malcolm X to fall from that place of importance and prominence in the black community.

Holmes: So when you say black community, right? Because I still think that’s regional.

Gray: That’s true. That’s true. So it’ll be helpful for me to hear from you to say, all right. Here’s my…I grew up in Ohio…midwest perspective.

Holmes: Yeah.

Gray: What do you say people interact with down south?

Holmes: I mean, it was the caricatures. And I could be wrong…

Gray: Was he seen as uppity?

Holmes: No. Not at all.

Gray: Okay.

Holmes: I feel like people didn’t know enough to have an informed conversation about him. Because I was—I grew up in a black public school, right? There were no white people. And so it wasn’t anything about white gaze. I just don’t remember—I remember growing up hearing way more about King and very, very little about Malcolm. Malcolm was what I heard about via television, via posters, sitcoms, A Different World. But in the classroom? I can’t conjure up a memory about Malcolm. I remember when I first heard about Jonathan Edwards. But of course, it was his fire and brimstone sermon.

Gray: Yeah. “Sinners in the Hands…”

Holmes: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Right? That was a part of some literature. So I can actually remember that. I remember when I first encountered deism—which is bringing up random stuff I remember. But Malcolm? I can’t—I don’t have a concrete memory about Malcolm. So I feel like it was more so like people did not talk about him. You gotta think about the south and north. Black people in the north are going to be a little more diverse religiously than black people in the south. And black people in the south, even if people aren’t necessarily Christian, if you ask them what they believe, especially around the time I was growing up in the 90s and 2000s, they would have said, I’m a Christian. And maybe in the 2000s, it was like, man, I don’t go to church. I don’t trust in crooks. And then, I don’t know where it is right now. I mean, I think the church is honestly, where I’m from, fewer and fewer people are actually attending church.

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: It’s only the old heads. Even the people my age that are still in the towns aren’t really going to church. So, that’s something that’s really interesting that’s taking place in the south. And they’re not moving to a particular religion. They’re just not thinking about religion.

Gray: Yeah. So, yeah. That’s a fascinating point, man. Because we don’t think regionally about how Malcolm would have been perceived in the black community, or in multiple black communities. And I think from my perspective it’s fascinating because I wonder if someone like Malcolm X could have translated for the south, just from a number of perspectives—if it’s just, like, the Bible Belt, and people were just really serious about church, and whatever had been presented as Christianity was just being practiced with no question, no nuance. It was just, I do these moral things, and it means I have a tight relationship with Jesus.

Malcolm (laughs). Yeah, he could have been aggressively rejected, but he also could have just been ignored. So, at the same time, I think a person like Malcolm in his passion and some of the directness of what he had to say—it seemed like it would be dangerous for him to exist even as an influence in the south. Because he did speak his mind. He did speak up and speak often, and it doesn’t seem like that kind of person would have existed as a thought leader or an influencer in the south, either at that time or even today.

So, up north, you had a lot of people exploring a lot of different ideas. So, I don’t know if we’re—

Holmes: They had a lot more freedom, too. To do that.

Gray: Yeah. And I don’t know if we’re traveling into a W.E.B. Du Bois versus Booker T. Washington kind of thing.

Holmes: I don’t think so, but I think that everything that you just mentioned about Malcolm, you have to consider…like the Civil Rights Act didn’t mean much for people in the north.

Gray: Yeah. Yeah. That’s practical.

Holmes: Actually, you know what? The north was already living—

Gray: Black people could still own property.

Holmes: Right. Black people…yeah. Yeah. Black people had rights.

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: Black people could vote, right? Black people had…maybe even representation to an extent. And it didn’t come without its issues. I’m sure there was a lot of discrimination. So maybe the Civil Rights Act maybe addressed some discrimination issues that perhaps were taking place in the north. Because it covers more than just segregation. But at the same time, if you want to talk about somebody who’s living in the worst of it, it was the people in the south. And they also had the Ku Klux Klan.

Gray: Yep.

Holmes: That was terrorizing repeatedly the black community. And so, that may even—not just King’s nonviolence or his Christian ethic—but that may even speak to how careful he was with his words not to unnecessarily incite.

Gray: Yeah, and I think, honestly, man—again, it’s such a fascinating point to think about this regionally. And yet, I think it also brings us to why Malcolm has become so relevant today. Because some of those elements have dissipated significantly. You know, kind of the Ku Klux Klan, open terrorism, lynching, burning down houses and things like that—that’s not as prevalent now. But the systemic arguments dominate the headlines and the educational spaces and the social circumstances of people all across the country.

Holmes: Yeah.

Gray: And that’s specifically where Malcolm made his wheelhouse: n the ideological kind of conversations about social change.

Holmes: Yeah, I think that’s super helpful because if you think about the south being behind as far as rights, and the north, in some ways, being ahead, and you look at what Malcolm was speaking to versus what King was trying to fix, with the south being so far behind, you can’t necessarily put them side by side and act as if they were fighting the same battle. Because they weren’t. Now, Malcolm cared about black people in the south. I believe that. But he was also two steps ahead of black people in the south. Not just in the rights that he had. I mean, Malcolm dated a white woman—and this—and again—that still came with threats of violence—

Gray: Yep.

Holmes: And all of that. But it was still different than the south. The south was still on a whole other level with that. So when you look at what these two individuals had in view—so when the Civil Rights Act came around, and people thought that—you know, viewed this as progress, Malcolm was like:

Malcolm X Recording: No, no. I’m not—I will never say that progress is being made. If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow—that the blow made.

(inaudible)

Malcolm X Recording: They won’t even admit the knife’s there.

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: And that was so much—that’s still something—that’s the progress, that’s the conversation that has not made progress, right?

Gray: Yes.

Holmes: And I think there was a point in time where King thought that he would be able to keep moving forward. But I think that—you know, I just watched a documentary. FBI MLK or MLK FBI. And it seems to me that they were ready for King to shut up.

Gray: Okay, so on that note: listen, we gotta save that conversation…

Holmes: Yeah, let’s have that conversation for later.

Gray: —for another podcast, because the Malcolm and Martin contrast is a really interesting discussion, especially—

Holmes: That’s a bonus episode.

Gray: Oh yeah, man. Especially—

Holmes: Because I’ve got some more questions about King that I still need to research.

Gray: Yeah.

Holmes: But yeah.

Gray: But that’s a good conversation, so I think we got out of the gate pretty well. You know, just trying to get some of the reasons why this matters, or why this is important, or even beginning to invite people into consider…a consideration of Malcolm X that’s more nuanced. You know, how you do that, some of the current factors that are at play, and ultimately join in the journey with us.

Holmes: Yeah. Looking forward to it.

Gray: All right, well, thank you guys for listening. We’ve got so much more. This is just the beginning. So, Phil, appreciate you, bro. Look forward to the next episode.

Holmes: Likewise, bro.

Phillip Holmes

Phillip Holmes is a marketing executive and owner of Highest Good Media. He and his family are members of Redeemer Church.

Taelor Gray

Taelor Gray currently serves as pastor at Linden Fellowship while doubling as a hip-hop artist. He and his wife have two children.