Early, G. (1992, December 20). Many Malcolms, the X Factor: What you Get is What You See. The Boston Globe, pp. A21-22.
Early, the director of African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote this essay after the appearance of Spike Lee’s film, “Malcolm X.” He begins considering “Malcolm X as New American Hero.” The writer speaks of Spike Lee’s film as adding to the hype over Malcolm and of “America’s ability to generate fads.”
There is now a Malcolm palatable for multiculturalists, a Malcolm for leftists, a Malcolm for old-fashioned black nationalists and Afrocentrists, a Malcolm for less-dogmatic black nationalists, a Malcolm for liberal white liberals, a Malcolm for the white mainstream. But all these Malcolms merge, and around them emerges a kind of consensus or constellation of compatible views.
If he was a fire-breathing race demon for whites and many middle-class blacks in the late 1960s, he has become for many of us today something akin to the 18th-century preacher Jonathan Edwards-a man of considerable intellectual gifts and intractable moral vision, tragically doomed to preach a prophetic sermon for which the world was not ready.
The Jonathan Edwards analogy is not mere whimsy, for there is a great movement afoot to see Malcolm X as a kind of puritanical divine, a principles conservative. The Wall Street Journal has given us the overlay of racial uplift and Booker T. Washington economics that may lead us to believe that Malcolm X was, finally, a more angry version of, say, (a Black conservative like) Thomas Sowell.
It is not easy to determine whether this writer is attempting to minimize the power of the Malcolm X myth or just telling us we don’t really know the man we think of as a black hero. Can we agree with Early when he says, “Black people hardly heeded Malcolm X because he told them to clean themselves up and build up their communities”? In retrospect it seems that Malcolm had a huge impact, not only on his followers, but on many who may not have followed his message. That was true also for the many great black preachers mentioned by the writer: Adam Clayton Powell (Sr. and Jr.), Martin Luther King (Sr. and Jr.), C. L. Franklin, Howard Thurman, and Caesar Clark.
Gerald Early next considers the “Cults of Black Progress.” Helpfully he compares the Malcolm’s Black Muslims (or Nation of Islam) to other black organizations of the 20th century: Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (Back to Africa Movement) and Father Divine’s Pace Mission Movement (a radical Christian sect with its leader as God). The author’s comparison of these three movements is the strongest part of this article.
What all these organizations have in common is their peculiarly inventive version of a present-centered political religion that, paradoxically, seemed to combine equal parts of something insistently fascistic and communistic with something persistently individualistic. That is to say, these organizations offered their followers a rigidly orthodox group membership while also providing a distinct avenue of individual self-improvement and self-achievement. All three promoted, almost fanatically, business enterprise, entrepreneurship, and individual effort and ambition within the strictures of the organization-in other words, a highly stylized form of American bourgeois conventions within an often anti-bourgeois group format.
Thirdly, this article considers Malcolm the man in terms of “war, honor, and fatherhood.” It reminds us that Malcolm Little was born of a Garveyite father and a militant millenialist mother. As a disciple of Elijah Muhammad and even after as an orthodox Muslim and leader of his own Organization of African American Unity (OAAU), Early contends that
(Malcolm was) driven by resentment and bitterness, feelings fueled in good measure because he felt he existed without honor or without any format in which he could be honorable in a masculine way in American society. Malcolm was fixated on wanting to prove his manhood, which he made ultimately a collective issue for the race itself. I think this is why his imagination was obsessed with race war and confrontation with race leaders who he felt were dishonorable, and these ideas he often merged in remarkable ways in his rhetoric.
Many of us see a greater contrast, than Early seems to, in the later Malcolm. After his trip to Mecca, Malcolm corrects earlier ideas that all whites are evil and racist and clarifies his position on violence. Early’s point that Malcolm tended to see “virtually every (American) war as a race war” may be correct. Malcolm’s rhetoric did summarize American race relations in the imagery of war. This racial conflict would demonstrate black manhood and display and white cowardice.
Finally, this writer presents an interesting interpretation of Malcolm’s autobiography.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is finally a book about black fatherhood, and about Malcolm as a thwarted or disappointed son in relationship to not only his own father but also to West Indian Archie, to Elijah Muhammad. And the source of his resentment and bitterness is even clearer. He felt that he had always been denied a masculine self-knowledge that could only come from having a tradition of honor passed on to him from his black father. It is also striking that perhaps many black sons in his generation felt the same way, which explains why the black cults of progress were dominated by black father figures. It is no small thing to think that Malcolm’s significance is precisely his quest for an honorable black fatherhood in a land where, during slavery and after, black fatherhood had been effectively erased.
Although there may be some truth to this, many will object to subjecting Malcolm to such psychological explanation. Everyone will admit Malcolm was “fixated on the redemption for blacks through blood (if necessary and as a last resort, I would add) and honor.” And even Gerald Early concludes with an admission that Malcolm may be too complex for any easy analysis.
The question is not whether Malcolm was hero or villain but whether, at last, we Americans black and white, can face his extraordinary complexities and contradictions, his frenzied quest for humanity and identity, that all so tellingly mirror ourselves.
Questions for Reflections and Discussion
- How important was Malcolm as a leader during the 1950s and 1960s?
- In your opinion, what is the lasting legacy of Malcolm X?
- To how many black youth and street kids, do you suppose, is Malcolm a hero?
- Has this writer, Gerald Early, given you any important background or interpretation of Malcolm X?
- With what from the article above to you take exception? What are your criticisms and how would you see the issues raised?
- Is racism still a problem, in your opinion, and what can be done about it?
- Interest in Malcolm X is still great. Though the historical memory of young people today is short, there are still those who are in awe of him, and his name creates an atmosphere of respect.
- The mention of Malcolm X reminds many of the injustice done to blacks over the centuries and the fact that racism still thrives in American and many other societies.
- Malcolm clearly mellowed after his trip to Mecca and throughout Africa. Those who do not distinguish the early and later Malcolm are not doing justice to his legacy.
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a book that should be read by all.
© 2017 CYS