In the month marking the 46th anniversary of Malcolm X’s shahadah (real name El-Hajj Malik Shabazz), the task of tabulating his political legacy is a rather delicate enterprise. In US cinematic culture, he is perhaps known best from Spike Lee’s 1992 film.
In the month marking the 46th anniversary of Malcolm X’s shahadah (real name El-Hajj Malik Shabazz), the task of tabulating his political legacy is a rather delicate enterprise. In US cinematic culture, he is perhaps known best from Spike Lee’s 1992 film, recently selected for the National Film Registry. (Even as the Academy Awards continue to shun Spike, it’s nice that the Library of Congress finally recognized his magnus opus as a great film).
I used to teach the Lee film to US students, as a way of re-introducing them to streams of experience and resistance that have been shunted off from US public consciousness. For, it is a fact undeniable that in the mainstream American narrative, Malcolm X has been sidelined in favor of Martin Luther King, whose own life has been frozen in time at the 1964 March on Washington and “I Have a Dream” speech. (MLK’s clips about racial harmony in the US are endlessly replayed, but his later stands on US accountability to the African American underclass and war-stricken Vietnamese get deleted).
Since Malcolm X, through the evolution of his thought, believed in calling a spade a spade — or as he said, “truth is truth” — he is still blacklisted in US memory-making as an angry racist. “The angriest black man in America” as the press called him at the time, a view which has crystallized into a fact he mourned in the seminal Autobiography of Malcolm X, his life’s account narrated to and published by the writer Alex Haley. On his return from Hajj, he fearlessly made the break between the Nation of Islam spokesman and the new man by declaring that he was now thinking for himself, whereas before he spoke on behalf of Elijah Muhammad. “I had enough of someone else’s propaganda,” he wrote to his friends from Makkah, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against.”
In an age of half-truths and omnipotent shadows of grey, to commit to a maxim like “truth is truth” exhibited political and intellectual courage. Malcolm X was one of the 20th century’s most fearless public thinkers — someone who thought out loud, his insights interconnected with masses of people like the intangible warp of neurons. He explains his commitment to truth in the Autobiography and proves it in the course of his life — moving from atheistic hustler and equal opportunity crook, to black nationalist, to postcolonial activist, and then to radiantly self-conscious Muslim, in the course of his 39 years. “My whole life has been a chronology of… changes,” he tells Haley.
It was perhaps this intransigent commitment to truth as he found it, that cost him his life (besides Allah’s (saw) decrees for life and death, of course). On his return to the United States, he found that his support base could not mentally move as fast as he was, that the leap from the raw Black Nationalist to tempered Muslim was too rapid for them. He relates his frustration to Haley: “They won’t let me turn the corner!” He once privately exclaimed to the writer, “I’m caught in a trap!” Under the stormclouds of FBI and Nation of Islam hostility, he took to the Harlem streets with a new set of ideas in his speeches: “True Islam taught me that it takes all of the religious, political, economic, psychological, and racial ingredients… to make the Human Family and the Human Society complete.” But it would take the African American community another decade or so (under W. Deen Muhammad and others) to make this transition.
In Alex Haley’s moving epilogue to the Autobiography, recording the writer’s personal accounts of Malcolm X, we see the toll that it took on him, the utter mental and bodily exhaustion at having to combat fire bomb attacks on his house, hostile black factions, state repression, and a slow-moving support base. In the final trek to the Audoban Ballroom where he is shot, Haley records how the “usual lithe strides” have turned to a heavy trudge, the toll exacted by the burdens of globally communicating his message, jump starting a new organization from ground zero, reforming his public image, and supporting his family.
And then there is the moving vignette of him apologizing to his assistant after he vocalized his frustration at the cancellation of speakers to his Audoban event. After she tells him that she understands: “[in a] voice sound[ing] far away, ‘I wonder if anybody really understands — ’”he says, before walking out to the podium under the ghostly portent of gunshots. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is as much about the relationship between Haley and Malcolm X, the personalization of the man’s power of communication to an interlocutor (which thanks to Haley’s talents, is set up to be as much the reader as Haley himself). “[H]e was the most electric personality I have ever met,” says Haley, and the Autobiography makes you feel that way too.
I have called Malcolm X one of the most fearless public thinkers of the 20th century. Let us illustrate. One of Malcolm X’s signature abilities was to look at the interconnections between phenomena, rather than looking at issues, people, and interests in isolation. Even after the Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad, jealous of the brilliant young activist he had taken under his wing, threw him to the dogs — isolating and banishing him from the Nation after a faux pas — Malcolm X refrained from criticizing Elijah, noting that the white power structure had blacks fighting blacks for too long. It was only after Elijah Muhammad evicted his family from their home that the figurative gloves came off regarding the former’s sexual pecadillos and other transgressions. Even with the Nation of Islam’s hostile treatment of him, he demonstrated fidelity to his passionately advocated principle of black unity at enormous personal cost.
Similarly, as he grew into the Northern ghettos’ foremost social reformer and activist, he intuitively affiliated with the struggle of Asian and African nations throwing off colonial yoke. Resisting the regionalism and parochialism demonstrated by a number of his civil rights colleagues, Malcolm X ratified political and moral brotherhood with his international counterparts in Ghana, Senegal, Egypt, and China among other places. He understood that justice is a global project.
And it is no exaggeration to say that he was a formidable spoke in the US plans to maneuver these newly independent countries in its orbit by energetically representing US domestic cruelties toward African Americans. As he queried: “How can white American government figure on selling ‘democracy’ and ‘brotherhood’ to non-white peoples — if they read and hear every day what’s going on right here in America and see the better-than-a-thousand-words photographs of the American white man denying ‘democracy’ and ‘brotherhood’ even to America’s native born non-whites?”
He also deconstructed the good cop-bad cop segregation of American politics as manifested in the Democratic and Republican parties, which have crystallized the hapless voting patterns of African Americans and Muslim Americans. “Yes, I will pull off that liberal’s halo that he spends such efforts cultivating!” he declared, critiquing the desperation, drugs and prostitution in the urban ghettos even as the North’s liberals criticized the Southern conservative’s lynchings.
And while Martin Luther King’s position was that the culture of hatred toward African Americans from the late 19th to 20th centuries was a moral lapse that America’s better nature could overcome, Malcolm X demonstrated a more intellectual grasp of the political landscape. He realized that there is a systemic link between race and power in the US and Europe, which necessarily produced an “other”, a sub-human, a slave that was to be despised, feared, and exploited; a fact Muslim Americans are discovering anew in the post-9/11 United States.
Many of us have significant experiences that somehow remain segregated from our mental life, neatly segregating our emotional and our mental blueprints for living. But it is a testament to the wholeness of Malcolm X’s thought process, which was liberated by his journey to Makkah, that he understood whiteness to be social construct, a power position, rather than a fact etched in the biological stone, as it were.
After his amazement at the experience of brotherhood brought about by Hajj, he realized that “it isn’t the American white man who is a racist, but it’s the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man.” It has taken 50 years of African American academic scholarship, from Henry Gates Louis Jr., Angela Davis, Saidiya Hartman and others, to adequately theorize this insight.
Malcolm X’s early rhetoric against the “white devil” is a product of Nation of Islam reverse-racism, as well as his own deeply wounding experiences with economic, sexual, and mental exploitation by whites extracting their pleasures and profit from the ghetto. But his ability to infer universal principles from his experiences enabled him to see the back end of racism, and to begin purging it from his intellectual make-up, all within a year of his “divorce” from the Nation of Islam. “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem,” he said. “In my thirty-nine years on this earth, the Holy City of Mecca had been the first time I had ever stood before the Creator of All and felt like a complete human being,” he said.
I’ve felt that for many Muslim Americans, the homage to Malcolm X derived from a tinge of cultural chauvinism — the preference for somebody famous choosing something we are affiliated with. (The rush of gratification at the rumors of Michael Jackson or anybody else “big” converting to Islam, for example). And the final, greatest chapter of the Autobiography where he witnesses and affirms the brotherhood of man under One God often gets interpreted under the “multiculturalism” that often translates into the desperation of Muslim American elites to get accepted into the power culture.
However, Malcolm X reserved his most cutting sarcasm for such elites, who were quite visible during the civil rights movement, and who often traded away the rights of the “socially disinherited” for their social access. “A desegregated cup of coffee, a theatre, public toilets — the whole range of hypocritical ‘integration’ — these are not atonement,” he declared. The ethics of brotherhood and spirit didn’t wipe out the onus of resistance — till the end, he was ceaselessly mobilizing against the violence directed toward black bodies and black lives. An energetic example for Muslim American leaders who plead integration and organize publicity campaigns of Muslims as multicultural, peace loving citizens in the face of pre-emptive prosecutions, draconian community surveillance, secret evidence, show-trial circuses, and so on.
Malcolm X’s legacy is an underground one — a global network of hearts and minds that persists even though the official memory-makers excise him from the civil rights narrative. Among my students, the most appreciative ones were often the young second generation immigrants — whether Vietnamese, Indian, or African — who saw in his life the lesson that divine-given human dignity is a social right to be struggled for. It is no surprise that Malcolm X finds his natural audience among the disenfranchised, the oppressed — a moveable audience that in the post-9/11 era has come to center on the global community of Muslims. We are his memory-makers, whose mettle is tested by our ability to give tribute to his mind and spirit.
Many have regretted his early death, regretting the heights he could have reached through the sheer power of thought and transformation that he exhibited in his life. “It’s a time for martyrs now,” he relates in his Autobiography, “And if I’m to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood.” On the crossroads of the divine and the temporal on which he acted, as do all who believe that “truth is truth,” his victory is the victory of those who struggle for justice. But his tragedy is the tragedy of those who are ahead of their people, the tragedy of all leaders born before their time.