Against the Current, No. 51, July/August 1994
Bill Clinton and Genocide
— The Editors
Geronimo Pratt, Political Prisoner
— Karin Baker
The Rebel Girl: Is Population the Problem?
— Catherine Sameh
WE! Confronting Violence
— Chani Beeman
"La Causa" on the Road
— Dennis Dunleavy
Chinatown Lockout Defeated
— John C. Antush
UAW: Death of a Union?
— Peter Downs
The Future of Socialism
— Daniel Singer
On the French Students' Demonstrations
— an interview with Daniel Singer
Sweden: A Welfare State in Crisis
— Eva Nikell
Random Shots: Cholesterol for the Masses
— R.F. Kampfer
Capital, State, Socialism: Lessons of Zimbabwe
— Tom Meisenhelder
- South Africa After Apartheid
Introduction to South African Statements
— David Finkel, for The Editors
Taking RDP to the Streets
— Moses Mayekiso
Towards Unity of the Left
— Langa Zita
The Malcolmized Moment
— John Woodford
Recovering Women's Writing
— Constance Coiner
In Our Own Image
Edited by Joe Wood
St. Martin’s Press, 1992, $18.95 hardcover
“MALCOLM X IS probably the most visible (and vigorous) figure on the African-American political landscape today,” reads the publisher’s blurb for Malcolm X. In Our Own Image.
It’s an ambiguous blurb. It could be a statement that the image of Malcolm X is currently the most displayed and politically potent icon in Afro-American affairs, or that a dead man is not only the most attended to but the most alive player on the stage of Black American politics. Either way you take the comment, it paints a pathetic picture of politics and of publishing.
Nevertheless we can be grateful to Village Voice columnist Joe Wood for collecting these fourteen essays on the meaning of Malcolm X. What’s good in the book is very, very good, though what’s not is horrid. Two pieces are must-reads on the subject—those by Hilton Als Michael K and Adolph Reed; five other contributions are worth reading.
The fun begins with playwright and author Amiri Baraka, who reads Malcolm life as an increasingly conscious expression of the struggle for democracy of the Afro-American ethnic group or nationality of the USA. The lesson of the Garveyite, Civil Rights, Black Muslim, Black nationalist and other groups/movements, he says, is that they express a common “call for Black unity against White supremacy and Black national oppression.”
In Baraka’s interpretation of Malcolm X’s metamorphosis, the Malcolm who left the Nation of Islam and became Malik El-Shabazz reinterpreted the teachings of Elijah Muhammad that earlier inspired him as Malcolm Little/Detroit Red, the petty crook and convict. And as El-Shabazz, Malcolm rightly saw all “Black nationalist” movements as a striving for political organization, as “a call for Self-Determination, as a function of unified Black political struggle, rather than the ‘independence’ Elijah Muhammad preached… It was not a Bantustan Malcolm X called for but mobilization against national oppression.”
Baraka argues that the Malcolm of Lee’s film and other commercialized Malcolmite icons represent efforts to neutralize and obliterate the Black political, social and economic aspirations that he embodied. Baraka sees much of today’s commercially approved and establishment-funded Black cultural activity as a trick-bag, as “the rulers” assault on Black Americans’ ability to distinguish which modes of thought and action are in their interest and which are threats to it. That is why the establishment, snipe as it may at Spike Lee and his films, hails Lee’s works as the standard for “real” Black films while it categorizes the Black films of the 1960s and ’70s as “Blaxploitation” cinema.
Patricia Hill Collins, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, does what Angela Davis tries but fails to do in this collection, and that is to animate an analysis of the knotty and intertwined problems of race, sex and class.
Collins shows Malcolm to have been like most citizens of a society conceived and raised under a racist ideology: duped into believing that race is biologically constructed. One of the corollaries of the racist construct of race is that people fall into “pure” or “mixed” and other drivel such as people can have genetically contaminated “blood.”
Racism can infect Blacks as well as whites, but the symptoms may be different. Blacks who subscribe to racist pseudo-science are trapped within a paradox: those Blacks who are “tainted” with “white blood” are also cast (and caste), Collins says, as “more refined, intelligent and beautiful, at least by each other, while darker-skinned Blacks were portrayed as lesser.”
Collins also examines Malcolm X’s limitations as a political analyst. She sees him as an example of one tendency of the multiform and ongoing Black American liberation movement highlighted by Baraka:
“Missing from Malcolm X’s analysis is a structural analysis of social class that addresses those features of capitalist political economies that profoundly shape both Black and white social class dynamics. The discriminatory investment policies of banks, the role of the real estate industry in controlling property in African-American neighborhoods, the culpability of existing approaches to school financing in fostering Black educational impoverishment, the employment and investment policies of major international corporations, all remain largely ignored and unanalyzed.”
Not even in his final, El Shabazz, year did Malcolm take up such theoretical matters, Collins notes. The scarcity of analysis among Black conservative, centrist and nationalist political thinkers and organizers leaves them with a model of society in which “only Blacks appear to possess social class.”
Collins points out that “throughout his speeches and writings, Malcolm X alludes to the differences between working-class and middle-class Blacks. No such distinction is made for whites…. The absence of a comprehensive class analysis fosters the disquieting assumption that the true enemies of working-class Blacks are the ‘white man’ and his faithful sidekick—middle-class Blacks.”
A Tradition of Class Analysis
Like the entrepreneurs who have recently made high-yield investments in his story and image, Malcolm X chose to ignore the “longstanding Black progressive tradition concerning social class,” Collins says, a tradition “largely silenced by the McCarthyism of the early 1950s,” and formed by such thinker-activists as W.E.B. DuBois, Ida Wells Barnett, Oliver Cox, E. Franklin Frazier, Paul Robeson, Pauli Murray and Richard Wright.
Unlike most of today’s X-marketeers, Malcolm was not ignorant of this tradition. Many of his speeches delivered both during and after his membership in the Nation of Islam are dotted with references to progressive, particularly anti-colonial, struggles. He consistently defended Cuban, Algerian, Vietnamese, South African and other freedom struggles led in the main by Communists.
His articles in the newspaper Muhammad Speaks (It is pitiful that all contributors to this volume ignore his editorship of that paper and role in building it into the largest-circulation news weekly paper in the country) show wide-ranging knowledge of international struggles and his partisan responses to them. He was no Red-baiter, nor could Red-baiters intimidate him.
But Malcolm Little had to suppress his awareness of the role of social class, Collins says, as a price for his emotional rescue by Elijah Muhammad, for his rebirth as Malcolm X. He paid that cost by serving for twelve years as chief piper for the Black Muslims’ chimerical tune of a separate Black capitalist state.
In all fairness to Allah’s Last Messenger, however, let’s acknowledge that Elijah Muhammad used this Promised Land as a means to encourage academic and labor discipline among his followers, many of whom opened shops, learned trades, read widely, earned advanced degrees and so on, to prepare themselves as future nation builders. The Nation of Islam’s rate of achievement in skills-building surely surpassed the public school system’s, even if the Nation could never have served as Black Americans’ substitute for that system.
Collins is also right to emphasize that the “checkered record of white progressives on matters of race may also have contributed to Malcolm X’s basic mistrust of social class as a structural category of analysis essential to African-American social struggle.”
But Malcolm X’s championing of the Black Muslim’s prescriptions for women cannot be explained away. Orthodox Islam, Christianity, Judaism and many other male-enforced, cleric-dominated religions and sects have constructed a two-part image of “Woman” as helpless air-head/mother-of-the-race who also is a creature-who-is-a-whore-if-uncontrolled. It is irresponsible, however, to sidestep Malcolm X’s male supremacism with the excuse that “that’s what everyone was doing back then.”
Collins builds her case against Malcolm X’s male supremacism by quoting his own speeches and writings. Since his image of Black oppression was almost always expressed as one of castration of the Black man by the white man, she observes: “Equating Black oppression with the state of Black masculinity is in effect offering a masculinist analysis of Black oppression.” Malcolm X’s and others’ masculinist ideology requires women to be kept in their inferior place by “strong” men—benevolent dictators with the authority to whip the stubborn “bitches” if that’s required for domestic order.
If male supremacists approve of such oppression in the home, Collins notes, “We might also question what version of Black community control Malcolm X had in mind for the economic, political and social development of African-American communities.” (Emphasis added.)
That is a question we must ask anyone who advocates or condones the use of force on members of his or her own movement Anyone who accepts the brutalization of women can or will, if “the cause” demands it, also accept the brutalization of children, weaker males or others who do not possess the might to be right. Any self-styled nationalist who would limit a Black woman or man’s right to read, marry, travel, attend school, live, eat or speak freely, can hardly be a sincere champion of the freedom of the race.
Collins finds much in Malcolm X to admire, however. He was a keen scholar and activist, and a bold personality resolute on the question of freedom, justice and equality for his people. Thus he offered a “type of leadership” that “may prove to be far more valuable to African-American communities than any specific idea he embraced or action he took He was an individual who was able to think for himself and act upon the strength of his convictions.”
No one should take that as faint praise.
The Mystery of Malcolm’s Mother
Hilton Als, a staff writer for the Village Voice, presents the most emotionally and intellectually evocative essay, ‘Philosopher or Dog?” a meditation on the life of Louise Little, Malcolm X’s mother.
In the Autobiography, Malcolm X characterizes his mother as looking “like a white woman …. She had straight Black hair and her accent did not sound like a Negro’s.. . . I looked like my mother.” This formula for self-hatred, given Malcolm X’s later ideology, intrigues Als, and he undertakes the “gargantuan task of remaking Mrs. Little.”
Malcolm X left few ingredients for this remaking; he portrayed his mother, according to Als, as “an abhorrent phantom eventually driven mad by her ghostly, non-colored half.” Her son omitted the story of her odyssey from Grenada to Canada to the United States, nor did he retell any of the normal family accounts of what had attracted her to Earl Little, the itinerant preacher and sometime Garveyite. In the son’s story, she exists “to give birth to Malcolm, go mad and look nearly colorless.”
Louise Little’s father, however, a Scotsman she reportedly never saw, “hovers happily in the Autobiography,” Als notes, and commands much more attention in the tale than Louise does because the Scotsman represents power. “Earl and Malcolm speak of no one else with such passion” because the Grandfather stamped the mother and son (at birth, anyway) with “skin not of a color.” And “Earl and Malcolm attached themselves to Louise’s male, noncolored half,” and compet[ed] with his ghost at every turn.”
Both men were avowed Black nationalists. Yet they found Louise particularly beautiful and seemed to have attributed her beauty in large part to her skin’s relative absence of color.
“Malcolm holds Louise Little’s father responsible for his mangled consciousness,” Als says. Consider the myth of identity Malcolm X spun to explain his own character: “I was among the millions of Negroes who were insane enough to feel that it was some kind of status symbol to be light-complexioned [But] later, I learned to hate every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me.”
Als asks, “How do we know that Louise Little’s mother—who is not mentioned in the Autobiography at all—did not love Louise’s father?” Neither Malcolm X nor anyone else has presented any evidence that the Scotsman raped Louise Little’s mother. But Malcolm X seems not to have been interested in his mother’s past except to indulge in the “potential fantasy” of his Grandfather as rapist.
In this fantasy the Grandfather is so hated by Louise Little that she “gave me more hell” than her other children, while his father, Earl, for the same reason of skin pallor, favored Malcolm for being lighter. If Malcolm knew more of his mother’s West Indian culture, Als says, “he would know that in the West Indies a father is an immaterial thing–a scrap of man born as torment Louise Little knew that.”
Louise Little was smarter than her husband (did Malcolm X attribute this to her skin non-color? Als wonders), and was occasionally beaten for showing her brainpower. In the Autobiography, Malcolm X condoned his father’s action: “An educated woman, I suppose, can’t resist the temptation to correct an uneducated man. Every now and then, when she put those smooth words on him, he would grab her.”
“Did Louise Little ask, by speaking, to be punished?” Als asks. “Is that how she lost her mind, really?” Madness threatened her whether she expressed herself and received blows for her thoughts, or held her tongue and smothered her Intelligence.
Als concludes that because she was an immigrant, and a West Indian at that, “American people of a color” are cheered by Louise Little’s characterization and fate in the Autobiography because the plot “plays out the violence of their feelings toward the colored immigrant.”
But in their own homelands, “West Indians of a color are in the majority. They project the arrogance and despair that comes with this sense of being central but small onto everything and everyone else in the world.” And “Americans of a color” define West Indians by this arrogance, but do not sense the despair and feeling of smallness that it masks. Als tells of his Barbadan grandmother, a Royalist who, like Louise Little, “was Yellow” and “attempted to ignore her children who were women, and their children who were dark.”
Malcolm X sneaked in “bits about his hatred of Mom” as he developed his Black Muslim line, but these bits were only means for his “transferring his hatred of Mom’s light skin onto a race of people he deemed mad because their skin was lighter than Mom’s and, therefore, madder still.”
And as Malcolm X grew in fame, “Mrs. Little was diminished by the loving glare of his publicity In the Autobiography, he describes this love [of publicity for him, and vice-versa] in great detail”—publicity that grew while his mother was spending twenty-six years in a state mental hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Readers of the Autobiography learn nothing of her “pitiful” (as Malcolm called it) life there, nothing of what her son said to her during his sporadic visits At what point did she reach the condition in which “she didn’t recognize me at all”? We’re not told.
In sketching his reconstructive autobiography of Louise Little, Als overwhelms the reader with the force and logic of his imagination. Despite the Autobiography’s continuing ability to inspire us, readers of “Philosopher or Dog” will forever hold in their mind Als’s assessment, too:
“The Autobiography has everything very stupid people embrace—the mother driven mad by her husband’s murder, the dust of patriarchy, religious conversion into the sublime—and yet it has nothing.”
The book we need, Als insists, is an autobiography “rich in emotional fiber, with a love of God and children and Mrs. Little and so forth.” Such a book would supersede the so-often-told tale of “a boy who speaks (badly) for women—the too-familiar story.”
The Politics of the Zoot Suit
The final two essays worth reading clash against one another, throwing off sparks that illuminate both our political landscape and our academic discourse about it. From this reviewer’s perspective it might be more frank to say that Robin D.G. Kelley’s “The Riddle of the Zoot: Malcolm Little and Black Cultural Politics During World War II” is a handy foil for Adolph Reed Jr.’s “The Allure of Malcolm X.
Kelley, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, provides a wonderfully documented look at the zoot-suit, conk-headed culture that Spike Lee used so powerfully to whoosh viewers back to 1940s Harlem cool-cat life in the opening scenes of the movie “X.”
But like Lee, Kelley strives to imbue the street hustling lumpen lads and lassies with inherent revolutionary potential. Ignoring Malcolm X’s own interpretation of his transition from hustler to activist, those who idolize the gangster-rebel as People’s Hem maintain in effect that Malcolm X was no qualitative improvement on Detroit Red, and therefore to condemn the milieu of the petty crook, hustler and gang banger is to nip a hero in the bud.
As enjoyable and informative as it is to read Kelley’s effort to make his case, I remain unconvinced. Granted, denizens of the street can be intriguing. Kelley cites no less a cultural observer to emphasize this fact than Ralph Ellison, who wrote: “Much in Negro life remains a mystery; perhaps the zoot suit conceals profound political meaning; perhaps the symmetrical fantasy of the Lindy Hop conceals clues to great political power—if only Negro leaders would solve this riddle ….”
Attempting to fill Ellison’s bill requires Kelley to indulge in some formidable prose sleights of hand. He has to de-emphasize or traduce those young persons and common folks who displayed in the 1950s and ’60s the discipline and daring needed to bring down the walls of segregation. To Kelley, “middle-class” must take on an intrinsically bad connotation so that zoot, hipster, hip-hop and other strata may be more easily glorified. Thus we read that the 1960 civil rights fighters were ‘sons and daughters of middle-class African-Americans, many of whom were themselves college students taking a detour on the road to respectability to fight for integration [sic] and equality.” (Emphasis added.)
Isn’t it a put-down to characterize the freedom fighters as having been on a “detour,” on a well-mapped route to “respectability”? And was the battle for Black freedom and equality ever really for “integration”? That term was foisted on a movement too busy to think about wordplay. But the objective was always desegregation, the crushing of Jim Crow, the smashing of the legal framework of U.S. apartheid, and not to foist ourselves into truly private white social settings or even to dismantle predominantly Black institutions.
I don’t think Kelley in his heart is so contemptuous of the freedom fighters. But his objective in this essay imposes upon him a regrettable rhetorical strategy:
“For Malcolm, the zoot suit, the lindy hop and the distinctive lingo of the ‘hep cat’ simultaneously embodied these class, racial and cultural tensions. This unique subculture enabled him to negotiate an identity that resisted the hegemonic culture and its attendant racism and patriotism, the rural folkways (for many the ‘parent culture’) that still survived in most Black urban households, and the class-conscious, integrationist attitudes of middle-class Blacks.”
We are to accept the proposition, therefore, that it was not the young punk Detroit Red—skillfully “negotiating his own identity’ by living a prodigal life—who harbored “class pretensions.” No. It was the earnest hard-working Black residents of Roxbury, Massachusetts!
Thus, when Malcolm/Detroit Red dove into petty hoodlumism, he was, in Kelley’s mind, discovering “the Black subculture”—not the criminal subculture but THE Black culture. Linking Black culture to criminality is something only bigots used to do.
The desire to “act out” through bizarre clothing, through avoiding honest labor, through reviling and exploiting women—these acts Kelley exalts as “subversive,” as “resistance” and as a “rejection of both Black petit-bourgeois respectability and American patriotism.” This is the text he’s forced to write. Because he can’t take seriously Malcolm X’s own later appraisal of the conk culture as an expression of feelings of inferiority and degradation as a vestige of servitude, Kelley must palm off Detroit Red’s life as revolutionary stylizing and heroic resistance, that is, as the equivalent of Malcolm X’s life.
Does the rap culture Kelley glorifies solve Ellison’s riddle? Does it offer clues as to how to gain political power for the Black community or other U.S. citizens poorly served by our democracy?
Are hip-hop–or, for that matter, acid rock, heavy metal or grundge rock–modem-day incarnations of conk heroism or Robin Hoodism? Is singing nasty songs part of an unconsciously noble struggle, as Kelley says of Detroit Red’s shenanigans, “to carve out more time for leisure and pleasure, free himself from alienating wage labor, survive and transcend the racial and economic boundaries he confronted in everyday life”?
Reality is stubborn. Critics may insist from their offices in the halls of ivy that we stop using “decontextualized labels such as ‘nihilism’ or ‘outlaw culture.” Perhaps other terms may also offend them, like lumpen proletariat, declasse or, yes, even underclass. But the world inhabited by the majority of Black urbanites still exists, and its indices of quality of life are still dropping. And second-class citizenship, American apartheid, will always resist, as it did in Detroit Red’s days, any assault armed ideologically with the notion that there is revolutionary magic in syncopated song and dance, iconoclastic clothing, gang-banging, hanging-out or petty thievery.
Malcolm X knew that That’s how and why he became Malcolm X. With his considerable intellectual gifts and rigorous scholarly discipline, Kelley will undoubtedly come to the same conclusion soon, and he’ll do so sooner if he takes to heart the last essay in this volume.
The Legend, Living Reality
Skip the first five pages of “The Allure of Malcolm X and the Changing Character of Black Politics” by Adolph Reed Jr. Start with the paragraph beginning, “Malcolm X is attractive to young people today in part because he was attractive to young people when he was alive.”
What today’s youth receive from their elders is, in part, “a Malcolm X fabricated within an abstracted discourse of Black ‘greatness,” Reed says. Malcolmania, however, is not just a marketing phenomenon but, far more than that, a sign of the desperation of those who believe “that Malcolm’s apparent popularity either reflects or may crystallize a rising tide of activism.”
Reed traces the development of today’s severe socioeconomic problems from theft emergence after the decline of the Black Power in the mid ’70s. There was consumerism, militant posturing and mystification of Black identity back then, too. But at least the claims of any Black group or erstwhile leader “to serious commitment or sophisticated analysis [were] judged in relation to an objective of changing social conditions affecting Black people. (Emphasis added.)
And that’s what is missing now. Radicalism has been marginalized, its space seized by the model of “Black officeholders and public managers” who have pushed the notion that racial empowerment can result from “incremental adjustment of the routine operations of institutions in their charge.”
These chiropractic adjustments have included “improving minority personnel ratios, opening access to public contracting, improving the social welfare system’s methods of distributing what are called human services, and appointing and/or electing more Black officials.” The political quackery narrows the horizon of political activity, substituting the maneuvering of “insiders” and agenda-setting elites for the mobilization of the Black citizenry.
The result is the rise of “venal and reactionary—but all militantly race-conscious Bantustan administrators as a stratum-for-itself.” The civil rights organizations “found their way into public budgets and the inner circles of policy implementation and thereby legitimized accommodationist, insider politics as the proper legacy of protest activism.”
Just as emperors can don new clothes, so too can the colonized. Simultaneous with the rise of the kente-cloth nationalists came the new guise of the porkchoppers of old: today’s hip-hop nationalists. Reed traces their ideological ancestry:
“Beginning in the 1980s also, the invention of a youth-centered hip-hop culture, whose iconic markers allegedly constitute an immanent form of social criticism, once again has blurred the lines between ideology and style, political action and consumer preference.”
The whole cultural-politics discourse, Reed says, can be seen on one hand as a sign of the “relatively low level of political mobilization among Black Americans (and its corollary, absence of a dynamic political movement”); and on the other hand as “an outgrowth of the structuralist and poststructuralist trends in radical social theorizing.” The cultural-politics scholasticists define individuals’ and groups’ “identification with a ‘taste community’ as intrinsically political behavior, on an equal status with purposive contests over state action.”
Pouring into the ever-expanding vacuum formed by political inactivity, Reed says, are such pseudo-political behaviors as Black History Month and compendiums of Great Black Historical Figures (“a hybrid Homeric narrative and Afrocentric version of ‘Jeopardy”); the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday rituals; and “nationalist psychobabble about the need to repair supposedly damaged self-respect by teaching Black people about ‘themselves.” (Or witness today’s NAACP calling upon Blacks to pay their bills with $2 notes called “Black-dollars” as if corporations are ignorant of Black spending habits?!)
No “parade of racial self-esteem experts” or purveyors of role-model panaceas will cut any political mustard, Reed says, because “linking examination of the past to a therapeutic project destroys a sense of history as process and reduces it to a field of static, decontextualized parables.”
Anatomy of A Retreat
Reed identifies the kinds of pitiful measures that have created the big sucking sound associated with the Black political vacuum. He traces a pattern in all this, a pattern of retreat from and discouragement of community- and nation-based political organization and protest, and a pattern of “channeling Black political participation into support for the regime—in part by defining any other course as II-legitimate and in part by successfully representing the payoffs generated as both significant and optimal.”
Thus instead of increasing Black voter registration and participation, Black elected officials and civil rights organizations have preferred to fortify their own seats of privilege, where they can serve as power brokers through a “strategy of insider advocacy” that is Incompatible with popular mobilization” As Reed points out, there is more than a little bit of class prejudice in this commitment to “professionalistic ideology” and defense of privilege by a managerial elite.
Like the rest of America’s elite, the Black managerial elite indulges in “totemic nostalgia” for Civil Rights activism by concentrating on King-birthday campaigns as a way of selling the idea that all that is lacking is a Great Black Leader. But the idolatry for King—like that for Malcolm X—arose only after the political figure was safely dead.
Afro-Americans, Reed reminds us, have had “no referendum or other forum for legitimizing anyone’s claims to be a national leader.” The street riff-raff, the civil rights kingpins, the film makers, the curse-spewing/self-hating rappers and others hailed as conscious or unconscious subverters of the system of exploitation and oppression can point to nothing but personal achievements.
And compared with the expectations he aroused, neither can the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Reed says Jackson can cite “few benefits besides his own aggrandizement—no shift in public policy, no institutionalized movement, not even a concrete agenda” around which to mobilize—unless you accept “Jesse for President” as such an agenda, and if you do, you must acknowledge that that is “the most radical narrowing of the focus of Afro-American political action to date.”
The little increments derived from Black office-holders–“zoning variances, summer jobs in municipal agencies, waivers on code enforcement, breaks in the criminal justice system, special parks and recreational services” and a share in public contracts is obviously not proving sufficient to alleviate the problems of the day. Because “Black control of those agencies whose principal function is management of the dispossessed does not alter their ultimately repressive function.” (Emphasis added.)
Instead of rituals, Reed says, Blacks need strategy and tactics that flow from an awareness of present-day realities, of “the intricate logic of reorganization at work in domestic and global political economy since World War II.” What has happened is this:
“… the consolidation of a domestic political model—joining national and local levels—that cements interest group loyalties and legitimizes state power through participation in a regime of public stimulation of private economic growth; the subsidiary role for defense spending, transportation and urban redevelopment policy in recomposing regional and metropolitan demographic, economic and political organization.”
A radicalism that does not master the new reality “gives away some of the most important conceptual ground to defenders of the status quo” and, in their braying retreat, the pseudo-radicals make big noises that mystify the ignorant but do not frighten their enemies.
These zanies tell us that to become politically effective we must model ourselves after some ancient Egyptian royal house, or understand the difference between “Fire People” and “Ice People,” or regale our children with fantastic (but easily refutable by a little honest book-learning) tales of prehistoric African inventions of stainless steel. They urge us to praise the anti-democratic deeds of slave-holding Black kings and queens, or to worship a beatific Black Female/Mother, or to “understand Malcolm.”
Reed hits the nail on the head: “There is nothing that understanding the ‘real’ Malcolm X—an impossibility in any event–could do to clarify or to help formulate positions regarding any of those phenomena, neither the internal nor external forces shaping Black political life. Invoking his image in these circumstances amounts to wishing away the complexities that face us.”
Appeals to special forms of knowledge are especially harmful when they come from Black scholars who should know better. False knowledge undercuts the ideological development of young men and women. Especially damaging is the “rhetoric of cultural politics” because it “exalts existing practices as intrinsically subversive and emancipatory”:
“… [I]t is a construction of radical opposition that naturalizes the demobilized state as outside the scope of intervention and limits itself to celebrating moments of resistance supposedly identifiable within fundamental acquiescence.
“Because it rejects distinctions between style and substance, form and content, this new rhetoric of evasiveness gives an intellectual justification for conflating political commitment and consumer market preference …. It consequently makes a fetish of youth as a social category (another failure to learn from mistakes of the 1960s) and idealizes trends in inner-city fashion as emancipatory expression.”
When rappers project themselves as political sages, or politicians and scholars hail them as such, there is something rotten in the state. Malcolmania has arisen from this putrefaction. The demagogues who draw upon Malcolm tend to “reproduce his inaccurate, simplistic reading of Afro-American history and reinforce inadequate and wrongheaded tendencies in the present.” Malcolm X’s oft-repeated house-Negro/field-Negro metaphor is a prime symptom of an “historically wrong, obfuscatory and counterproductive” concept.
The field Negro in Malcolm’s mythology stands for the strong and militant Black, and the house Negro is the traitor and source of disunity. Never mind, Reed notes, that leaders of the major slave revolts—including Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser—were house slaves. The house/field dichotomy is a handy weapon for Black yahoos to preserve the notion that there is a fundamental conflict between educated and under- or mis-educated Blacks. As it happens, Blacks who exercise critical dissent are often abused as “house niggers” who are posing a deep threat to a united Black mass.
Criticism delivered anywhere but “in the closet,” in Malcolm’s words, is dangerous or unwanted, thus he ridiculed Blacks who publicly rebutted his house/field nonsense. OK for Malcolm, however, was his own public attack—puritanical and naive though it was—on Elijah Muhammad for consorting with women out of wedlock.
This is the kind of criticism that white supremacists and Spike Lee accept as serious and damaging, so fearful and eager are they to belittle and explain away Muhammad, an under-appreciated influential figure in American history. (Look, for example, at the Black Panther Party’s ten-point social program; it’s closely adapted from the Black Muslim ten-point program printed on the back of every issue of Muhammad Speaks.)
Malcolm, Elijah Muhammad and others have also advanced the notion that Blacks should condemn government programs that combat or seek to rectify the effects of racism. They call instead for self-help and self-reliance programs. “In current political debate self-reliance is a code for Booker T. Washington-style forfeiture of the right to make claims on public authority,” Reed observes, a public authority resting on the wealth accumulated through centuries of super-exploitation of Black enslaved and free workers, among others, at home and abroad. “In this vein Black conservatives such as Clarence Thomas or Tony Brown are at least as likely to annex Malcolm’s authority as are nationalists who prefer not to be thought of as conservative.”
The truth of the matter, Reed says, is none of us knows what Malcolm would be doing if he were alive today, or what he would have done from 1965 to the present And we will gain nothing by speculating about the matter. “Part of what was so exciting about Malcolm, in retrospect anyway, was that he was moving so quickly, experimenting with ideas, trying to get a handle on the history he was living.”
Despite Malcolm X’s appeals for Black unity—which included adapting the name of the Organization of African Unity for his own organization—he “made his reputation by attacking entrenched elites and challenging their attempts to constrain popular action and the vox populi: Now he is canonized as an icon, an instrument of an agenda that is just the opposite of popular mobilization.”
Administering a welcome antidote to the over-dosing on anachronistic Black feudalistic fantasies, Reed concludes: “He was no prince; there are no princes, only people like ourselves who strive to influence their own history.”
July-August 1994, ATC 51