Just a week go, responding to the question “What one historical figure would you interview if given the opportunity,” I replied without hesitation, “Brother Malcolm X, of course!” I spent the remainder of that day thinking about an interview with my personal hero and one of the 20th Century’s greatest proponents and theoreticians of Black liberation. I pondered what questions I’d ask, how Malcolm would respond, and whether his powerful presence would intimidate me.
Last week – defying all laws of physics, space and time – I woke up to find Malcolm X sitting at my desk, enthusiastically surfing the Internet on my laptop!
Startled, and in disbelief, I turned away then looked back at my desk, assuming that I was tired and suffering from an overactive imagination. But he was still there, typing eagerly and clearly excited by the flood of information coming across the screen. All of a sudden, he angrily banged his fist on my desk, sighed deeply and whispered, “May Allah be pleased with his good and faithful servant.” He had done a Google search of Dr. Martin Luther King and came across a Wikipedia article informing him of Dr. King’s assassination.
Still groggy (and dumbfounded at seeing Malcolm X sitting at my desk) I stumbled my way over to him, clumsily introducing myself. “Brother Malcolm? My name is Agyei Tyehimba. Your words and ideas have greatly impacted my life and after reading and listening to your speeches, I decided in 7th grade to be like you, to fight for Black liberation and speak the truth to our people.”
Brother Malcolm slowly nodded as I spoke, sitting in my chair and rubbing his goatee. He listened to me, but seemed preoccupied with some papers he’d found on my desk. “My young brother, please excuse me for being impolite. I’ve been known by many names, ‘Malcolm Little,’ ‘Detroit Red,’ ‘El Hajj Malik El Shabazz,’ and ‘Omowale,’ but please brother Agyei, call me “Brother Malcolm .”
“In what year were you born, my brother,” he asked. “1968,” I replied. Continuing, he said, “I died three years before you were born. How is it that you read and listened to my speeches?” I informed him that after his death, some of his followers and revolutionary comrades compiled his speeches in books, and also recorded them on albums. “In fact, anyone with Internet access can find video clips, text, and audio clips of speeches you gave like ‘Message to the Grassroots,’ and ‘The Ballot or the Bullet,’ along with segments of your debates and television appearances.”
“Interesting,” he noted soberly. Brother Agyei, forgive me, but may I trouble you for some coffee?” he asked, flashing that famous smile. “No trouble at all, Brother Malcolm,” I replied, impressed by his humble courtesy. I made my way to the kitchen thinking to myself that after all he had done to challenge racism and point Black people toward liberation, the least he was entitled to was a cup of coffee from me. Malcolm turned to tell me saying, “I like it…” “Black and with very little cream,” I interjected, bringing a big chuckle from him. “I read an interview you gave where you noted that coffee was the only thing you liked integrated.” He laughed again, appreciating both his own clever analogy and my knowledge of it.
I returned with his coffee a few minutes later and found him again reading through papers on my desk while reading an BBC News internet article about escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea. Malcolm’s hunger for information was legendary, and he appeared eager as a child in a candy store, as he read national and international news and the papers on my desk simultaneously, pausing to write notes on index cards. Here was a man that “multi-tasked” long before we created the term.
“We need to follow the North Korean situation.When will America realize that she is not the only nation with domestic and global interests and the willingness to protect them, he asked, thinking aloud. After sipping on his coffee, Malcolm he asked, “So… am I still considered a hatemonger and demagogue, brother Agyei?” “By some,” I said. “But many Black people and people around the world see you as one of the greatest advocates and theorists of Black liberation and Nationalism since Marcus Garvey. Not to mention that activists and intellectuals inspired by your ideas started the Black Power and Black Arts Movements after your…..death,” I noted, feeling awkward about referencing his assassination.
Now standing and looking around my office, Malcolm stopped to examine my college degrees hanging on the wall to the right of my library. “A Bachelor’s degree in sociology from Syracuse and a Master’s degree from Cornell University in African and African American Studies?” Dumbfounded, he said, “These are not Black colleges, and Cornell is an Ivy League school! Since when did the white man start offering degrees in learning about Black people” he asked as his forehead wrinkled in disbelief. “It’s another testament to your legacy, brother Malcolm,” I noted. During the Black Power Movement you helped to inspire, Black people began wearing natural hairstyles, African clothing, and adopting African names. Groups like the Black Panther Party implemented your call for self-defense and groups like the US organization even created an African value system called Kawaida and started a Black holiday and cultural celebration called ‘Kwanzaa.” Based on your call for Black people to study history and learn about ourselves, students and activists launched a movement to create Black Studies Departments on white college campuses across the country. At Cornell I was mentored by Dr. James Turner, a widely respected pioneer of Black Studies and an scholar/activist who deeply respects and supports you ideas. I’ve begun studying for a doctorate degree in African American Studies and if all goes according to plan, I’ll be writing my dissertation about you,” I added proudly.
The weight of all that information caused Malcolm to plop into his seat, look toward the ceiling with his eyes closed and say, “Allah u Akbar, or “God is the greatest.” “I am relieved to know that Black people appreciated their beautiful African selves despite my murder and despite 400 years of propaganda telling us we are nothing, have nothing, and can be nothing! And I am humbled to have played a small part in those developments.” As I nodded in agreement, Malcolm continued: “I read parts of your paper ‘What would Malcolm Say’ and hope you will give me the opportunity to fill in some gaps.”
I felt a mix of emotions. Horrified at the possibility that my personal hero read my essay about him and might not be pleased, grateful I had the opportunity to meet him, flattered he would take time to speak with me, and excited I would actually be able to interview the man whose ideas I cherished and tried in limited ways to implement for over two decades. “But I’m working with limited time, right now and will have to return another time,” he continued.
I returned with the coffee, which he enjoyed, judging by his satisfied expression. He apologized for drinking and leaving, scheduled a time to begin our interview next week, and departed as suddenly as he appeared.
To be continued….