– El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm X.
“If by some miracle women should not ever utter a single protest against their condition there would still exist among men those who could not endure in peace until her liberation had been achieved.”
– Lorraine Vivian Hansberry.
May 19th marked the 84th birthday of activist and revolutionary Malcolm X, and the 79th birthday of author and trailblazer Lorraine Hansberry.
These youthful pioneers – the man who gave us the “Ballot or the Bullet” and the woman who gave us “A Raisin in the Sun”, the echoes of which still reverberate in our classrooms, on our stages, and on our televisions.
They might today have been venerated elders walking among us.
This week, I sat with that thought just a bit.
Entire empires have been built on the premise that the happy accident of a birthday, the date upon which someone crosses the veil into this life, can tell us something about her character, his tendencies, and her destiny.
I’m sure most of us have had a little fun, on occasion, with horoscope predictions or birth date books. Indeed, numbers and dates hold particular prominence in various sectors of African American communities.
I should note that even now, my homeboy Rahsul at the barbershop is doing the “Math’matix” on these birth dates, and promises to get back to me (relatively) soon.
But I wonder whether any of these equations might have told us about the miracles that were Lorraine Hansberry and Malcolm X. I wonder whether a gander at the old birthday book would list truth-telling – unfathomable, unreasonable, unrelenting truth-telling beyond anything we’d seen before or since – next to the date May 19th.
And I wonder whether, scribbled on the page somewhere, there is a note mentioning how heartily, how painfully missed are the presences of May 19th babies once absent from the body. I wonder whether anyone has found the words to describe the ache left in the vacuous absence of these two luminaries.
Today, I’m still sitting with this bit of information, and marveling at what it might have to teach us.
Born 5 years apart, both figures were raised in the Midwest. Lorraine Hansberry (b. 1925) began life in Chicago, while Malcolm X (b. 1934) was born in Omaha. Both were the children of activists. The Minister grew up watching his Garveyite-preaching father, Earl Little, battle white supremacy with sermons and direct action. The Playwright witnessed her father, real-estate broker Carl Augustus Hansberry, battling racist covenant housing laws in court and on the streets of Chicago’s south side.
As children, each experienced the ostracism of being the only black children in sometimes hostile, always patronizing white schools. Both were born to committed, passionate, and highly learned parents, though Malcolm X’s father had been killed and his mother institutionalized by the time he reached his teens. In the end, neither earned a college degree, yet both are remembered among the most brilliant minds of their generation.
Each came to national attention at about the age of 29, beginning early the construction of far-reaching, international legacies.
Many of us will recall that Malcolm X’s prolific political and spiritual ambassadorship of and to the people brought him before leaders such as Guinea’s Ahmed Sékou Touré and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and led him to countries and leaders throughout West and East Africa. Those travels nearly led him – we could easily claim – to the halls of the United Nations to air the grievances of America’s oppressed African people. He was a frequent University speaker, and appeared on numerous television and radio talk shows and in the pages of countless popular magazines and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad.
(For audio clips of Malcolm X's speeches, see WNYC's "Today In History" coverage)
But perhaps many fewer of us would recall Lorraine Hansberry’s address to the Inter-Continental Peace Congress in Uruguay at the age of 22, or her presence some years later at the table of a historic meeting between Robert F. Kennedy and Civil Rights leaders. Much of Hansberry’s work, it’s true, occurred at a stationary typewriter, and while we couldn’t compare her reach with that of the electric Malcolm X, we’d be foolish to ignore the extensive impact of her critical voice. Hansberry work populated the pages of The New York Times, The Village Voice, Ebony, and Liberation, and she spoke before organizations such as the United Negro College Fund and the American Society of African Culture.
(Click here to hear a rare Hansberry audio clip)
Both Hansberry and X found a way to reach the masses with their searing cultural and political criticisms that sound today as if they could have been written last week.