Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
Who Should Read It:
Why Should We Read It:
Malcolm X is a pivotal figure in American History, but is grossly misunderstood in pop culture.
What Will We Learn:
Malcolm X did not advocate violence as the primary means to achieve black dignity. Instead, he was willing to use "any means necessary", including the vote, to achieve his goals.
"... dismissing him as a mere demagogue critically impairs our ability to understand who he was."
Malcolm X is an enigmatic figure. His violent rhetoric is often contrasted to Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK)'s message of nonviolent protest for black civil rights. The legend of Malcolm's violence is further perpetuated by an iconic photograph of a black man peering out of a window with a rifle in his hand, usually emblazoned with words attributed to Malcolm X: "Liberate our minds…by any means necessary." While Malcolm X's incendiary political discourse did regularly leave open the possibility of violence, dismissing him as a mere demagogue critically impairs our ability to understand who he was. Professor Manning Marable's painstakingly researched biography, Malcom X: A Life of Reinvention, offers more nuance. Through this work, we can see that Malcolm X was a proud black man whose political evolution inspired black communities worldwide to reclaim their dignity and reimagine their destinies.
"...Malcolm's parents were black activists who moved where their organizational talents were needed."
Malcolm X's violent rhetoric has deep roots in the societal violence inflicted upon him in his childhood. He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925. Nebraska at this time was experiencing a robust revival of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). This state alone probably totaled forty-five thousand KKK members in 1923. The KKK enjoyed such wide local and state legislative support that their parades and cross-burning events had little need to be conducted in secret. The Klan particularly focused on Malcolm's family because his parents were black activists who moved where their organizational talents were needed. By age 6, Malcolm's family lost a home due to restrictive racial covenants, lost another home to vigilante firebombing, and finally lost Malcolm's father to lynching. Malcolm's family subsequently descended into abject poverty, and Malcolm Little himself eventually found himself imprisoned for petty crime.
"Malcolm X, a gifted orator"
In prison, Malcolm fell sway to the Nation of Islam (NOI), a heretical sect of Islam rejected by most orthodox Muslims. In the NOI theology, an evil black scientist named Yacub genetically engineered the entire white race that eventually went on to rule the world. Salvation required converts to replace their slave surnames with the letter X, which represented the unknown. The Christian religion of white society was also to be categorically rejected because Islam (via NOI theology) was the only true 'black religion'. Malcolm X, a gifted orator, used this platform to advocate a riveting vision for the systemically oppressed Black American: that we are the proud heirs of a venerable religious tradition from an African homeland rich in culture and history. Why are we suffering under the violence of Jim Crow segregation? Why should we protest nonviolently when we have the natural right to defend ourselves and create our own nation?
"...unity could be achieved under a more inclusive "Pan-Africanism" banner fighting global antiracism..."
Many poor Black Americans agreed that complete separation of the races was the only viable strategy to achieving self-dignity. How they could achieve this without resorting to violence against a white society already inflicting violence on them was elusive to all who heard Malcolm X speak (including the FBI). It was Malcolm X who saw another way. In the final years of his life, Malcolm X publicly separated from the NOI and traveled to Africa and the Middle East. There, he witnessed vibrant orthodox Islamic societies that embraced all believers, even if they had fair skin and blue eyes. He also realized that the plight of Black Americans was part of a larger postcolonial struggle; for black societies, unity could be achieved under a more inclusive "Pan-Africanism" banner fighting global antiracism. The purpose: use white society's own power structure, the United Nations, to bring the United States to trial for human rights abuse against blacks.
"...'By any means necessary' was not a veiled threat of violence itself..."
Malcolm X's transition away from Black Nationalism to Pan-Africanism was the context in which he proclaimed "by any means necessary." Professor Marable records two instances in which Malcolm X used his famous phrase. In April 1964, Malcolm X noted, "… [I am committed to black liberation] by whatever means necessary…it was the black man's vote [that gave Kennedy the Presidency]…it'll be ballots, or it'll be bullets." And in December 1964, he said, "United States history is that of a country that does whatever it wants to by any means necessary…but when it comes to your and my interests, then all of this means become limited…I think there are plenty of good people in America, but… the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power." In both instances, he sought to embrace nonviolent strategies; "by any means necessary" was not a veiled threat of violence itself. He was assassinated on February 21, 1965 before he could expand his ideas.
"It is grossly inaccurate to state that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. are pure dichotomies of each other"
The persistent and conventional misunderstanding of Malcolm X in pop culture underscores the critical necessity of reading Professor Marable's work. Malcolm X's legacy will forever fall under MLK's outsized shadow, but it is grossly inaccurate to state that they are pure dichotomies of each other. MLK saw himself as an American first, which meant that the distinction of races should not impede the application of justice and equal rights. Malcolm, however, saw himself as a black man first, for which a sustained history of structural racism, from slavery to ghettoization, can only be rectified by a fundamental restructuring of wealth and power in the United States. He never advocated violence for its own sake. In this sense, Malcolm X should be to all Americans what he already is for many black communities: a unique product of his time, whose legacy endures as a symbol of hope and dignity for all who are systemically oppressed.