Malcolm X is one of the most important figures in Black history and perhaps the most misunderstood. His outspokenness and uncompromising words have meant it has been easy for people to misuse his legacy and claim him for all kinds of purposes. He is most vividly remembered as being pro-violence and anti-White when in reality neither of those two is centrally important his politics. When he died he had founded the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) which clearly outline his political program. The Harambee Organisation of Black Unity has picked up that political legacy and on what should have been his 98th birthday we dust off an article from the archives explaining his legacy.
Politics at the crossroads
To understand Malcolm you have to realize that at the time he was speaking, we were at a crossroads in our politics. On the one hand, you had the civil rights movement advocating that Black populations needed to gain access to Western society and reform it. This is why Martin Luther King and his followers rejected violence and sought partnership with White society because they wanted equal status in the system. One thing we have to remember about Malcolm is that he was not a civil rights leader, he thought that the civil rights political project was a fantasy.
It is often assumed that Malcolm and Martin wanted the same thing with different methods, but this is entirely untrue. The difference between Malcolm and Martin was never about violence but over the question of reform or revolution. Malcolm foresaw that the civil rights struggle could never lead to equality for Black people as the system is fundamentally racist and will forever continue to produce racial inequality. He argued that the system cannot produce freedom and equality for Black people, in the same way, that a “chicken can never lay a duck egg.” The best we could hope for was “token integration,” where a lucky few did well but the masses were locked out. Never a more accurate description of modern-day race relations will you find. We need to realize that just because we’ve been moving forward, that doesn’t mean we’ve been making progress.
It is also often assumed that Malcolm was anti-White and saw all White people as devils. When he was in the Nation of Islam (NOI) it’s true that he castigated Whites, but listen closely to what he is saying and his message only subtly changes when he leaves the NOI. Mecca opened his eyes to stop blaming individual “White devils” and see Whiteness as a system, a collective structure that holds down Black folk. When he founded the OAAU he was still firmly against integration into Western society, because he saw it as evil and corrupt. He was now anti-Whiteness, rather than White people.
Malcolm was a radical and he was a Muslim and this has led some to claim he would have been pro-Islamic extremism. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the major reasons he left the NOI is because he could see that there was no religious solution to the problems facing Black people. The NOI was fundamentally limited by seeing the salvation of Black folk being the religion and that God would take the ultimate retribution, wiping White people off the face of the earth. This is a disempowering ideology as it prevents action in the present. Malcolm’s hands were tied by the NOI from sending the militant wing of the NOI to the South to protect the demonstrators, and he was suspended for speaking his mind on the death of JFK. The NOI was keen to keep the mainstream onside, whereas Malcolm wanted to take them to task.
When he left the NOI he clearly separated his politics from his religion, forming the OAAU to unite Black organizations and Muslim Mosque Inc. where he was an Imam. He made it clear that religion and politics were separate: “keep your religion at home, keep your religion between you and your God,” as he was seeking to unite the Black population. Malcolm was a Pan-Afrikanist who sought freedom for the global Afrikan Diaspora, which is totally at odds with Islamic extremism.
Malcolm would not have supported, or condoned terrorism, but he would have understood it. He was suspended from the NOI for saying JFK’s assassination was “chickens coming home to roost” and produced by the climate and hate and violence that America has caused in the world. It is easy to see him using the same analogy for modern Jihadism. Every terrorist act can be traced back to a seed that the West has planted in the world through violence and colonialism. 9/11 was carried out by the group the US armed to keep the Russians out of Afghanistan. 7/7 was carried out by homegrown suicide bombers, marginalized in their communities, and turned to violence after the Iraq War. Lee Rigby was murdered using the justification for drone strikes, that the “world is a battlefield” and soldiers are always fair game. The Charlie Hedbo massacre has more to do with France’s colonial terror in Algeria than it does with Islam. Islamic State can only flourish because of the devastation of Iraq. Malcolm would have pointed to all this and said that you cannot sow seeds of violence and hatred throughout the world without consequences. It is chickens coming home to roost.
House negro and the field negro
Central to Malcolm’s argument about the nature of society was the metaphor of the house and field negro. Modern-day House Negroes were those who had some level of access to the House, and mainstream society; those who had a decent job and access, and who were relatively comfortable. In contrast, was the field negro who was locked out of society and “catching hell” in the ghetto. Malcolm argued that civil rights would only open up space for house negroes but could never deliver for the Black masses in the field.
Recent events in the US have shown how this divide is very much evident today. Life in the ghetto and outside could not be in sharper contrast to life outside for the middle classes. Poverty in the ghetto is as bad as it ever was and there are new problems such as mass incarceration that sees almost 1 million African American men in prison and rates of imprisonment far worse than in apartheid South Afrika and only really comparable to wartime internment. The Black ghetto in the US is for all intents and purposes a police state, where the police act with impunity stopping, arresting, and killing the Black community. The same was true in Malcolm’s time and his speech about police brutality given in 1962 could very well have been given today.
In the UK the situation is not much better. The same structural inequalities as in the US are present here, with persistent injustice in schooling, employment, mental health, poverty, and the list goes on. In terms of policing, we are actually more overrepresented than in the US, Britain just incarcerates far fewer people, and as we have seen on numerous occasions (Mark Duggan, Kingsley Burrell, Smiley Culture to name a few), the police have the authority to kill. If we expand our analysis to the Caribbean (Britain was an Empire, not a nation on this small island) the conditions facing large sections of our communities are worse than in the US ghettos.
The trick of the civil rights gains was to open up the society just enough to allow those better off in the community, access to decent jobs and income. The large Black middle class in the US and the emerging one in Britain create the illusion that equality is possible for all. Figures of “success” are put forward as role models that if only people worked hard enough they can follow. Partly because of this, we have stopped focusing on community and structural concerns and instead started looking at the problems of individuals.
The most notable thing about #Blacklivesmatter is that there were protests after the killing of Michael Brown at all. The police have been killing Black people for decades with very little protests from the community. We need to capture the mood of #Blacklivesmatter and turn it into a politics that connects to the interests of the field negros, the Black masses.
The trend in our politics has sadly been in the other direction, as the more we have become part of the system we have embraced right-wing arguments. It’s no longer a surprise to see a Black face in UKIP or the EDL, and as Labour has let us down people are actually turning to the Tories. We have come to see any Black face in any position as somehow a victory, no matter who they stand for or what they represent. Malcolm warned of this when he told the community to be guarded against Uncle Toms. For Malcolm, Tom were those House Negroes who were put in positions of ‘authority’ to be looked up to by Black people and then lead us astray. Uncle Toms get involved in the politics of the community, but their ultimate purpose (whether they recognize this or not) is to quiet down the masses, hold back progress, and have us follow a path that will lead us nowhere. There is no place in our struggle for Black people to come into our communities trying to get us to support political parties that have anti-Black agendas and who will bring more misery to the people.
We need to be aware of the limits of mainstream politics. Politicians represent their party and the people who fund them. Politicians will only represent us when we fund and control our own political party, this is the goal we should be aiming for, not running to the next mainstream party who is ready to exploit us. It doesn’t matter how high the office that Black people are elected into (see Barack Obama), they will not represent us unless we have the political power to ensure they do.
We need to return to the politics of Malcolm X. He outlined these politics clearly and his expression of the struggle in the West and the Afrikan continent is a blueprint for how we go forward. In the West, we need Black Nationalism, which means political and economic control of our communities. There is no reason that we should be suffering high rates of unemployment when there are millions of us in a country. If we pool our resources and support the development of Black businesses we will be able to offer jobs and opportunities that the mainstream won’t allow. The schools are racist, so let’s build our own schools. Mental health services are racist, so let’s build our own services. The police act like an occupying force, but if we organize ourselves into a solid block we will have power and be able to hold them to account. This isn’t radical, it’s rational. Every successful minority community in any country has to build its platform on unity and cooperation.
The national picture is not enough, though. At best we can make our lives in the West a bit more bearable, but we are a Diaspora and have responsibilities to those in other parts of the world. In Afrika and the Caribbean, our people live in conditions that we cannot imagine. These conditions are caused by the prosperity in the West. The irony is that if we only develop Black Nationalism in the West and improve the conditions we face here, we will only end up further participating in the exploitation of our siblings in the rest of the world. Malcolm was a Pan-Afrikanist who believed in a revolution on the Afrikan continent as the only way to provide freedom and equality to the Afrikan Diaspora. Black people in the West are central to this politics and if we build ourselves into a cohesive unit, with resources and influence we can use the gains made in the master’s house to support efforts on the continent.
The radical message is often rejected as too pessimistic about the nature of society and the immovable structure of racism. In truth, this is the more optimistic argument, a politics that won’t settle for incremental, piecemeal gains that will never lead to freedom. We have come a long way down the wrong road, and we have become comfortable in the master’s house, but it is never too late to learn the lessons from the past, turn around, and move toward freedom. The Organisation of Black Unity is founded to take up Malcolm’s political legacy but can only go as far as the community will take us. If you are not content with the “token integration” that the system has offered us and want to work together to build a better politics and society, then join Harambee, and let’s get started.