The house Negro usually lived close to his master. He dressed like his master. He wore his master’s second-hand clothes. He ate food that his master left on the table…When the master would be sick, the house Negro identified himself so much with the master, he’d say, ‘What’s the matter, boss, we sick?’…The house Negro was in a minority. The field Negroes were the masses. They were in the majority. When the master got sick, they prayed that he’d die. If his house caught on fire, they’d pray for a wind to come along and fan the breeze.
— Malcolm X
I have often thought about these prescient words, uttered more than fifty years ago and the man who spoke them, prominent African-American, Muslim activist, Malcolm X, who was assassinated in a public execution, fifty years ago this February, orchestrated by the cult he formerly belonged to, the Nation of Islam (NOI).
In an America that Barack Obama has fancifully termed ‘post-racial’, it is now fashionable to talk of Malcolm X as an African-American, but his Muslim identity was equally important to him, especially in the final years of his life, when he was breaking away from the segregationist views undoubtedly instilled within him owing to his long association with the NOI and reaching for a revolutionary new alliance with whites, locally and with African revolutionaries, internationally.
Born in 1925 to a preacher father who is believed to have been murdered by white segregationists and a tough Grenadian mother who later ended up in an asylum, young Malcolm Little was one of the dropouts of the much-vaunted American dream. After a failed childhood peppered with indifferent schooling, petty crimes and repeated attempts to be the house Negro which he would later denounce as a fiery activist, Malcolm ended up in prison for committing a series of thefts in 1946. His time in prison was to have a decisive impact on him – and African-American politics. He became a voracious reader of everything from the Koran to Kant, as well as about the origins of his race from Africa. When he was eventually released, he was a changed man, determined to change the face of his people in virulently racist America. These details are lovingly recounted in Malcolm’s Autobiography, which in addition to C.L.R. James’s magnum opus on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, was a crucial reference point for me in situating the plight of African-Americans and their slave predecessors in colonial Haiti. Spike Lee’s iconic film on the man, and recently the late Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention fill any remaining gaps about his life and legacy.
The Nation of Islam was one of the fastest-growing cults among African-American in the United States, benefitting from the decline in the previously-dominant one initiated by Marcus Garvey (I had an opportunity to learn more about this fascinating and polarising figure during my studies in the US) on one hand, and the conservatism and gradualism of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) led Booker T. Washington on the other. Malcolm came in contact with the NOI during his time in jail and became its rising star upon release, quickly cementing his place in the organization with his wonderful oratorical and organizational skills, and contributing to the immense popularity of the NOI itself. He emerged an uncompromising critic of integration with white America, and a champion of segregation and African-American self-determination and self-defence, not unreasonably. It was inevitable that sooner or later, whether through the attempts of jealous detractors within the NOI or due to his own foresight, Malcolm would come to see the utter irreconcilability of the NOI’s absurd founding fictions of the origins of the African-American and the universalism of the Islamic worldview, not to mention the unethical practices of its self-styled Prophet, Elijah Muhammad. After Malcolm confronted Muhammad over the latter’s immoral sexual practices – impregnating multiple young secretaries – and later describing John F. Kennedy’s assassination as ‘chickens coming home to roost’, he was suspended and forbidden to be the public voice of the NOI.
His most important decision came in 1964 when he broke away from the NOI and set up two important organizations, the Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization of African-American Unity (OAAU), thus bringing together the two strands in his thought: liberation of the African-American as well as solidarity with the liberation movements of Africa. He embarked on a pan-African tour that same year beginning with the Hajj pilgrimage, which decisively swung his view from militant separatist to a black nationalist not averse to making progressive coalitions with whites who would listen; and his visits to Egypt, Ghana, Tanzania and other countries which were the lodestars of the Non-Aligned movement helped him reach a mature understanding of colonialism and to make connections between institutionalized racism at home and imperialism abroad. This was also the time that he publicly advocated for the Chinese and Cuban revolutions and the socialist model which these revolutions adopted. Even nominally placid Britain benefitted from Malcolm’s wisdom when he came to attend a debate at the Oxford Union, supporting the motion “Extremism in the Defense of Liberty is No Vice; Moderation in the Pursuit of Justice is No Virtue”.
With the progression in his political maturity, his enemies also multiplied and on that afternoon in February 1965 he was shot down by three assassins from the NOI while addressing a meeting of the OAAU in Harlem, his eventful life cut-short at just 39 years.
Throughout his life, his detractors had held up his rival for African-American leadership, Martin Luther King as the voice of reason, ‘I Have a Dream’; and Malcolm as the hatemonger forever associated with the misunderstood quote ‘By Any Means Necessary’. Yet King met the same fate: three years after Malcolm’s assassination, King himself was murdered for voicing pretty much the same concerns as the former: opposition to war and abandoning the American political establishment to become an independent voice on his own.
It is a fairy tale of intrigue and assassination that we in South Asia know only too well; after all, the fiery communist Bhagat Singh was executed by the British while his pacifist rival, Mohandas Gandhi too met a violent end at the hands of a Hindu fundamentalist. Both India and America mourn inconsolably.
What is the legacy of Malcolm X fifty years after his untimely assassination? There is indeed an African-American in the White House but the plight of the ordinary African-American has never been more miserable: as the recent incidents involving Travyon Martin and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York amply demonstrate. If Malcolm had somehow lived to be 95 this year, he would have seen his approach greatly vindicated: violence only begets violence and African-Americans have a right to self-defence. He would have pointed angrily to the field Negroes like Martin and Brown and the house Negro ensconced in the White House and would have questioned Obama’s commitment to ‘post-racialism’ in the wake of the fact that in 2011 the number of African-Americans incarcerated in US prisons was the same as the slave population in 1860. Not to mention the fine line of executions carried out by state functionaries whether the Black Power movement or their Black Panther successors, or their more recent incarnations. In keeping with his anti-imperialist convictions, Malcolm would also have denounced Obama’s imperial adventures in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as his attempts at regime change in Latin America. Meanwhile the African-American leadership is hopelessly divided between the toothlessness of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton on one hand, and the charlatan Louis Farrakhan on the other.
And what of the Muslim world? Malcolm’s Muslim identity was undoubtedly important to him, as was pan-African solidarity. But in the same speech which I have quoted above, he shattered the nonsense regarding the alleged Arab origins of African-Americans, something we in Pakistan who love to demonstrate our debt to our Saudi benefactors now and then, could learn from as the basis of a progressive South Asian identity. Malcolm would have enthusiastically welcomed the dawn of the Arab uprisings but would have denounced the murderous sectarianisms and dictatorships they seem to have morphed into, perhaps due to the fact that these momentous upheavals do not seek to build alliances or learn from other struggles.
But perhaps more than any other, the identity that was really Malcolm’s, was not his much-vaunted journey from a colonial Little to a slave X, rather the successful transition which he embodied more than most, from a house Negro to a field Negro in his unfortunate death, perhaps more so than in his tumultuous life.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani academic, translator and communist activist based in Lahore. He has studied about Marcus Garvey in the United States and has written a detailed paper about the Haitian Revolution, history’s first successful slave revolt. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org