Where Malcolm X Was Killed, Harlem’s Ghosts Haunt a Forgotten Home
Where the activist and icon was killed in 1965, you can now get cash and a plate of ribs
I don’t often go to the barbershop. I see it as a slaughterhouse for Black hair, and an open forum for cruel jokes and bad ideas. Also, I avoid haircuts. Unruly hair climbs out of my scalp: in the back, straighter hairs hang; at the top, curly knots buck against each other; in the front, wavy coils bounce. Indigenous blood, a Latino helix, and a Black Rasta meet in the middle of my curls, splitting branches from my family tree. The conflict makes me avoid haircuts.
But I need the barbershop because it’s ground zero for unfiltered community news in Harlem. When I went to get a cut last week, the lanky thirtysomething barber who sits near the TV was free. He’s always free. Not because he’s terrible, but because everyone else is excellent and he is, at best, unambitious — so he waits in the back of the elite barbershop for strays like me to come in looking scruffy and sad-eyed. But he’s funny and cuts well, even though he’s always running his mouth and distracted. I tip him 50% no matter what.
“Damn, bro, you want me to comb it out?” He says as he pulls the end of a top hair to its full length to show me in the mirror. The five inches of growth won’t hide. I’ve only now gotten used to how long my hair gets.
“Yeah, comb it, please,” I reply. I want a lot off the sides and to eavesdrop on the shop conversation, so anything that prolongs my bid is worth it. He grabs the afro pick with the black fist handle and his scissors.
“A lotta people don’t know how to treat hair like this, man, and I gotta spend time getting it right,” he says.
I washed, conditioned, and picked my hair an hour before stepping into the shop. Diligence saves me from embarrassment. The barber rakes through my locks, chatting me up.
He asks me if I’d seen the new Netflix series Who Killed Malcolm X? “Shit was wild, bro, not even gonna lie to you,” he says. “I didn’t expect that shit at all. I’m not gon’ hold you, but you need to watch that shit.”
After he tells me that he watched the series with his cousin for hours straight, I tell him I’ll check it out. A bulky man, with the arms and chest of a cartoon bulldog, interrupts our conversation from a nearby chair.
“I told myself if it’s that Marable shit, I’m not watching it,” he says. “They tried to say Malcolm was bisexual in that last book. Straight up disgraceful, man. All that shit is fake news. Like that ‘Me Too’ shit. Hollywood made that up, and it’s ’cause Weinstein’s brother wanted control of the company they started.”
In a center of Black culture, Malcolm X pushed the dream of self-contained wealth — a fantasy that remains deferred.
I start to open my mouth and argue with the man, but I remember why I don’t come to the barbershop in the first place. I’m not here to contest beliefs; the most I’ll do is defend the beauty and artistry of LeBron James, and that’s no longer a debate.
My barber ignores the man and returns to me. “But anyway, yo, that documentary,” he says. “When they asked them Newark Muslims who knew the shotgun man, you could tell heads was tight about that. They was saying the CIA had been involved. Malcolm’s main bodyguard was a cop! You believe that shit, bro?! They had about 10 or 11 cops in the Audubon Ballroom the time he got shot. Nobody knew!” He gets animated, so I ask him to spin me back around to the mirror to make sure the cut was going all right. The young barber shapes my hair up nicely with a modern cut.
I get home and cue up Netflix. Thinking of Malcolm Little, the street hustler who made Malcolm X possible, I picture his smooth oration and his flat-pressed red hair helping gain attention from women. If I could be as smooth in my speech as Malcolm, and as modern in my style, maybe I could savor a romance like he and Dr. Betty Shabazz had: timeless and fruitful.
In the second episode of Who Killed Malcolm X?, “Straight Man in a Crooked Game,” the late activist speaks to acolytes in Harlem about the cost of Black freedom. He implores them to give tithes to the Nation of Islam:
I think everybody standing here should put one dollar in that bucket. These are freedom dollars, brother! We’re not asking you to give us some money to make us rich. We put up businesses. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad has set up more businesses than any Black man in America.
That clip made me miss the promise of Harlem. In a center of Black culture, Malcolm X pushed the dream of self-contained wealth — a fantasy that remains deferred. The barbershop where I get rare haircuts is one of few thriving Black business centers in the area, encouraging single vendors to lease chairs for steady clientele. But it’s no Applebee’s or high-rise condo. It’s a relic. We can tip the barbers all we want, but Harlem’s millionaires are outsourced profiteers looking to gain from New York’s infinite allure as the world’s growth capital.
Harlem is a trademark, another tourist stop on the double-decker bus where passengers peruse the pavement, bypassing the landmarks and dodging language.
Who Killed Malcolm X? is an infuriating rhetorical coup of a title. The series attempts to fill in the blanks where government agencies, the NYPD, and the Nation of Islam erased history. Although much of Malcolm’s mythology lives in the memories and on the mouths of forgotten elders, a great deal of it had never been recorded and collected for posterity. American racism and paranoia could not handle the force of Malcolm X’s constant reckoning with a violent past, or the outlandish lie that Black people should accept the crude labels applied to them. The united forces of greed, slander, envy, and power lust killed Malcolm X and blew Harlem’s promise away with the ashes.
I live in Harlem, and it looks different from the time when Malcolm X implored a Black freedom dream built on the newfound confidence of a people once lost in the ’60s. Harlem looks like a logo. Harlem is a trademark, another tourist stop on the double-decker bus where passengers peruse the pavement, bypassing the landmarks and dodging language.
The Audubon Ballroom building remains standing in Harlem, so I went to capture any of the emotion Malcolm’s death may have left behind.
I took the 1 train and exited the 168th Street subway station on Broadway. The Audubon’s grandeur cuts the skyline across from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Inside that building, where assassins ran off after firing fatal shots into one of America’s greatest heroes, Chase Bank issues cash. Inside the plaza, where Harlem’s religious leaders held court, Dallas BBQ serves pork or beef ribs, depending on your preference. I snapped a couple of photos on my $800 phone and crossed the street.
I don’t know why I expected a line out front of the Audobon that day; I do know that the historical center’s Malcolm X statue should be more prominent. Instead, it is incidental, bookended by two franchises occupying each corner lot of the complex. A modest sign on the glass doors read: “The center is closed in preparation for tonight’s memorial ceremony.” Strolling into each spot I thought might hold significance, I envisioned the chaotic 1965 scene. The bodyguard choking on tears, fretting exposure. Camerapeople straining to keep rolling, knowing they were the only trustworthy eyes left.
But in 2020, two young Black patrons walked up to the entrance. They saw the same sign. A man nearby sat on the standpipe with a change cup; I thought about putting a dollar in it. And me, trying to find answers in a city that seems to be forgetting.