“All the real OGs, I’m a solider cause you told me study Malcolm, Garvey, Huey/ Study Malcolm, Garvey, Huey, their life is like a movie”
– M1 of Dead Prez on the song “Malcolm, Garvey, Huey”
This week I’ve been peeking in on Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ musings as he re-reads the autobiography of Malcolm X. Coates has done us a great service by sharing his reading of Malcolm’s life as told by Alex Haley, but this service can easily slip into a disservice. Malcolm on one hand has been deified and on the other hand demonized. We must humanize Malcolm, like all the figures in the African Diasporic canon, but we must do it with a particular degree of care and context.
Thus far Coates has posted three entries: “Black Men are Watching Every Move I Make“, “She Had Broken the Spirits of Three Husbands” and “Confronting Valhalla’s Humanity” all of which I received with resonation and reservation. This post is to illuminate my reservations. Most of us are familiar with figures like Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, and Marcus Garvey as icons. In our history, each of them has become flattened, polished, and made rigid caricatures. Ironically, this is something all three would deeply object to, but this is often the consequence of canonizing. In breaking apart these images though, we must go deeper than just problematizing these brothers, we have to contextualize them.
In “Black Men are Watching Every Move I Make” in the closing Coates states, “I don’t say that to clean Malcolm X. I don’t buy the image of him as a complete convert to integration–nor do I need it, anymore than I needed it for Grant or Lincoln.” When I read this sentence my first thought was, “Malcolm as an integrationist isn’t cleaning it a pure whitewashing.” Coates, like many revisionists of Shabazz’s legacy, passively suggests that integration became a part of his worldview after returning from Mecca (Hajj). Of the many lies perpetrated about/against Malcolm, this is probably one of the most consistent.
Hajj served to reorient Malcolm’s thinking about race, but it did not make him an advocate of integration. He remained steadfast in his non-support of integration. On the day he was assassinated he was to deliver a speech on the OAAU that included him saying, “We consider the word “integration” a misleading, false term. It carries with it certain implications to which Afro-Americans cannot subscribe. This terminology has been applied to the current regulation projects which are supposedly “acceptable” to some classes of society. This very “acceptable” implies some inherent superiority or inferiority instead of acknowledging the true source of the inequalities involved.” X was not an integrationist. X died a Pan-Africanist. X died a nationalist. His travels throughout Africa and the “Middle East” in 1959 and his Hajj in 1964 were watershed moments, but were not 180 degree turns. While many suggest that he created great distance from the Nation of Islam and their beliefs around the racial order of the world, careful students will come to a different conclusion.
The second piece that Coates offers is “She Had Broken the Spirits of Three Husbands.” In this post, Coates takes Malcolm to task on his discussion of and attitudes towards women. Undoubtedly informed from his misogynistic hustling past, the excerpts presented show a cold and shameful side of Malcolm. I can recall just last year re-reading the Autobiography and many of the passages Coates selects stood out to me as well. I wondered, “If Malcolm is our model of Black masculinity and this is perspective on Black women, where does that leave us?” As someone who is very serious about the operation of gender oppression and privilege within the Black community, I too struggled to understand where Malcolm was. While the Autobiography represents a summative work, it is not a complete story. In fact, if we look at Shabazz’s work in with the Organization for Afro-American Unity (OAAU) you see a man who was growing and struggling around gender. In William Sales’ book “From civil rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity” we find Malcolm pushing to systematize and expand the role of women within the OAAU. He felt concerned that the gender oppression popular in his other organization Muslim Mosque Inc. was unduly sabotaging the liberatory work of OAAU. He began to make statements like, “Africa will not be free until it frees its women.” Yet these sentiments were nestled along side a profound distrust for women, which Coates captures in his excerpts. Between the popular image, Coates’ excerpts, and Sales’ analysis we get a fuller and better Malcolm, one that we can look to critically and lovingly.
Malcolm X is undoubtedly one of the most profoundly debated people of the African Diaspora (Sidebar- I’m anxiously awaiting Manning Marable’s book on X). Numerous volumes have attempted to capture that man in various stages, but not surprisingly all falling short. After all, who can truly capture human life in a few pages, a play or a film? But what I learned from reading the Autobiography, from reading beyond the autobiography, and being blessed to sit at the feet of elders who knew and worked with X is that there is a danger in simplifying the complex.
When Dead Prez says, “study Malcolm, Garvey, Huey their life is like a movie” I almost feel as if they’re reeling us in to find a deeper level of truth. The movies that depict all three of these men are often too narrow and too clean to capture their fullness. This fullness includes good, bad, and ugly. If you study them your learn strains of misogyny and feminism run through them all. They were not perfect; they were people. People who brilliantly taught us how to help our people rise while simultaneously showing us their personal limitations. Their vilification in mainstream media has led many to deify them within Black culture. Beginning the process of re-reading Malcolm, and I believe this applies to most known Black political figures, must come from a place of information if it is to lead to transformation. If we are not informed and transformed, our people get no better. And after all, isn’t that what Malcolm was about?