Much of the last year of X’s life was devoted to travel in Southwest Asia and Africa. Primarily to perform hajj at a pivotal time in his own sense and understanding of Islam, X also wished to visit various capitals in the region. He was deeply marked by his pilgrimage…
In January of 2015, I was researching images of Malcolm X for a series of illustrated posters. Tariq Mehmoud, a colleague from the American University of Beirut (AUB), had asked our artists’ collective, Jamaa Al-Yad, to provide a visual overview of his visit to Beirut and the region over half a century ago. At the time, Malcolm X had been forbidden from speaking at the AUB, and Tariq imagined returning him to campus via the magic of the dramatic arts. A public lecture and theater performance was scheduled to mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
While work on the Malcolm X project continued, I imagined that the logo, illustrations, and Arabic lettering of the posters might interest my students. I presented them in class, speaking of the technical aspects of poster creation. One student exclaimed: “That’s Malcolm X!” Taken aback, I asked: “You know who Malcolm X is?” She replied: “Of course! Are you kidding? He’s my avatar online!” I realized that I often don’t give my students—this next generation—enough credit.
Sadly, Malcolm X’s visit is unknown to many in the States. Much of the last year of X’s life was devoted to travel in Southwest Asia and Africa. Primarily to perform Hajj at a pivotal time in his own sense and understanding of Islam, X also wished to visit various capitals in the region. He was deeply marked by his pilgrimage, where he met “thousands of people of different races and colors who treated [him] as a human being.”
His first stop after hajj was Beirut.
Initially forbidden on campus, he spoke instead at the neighboring Sudanese Cultural Center. The American press would report that his speech caused a riot; the local daily newspaper contradicted this, stating that “a lively discussion followed.” The FBI refers rather matter of factly to a New York Times article in a short paragraph summarizing the trip.
Fast forward to 2015. The public lecture and performance presented at the AUB saw 150 people turn out. Extra chairs were brought in to the hall; students sat on the floor, people lined up in the corridor outside. Dr. Ajamu Baraka spoke on the history of the Black Power movement and more specifically Malcolm X, and what his visit to Southwest Asia and Africa was representative of in terms of liberation movements worldwide. He made links between the streets of Ferguson and Gaza. He expressed joy in the fact that Malcolm X was being celebrated so actively in Beirut, though this sad anniversary might go barely acknowledged in the U.S.
The performance we staged, “Malcolm X Speaks,” starred a young Arab actor, Jamal Awar, embodying Malcolm X. Now, as then, his strong words evoked a runaway system out of control; pointed to the ridiculousness of thinking about simply slowing things down, of reform; called out the charlatans and stooges who, confident in their own safety within the status quo, try to convince us that “all is well.” Emails of interest from around the world came in expressing a desire to video-stream the performance, or else to produce it locally.
We later learned that Malcolm X did speak on campus; students lobbied and protested to make sure this would happen. We staged another performance in the very room of the exact same hall where this had originally taken place. Present was a man who had been there at the time, while projected on the screen was the Skyped conversation with Dr. Aziza El-Hibri, then the head of the debate team and the organizer of Malcolm X’s visit to campus. She read from his personal letters to her.
To understand how this travel and trajectory fit into X’s life, we need only refer to the FBI files on him at the time. Malcolm X was hoping to present “a case against the United States” at the U.N., similar to those made against South Africa and Rhodesia. Pledges of support had been received from the heads of state of all the nations he visited: Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. This was an ascendant moment at this transitional period of his life, tragically cut short soon thereafter. Beirut was a slight detour, but his presence there, though barely felt, left an extremely deep impression that continues to this day.
Research for this article sources to a term paper written by Nate George in 2009, a then student at the AUB, entitled: “Malcolm X in Lebanon.