NAU ethnic studies professor discusses complex history of Malcolm X

Editor’s note: New York City-based The Acting Company is performing “X,” a new play about human rights activist Malcolm X, at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11 at NAU. Ethnic studies professor Ricardo Guthrie discussed the themes of the show and the significance of the all-black cast.

What are the major themes of “X?”

There are several major themes raised in “X” that may resonate differently with audiences, based on their understanding of Malcolm X, as well as their comprehension of the history of the 1960s freedom movements. Brotherhood, loyalty and betrayal are key elements of Malcolm X’s transformation from a streetwise hustler into a powerful, dynamic political spokesman of the 1960s. His brothers introduced him to the Nation of Islam and the Muslim faith during the 1950s, as he helped build an organization dedicated to improving the lives of young black men and women who were trapped by Jim Crow segregation and inner-city racism. This organization would incite competition within its ranks to oust Malcolm and lead to his demise.

During the 1960s, Malcolm X inspired thousands of African-Americans to demand fundamental social change in America. Malcolm actively built alternatives to the mainstream civil rights movement under his radical leadership. His charismatic rise, however, led to jealousy among his followers and set him up for undercover “counterintelligence black ops” by the FBI and police agents. One such operation may have led to his public assassination at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom in February 1965.

This drama highlights the divisions, enmity, love and betrayal within the movement, which led to Malcolm’s downfall. However, the drama also reflects his power and inspiration, which survive to this day. Similar to the themes found in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” this drama about the life and death of Malcolm X has contemporary significance, in that the leadership of Malcolm inspired both admiration and enmity among his followers. His assassination in a public venue involved undercover police agents and former Muslim followers and invites easy comparisons to the rise and fall of a mythic political figure such as Julius Caesar. Malcolm X was a vibrant spokesman for political movements and black power philosophies of the 1960s and 1970s, and this dramatic work invites contemporary audiences to consider why such a powerful leader might provoke emotions long after his death.

Ricardo Guthrie
Ethnic studies professor Ricardo Guthrie

What should audience members take away from their viewing experience?

Audiences will be challenged to re-assess the life of Malcolm—the man, the myth—and to better understand the movements he inspired. The viewing experience will be provocative and challenging to everyone’s perceptions of Malcolm—both those who admire him and those who are less accepting of his radicalism.

How has Malcolm X’s story helped to define America?

Malcolm’s story is part of the quintessential narrative of how we are all part of the social, political and cultural currents within each era. The 1960s redefined what it meant to be American as the nation wrestled with comprehending the “Black Experience,” and that struggle continues today in movements such as Black Lives Matter and other social and political currents that extend beyond identity politics. So, though Malcolm was concerned with black power and liberation, his story helps demonstrate how individuals affect collective consciousness and vice versa. Everyone responded to the liberation and independence movements that Malcolm X and others helped lead, and his journey can be understood as a template for creating something new and powerful from the grassroots to the elite circles of power.

How is this story relevant today?

This play and story are still relevant today, because the quest for recognition among the “many streams” within American society is still debated in the current era. Malcolm demonstrated there was not one “mainstream” way of addressing social ills, but that there were many alternatives—and leaders can rise from all levels of society to help transform it from bottom to top.

Tickets for the Feb. 11 performance of “X” and the Feb. 10 performance of “Julius Caesar,” also performed by The Acting Company, are available at

NAU Communications