Do we call the former heavy-weight champion Cassius Clay or Muhammad Ali? Do we enjoy the works of poet LeRoi Jones or Amira Baraka?
It is as though we have become fixated upon a specific image: Malcolm X the defiant, Malcolm X the revolutionary, Malcolm X the cold-eyed, grim-faced, angry young man on the popular 1970s poster with his accusatory pointing finger. That portrait of the man has become so frozen in our mind's eye that we don't even seem aware of it. Malcolm's widow, for instance, refers to herself as "Betty Shabazz". But not even that inspires us to re-think how we refer to her late husband.
By rights then, Mr. Lee's movie should have been titled, "Shabazz".
I am not just picking on the movie. The movie is breath-takingly realized, perhaps the most powerful film biography since "Gandhi". It captured "Malcolm" the man as well as "Malcolm" the hero and put them both in context. Spike Lee has been flirting with an Oscar since he launched his career with "She's Gotta Have It." I predict "Malcolm X" will get serious consideration for Best Picture and Denzel Washington for Best Actor.
But how Mr. Lee refers to his hero -- and how we refer to him -- is suggestive.
Black Muslims dropped their European surnames as a way of rejecting the identities imposed upon black Americans during slavery. They attached the "X" to their given names to symbolize their recognition that their true, African identities had been stolen from them.
But after his trip to Mecca in 1964, the man we continue to call "Malcolm X" declared that he had rediscovered his true identity. His adopted name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, was his way of acclaiming his both Islamic faith and his African heritage. From now on, then, I'll refer to "Malcolm X" by the name he would have preferred.
Not coincidentally, Shabazz' political rhetoric changed along with his name. He announced that his politics would no longer be based on rage at "white devils" but on self-love and affirmation.
"I intend to be very careful not to condemn anyone who has not been proven guilty," says Shabazz in the film. "I no longer subscribe to sweeping indictments of one race."
Unfortunately, many of us have not progressed as far. Many of us remain locked in the anger and frustration of the 1970s. In one sense, this isn't surprising. My generation (those of us over 30) grew up on televised images of mobs of screaming whites attacking peaceful civil rights demonstrators; of police assaulting elderly women with clubs and attack dogs; of Eldridge Cleaver sitting bound and gagged in a courtroom during the trial of the Chicago Seven. The apparent murder with impunity of Black Panthers in Cook County, inmates at Attica Prison and students at Jackson State shaped our attitudes about the official abuse of power.
And after the death of Shabazz and Martin Luther King Jr., there were no black leaders with the eloquence or the moral authority to define these events for what they were -- the last, desperate bid of white supremacists to retain power.
In fact, as our anger grew, we became more and more likely to portray white society as omnipotent and blacks as impotent. This is what so-called "black conservatives" (and please do not include me in that group) correctly refer to as the politics of "victimization".
I believe it is this sense of victimization that distinguishes the post-civil rights generation of black Americans from every other proceeding generation, including those who were slaves. Until the 1970s, black children were infused with the faith that they would someday be free and with the conviction that they had a duty to work to make it so. Whether we referred to ourselves as "colored", "Negro", "black" or "African American," those two messages remained constant. This responsibility to our race and to every person's future conferred upon us all a sense of citizenship, even when American citizenship was denied by law and custom.
My generation, enraged by the violence directed at the civil rights demonstrators, failed to pass this sense of faith and responsibility on to the next generation. What we passed was a feeling that white America will never "allow a black man to get ahead" even as many of us burst through barrier after barrier. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of victimization coupled with the omnipotence of white supremacy is greatly responsible for the criminal violence born of hopelessness that currently grips so many black communities.
Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" has the scope and power to help change that. He tells us the story of a man, Shabazz, who had the moral courage to change his own destiny and the personal heroism to lead others to change the world. The story is permeated with something many in the younger generation seem to have lost: faith that they can change their destinies and the understanding that they have both the responsibility to effect change and the personal power to do so.
It is ironic isn't it, that the story of Shabazz, the fiery-eyed revolutionary, might generate a new sense of citizenship and belonging in young blacks? But it could. For what is citizenship but participation? And participation begins with responsibility and faith.