On or around May 19th and February 21st, many Black activists reflect upon the life and work of Malcolm X, with the former his birthday and the latter the day that he was assassinated. Two years ago the publication of the late Manning Marable’s biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention had been a Moment that many of us had hoped would be an opportunity for a larger movement reflection on the life and work of Malcolm X. Instead, a campaign of vilification of Marable ensued accompanied by an almost canonization of Malcolm X by many critics of Marable, neither helping us to get a better understanding of Malcolm’s contributions.
Unfortunately it became quite difficult to advance constructive discussions regarding many of the issues raised in the book.
It has become increasingly difficult to engage in meaningful discussions about the life and work of Malcolm X because there is a built-in assumption in so many quarters that anything that suggests that there was anything other than a linear progression in Malcolm X’s development or that he may have engaged in any behavior that went beyond what was contained in the autobiography, is somehow a challenge to Malcolm’s integrity. In that sense it should not be surprising that attention to the life and work of Malcolm X goes through fits and starts over time, not only because of what the capitalist state wishes us to remember and forget, but because the Malcolm X-image emerges as a saint-like figure becoming more distant from the lives of today’s African Americans.
An alternative approach toward Malcolm’s legacy would be for Black radical activists to engage in discussions with younger activists about how to emulate the best of Malcolm X. This certainly goes beyond his courage, speaking style and a few sound-bites from his oratory, as important as they may be. Instead it must be rooted in an understanding of the transformation of Malcolm X, a process that was linked to both organization and social movements.
Malcolm X’s transformation cannot be understood outside of a recognition that his adoption of a belief system and a commitment to something larger than himself involved a dedication to the building of organization. Regardless of one’s analysis of the Nation of Islam – then or now – the reality is that it provided a stepping stone for numerous black men and women who were caught in the abyss of despair, and demonstrated a path through which they could rebuild their lives and their integrity. It was within an organization – first the Nation of Islam, and later Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization for Afro-American Unity – that Malcolm X became the person we remember.
Yet it did not end there. Emulating Malcolm X must also be based upon a recognition that Malcolm X’s transformations – what Marable calls ‘reinvention’ – continued as Malcolm moved outside of the Nation of Islam. In the last year of his life Malcolm was especially influenced by the anti-imperialist struggles in Africa and other parts of the global South. In fact, Malcolm’s own internationalism expanded exponentially as he saw in anti-imperialist struggles a point of commonality with the African American struggle for justice and liberation. It was this connection that Malcolm sought to institutionalize through the Organization for Afro-American Unity as well as through formal and informal relationships he worked to build with revolutionary leaders in the global South.
This May 19th it is incumbent upon Black radicals to promote the best elements of the transformation of Malcolm. This includes an emphasis not only on personal behavior but on the building of social justice organizations that are actually engaged in struggle. Progressive, if not radical, personal transformation is not an action taken in isolation but instead is one that involves the individual in their interaction with their environment. Building organization for liberation, which was perhaps one of the most striking elements of Malcolm X’s legacy, remains a central feature of actual emulation.
I have never been able to say “happy birthday” to or about a dead person. Instead I would say that May 19th is an important day on which we should remember the invaluable contributions of Malcolm X. It is also a day to emphasize that emulating Malcolm X goes beyond appearance, oratory or militancy: it is about building a lasting struggle for liberation and justice and creating the organizational vehicles through which we can pursue that course.
This piece first appeared in BlackCommentator