On this day in American history, Malcolm X was murdered. I was four years of age. Fourteen years later, I would meet Malcolm X’s killer. The first thought that crossed my mind: He, Thomas Hagan, is unremarkable. And then: What had led this unremarkable man to murder such a remarkable man? Many questions crossed my mind, but I didn’t ask one. I just stared at him as if I could get answers. I had already read The Autobiography of Malcom X: As Told to Alex Haley. At 18, Malcolm X was the only man I thought worthy of emulating. In that, even though I never converted to Islam, I studied the teachings of the Nation of Islam, the teachings of the Five Percent Nation, and orthodox Islam. I have childhood friends who were either one or the other, or all but at different stages of their lives.
How my life as a Black man-child would be impacted by Malcolm’s murder I had no idea. I didn’t have a memory of Malcolm’s death. The first “political” death that I remember is the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s. When King was assassinated, I was seven years of age. Then, I didn’t understand the implications of his killing, but I knew that the world had changed, that the world had shifted, that King’s assassination reverberated across the globe. A refrain during the first 10 years of my life, during the Decisive Decade, was, “They killed another good Black man!” The adults said that over and over, and not until the assassination of Dr. King did it register in my mind. There was something about being a Black man in America that inspired so many things, but above all else, it inspired fear in the white imagination.
I can’t begin to imagine the life of my father, a native Southern Son, born in the segregated South, in North Carolina, in 1926. I knew he knew something that he was keeping from me. Maybe it was this mystery, that he knew that white people would look at me and be afraid, for no other reason than that I was born Black in America. (Well, my birth certificate says “Negro.”) For years I resented my father because he never took me on his yearly trip down South, almost all around the Fourth of July. Later, I wondered if he knew Frederick Douglass’ famous speech about the Fourth of July. When I gave that a little thought, I realized it was irrelevant. He was born and spent the first twentysomething years of his life in the South. As a teenager he served in the segregated U.S. Army during World War II. When I came to understand American history, I came to understand my father. He didn’t take me South because he couldn’t protect me from that malevolent thing in the Southern air that sends white men into murderous rage and white women into flights of fancy (fantasy), that without hesitation Black men, and boys, would pounce on them and sully their purity.
Despite this backdrop, I can’t recall my parents ever saying anything bad about white folks. Later I wondered if this was a character flaw. Why were Black but mostly white people allowed to kill Black leaders with impunity? When I looked at Malcolm X’s murderer, that was one of my questions: Why are you still alive? As I got older, I, too, heard that question, from the older people in my ‘hood, the Watchers, I called them, Septuagenarian Seers who had already predicted my fate as a Black man in America, that I wouldn’t live long enough to mate, or I would end up in prison.
During the Decisive Decade, Black men were murdered. In the 1970s and up till the New Millennium, Black men were imprisoned.
I outlived my father. He died at 56. Deep in my soul though, call it what you will, but I hear his voice in my head. He is proud of me, that I’ve lived this long, in spite of it all. And that I have a triumph or two under my belt. From a cousin, I learned that my father was an aspiring writer. Maybe I got the “writing gene” from him.
Finally, once again I encountered Malcolm X’s killer, Thomas Hagan, in the New Millennium. I was working for a nonprofit that helped formerly incarcerated people find employment. He had been released or was on “work release.” I saw him in the Long Island City Office of the organization I worked. I never forget a face, and I stared at him in the same way I stared at him when I was 18. And he was as unremarkable as ever. I know he remembered me, if for nothing else the look I gave him as a teenager.