Monday, September 20, 2010

from The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution

Eugene Victor Wolfenstein 1981:

While he was still in Mecca, Malcolm wrote to his family and followers, sharing with them his “new insight into the true religion of Islam, and [his] better understanding of America’s entire racial dilemma.” He argued that “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.” “True Islam removes racism, because people of all colors and races who accept its religious principles and bow down to the one God, Allah, also automatically accept each other as brothers and sisters, regardless of differences in complexion.” Islam removes the “white” from the minds of white-skinned people; “If white Americans would accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man – and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their ‘differences of color.'”

Malcolm had been awakened to the true faith, but he would still have been dreaming if he really thought that he could awaken many Americans, black or white, from their white Christian slumbers. His practical task was not, therefore, to preach Islam to the [especially white] non-believers but, rather to teach oppressed people how to seek for and take possession of the political kingdom. Consequently, when he returned to the United States, he defined his position in this way:

Because of the spiritual rebirth which I was blessed to undergo as a result of my pilgrimage to Mecca, I no longer subscribe to sweeping indictments of one race….I am not a racist and do not subscribe to any of the tenets of racism. In all honesty and sincerity it can be stated that I wish nothing but freedom, justice and equality – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – for all people. My first concern is with the group of people to which I belong, the Afro-Americans, for we, more than any other people, are deprived of these inalienable rights.

Islam was a universal truth which transcended without transforming the existing situation. It was therefore no longer vital to the struggle for racial liberation. It was not opposed to the struggle: it was, after all, an important part of the cultural heritage of Afro-Americans, and it could still serve as a source of spiritual identification. But it no longer provided a definition of the enemy. Moreover, as Malcolm had often emphasized when black Christians attacked the Nation of Islam, the public airing or accentuation of religious differences among black people only served the interests of the white ruling class. Muslim Mosque, which defined Malcolm’s role in religious terms, was not an adequate vehicle for his political interests. Thus, when he was asked upon his return to this country if he would now call himself “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz” he responded “I’ll continue to use Malcolm X as long as the situation that produced it exists. Going to Mecca was the solution to my personal problem, but it doesn’t solve the problem for my people.”

Malcolm’s decision to separate his religion from his politics does not in itself tell us why he reformulated his political position. To understand the change, we must consider the impact his two visits to sub-Saharan Africa had upon him.

After he left Mecca, Malcolm visited several other Middle Eastern and African nations, with most of his time south of the Sahara spent in Nigeria and Ghana. In Nigeria his principal contacts were with university students. Speaking to the student body of Ibadan University, he argued for the necessity of bringing the United States before the international bar of justice at the U.N., and he emphasized the need for American black people to become pan-Africanists. In other words, his argument reflected the same objective conditions that had led both Garvey and DuBois to seek international solutions to an apparently intranational problem. But the stay in Nigeria also had an important subjective meaning. The Nigerian Muslim Students' Society made him a member and gave him a Yoruba name, Omowale, meaning, “’the son who has come home’”. The seventh son had finally realized the ambition of the homeless Garveyite father. No wonder that Malcolm says; “I meant it when I told them I had never received a more treasured honor.” Still his personal homecoming was not a solution to his political problem – although the solution was implied in the statement of a Nigerian official who argued that “the world’s course will change the day the African-heritage peoples come together as brothers.”

Malcolm’s emergent pan-Africanism was further developed during his visit to Ghana. He viewed Ghana, which was then under Nkrumah’s leadership, as both a living expression of pan-Africanism and as a realization of the Gavreyite vision:

Indeed, it was Marcus Garvey’s philosophy that inspired the Nkrumah fight for the independence of Ghana from colonialism that was imposed on it by England. It was also the same Black Nationalism that has been spreading throughout Africa and that had brought the emergence of the present independent African states. Garvey never failed. Garvey planted the seed which has popped up in Africa – everywhere you look!

Nowhere did that seed seem more firmly planted than in Ghana. Not surprisingly, therefore, Malcolm was struck by the militant attitude of the people he met. Because he was widely and correctly regarded as the most militant leader of Black America, he was given the opportunity to meet Nkrumah himself and a variety of Ghanaian dignitaries, as well as students, Afro-American exiles, and the ambassadors to Ghana from China, Mali, British Guiana, and Algeria. From these meetings he came away with a strong impression of “Africa seething with awareness of itself and of Africa’s wealth, and of her power, and of her destined role in the world.” That on the one hand. On the other, he saw all too many signs of America’s neo-colonial penetration of the continent. He therefore decided “that as long as I was in Africa, every time I opened my mouth, I was going to make things hot for that white man, grinning through his teeth wanting to exploit Africa again – it had been her human wealth the last time, now he wanted Africa’s mineral wealth.”

In the African context, however, Malcolm’s polemical role was partially redefined. He was very much impressed by the Algerian ambassador to Ghana, who seemed to be “dedicated totally to militancy, and to world revolution, as the way to solve the problems of the world’s oppressed masses.” But the Algerian did not view the revolutionary process in racial terms.

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 an 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?...So he showed me where I was alienating people who were true revolutionaries dedicated to overthrowing the system of exploitation that exists on this earth by any means necessary. So I had a lot of thinking and reappraising of my definition of black nationalism.

Malcolm was coming to accept the idea that the struggle for the liberation of black people could not be racially defined, could not be defined so as to exclude true revolutionaries. A more inclusive definition emerged when, in talking to the Ghanian press, he referred to the plight of the American “Negro.” He was immediately corrected by one of those in attendance: “The word is not favoured here, Mr.Malcolm X, the term Afro-American has greater meaning, and dignity.’” Malcolm had been familiar with the idea of Afro-American identity before he came to Africa, but the name only became self-definitional for him at this time. Once he became conscious of himself as an Afro-American, he took action with characteristic energy; in conjunction with the Afro-Americans in Ghana, he formed the first chapter of the OAAU.

Malcolm returned to the United States on May 21. One month later, on June 28, he led the first OAAU rally in Harlem. He began by observing that earlier in the year he had spoken of creating a “black nationalist part or a black national army.” Meanwhile he had gone to Africa, hoping to discover how Africans had been able to free themselves from “colonization, oppression, exploitation, degradation, humiliation, discrimination, and every other kind of –ation.” He had learned that in addition to their separate national struggles, Africans had formed a “coalition”, the OAU, through which they were able to work “in conjunction with each other to fight a common enemy.” In like fashion, he announced,

We have formed an organization known as the Organization of Afro-American Unity which has the same aim and objective – to fight whoever gets in our way, to bring about the complete independence of people of African descent here in the Western Hemisphere, and first here in the United States, and bring about the freeom of these people by any means necessary.

This we return to the historical moment with which our inquiry began.

In less than a year Malcolm had shifted from black nationalism to Afro-American internationalism. The first of these positions was racial-religious in nature, the second was political-cultural. It could be argued that Malcolm was changing from racial militant to political radical and that by so doing he was abandoning the perspective which gave him his historical significance; but such a judgement would be valid only if Malcolm ceased being a racial militant as he became a political radical. We shall now see, however, that Malcolm’s radicalism was really a politically self-conscious racial militancy. More specifically, we will find that the idea of Afro-American unity was a rational theoretical reflection of the existing situation; that the intended practise of the OAAU was the appropriate practical mediation of that theoretical position, and that the unity of theory and practise both derived from and resulted in an ethic of revolutionary responsibility signified by the expression “freedom by any means necessary.”

Like the Nation of Islam or Muslim Mosque, Inc, the OAAU was based upon the idea that all black people had a common enemy; that the critical task in the existing situation was to develop a program which would serve the interests and meet the emotional needs of the black masses; and that such a program must be aimed at transforming ghettoized black America into a virtual nation – into a black national party and army. The Afro-American concept added to these premises expanded grounds for black cultural identity and an enlarged field of political activity.

Ever since his conversion to Islam, Malcolm had stressed the importance for black Americans of recognizing their African origins and the role the white man had played in physically and spiritually removing them from Africa. The nominal sign of the white man’s criminality was the American Negro identity. What, Malcolm asked, does it mean to be a “Negro”?

Negro doesn’t tell you anything. I mean nothing, absolutely nothing. What do you identify it with? – tell me – nothing. What do you attach it to, what do you attach to it? Nothing. It’s completely in the middle of nowhere. And when you call yourself that, that’s where you are – right in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t give you a language, because there is no such thing as a Negro language. It doesn’t give you a culture, - there is no such thing as a Negro culture, it doesn’t exist. They take you out of existence by calling you a Negro. And you can walk around in front of them all day long and they act like they don’t even see you. Because you made yourself non-existent.

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