When I was in the seventh grade, I bought a Malcolm X baseball cap.
I had it no idea what it was or what it meant. (I wear a Baltimore Orioles cap now. I couldn't tell you one player. I just like the big black and orange bird.) This wasn't the black hat with a white X on it like Spike Lee wore, either. It had what I would later learn were Pan-African colors — red, yellow and green. If I remember correctly, the X was black. Full regalia.
A kid in class asked me why I was wearing a Malcolm X hat, and this was my extremely white, middle class reply:
"Who is Malcolm X?"
I let the question about why I was wearing a Malcolm X hat slide to the murky depths of my mind. Here I was, a white kid sporting a hat paying homage to a civil rights icon whose existence I was gleefully unaware of. In public school, at least mine, they taught you about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but I had never heard of Malcolm X.
It was about a month later when I was strolling through Target with my family and, behold, there it was, sitting on a rack at the end of an aisle — "The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley." I had about 10 bucks to my name and pulled a copy off the shelf and took it home.
It was a fascinating read. Malcolm Little, born in Omaha, Neb., wound up in Harlem where he sold drugs and straightened his hair with a mixture of lye and potatoes so it would look more like a white man's hair, a "conk." Malcolm found himself in prison, where he converted to Islam and fell in with the Nation of Islam, which regarded white people as devils. He became involved in Civil Rights. Eventually, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Haj, and saw blue-eyed, blond-haired Muslims. This softened his views on race somewhat.
It was and still is the longest book I ever read. And I didn't finish it. As I approached the end, I learned from another source, possibly the movie, that this man I had come to admire so much was shot dead by his own people. I just couldn't bring myself to read that part.
Tuesday marked the 52nd anniversary of his assassination. I've been thinking about him lately, for two reasons. One, this country is currently brimming with hatred of Muslims. They are the other. They are foreign. But here was one from Omaha. (Not to mention a lot of those rappers who have enriched your lives throughout the years.)
Two, Americans love a good humble origin story, and a lot of people lie about theirs. This one is real. This man came from nothing and made something of himself.
The book was the richest reading experience of my life so far. I have no idea what happened to the hat.
Read more Bear: coloradodaily.com/columnists. Stalk him: twitter.com/johnbearwithme