As I ride the New York City subways every day and observe some teenagers playing their Gameboys, listening to their iPods -- or using the N-word with each other -- I often wonder whether they'll say they grew up in a Malcolm household or a Martin household.
Malcolm X has been dead almost 41 years, and Martin Luther King Jr. almost 38. Since King's assassination in 1968, these questions have surfaced repeatedly: Who are the Malcolms and Martins of the world and where are they? Will any current black leader -- like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, just to name a few -- be remembered with the same reverence given to King and Malcolm X?
According to a recent Associated Press-AOL Black Voices poll, blacks consider Jackson, Rice, Powell and Obama the "most important black leaders" today. But only 18 percent polled believed current black leadership was doing a "very effective job" of representing African-Americans.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King may have been two once-in-a-lifetime figures for a unique time in American history.
"It's hard to say," said William Jelani Cobb, professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta. "Black people have become so diverse and the issues and concerns facing black people are so much more complicated than during Malcolm and Martin's time that it's almost impossible for one person to emerge as a voice of a people."
Like the teens I see every day, I never saw these civil rights icons alive. I have only read about them in history books and seen them on video. But I can tell you that I grew up in a Martin-Malcolm integrated household that featured a clash of generations and ideologies among my two grandmothers and my mother.
My parents divorced when I was very young, so I grew up in a household of three mothers -- my mother, my maternal grandmother and my maternal great-grandmother. Growing up, I remember that Grandma and Nana seemed to respect King fondly but sucked their teeth at the memory of Malcolm X and had no kind words for him.
"They practically vilified him when he was killed, especially when it came out that people within his own organization were involved [in his slaying]," my mother said. "I remember I had to sneak 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X' into the house so I could read it."
As a teenager growing up in New York in the 1960s, my mother respected King's accomplishments and work, but she also sympathized with Malcolm's views and later the arguments of Stokely Carmichael, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the black power movement. She remembers how my grandmother and great-grandmother feared that both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were "troublemakers" and that, ultimately, the two leaders would pay because they loved "rocking the boat." But they seemed to jump aboard the King train -- in private in the comfort of their home -- when they watched him win the heart of a nation when he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington.
"Your grandmother and Nana were like 'couch-Martins,' " my mother said. "During the speech, they were like, 'Yeah, this is great.' But it's easy to support something from your couch. But some of the things they did were done purely out of survival."