Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dear liberals, please stop appropriating Malcolm X

Liberals like Ta-Nehisi Coates are fond of comparing Barack Obama to Malcolm X. At Coates' blog, I outraged many liberals when I noted:
Malcolm X had very harsh things to say about capitalism and good things to say about socialists. Barack Obama, in many ways, continues the neoliberal policies of his predecessor. In Malcolm X's terms, Obama is a house-- Hmm. Do you have a policy on the n-word here?"
Malcolm opposed colonialism, capitalism, and imperialist wars. The idea that he, a Muslim, would support Obama's wars in the Middle East is something only a liberal could believe.

Coates objected, noting, "Malcolm's Ballot Or The Bullet speech is almost wholly premised on capitalism and an engagement with electoral politics."

Which completely misses Malcolm's take on capitalism. Here are his words:
It is impossible for capitalism to survive, primarily because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck. Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture…. As the nations of the world free themselves, capitalism has less victims, less to suck, and it becomes weaker and weaker. It’s only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely.
After I shared some of Malcolm's thoughts on capitalism, imperialism, and foreign war, Coates said:
I thought about quoting from The Ballot Or The Bullet, and decided against it. People who are legitimately curious should read, and listen, to the speech themselves. I'd urge that, instead of playing this kind of game where we seek out quotes to buttress the particular analysis of Malcolm which we like. I'm writing specifically against that--not just for Malcolm X, but for everyone. 
It is, as I've argued before, necromancy and comes from an unwillingness to accept people with all of their wrinkles and complications. It comes from a desire to make history into a comforter under which we so sweetly slumber in our ideology of choice. It's wrong when the neo-Confederates do it. It's wrong when the anti-capitalists do it. 
Malcolm X does not have to be right. That's the whole point.
But if that's the point, what's left? Why cite Malcolm X at all if you don't care whether he was right? Why call on his imagery and ignore his substance? Isn't that precisely what Coates calls necromancy?

But that's apparently why Coates wrote, "Barack Obama reminds me of Malcolm, in his bearing, in his sense of irony, and in the almost epic quality of narrative. But mostly it's in his curiosity about the world, in his deep belief in intelligence and altering your views as evidence presents itself. The great tragedy of Malcolm X's life is how that curiosity was circumscribed and perverted. The great joy of Barack Obama is seeing that curiosity unbounded and rewarded."

Dignity, irony, narrative, curiosity, intelligence, and flexibility are hardly unique to Malcolm. What was unique was what he learned, something the black bourgeoisie, by definition, is incapable of learning: poverty will be racially disproportionate until the world's wealth is shared.

Because bourgeois folks are especially sensitive to words, they were greatly upset over the suggestion Malcolm would use a word that he used:
If the master's house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, the house Negro would say, "What's the matter, boss, we sick?" We sick! He identified himself with his master, more than his master identified with himself. And if you came to the house Negro and said, "Let's run away, let's escape, let's separate," the house Negro would look at you and say, "Man, you crazy. What you mean, separate? Where is there a better house than this? Where can I wear better clothes than this? Where can I eat better food than this?" That was that house Negro. In those days he was called a "house nigger." And that's what we call them today, because we've still got some house niggers running around here.

are lightly-edited versions of older posts I've made about him:

1. Malcolm or Malik?

People who are obsessed with race like to talk about "Malcolm," because race was Malcolm X's obsession, too. But Malcolm X became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Identity mattered to him, and his changing names reflect his changing thought: Malcolm Little was not Malcolm X, and Malcolm X was not Malik El-Shabazz. Malcolm X believed that race mattered; Malik El-Shabazz believed that humanity did.

"Blacks and whites cannot live together and agitation for integration is suicidal." —Malcolm X

"The earth's most explosive and pernicious evil is racism, the inability of God's creatures to live as One." —Malcolm X/El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

I respect Malcolm X, but I love Malik El-Shabazz.

2. Malcolm X on Afghanistan, I mean, Vietnam

His thoughts on Vietnam apply perfectly to Afghanistan if you substitute Karzai for Diem and the USSR for France. (Killing Diem doesn't apply, but I'm leaving it in 'cause I like the quote.)

Malcolm X in 1965, speaking about the US in Vietnam:
You put the government on the spot when you even mention Vietnam. They feel embarrassed - you notice that?... It's just a trap that they let themselves get into. ... But they're trapped, they can't get out. You notice I said 'they.' They are trapped, They can't get out. If they pour more men in, they'll get deeper. If they pull the men out, it's a defeat. And they should have known that in the first place. France had about 200,000 Frenchmen over there, and the most highly mechanized modern army sitting on this earth. And those little rice farmers ate them up, and their tanks, and everything else. Yes, they did, and France was deeply entrenched, had been there a hundred or more years. Now, if she couldn't stay there and was entrenched, why, you are out of your mind if you think Sam can get in over there. But we're not supposed to say that. If we say that, we're anti-American, or we're seditious, or we're subversive... They put Diem over there. Diem took all their money, all their war equipment and everything else, and got them trapped. Then they killed him. Yes, they killed him, murdered him in cold blood, him and his brother, Madame Nhu's husband, because they were embarrassed. They found out that they had made him strong and he was turning against them... You know, when the puppet starts talking back to the puppeteer, the puppeteer is in bad shape...
...from Washington, D.C., they exercise the same forms of brutal oppression against dark-skinned people in South and North Vietnam, or in the Congo, or in Cuba, or in any other place on this earth where they're trying to exploit and oppress. This is a society whose government doesn't hesitate to inflict the most brutal form of punishment and oppression upon dark-skinned people all over the world.
3. when reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X...

As Manning Marable notes in The missing Malcolm:
Malcolm did not have access to the final manuscript. He didn’t see it. And it was published nine months after Malcolm’s death. Betty Shabazz was in no shape to check and recheck facts. So all that says to me is you have to read the autobiography very, very carefully, very suspiciously. It’s a wonderful book. It is a great work of literature. But it is a work of literature. It is not an autobiography. It’s a memoir. And it’s gone through the prism of Haley who was a Republican, integrationist, and a defender of U.S. power. 
4. highly recommended

malcolm x - documents > the pierre berton interview

5. My favorite quotes from Brother Malcolm

on equality and universalism

"I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being, neither white, black, brown nor red. When you are dealing with humanity as one family, there's no question of integration or intermarriage. It's just one human being marrying another human being, or one human being living around and with another human being."—Malcolm X (January, 1965)

"The earth's most expensive and pernicious evil is racism, the inability of God's creatures to live as One."—Malcolm X

"I, for one, will join in with anyone—I don’t care what color you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth."—Malcolm X

"It is a time for martyrs now, and if I am to be one, it will be for the cause of brotherhood. That's the only thing that can save this country."—Malcolm X

"We must approach the problem as humans first, and whatever else we are second." —Malcolm X (January, 1965. Dartmouth College)

"I wish nothing but freedom, justice and equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people."—Malcolm X

"Since I learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends have come to include all kinds -- some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists! I have friends who are called capitalists, Socialists, and Communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists—some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white!"—Malcolm X

on the media

"If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing."—Malcolm X

on titles

From an interview:
MALCOLM X: I never accept the term "honorable."

BASS: That's a beautiful title.

MALCOLM X: Well, I'll tell you. Most people I've seen really end up misusing it, and I'd rather just be your Brother Malcolm.
on women

"...in every country you go to, usually the degree of progress can never be separated from the woman. If you’re in a country that’s progressive, the woman is progressive. If you’re in a country that reflects the consciousness toward the importance of education, it’s because the woman is aware of the importance of education.

"But in every backward country, you’ll find the women are backward, and in every country where education is not stressed it’s because the women don’t have education. So one of the things I became thoroughly convinced of in my recent travels is the importance of giving freedom to the women, giving her education, and giving her the incentive to get out there and put the same spirit and understanding in her children. And I am frankly proud of the contributions that our women have made in the struggle for freedom and I’m one person who’s for giving them all the leeway possible because they’ve made a greater contribution than many of us men."—Malcolm X

on respect

"Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery."—Malcolm X

on socialism, capitalism, and colonialism

"I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think that it will be based upon the color of the skin."—Malcolm X

"It is impossible for capitalism to survive, primarily because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck. Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture…. As the nations of the world free themselves, capitalism has less victims, less to suck, and it becomes weaker and weaker. It’s only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely."—Malcolm X

“Most of the countries that were colonial powers were capitalist countries, and the last bulwark of capitalism today is America. It’s impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can’t have capitalism without racism. And if you find one and you happen to get that person into conversation and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political philosophy is socialism.”—Malcolm X

"Since their own economies, the European economy and the American economy, was based upon their continued influence over the African continent, they had to find some means of staying there. So they used the "friendly" approach. They switched from the old, open colonial, imperialistic approach to the benevolent approach. They came up with some benevolent colonialism, philanthropic colonialism, humanitarianism, or dollarism."—Malcolm X

"It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of black against white, or as a purely American problem. Rather we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter."—Malcolm X

on racism, regret, and black nationalism
"I totally reject Elijah Muhammad's racist philosophy, which he has labeled 'Islam' only to fool and misuse gullible people as he fooled and misused me. But I blame only myself, and no one else for the fool that I was, and the harm that my evangelical foolishness on his behalf has done to others." —Malcolm X
I used to define black nationalism as the idea that the black man should control the economy of his community, the politics of his community, and so forth.

But when I was in Africa in May, in Ghana, I was speaking with the Algerian ambassador who is extremely militant and is a revolutionary in the true sense of the word (and has his credentials as such for having carried on a successful revolution against oppression in his country). When I told him that my political, social, and economic philosophy was black nationalism, he asked me very frankly: Well, where did that leave him? Because he was white. He was an African, but he was Algerian, and to all appearances, he was a white man. And he said if I define my objective as the victory of black nationalism, where does that leave him? Where does that leave revolutionaries in Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Mauritania? So he showed me where I was alienating people who were true revolutionaries dedicated to overturning the system of exploitation that exists on this earth by any means necessary.

So I had to do a lot of thinking and reappraising of my definition of black nationalism. Can we sum up the solution to the problems confronting our people as black nationalism? And if you notice, I haven’t been using the expression for several months. But I still would be hard pressed to give a specific definition of the overall philosophy which I think is necessary for the liberation of the black people in this country....
In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I will never be guilty of that again — as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man.

When I speak, I don't speak as a Democrat, or a Republican... I speak as a victim of America's so-called democracy. You and I have never seen democracy; all we've seen is hypocrisy. When we open our eyes today and look around America, we see America not through the eyes of someone who have — who has enjoyed the fruits of Americanism, we see America through the eyes of someone who has been the victim of Americanism. We don't see any American dream; we've experienced only the American nightmare. We haven't benefited from America's democracy; we've only suffered from America's hypocrisy. And the generation that's coming up now can see it and are not afraid to say it.
And, two days before his death, he said:
Leaders like Nasser, Ben Bella, and Nkrumah awakened me to the dangers of racism. I realized racism isn't just a black and white problem. It's brought bloodbaths to about every nation on earth at one time or another.

Brother, remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant—the one who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together—and I told her there wasn't a ghost of a chance and she went away crying? Well, I've lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I'm sorry for now. I was a zombie then—like all [Black] Muslims—I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man's entitled to make a fool of himself if he's ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years.

That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days—I'm glad to be free of them.


  1. Well, you're a lot more polite than I'd be on the subject. Despite my disagreements with Malcolm X, comparing him to Obama is an obscenity. Can you imagine Malcolm X throwing due process out the door and countenancing assassination?

    1. I prob'ly would be less polite now. It's amazing how Obama keeps getting worse and liberals happily march along with him.