The Oratory of Malcolm X

Against the Current, No. 120, January/February 2006

Ursula McTaggart

Malcolm X:
Inventing Radical Judgment
By Robert Terrill
East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004, $49.95 hardcover.

SPIKE LEE CLOSES his 1989 film “Do the Right Thing” with two quotes: In one, Malcolm X proclaims the right to self defense and in the other, Martin Luther King, Jr. insists upon non-violent protest. Each quote has the potential to produce a drastically different reading of the film, which ends in a police murder of an African-American youth and a subsequent street riot.  Lee, however, chooses to maintain a tension between the two interpretations of the riot, asking his audience to juggle both or to choose for themselves.

In this context, Malcolm X appears (as many have framed him) as a supporter of “violence” or self-defense. In Malcolm X: Inventing Radical Judgment, however, Robert Terrill presents Malcolm X not as the simple defender of violent protest but as a figure who, like Lee, would have challenged his audience to perform their own social critiques.

Malcolm X’s oratory, according to Terrill, is a model of radical criticism, and we can see his speeches not simply as the means to an emancipatory, anti-racist end but as a “theory of rhetorical action” (17; all page references to Terrill except where noted). Terrill particularly lauds the increasingly critical voice that Malcolm X launched against the Nation of Islam’s doctrine in his last year. During this period, Malcolm X asked African Americans to hold tight to both the ballot and the bullet, employing each strategically and not becoming ideologically reliant upon either one.

In doing so, Terrill argues, Malcolm X empowered his audience to develop a “trickster consciousness,” questioning both hegemonic and overly rigid anti-hegemonic doctrines. (171) At the same time, Terrill maintains that this rhetoric forged a sense of shared identity and purpose among his African-American listeners that allowed them to translate their critical questions into non-dogmatic modes of action.

While Terrill’s primary argument centers on an unaffiliated Malcolm X in his last year of life, he places this material in context by juxtaposing it to Malcolm X’s rhetoric within the Nation of Islam. This catalogue of speeches, Terrill argues, falls within the American prophetic tradition, and he dwells at length on the prophetic as a key mode of African-American protest rhetoric.

Through an analysis of prophetic texts by Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, David Walker and Nat Turner, Terrill distinguishes between the jeremiad and the apocalyptic style of prophetic discourse. While the jeremiad (represented in this text by Douglass and DuBois) retains faith in the possibility for American social reform, apocalyptic texts (represented by Walker and Turner) insist that only a revolutionary break will bring about the golden age projected by religious prophecy.

A Prophetic Tradition

Terrill acknowledges the essential role that the prophetic tradition has played in African-American organizations and texts and locates the Nation of Islam’s rhetoric within this tradition.  Such rhetoric, he argues, contributed to the popularity and stability of the Nation of Islam and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) as radical organizations, as it offered coherent projects for identification and action.

Moreover, prophetic rhetoric modeled a resistant strategy of interpretation for listeners and readers.  The Nation of Islam taught participants to see direct references to Elijah Muhammad and the African-American struggle in the Bible; Frederick Douglass asked his readers to interpret the Constitution as an anti-slavery document; and Nat Turner insisted that the mundane world was full of prophetic signs waiting to be read and acted upon by slaves eager to overturn the system of oppression.

Terrill ultimately sees such models of reading, however, as overly rigid, dependent on the perception of pre-determined signs given by God and interpreted by mediating rhetoricians. But while he indicates early on that he will reject the prophetic tradition for its rigidity, Terrill elaborates on prophetic history for nearly half of the book.

Following an extensive reading of the four texts by Douglass, DuBois, Walker and Turner, Terrill traces the prophetic tradition through Marcus Garvey’s UNIA and Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) until he reaches the Nation of Islam (NOI). The NOI, he argues, walked the line between reformism and revolutionary sentiment by combining socially conservative and politically disengaged action with an apocalyptic vision of the American future.

Terrill then proceeds to trace Malcolm X’s discourse, from a strict alignment with the NOI tradition of prophetic but rigid rhetoric toward an increasingly open engagement with concrete politics and non-dogmatic social critiques. Through close readings of speeches (“Black Man’s History,” 1962; a speech delivered a Michigan State University in 1963; Malcolm X’s last speech as an NOI minister; “The Ballot or the Bullet”; and “Letter from Mecca”), Terrill identifies the seeds of Malcolm X’s later rhetorical critique in his early speeches, while maintaining that only in his final year did Malcolm X move productively beyond prophecy and begin to model “radical judgment.”

Rhetoric of Communication

Malcolm X’s desire to communicate more effectively with his audience, Terrill maintains, was a primary factor in his split with the Nation of Islam and one that has been largely ignored by scholars. Terrill sees Malcolm X as first and foremost a public speaker, and the Nation of Islam’s prophetic rhetoric ultimately became confining in his attempt to address political as well as religious matters. After his break with the NOI, Terrill notes an increasingly individualist style in Malcolm X’s rhetoric.

Disillusioned by the hierarchical structure of the NOI, he rejected its rigid narrative structures and began to preach “radical flexibility.” (142)  In doing so, he asked his audience to act as trickster figures patrolling the margins of both society and organized resistance, acting not on command but as a result of their own critical analyses.

“If a man has to have someone else to choose his target,” Malcolm X told an audience of Mississippi youth, “then he isn’t thinking for himself — they’re doing the thinking for him.” (George Breitman, ed., Malcolm X speaks: Selected Speches and Statements, 140. New York: GroveWeidenfeld, 1965)

This notion of radical critique did not emerge simply in such overt statements.  Instead, Terrill argues that it was reflected in Malcolm X’s rhetorical choices, as when Malcolm criticized his Black audience members for unthinkingly supporting a Democratic Party that had done little to advance the civil rights movement. Instead, he urged them to use their voting power more strategically:

“Don’t register and vote — register! That’s intelligent. Don’t register and vote — you can vote for a dummy, you can vote for a crook, you can vote for another who’d want to exploit you. “Register” means being in a position to take political action any time, any place and in any manner that would be beneficial to you and me.”(Breitman, op. cit., 133)

Problem of Organization

While insisting that Malcolm X wants his listeners to be individual analysts, Terrill shies away from the extreme individualism often associated with trickster-style questioning of codified doctrines. Collective identity remained crucial to Malcolm X’s project: According to Terrill, Malcolm X’s late speeches were a form of “constitutive rhetoric” that helped define the audience as part of a collectivity.

As he broke down the social definitions that trapped his African-American audience members, the internal coherence of his rhetoric allowed them to redefine themselves as members of an actively struggling pan-Africanist community. “As long as we think,” he told his listeners at the Audobon, “that we should get Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, we’ll never get Mississippi straightened out.” (Breitman, op. cit., 90)

This fragile relationship between individualism and collectivism, Terrill argues, allowed listeners to maintain their own perspectives of radical judgment, but it did not generate stable activist organizations.

Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) and the Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI) never achieved the stability of more traditional, hierarchical organizations such as the NOI. “The post-Malcolm histories of his OAAU and MMI serve as concrete reminders,” Terrill tells us, “that this sort of radical critique cannot easily sustain a traditionally defined political movement.” (185)

Terrill’s analysis is productive in its focus on how Malcolm X’s rhetoric concretely affected his audience. There can be no doubt that Malcolm X’s words shaped his audience’s understanding of themselves and of the political climate. It offered them, as Terrill argues, tools of critical analysis.

Terrill sees this effect, however, as Malcolm X’s primary concrete contribution to the radical anti-racist struggle.  Turned off by the hierarchical structure and “closed narratives” of the NOI, Terrill argues that Malcolm X’s post-NOI language does not translate easily into organized political movements. Instead, it generates a community of critical individuals who cannot be hemmed in by the confines of hierarchical political movements, though they may “assemble momentarily … coherent texts, motives, and identities.” (191)

Here, Terrill comes close to allowing Malcolm X to fall into a poststructuralist realm of open undecidabilities (though Terrill himself might be uncomfortable with this). Uprooted from all closed ideologies, Malcolm X and his listeners can apparently act only provisionally, in fleeting moments of collective action.

Terrill is certainly right to perceive Malcolm X’s desire to question and revise codified structures of thinking, but he underestimates the possibilities for concrete political organization, even hierarchical organization, that remain in Malcolm X’s system of “radical judgment.” Although Terrill insists that Malcolm X’s rhetoric instructs listeners to avoid submitting to hierarchical structures, he limits his own analysis of organizational forms influenced by Malcolm’s radical judgment to Malcolm X’s own organizations.

The OAAU and the MMI, however, were by no means the only organizations that relied heavily upon the rhetoric of Malcolm X’s last year. Nor did Malcolm himself view his own organizations as the necessary vanguards in the movement. Instead, he saw his organizations as structures designed to spread an ideology, and he stressed the possibilities for coalition work between similarly oriented organizations.

“Anywhere there’s a church that is also preaching and practicing the gospel of black nationalism,” he instructed listeners, “join that church.  If the NAACP is preaching and practicing the gospel of black nationalism, join the NAACP.  If CORE is spreading and practicing the gospel of black nationalism, join CORE.” (Beitman, op. cit., 41)

Black Power and Radical Judgment

Although Malcolm may have been somewhat tongue in cheek in his commentary about other organizations, we might look to other organized embodiments of Black nationalism to see his comment come alive. In particular, we may see the diverse collection of organizations commonly known as the Black Power movement as a many-tiered organizational embodiment of Malcolm X’s radical judgment.

Malcolm X’s name, image and words were adopted by various Black Power groups and continue to be adopted by individuals and organizations today. Many scholars have seen some of these adoptions as problematic appropriations, and some may be exactly that. But we might also read Malcolm’s iconic status as the celebration and enactment of his radical judgment.

Although SNCC, the Republic of New Afrika, the Black Panther Party, the US Organization and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, to name a few, often clashed in their political projects, all viewed themselves as inheritors of Malcolm X’s tradition of resistance. They were able to do so precisely because of Malcolm X’s complex ideology and open-ended political rhetoric. (William L. VanDeburg, New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture 1965-1975, 4. University of Chicago Press, 1992)

A variety of organizations, then, enacted Malcolm X’s rhetorical tradition of critique and resistance through their own organizational structures and concrete ideologies. The Black Panther Party, for instance, drew heavily on Malcolm X’s support for self-defense, his insistence upon the need for immediate survival programs, and his argument that African Americans should think strategically about using both the ballot and the bullet. The Panthers’ revolutionary ideology and militaristic party discipline might turn Terrill off, but they were a clear example of an organizational implementation of many of Malcolm X’s ideas.

Despite what appears to be a codified system of beliefs, the Panthers posed an important challenge to narrow class analyses by placing Black nationalism (and the struggles of other oppressed nationalities) at the core of an international socialist revolution. They focused on voter registration in California and ran Elaine Brown and Bobby Seale for office while still maintaining (and visually displaying) the necessity for armed self-defense and eventual revolution.

In short, the Panthers enacted the critical judgment that Terrill sees in Malcolm X’s rhetoric without rejecting all forms of organizational hierarchy or denying their reliance on ideology.

Tools to Resist

Terrill paints Malcolm X as a productive social critic who gave his audience the tools they needed to resist.  He offers an important insight when he shows us Malcolm X’s speeches as creative models of critique that do not simply teach facts or guide listeners into specific actions.  Instead, Malcolm X’s rhetoric encourages listeners to construct such critiques themselves.

The Black Power movements took the collective identities that Terrill believes Malcolm forged and pushed people into motion. Terrill does not, however, demonstrate how the critiques of Malcolm X’s listeners translated into actions of dissent, nor does he offer any promising applications of Malcolm X’s rhetoric for our own time. This absence leaves his analysis unnecessarily rooted in a static past.

Organizational and ideological structures gave life to Malcolm X’s radical critique. As Black Power and even recent movements that employ Malcolm X as an icon demonstrate, Malcolm’s rhetoric was not simply a means of collective identification but an impetus to collective action.

ATC 120, January-February 2006