UNDERSTANDING THE SIGNIFICANCE OF MALCOLM X

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Some 46 years after his assassination, Malcolm X remains a much-revered symbol of transformation and uncompromising Black radical leadership. Yet, with his immense popularity comes equally immense confusion and controversy concerning his significance, evolving political ideology and relevance . . . facts that are underscored because he was killed before he could fully realize his political objectives.

Malcolm’s significance arouses hotly contested debate and varied interpretations. Late historian Manning Marable in his controversial biography describes Malcolm X as a combination trickster and hustler figure, who performed several roles in a quest to survive and express himself. According to Marable, “His narrative is a brilliant series of reinventions, ‘Malcolm X’ being just the best known.”

The famed attorney that helped legally dismantle public school segregation and later first Black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall openly questioned the slain leader’s accomplishments“I see no reason to say he is a great person, a great Negro. . .What did he ever do? Name me one concrete thing he ever did.” Writer Kevin Pritchett would suggest that “Malcolm X did not advocate revolutionary politics but actually the bourgeoisie conservative politics of voter participation, entrepreneurship, and self-accountability.” In an inspiring yet disturbing historical moment, one Gallup poll reported that 84 percent of Black people between ages 15-24 regarded Malcolm X as a hero, while only 25 percent of this group could articulate who he was, and what he stood for.

Because of the confusion and negative interpretations of Malcolm’s legacy and meaning, this article explores why brother Malcolm stands as one of our most significant and brilliant theoreticians of Black liberation.


Malcolm and the Black Intellectual Tradition

Manning Marable, in his essay “Black Studies and the Racial Mountain,” characterizes the black intellectual tradition as being descriptive, corrective and prescriptive. Likewise, Malcolm’s use of history operated in the same manner. It: 1. Explained the Black experience from the vantage point of Blacks’ own perspectives and interests 2. Challenged false and limiting views of Blacks and 3. Encouraged Black people to solve their own collective problems.

It was as if Malcolm X made the Wizard of Oz characters a metaphor for the “brainwashing” confronting Black people in the mid 20th century. Like the scarecrow, some Black people believed themselves to be unintelligent and incompetent. Like the Tin Man, we were “disheartened” and subject to dehumanization. Like the lion, Blacks felt defenseless and emasculated in the wake of white brutality and exploitation. Moreover, we feared taking our rightful places in leadership and positions of authority. 

Confronted by these externally imposed views, Black people like Dorothy, were collectively “lost,” existing in a geographic and political landscape both alien to them and hostile to their existence. Malcolm’s remedy involved the strategic use of history and re-education to imbue Black people with a reaffirming sense of value and importance, to have Blacks “return home” by embracing their African identity and character, and to deconstruct white supremacy by exposing whites as mere mortals (not wizards) who occupied their position of dominance through coercion and manipulation. His most important weapon toward accomplishing these endeavors would be historical analysis.

Malcolm’s “Message to the Grassroots” speech in 1963 is a fine example of his descriptive historical analysis. It is true that his famous comparison of house and field negroes depicts an oversimplified understanding of captive Africans and plantation dynamics. The house slaves he described as identifying with their masters might have actually been tricksters, feigning loyalty to gain concessions or information. Moreover, as Cornell West suggests, Malcolm’s blanket descriptions of house negroes and their counterparts in the field were not completely accurate or mutually exclusive.Yet his contrast between these enslaved Blacks and their connection to privileged Blacks vs. working class Blacks in the 1960s effectively described Black masses’ oppositional relationship to whites, while exposing the placating role often played by Blacks in positions of established leadership. As Malcolm noted, “Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house negro, to keep the field negroes in check, the same slavemaster has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th Century uncle toms, to keep you and me in check, to keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent.”

Malcolm X was particularly effective and dynamic when using history to correct racist perceptions of Black people. In explaining this he noted,

When you go back into the past and find out where you once were, then you will know that you weren’t always at this level,that you once had attained a higher level, had made great achievements, contributions to society, civilization, science, and so forth. And you know that if you once did it, you can do it again; you automatically get the incentive, the inspiration, and the energy necessary to duplicate what our forefathers formerly did. But by keeping us completely cut off from our past, it is easy for the man who has power over us to make us willing to stay at this level because we will feel that we were always at this level, a low- level.”

Accordingly, Malcolm used history in a corrective sense to cite evidence of African civilization and achievement prior to white contact. In his “Afro American History” speech for example, he spoke about Egypt, Mali, Songhai, Ghana, Carthage and Moorish societies as being advanced in mathematics, architecture, and he boldly identified ancient Sumerians and the Dravidian people of India as being Black.

In 1965, Malcolm read the OAAU charter and referred to his new organization’s intention to correct the distorted history taught to Black children in American public schools: “When we send our children to school in this country they learn nothing about us other than that we used to be cotton pickers. Every little child going to school thinks his grandfather was a cotton picker. Why, your grandfather was Nat Turner; your grandfather was Toussaint L’Overture; your grandfather was Hannibal. Your grandfather was some of the greatest Black people who walked on this earth. It was your grandfather’s hands who forged civilization and it was your grandmother’s hands who rocked the cradle of civilization.”

While decades of enlightened scholarship have rendered such commentary commonplace in contemporary times, Malcolm’s further call for community-controlled schools, Black teachers and principals, and textbooks written by Black historians comprised educational and historical correctives that were quite progressive and controversial in the 1960s. Also, we must note that Malcolm, like many of his contemporaries, was influenced by a white slave historiography (shaped by people like Stanley Elkins and Kenneth Stamp) which argued that slavery psychologically and culturally “destroyed” Black people. NOI teachings also promoted this now widely-rejected claim. To his credit however, Malcolm did recognize the enormous need for Blacks to use history as a weapon in their fight for identity, revitalization, and empowerment. The OAAU charter captures this spirit when it notes: “A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses it own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfill itself.”

Malcolm – in line with his attempt to use history in corrective fashion – often argued that Black people needed to redefine or re-identify themselves. He approached this task in several ways, but some of his most brilliant and dynamic efforts in this regard occurred through his rejection of the terms “Negro” “American,” and “minority.”

Influenced by his NOI background, Malcolm X dismissed “Negro” as a derogatory term that expressed contempt and inferiority. Moreover, the term was ambiguous. Speaking in 1965, Malcolm X noted that the term “Negro” lacked any linguistic, geographic, or cultural roots. People that identified themselves as Negroes therefore, effectively disconnected themselves from any history or culture.

Malcolm also chastised Black people for identifying themselves as American citizens. Perhaps the best summary of this idea exists in his 1964 “Ballot or the Bullet” speech. Using clever anecdotes he explains that Blacks do not receive the rights or privileges of American citizenship and reminds his audience that true citizens would not need to protest for the recognition or protection of their civil rights. Lastly, he identifies himself not as an American, but as a victim of America, pointing to an oppositional logic that Black masses should adopt as well: “No I’m not American. I’m one of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of Americanism.  . . . And I see America through the eyes of a victim. I don’t see any American dream, I see an American nightmare.”

The last target of his attack concerning Blacks’ re-identification concerned our image of ourselves as “minorities.” Malcolm saw this term as particularly disturbing since it caused Black people to view themselves as inferior and incapable of successfully challenging our oppression. According to Malcolm, re-identifying ourselves as a majority would cause Black people to stop privileging whites or viewing them as superiors. He conceded the obvious point that whites represented a majority population in America, but called for a Diasporic view, noting that African-descended people represented a global majority over whites.He reasoned that American Blacks should align themselves with “the dark masses of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” This, he believed, would inevitably result in the destruction of western imperialism and colonialism in addition to clearing the path to Black liberation in the United States. While his assassination in 1965 prevented him from fully realizing his vision,he was able to do what even Garvey did not, by actually visiting Africa and meeting with various heads of state.


Malcolm X, Black Power and Black Studies

Of all his ideas, Malcolm’s call for “a cultural revolution to unbrainwash an entire people”  most directly served as a catalyst and reference point for people that would later advocate for Black Studies Programs throughout the nation. Not merely jargon or intellectual abstraction, Malcolm believed education to be a weapon that must be used in the freedom struggle. The Basic Unity Program of the Organization of Afro American Unity reflects his emphasis on education and even anticipates the interdisciplinary nature of Black Studies by noting, “We must change the thinking of the Afro-American by liberating our minds through the study of philosophies and psychologies, cultures and languages that did not come from our racist oppressors.”

Several scholars have already cited Malcolm as the key influence on Black Power ideology and Black student activists, as noted earlier. But is there a direct link between Malcolm X and the Black Studies Movement? On what basis can the call for Black Studies be attributed to Malcolm, ideologically? Scholars like Frederick D. Harper refers to “Self defense at Cornell, interest in Africa at Princeton, black unity at Northwestern, and black studies and community involvement – all trends of the black students’ concerns which depict Malcolm X’s charges to black youth and suggest his influence on their behavior.”

Perhaps the greatest evidence of Malcolm’s connection to the Black Studies project comes from the stated objectives and personal testimonies of Black Studies advocates themselves. Close scrutiny reveals that their visions for and descriptions of Black Studies closely mirror the ideas articulated by Malcolm X. From his study of 200 Black Studies Programs in 1973, Nick Aaron Ford categorized the objectives of the discipline in the following manner:

  • to develop personal identity, pride and worth
  • to aid blacks in understanding the basis for an identity that is satisfying and fulfilling
  • to develop involvement and improvement in the Black community
  • to radically reform American education by attacking its racist assumptions and making it relevant to the current needs of blacks
  • to train Black students in the philosophy and strategies of revolution as a prelude to Black liberation
  • to promote scholarly aptitude and intellectual inquiry into the Black experience.
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Without question, Malcolm X was one of the greatest influences on the Black Power Movement and its prized achievement, Black Studies, Every major player of the Black Power/Black Arts Movements cited Malcolm as a major political/ideological influence.

Maulana Karenga, both a participant in the Black Studies Movement and a prominent Black Studies scholar, outlines five basic objectives of the discipline. These include the intention to teach about the experience of Black people throughout the Diaspora, and to “assemble and create a body of knowledge which was contributive to intellectual and political emancipation.”James Garrett, who organized the nation’s first Black Student Union at San Francisco State University in 1966, and who wrote the first proposal for a Black Studies Department, reiterates the emphasis on Black Studies as a vehicle of Black liberation noted:

“Many of us are coming to understand that we as African people need an educational system which defines objectives in terms of our needs and trains students in the skills necessary to aid in answering those needs. With the rise of national consciousness of African people in America we discover that we must become as independent as possible of the Europeans who colonize us; that we must rely upon our own collective resources as a people to answer our own needs; that we must struggle to destroy the American sphere of influence on the Continent of Africa; and that we must ‘render ourselves ungovernable’ by those who oppress us.”

The students, activists and intellectuals that created Black Studies believed that the educational system developed by whites was hegemonic, and that Black people must

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Malcolm X College in Chicago. Named after Malcolm X in 1968, it remains part of the City College system

 develop a system of education that would prepare them for liberation. Nathan Hare, who served as chairperson of America’s first Black Studies Department (San Francisco State College) in 1966, wrote several articles explaining the significance of Black Studies. He consistently argued that the discipline should repair the damaged psyche of Black people and equip them with the skills and information to solve problems in their communities. Some white intellectuals viewed Black Studies as being “in danger of becoming revival meetings which may have some therapeutic value but little intellectual substance,” or a futile “exercise in racial breast-beating,” while advocates like James Turner countered that it would involve serious intellectual inquiry and social correctives that transcended mere psychological revitalization.

When we examine how Black Studies advocates envisioned the discipline, the objectives they articulated for the discipline, and the various issues they debated around creating the discipline, many ideological roads lead back to Malcolm X.

In part, Malcolm’s legacy rests upon the legions of Black artists, students, intellectuals  and activists inspired by his rhetoric and transformed by his analysis to advocate for self-sufficiency, racial solidarity, and political empowerment and furthermore, to establish independent institutions and organizations to serve these interests. The concept of Black Studies, and the collegiate departments which continue to house and facilitate it, essentially represent an institutionalized pedagogical and intellectual embodiment of Malcolm’s call for a critical analysis of the African American and Diasporic experience. The discipline has evolved over time, in some cases developing far beyond what Malcolm could have anticipated, and in other cases, shifting its priorities away from “Black liberation” in its fight to stay relevant and competitive on contemporary college campuses.

Nevertheless, if Black Studies is one of the most important and lasting legacies of the Black Power Movement, then Malcolm X deserves recognition as one of the discipline’s important ideological antecedents. By pointing to the development of Black consciousness as foundational to Black liberation, by employing history in descriptive, corrective, and prescriptive fashion, and by arguing formal53 an alternative Black worldview and system of education, Malcolm X in effect, helped to conceive the ideological framework for what would become “Black Studies.”He also greatly inspired the many Black Power organizations that emerged after his death including but not limited to, the Republic of New Afrika, Black Panther Party,  ,US, Black Liberation Army  and the Revolutionary Action Movement, many of whom literally referred to themselves as the “heirs of Malcolm.”

In this sense, Malcolm X indeed “marked” or identified an important reference point on the ever-complex roadmap to Black empowerment, and must be seen not simply as a fiery and uncompromising spokesman, but one of the greatest intellectuals and theoreticians of Black liberation in the 20th Century.

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{Note: I released my third book entitled, “Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens,” on April 6, 2014. Check it out, and help me spread the word!}

 Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

 

 

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17 thoughts on “UNDERSTANDING THE SIGNIFICANCE OF MALCOLM X

  1. Somewhere along the way momentum was lost. So many beginnings yet we languish in a sea of false starts, misdirection and petty nitpicking.

  2. Many years ago, a friend told me, “Until you read The Autobiography of Malcom X and understand what his life was about, you can’t understand the black experience in America.” So, I Pored over that book. He lived an epic life, with stories within stories that have stayed with me throughout my adult life. Thanks for the post! JD

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my article. Malcolm’s Autobiography was indeed a monumental work that has affected so many people. Assata Shakur’s autobiography is also such a monumental work that I suggest people read.

  3. Pingback: Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet”: A Thorough Summary « Revolutionary Paideia

  4. Howdy! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this page to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks so much, Lorenza for the compliment! Sounds like I need to meet and organize with your former room mate! Brother Malcolm X in my opinion was one of the most important and effective critics of racism and theorists of Black liberation to grace this planet. He was so much more than a fiery speaker or good debater. I wrote this article to explore these things in detail, and I’m pleased to know you appreciated it.

  5. Hello, I’m doing an essay on Malcolm X and found this quote by Thurgood Marshall (“I see no reason to say he is a great person, a great Negro. . .What did he ever do? Name me one concrete thing he ever did.”) to be really useful in assessing Malcolm X’s significance. However, I have not been able to find the primary source where the quote was taken from. If you don’t mind me asking, could you please provide me the name of the source where the quote was taken from? Thank you very much for this article!

    • Chaerin: I’m glad you found my article useful. I would caution however against using Marshall’s quote to assess Malcolm’s significance, as it is just one view that is not common shared by Black folks. The reference to this quote is in my article. Just click on the link
      openly questioned the slain leader’s accomplishments in the article and you’ll get to the newspaper article.

      • Well I Am A 13 year old 8th grader and i found this article very helpful and useful…I actually used a lot of information from your article and turned it into my own words and scored an A+ on my test thanks 🙂

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  8. Pingback: The Importance of Brother Malcolm X 50 Years After His Assassination | MY TRUE SENSE

  9. Thank you for this beautifully written truth. Even though this is not the 1960’s via what the date says but it sure does feel like it. Sure, there have been some small improvements like having Obama be our first black president, but still in all it feels like the same old country to me. I am not old enough to remember what Malcolm X and our people went through but I am old enough to know it still remains today. I have been in many predicaments in which I am questioned about the color of my skin. I am too yellow for the white’s, and too red for the blacks. I wonder if Brother Malcolm experienced this too? I am thankful everyday that he stood up for our race to be themselves and to continue to feed our minds with the real truth and not the fabricated kind. He will always be a big part of my life and I feel he remains close even in death. Thank you again for posting this column for those who still desire to know him.
    Sincerely,
    Sharon M. Froton

  10. Pingback: In Memory of Brother Malcolm X on His 90th Birthday | MY TRUE SENSE

  11. I truly enjoyed the article. I had a friend actually ask me the question of “what did Malcolm X really do?” I had no response, but you have clearly explained his historical significance in the article. I’m a GED teacher in DC.Thanks again.

  12. Pingback: The North Hall: The Murals’ Significance | YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS

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