There is a spark and energy at the point of creation, the same spark and energy that is in Malcolm X’s eyes, stride and voice. His life as such a visceral work-in-progress, is rendered movingly though still photographs, documents and text in “Malcolm X: A Search for Truth” at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Whether it is his mug shot expression, captured after an arrest in Boston, or the philosophy books he read while in prison, or his handwritten notes about “the purpose of the devil’s religion,” what is displayed here stays right on the exhausting edge of Malcolm X’s evolution, from a gap-toothed little boy to a street hustler, to a prison inmate, to an international advocate for human justice.
Presented here, most of all, is an intellectual evolution reflecting Malcolm X’s generation, which grew up in the grip of overt racism, segregation and, often, terror. His father is believed to have been murdered by white supremacists in Michigan; his mother was institutionalized and her children, including Malcolm, were taken from her and put into foster care. Both parents were followers of the Black leader Marcus Garvey, and this show’s curators point out that Garvey’s organization, as well as the Nation of Islam, offered the Black masses of this generation “a moral vision and a rightful place in the universe.”
This is the first major exhibition about a man who, for many, has always been steeped in mystery and controversy. Yet it is easy to compare the show, in tone, to Citizen King, the 2004 documentary, by Orlando Bagwell and Noland Walker, which explored the personal journey of the better-documented Rev. Martin Luther King, or even to The Art of Romare Bearden, the recent amazing retrospective that provided insight into the renown painter as a man. Malcolm X’s canvases were blank notebook pages, ideas—especially those about injustice— that were in need of contemplation, or silent public spaces that he filled with razor-like oratory and clarity.
As in the Bearden show, this show offers ample evidence of how a human can be self-made and can forge a whole new world by challenging the status quo. “As I see it today,” he says in a portion of his autobiography displayed in the show, “the ability to read awoke inside me some long-dormant craving to be mentally alive. I certainly wasn’t seeking any degree, the way a college confers a status symbol upon its students. My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America.”
Born in 1925, Malcolm X would have been 80 years old on May 19, the opening date for this show, which also coincided with the temporary opening of the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, located in what was once the Audubon Ballroom, about three miles north of the Schomburg, where Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965. The show is also occurring at a time when Malcolm’s life, and even his best-selling autobiography, is being reconsidered by scholars, such as Columbia University’s Manning Marable, who is writing a new book on him.
The show, filled with never-before-exhibited materials, many rescued by his family from an imminent eBay auction in 2002, is sure to contribute to renewed focus on his life. Highlights include handwritten speech notes, terse correspondence between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad in the months before his death, shells from the gun that killed him, the contents of his pockets when he died, and the autopsy report. There is also a 1949 letter from then Malcolm Little to his brother Philbert: “We were taught Islam by mom,” he wrote in a neat, elongated script. “Everything that happened to her happened because the devils knew she was not deadening our minds. When she refused those two pigs at that time from Mr. Doane, I thought she was razy myself [as hungry as I was]; and they sowed their lying seeds in our heads.”
In his brief life and time on the world’s stage, Malcolm X was a very photographed, videotaped and recorded man. Some of the images here, though perhaps not exhibited in a show before, are familiar markers from documentaries, movies and books, such as Malcolm X: The Great Photographs, with a foreword by Thulani Davis (Stuart, Tabori & Chang, 1993). Others are certainly less familiar, like the shot of him looking thin and almost adolescent-like in suit, as his wife and two oldest girls sit on a nearby couch. Such images give us the feeling that we can be closer to the man, as opposed to the icon.
Malcolm X had such a bright and warm smile that it made him a posterchild for Ché Guevara’s famous quote that “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” Maybe some think of Malcolm X as a man who espoused hate, but his show, like many works on him in the past, detail his evolution and search for beliefs that would embrace and benefit all of humanity.
He had such an open, honest and tenacious search for truth—and life.
Malcolm X: A Search for Truth is on view until January 7, 2012 at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X Blvd. in New York City.(212-491-2200). The Schomburg is closed on Sundays and Mondays. Some text from the current exhibit can be viewed at www.schomburg.org. Iverem’s review of this show also appeared on www.BET.com.The legacies of two 20th century African American visionary icons — one in human rights; the other in artistic achievement — will be celebrated in the major exhibitions “Malcolm X: A Search for Truth” and “Romare Bearden: The Soul of Blackness – A Centennial Tribute” opening concurrently Friday, July 15, and on view through Saturday, January 7, 2012, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X. Blvd., New York. Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday: 12n to 6:00p; Friday and Saturday: 10a-6p. Closed Sundays and Mondays.