For the young, 'X' symbolizes the hip, hints at the heritage

November 17, 1992|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer

The X on James Covington's red, black and green baseball cap symbolizes one thing: He's trendy.

The cap with an X surrounded by letters spelling "Malcolm" was a gift to the 13-year-old West Baltimore boy from his mother, who had hoped it might trigger his interest in the slain black leader.

As yet, he has not taken the time to bone up on his history of Malcolm X.

"It's like I know who he is and what he was about, but I'm not sure of the dates of when he died or how he died or when he got black people to march with him," said James, a student at William H. Lemmel Middle School.

"It's something that I'm going to learn up on because he was a famous black man."

The onslaught of youths -- mostly African-American -- wearing apparel emblazoned with the X has provided a booming business for merchants and vendors. But many of those who wear the items do it to be faddish, and not as a tribute to Malcolm X.

Some youths encountered last week had little familiarity with the outspoken and controversial leader who was killed in 1965.

"He said to do it any way that's necessary," said Donte Flemming, 16, of the Flag House Courts public housing development, alluding to Malcolm X's memorable "By any means necessary" phrase.

As Donte walked through Old Town Mall in East Baltimore, a medallion with an X in the center softly thumped his chest.

"He led a lot of people to freedom the same way that Martin Luther King did. He got put in jail like King did, too. He got killed by a white man because he tried to do too much for black people," Donte said. "There hasn't been no one like him since."

(In fact, a black man with ties to the Nation of Islam pulled the trigger.)

Spike Lee's movie, "Malcolm X," which opens tomorrow, has brought much attention to the name of Malcolm X, but random interviews found relatively few youths or young adults aware of his legacy.

However, there was awareness of his involvement with Muslims and of his aggressive approach to civil rights.

Sheila Carter, 17, of Sandtown/Winchester in West Baltimore carries a large purse with an even larger X on both sides. Until the controversy surrounding the movie began last year, she said, she knew little of Malcolm X.

However, she has learned some things about his life in recent months through news stories and by reading his autobiography, co-written with Alex Haley.

"I'm not going to believe anything until I see the movie. That was made by a black man and it's probably true," she said.

"When I was in school we never learned a thing about him. They taught us about Martin Luther King Jr. and talked about white history, but they never taught nothing about Malcolm," she said. "I hope that changes when she's in school."

Nat Harrington, a spokesman for the Baltimore school system, said a multicultural-Afrocentric curriculum is being incorporated in city schools. Until recent years, he said, many city youths had not had the chance to learn about African-American heroes: "It's important to have students learn about their culture."

Rodney Eustep, a merchant at Lexington Market, said each time he sells anything connected with Malcolm X to a teen-ager he also asks them a question about Malcolm X's life. He's often disappointed:

"Some of these knuckleheads might as well think the X is for a game of tick-tack-toe because they don't know zip about Malcolm X. Zip."

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