The X in Malcolm X stands for the unknown name and heritage of every African-American. Malcolm also took the name Malik El-Shabazz.

The Names of Malcolm X

Malcolm X and Malik El-Shabazz – two names for the same person. Malcolm himself used both names and they reflect what defines him as a person and as an African-American. The name he stopped using was the name Malcolm Little.

Malcolm Little – The legacy of slavery

Malcolm X was born as Malcolm Little. The surname though bears for every African-American the legacy of slavery. During the slave trade Europeans caught people in Africa and deported them to the American continent. Thus enslaved people were torn apart from their homeland, their families, their history – and their names. No slave could carry his or her African family name. The slave owners passed their surnames on to their slaves.

One of Malcolm’s enslaved ancestors was given the name Little. Malcolm’s parents chose the first name Malcolm for their son but the last name always spoke of the great injustice of destroying people’s identities and enforcing slavery on them.

X – Name unknown

In 1948/1949 Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam, an organisation of African-Americans stating that Islam is the natural religion of black people. Also, the Nation favoured black autonomy and thus separation from white people.
New members of the Nation of Islam are given the “X”. They drop their surname and replace it with the X. In Mathematics the variable x stands for the unknown and so the X as a surname represents the unknown African family name and family history of African-Americans. In 1950 Malcolm for the first time signed a letter as Malcolm X.

What happens when Nation of Islam members with the same first name receive the X? Then there’s a number before the X. The Nation counts its members with identical first names chronologically. One of Malcolm’s closest associates within the Nation and later in the OAAU was James 67X.

Malik El-Shabazz

According to the Nation of Islam the “X” will not be the final surname but in the future every member will be given an “original name”, an Arabic name.
The Nation’s ministers though could use the name Shabazz as surname, even before receiving the “original name”.
The Nation of Islam teaches that African-Americans are the Lost-Found Nation of Islam and describes itself as the Asiatic tribe of Shabazz. So ministers use this name of El-Shabazz as their surnames. The “El” is the Arabic article, like “the” in the English language. The pronunciation is ash-Shabazz, not el-Shabazz due to the “Sh” in the beginning of Shabazz. “Malik” is Arabic and means “king”.

Documents show that Malcolm used the name Malik El-Shabazz from 1957 on. This Arabic name became more important once Malcolm travelled the Middle East and Africa, making strong connections with people and political leaders in the region.

After Malcolm did the pilgrimage to Mecca, required by all Muslims, he was eligible to use “El-Hajj” before his name. “Hajj” the Arabic word for a person who went on the pilgrimage. That made his name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

On Malcolm X’s grave you find both names: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz in bigger letters and under that Malcolm X. (Though there’s some confusion with hyphens in the Arabic name.)


I find the X a powerful sign to remember that white people stripped enslaved Africans and their descendants from their heritage. For white people it is a start to learn about the black perspective of American history. White people are responsible that so much heritage and personal bonds are unknown to African-Americans and lost forever.

On the other hand I can understand that Malcolm X used the name Malik El-Shabazz often. It shows his growing more and more rooted in Islam and rejecting Christianity, the slave holders’ religion. Also, I understand the name as a sign to chose his own identity and distance himself from the United States of America. America meant a hostile environment whereas in Mecca and various African countries Malcolm experienced brotherhood and close relations to political leaders there.

However, it seems the name Malik El-Shabazz never made it widely into newspapers, books or films. I reckon most African-Americans can relate more to Malcolm X, the name representing more their lives in America.


Malcolm X and Alex Haley: The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, 1965
Manning Marable: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, 2011

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