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Why The American Political Establishment Should Embrace Malcolm X’s Legacy – OpEd

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On 14th October 2018 there was a report that the US embassy street in Ankara was being renamed as ‘Malcolm X Avenue.’ The renaming was supposedly done because of strained relations between the US and Turkey over the support given by the former to the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria. The report in The Guardian further said, “Malcolm X remains a divisive figure in US history and Ankara’s move will likely be received negatively by critics who say he stirred racist and anti-American sentiment.” Years ago, when I began my teaching career, as part of my course texts I included James Baldwin’s screenplay One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario based on the life of Malcolm X. A white American student was resentful of the very name of Malcolm X, for reasons that were not justified, except that he bought into the idea of the black revolutionary as a hater of whites and a segregationist.

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One of the most misunderstood of great revolutionaries, it is high time that Malcolm X’s legacy is put in perspective and embraced for what it truly is: a platform for an egalitarian society in which blacks have the same rights and responsibilities towards themselves and the world around as whites must. It is nothing short of stupidity and willful ignorance to continue to subscribe to the notion that Malcolm X is a racist or a segregationist. The American propaganda machine has for decades propagated this negative picture of Malcolm X; the same machine that is these days actively at work in misrepresenting the tragic war in Ukraine while coolly whitewashing the role of the American political establishment in turning the bad into the worse.

Men and women with conviction tend to change and evolve over a period of time. This is true of everyone who wanted to see change in his or her lifetime. I am not talking of the self-indoctrinated types who remain static for reasons that are entirely self-serving. I am talking of those who wish to alter the course of history in a direction that benefits a large number of people. We’ve to understand the life and legacy of Malcolm X in this context. Until he left American shores the man had little or no conception of what the rest of the world and their struggles were all about, except what he had garnered through reading. Until that point Malcolm X is a folk hero for the local struggles of American blacks; but the instant he could connect the black American struggles for human rights with the struggles of the colonized everywhere he gave a new dimension to the very idea of what civil rights is all about. An injustice happening in Asia or Africa is not different from what is happening in the United States, especially if there is a structure or a pattern to it. Slavery shares ideological similarities with colonialism and the philosophy of imperialism guiding it. It is these insights that make him both a national and an international champion of human liberty.  

Let us remember a couple of things: one is that he died at 39. Prior to that, Malcolm X’s early life is a horror film. The man’s background is nothing short of a preparation for dying. One has to read Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X to get a picture of the traumatic and tragic past that eventually lead to Malcolm Little becoming Malcolm X. In the opening chapter, while talking about the violence that took his father as well as five of the six brothers, Malcolm X poignantly says: “It has always been my belief that I, too, will die by violence. I have done all that I can to be prepared.” Further, talking of his mother’s suffering, he adds: “I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight. I have rarely talked to anyone about my mother, for I believe that I am capable of killing a person, without hesitation, who happened to make the wrong kind of remark about my mother. So I purposely don’t make any opening for some fool to step into.” For a racist system to crush a man and then expect him to take the path of nonviolence is naïve or possibly ridiculous. Second is that much of his education resulted from his own attempts to figure things out for himself as an activist. His marked change in attitude after leaving the Nation of Islam can be gauged from the incident of his interaction with the white college girl that he recounted to Alex Haley.  

“Anyway, I’d never seen anyone I ever spoke before more affected than this little white college girl. She demanded, right up in my face, “Don’t you believe there are any good white people?” I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I told her, “People’s deeds I believe in, Miss – not their words.” “What can I do?” she exclaimed. I told her, “Nothing.” She burst out crying, and ran out and up Lenox Avenue and caught a taxi.”

Years later when he recollected the incident he was nothing short of the realization of his terrible mistake in not talking to the white college girl in a way that would build bridges between people. 

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“I did many things as a Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then – like all Muslims – I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years.” The “twelve years” is not the issue here; but the recognition that there is no alternative except that blacks and whites should unite in the struggles for freedom.”  

For a man to admit his mistake and be genuinely contrite is a proof of his humility and willingness to see the truth. This is precisely the Malcolm X who is a spokesperson for the liberation of masses everywhere, enslaved by the American dollar. If Uncle Sam must be exposed it is the American black who will write the history of western hegemony because of their “inside knowledge” of oppression. 

““No one knows the master better than his servant.” We have been servants in America for over 300 years. We have a thorough, inside knowledge of this man who calls himself “Uncle Sam.” Therefore, you must heed our warning: Don’t escape from European colonialism only to become even more enslaved by deceitful, “friendly” American dollarism.”

When one insists that Malcolm X is a hater of whites or a segregationist one only needs to look at the killing of ten blacks in Buffalo, NY as recently as May 14, 2022 by a self-proclaimed white supremacist. Why don’t we tell the families of the black victims that non-violence and integration are the path forward for the community? For someone to kill people in cold blood and then expect them to love you in return is stretching the imagination. Why hasn’t anyone told the 18-year-old shooter that racism is sinful, wrong and a crime! His reasons for pleading not guilty are self-explanatory. At a tender age he internalized a world-view that divides the universe into blacks and whites; them versus us; and every one of “them” that is decimated is a contribution to “our” survival. It is a quest for fame through martyrdom, except that in this case the boy has come to the firm conclusion that he has to kill before he submits to the murderous justice system. This is the context to why Malcolm X is important to American blacks. It would be ridiculous to tell victims not to fight back and adopt non-violent means of protest. 

In an insightful article titled, “Payton Gendron is not a Right-Wing American Problem; He is an American Problem,” Gayatri Devi rightly observes, 

“In a fundamental sense, it is a historical sleight of hand to ascribe racially motivated white homicidal violence against African Americans to “white supremacy” in the United States…White supremacy is an outcome of American policies, historical and current; policies that do not punish white violence against African Americans. White supremacy is an effect, not a cause.”

Devi further adds that, “the pedigree of Payton Gendron…is historical white American rage at black autonomy.” This is the bitter truth that makes Malcolm X’s anger against “whites” seem like a fair response to what black people have to put up with in the search for their freedom. It is just that the white political establishment will leave no stone unturned in reducing black agency and autonomy to the bare minimum. They want the blacks to go the Native American way, which means disappear from sight. 

Rage, however, can be combated with an equal and opposite rage. What cannot be combated are majoritarianism and institutional forms of discrimination, that, unfailingly privilege whiteness over non-whiteness. How do you accuse a person of discrimination when he or she is in a position of power to make a choice that your work and you yourself are of an inferior race or culture! A system is created in such a way that the people who run it follow the unwritten guidelines which state that your interest is bound to the maintenance of the system in its unjust forms. When Malcolm X refuses to accept that anything that has to do with whites is in any way relevant to blacks, that is the point he is emphasizing, which is that they (blacks) don’t matter in a predominantly white establishment. “Imagine a Negro (saying): “Our government”! I even heard one say “our astronauts.” They won’t even let him near the plant – and “our astronauts”! “Our Navy” – that’s a Negro that is out of his mind, a Negro that is out of his mind.” 

The system has no real place for the black person to feel that they belong or are a part of it. A democracy where the majority functions to exclude a group that challenges the status quo is legitimate in every sense of the term; but, legitimacy is a problem because what is legitimized in the process is a mindset inclined towards prejudice and the maintenance of privilege; there is little that can be done to correct it because the people who inhabit the system subscribe to its core values. Their sense of entitlement is historical and cannot be undone overnight. 

I am not suggesting that the system should therefore be dismantled. But when it is as exclusionary as it is, there is bound to be an antithesis to it. That is the great legacy of Malcolm X. He knows that the system is dangerously biased in both a racist and a classist way. Of course, classism is always the bigger problem. Classism can bring the wealthy together who have an interest in keeping the system tilted in their favor. Non-whites who conform to white majoritarianism automatically stand a chance of seeing success rather than those who are opposed to it. 

The part however where I have serious objections to Malcolm X’s argument is his use of the phrase “white man.” It’s an abstraction and a metaphor; he seems to use it literally to refer to every man who happens to be white. Another, is his criticism of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Martin Luther King Jr. who he refers to disparagingly as “Uncle Toms” and “house negroes.” First, ‘white’ and ‘black’ are political categories that have nothing to do with real whites or blacks. A couple of hundred years from now it is quite possible that the entire ‘race’ category will die a natural death and will be seen as a relic of a bygone era. How can someone generalize that all whites are alike and create a political argument out of it! The questionable assumption behind it is that you’ve met every white person in the world, which is clearly impossible. 

Countless people who coincidentally happened to be ‘white’ died in the process of contributing to human freedom. It is absurd to take whiteness literally rather than as a nebulous term that can be as reductionist as blackness, when we talk of real people. Second thing is that being passive is not the same thing as passive resistance. Passive resistance is a form of resistance and is anything but passive. Compared to active resistance there is little doubt that the successes of passive resistance can be felt across the ages. Christianity became a world religion through passive resistance when the slaves challenged the might of the Roman empire through a simple ethic of love and suffering. Resistance is therefore at the heart of human rights, whether active as in the case of Malcolm X or passive as in the case of Martin Luther King Jr. 

Gwilym David Blunt in Global Poverty, Injustice and Resistance points out that the essence of human rights is the “right to resistance.” Without such a right, the notion of human rights itself becomes pointless. As Blunt puts it:

“The political conception of human rights needs the right to resistance. Without it, the conception becomes a variety of political discourses that articulate high-priority interests, but not a theory of rights…If there is no right to resistance, then human rights are reduced to appeals to the goodwill of powerful agents and institutions rather than demands for respect.”

When Malcolm X rejects black people having to wait for a transformation in the majority community, instead of exercising their right to resist injustice, he is making a serious point. As he said in his interview to Stan Bernard on February 18, 1965: 

“The white man will not turn the other cheek when he’s being oppressed. He will not practice any kind of love of a Klan or a Citizens Council or anyone else. But at the same time the white man is asking the black man to do this. So all I’m saying is, I absolutely believe the situation can be changed. But I don’t think it can be changed by white people taking a hypocritical approach, pretending that it is not as bad as it is, and by black leaders, so-called responsible leaders, taking a hypocritical approach, trying to make white people think that black people are patient and long-suffering and are willing to sit around here a long time, or a great deal of time longer, until the problem is made better.”

Malcolm X will continue to be a voice of protest against a racist and classist establishment and what it does to people by humiliating them body and soul. Chivy Sok and Kenneth J. Neubeck in an article from Human Rights in our own Backyard: Injustice and Resistance in the United States observe that, 

“Human rights violations happen in America on a daily basis. Under the George W. Bush administration, for example, due process was suspended in the name of fighting terrorism and individuals have been jailed for years without access to a lawyer. Torture by U.S. authorities became “legal” when a law professor turned Department of Justice official penned a series of memos that provided justification for using draconian methods such as “waterboarding” to extract information from detainees. (Waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning, is widely recognized internationally as torture.) In some states, prison officials still allow the shackling of women during childbirth. Nearly 500,000 children are laboring in some of the most dangerous conditions picking the very fruits and vegetables that may end up in our grocery stores. Capital punishment is applied to black men at a much higher rate than white men for committing comparable crimes. People of color continue to face persistent discrimination in a variety of areas, specifically in their access to health, quality education, labor protection, and so forth…” 

What makes those violations even more sinister is that everywhere oppressed people are taught to hate themselves by mainstream society. This is the broader context to what makes Malcolm X indispensable. He asks the questions in a way that makes sense. Unless the oppressed learn to love and respect themselves they’ve no chance of ever coming out of the oppression. Observe the profound meaning in his speech against the self-hate internalized by blacks; people who hate themselves are incapacitated to the extent that they cannot function normally. 

“Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? … Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much so that you don’t want to be around each other? … you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God made you.”

It is a proven fact that love, respect and pride in one’s own self is vital to one’s well-being. Oppression does not mean that people lose a sense of who they are and what their role in life is all about. The South Asian colonial mentality is about the self-hate that Malcolm X is talking about. Self-hating people are violent and abusive both towards themselves and others; Malcolm X clearly means to free black people from the disease that destroys individuals and communities. 

I’m certain that if he lived long enough Malcolm X would have abandoned some of his simplistic attitude and would have seen what is truly noble about his imagined adversary, Martin Luther King Jr. In the end, whether we like it or not, people must live together and share the available resources. They have to coexist and help each other wherever possible. While the demand for respect is undoubtedly important, the recognition that we are human beings capable of both good and bad, irrespective of every other consideration, has to prevail. 

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

One thought on “Why The American Political Establishment Should Embrace Malcolm X’s Legacy – OpEd

  • June 2, 2022 at 4:20 pm
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    Do Mr X ‘s ideas of fighting racism extend to the cast system in India, Black imperialism against non black, both indigenous and non indigenous?
    I heard it all before and as such I find Mr X to be a typical fool. Islam today is still slaving in Africa, it is still the teaching of its prophet, the most perfect man so they say, Mohammed.
    We have Muslim rape gangs in the UK, as they rape they repeat verses of the Q’ran which give them the right to rape.
    Given Muslim traders in the black slave trade, trans Atlantic, trans Sahara and via Zanzibar to Arabia and India, must ask how can any black man become a Muslim?

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