Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Legacy of Malcolm X: Universal or Particular?

with 3 comments

by Weiner

It being Martin Luther King day, I figured that I’d discuss Malcolm X instead. The latest issue of Ebony has an article (print only) by Kevin Chappell titled “The Battle for Malcolm X.” The author interviewed three of Malcolm’s six daughters, Ilyasah, Gamilah, and Malaak, who have been attempting to reclaim their father’s legacy ever since their mother, Betty Shabazz, died in 1997.

Like Che Guevera, Malcolm X went from being an inspirational symbol to a commodity. In Chappell’s words: “Books were being written, T-shirts printed and hip-hop artists were using Malcolm X–and everything that rhymed with–interchangeably to push their often-convoluted ideas of Black power and nationalism.”

The sisters’ ideas, however, don’t seem entirely clear either, at least, not from this article. They do emphasize a few things that their father was not. Most strongly, they argue that for the importance of Malcolm’s own parents on his intellectual development and activist fervor, while denying the significance of the Nation of Islam. According to Malaak: “Our father took the baton from his father, not the Nation of Islam.”

The sisters also think their father has been mistakenly remembered as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, when in fact he was a global figure concerned with human rights. “He was the one who let us know that we were descendants of Africa.” They note that they get greater praise and recognition as children of Malcolm X in the Caribbean and Europe than they do in America.

Interestingly, though Chappell uses the universalist language of “human rights,” the sisters’ universalism is rather particularistic, or to be more precise, Afrocentric. Entertainment lawyer L. Londell McMillan, who helped bring the sisters together after years of infighting, stated that “the sisters want to connect the struggle and journey of Black people worldwide the way Malcolm did.”

Strangely absent from this article is significant discussion of religion. My knowledge of Malcolm X is far from expert, but from my understanding it was his discovery of traditional Islam, rather than the racial version espoused by Elijah Muhammad and The Nation, that led him to his more global perspective. For Malcolm, Islam was his path to universalism, to human rights. As Malcolm X, he was leader to African Americans, but as El-Hajj Malik El Shabbazz, he aspired to be a leader to people everywhere.

This reminded me of Nemo’s shout-out to Andrew Hartman’s post about ethnic studies, of using the particular to get to the universal. As Hartman wrote about Mexican-American nationalist and poet Corky Gonzales:

[Corky] Gonzales saw Chicano nationalism as a stepping-stone to an international movement of oppressed peoples, in turn a springboard to universal human liberation. However, there was a proper order of struggle, and the particular preceded the universal.

It strikes me that Malcolm X, at the end of his life, hoped to use Black nationalism in precisely the same way. Of course, Malcolm never abandoned his loyalty to African Americans or Black people around the globe. His importance as a Black leader should not be downplayed or forgotten. But neither should his universal significance as leader and inspiration to the downtrodden everywhere, a symbol of power and pride to all human beings, irrespective of race or religion.


Written by David Weinfeld

January 17, 2011 at 22:32

3 Responses

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  1. very interesting. i’m also by no means an expert, but i did recently read the Autobiography, which is pretty explicit about the discover of traditional, mainstream, or ‘true’ islam–and in particular the experience of the hadj, as the catalyst for his newly universalist anti-racism.

    an interesting comparison might be to the somewhat far-fetched (but aesthetically pleasing) argument that Susan Buck-Morss makes at the end of her Hegel&Haiti book about the possible muslim origins of the haitian revolution and, therefore, of hegelian thought and modern universalism as such.


    January 18, 2011 at 13:34

  2. Both Spike Lee’s movie and the Autobiography via Alex Haley, as well as historical facts (not to be confused with the prior two renderings), point toward a Malcolm X impressed with the cosmopolitan racial potential of traditional Islam. Indeed, it was that vision that best correlated with Malcolm Little’s wide reading as a prison inmate. It’s too bad that Malcolm X’s children are trying to undermine that legacy. Were he alive, I think he’d be ashamed of what his descendants are doing particularizing his end-of-life understanding of race and religion. – TL

    Tim Lacy

    January 18, 2011 at 15:41

  3. The Ebony article was inspirational and I applaud the sisters and their noble counsel Mr. McMillan who is working with them and has represented numerous cultural icons. It is clear from history that to articluate issues of race in America does not negate the fundamental importance of one’s personal spirituality and faith of choice even if such faith is Universal. Each of these daughters are Muslim and at least one has completed her Hadj to Mecca so there should not be misguided and unwise talk or competitive wranglings over the legacy of El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm X. He was uniquely “all of that.” Let’s all find peace and support this family.

    Lawrence Reid

    January 25, 2011 at 05:14

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