During a 1964 debate at Oxford University, Malcolm X said, as he often did, something deeply profound.
“To be or not to be… whether it (is) nobler in the mind of man to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune — moderation — or to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them,” he said, alluding to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” “And I go for that. If you take up arms, you’ll end it, but if you sit around and wait for the one who’s in power to make up his mind that he should end it, you’ll be waiting a long time.”
What’s most interesting about this speech is that Malcolm X turns the character of Hamlet on his head. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was contemplating suicide while Malcolm X’s Hamlet is a revolutionary. We will suffer life’s slings and arrows no longer. We will take action.
I don’t think Malcolm X meant we should literally “take up arms.” During his life, he was constantly condemned as an advocate of violence when in actuality he was an advocate for self-defense.
Malcolm X didn’t, however, share the mainstream civil rights movement’s Christian enthusiasm for “loving thy enemy.” He once said: “Stop sweet-talking (the white man). Tell him how you feel.... (Let him know that) if he's not ready to clean his house up, he shouldn't have a house. It should catch on fire and burn down.”
It’s quotes like these that have prevented Malcolm X from receiving the same whitewashed, revisionist rehabilitation to which Martin Luther King has been reduced. Malcolm X is still, long after his assassination, a radical.
His approach to politics was abrasive and uncompromising. Even when audiences didn’t like what he had to say, he always spoke the truth. Watching his speeches and reading his words, I’m always struck by his boldness and his willingness to make people angry.
In several speeches, as he was welcoming everyone, Malcolm X would also welcome his “enemies.” The word enemy seems so rarely used in today’s political discourse, but Malcolm X used it often to describe his political opponents.
This is one of the many lessons young people who are engaged in politics should learn from Malcolm X. We must come to terms with the fact that some people are our enemies. Liberals think they’re above having political enemies. For example, they applaud the friendship between the late Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia when they should be wincing.
We should also learn from Malcolm X’s insistence upon action rather than passivity and incrementalism. He often said the demand of his movement was freedom, justice and equality “by any means necessary.” If only young people today had that same spirit, instead of allowing the Black Lives Matter movement to devolve into black squares on social media and the likes of Mitt Romney to pose as an ally.
Malcolm X’s very name was radical — the “X” replaced what the Nation of Islam called “slave names” of Black people, the names given to enslaved people by their enslavers. Compare this with the timidness of today’s political actors who cringe at the bold ideas of our generation.
Young leftists say we are anti-capitalists — Malcolm X himself called capitalists “bloodsuckers” and predicted capitalism wouldn’t last. We say we would like to defund the police and reallocate some of the resources given to them. We are willing to hold America accountable for its crimes past and present, just as Malcolm X did.
But the moderates are not. They constantly accuse us of utopianism and tell us the odds are against us. There’s a Malcolm X quote for this, too: “The young generation don't want to hear anything about ‘the odds are against us.’ What do we care about odds?”
We’ve tried the old way of compromising and “loving thy enemy.” But we must learn from Malcolm X that if we really want things to change in America, we must be willing to fight for that change — by any means necessary.
Jared Quigg (he/him) is a sophomore studying journalism and political science.