From Black Revolution to "Radical Humanism": Malcolm X between Biography and International History

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From Black Revolution to "Radical Humanism": Malcolm X between Biography and International History Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention Manning Marable New York: Viking, 2011. 594 pp.

Ever since his violent death at age thirty-nine, on February 21, 1965, the African American activist Malcolm X has become more of a cultural icon than a properly understood historical figure, a sort of blank screen onto which a seemingly endless variety of people and groups have projected their fantasies, ideas, and visions. This, in a way, is a strange fate for someone so profoundly political.1 In popular culture, in varying national arenas, he has become a totemic posthumous presence. Around the world he is nearly as likely as Che Guevara to be found on t-shirts worn by idealistic young people who actually know little if anything about him. In the United States, the identification of individual African Americans with him transcends political orientation: he has been claimed as a model, for example, by Clarence Thomas, the rightwing Supreme Court justice, as well as by Chuck D, leader of the militant hip-hop group Public Enemy.2 He has even been adopted by parts of the American mainstream: there are streets named after him, The Autobiography ofMakolm X is widely assigned in schools and colleges, and the U.S. Postal Service formalized his national status by putting his image on a stamp in 1999.

But it is really at the international level that Malcolm's life after death has had particular resonance; recent anecdotal (and sometimes disturbing) evidence abounds. After the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency in November 2008, alQaeda released a video featuring its then-deputy (now leader), the Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, who described president-elect Obama as a "race traitor" and "hypocrite" when compared to Malcolm X. This was not new rhetoric from alZawahiri, who had frequently held up Malcolm X (to whom he always referred by Malcolm's Arabic name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) as a paragon of "honorable black Americans" while attacking Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, during the years of the George W. Bush administration, as "house negroes" (harking back to Malcolm X's favorite pejorative description of moderate black American leaders who enjoyed the support of white liberals).

Toward the end of his biography of Malcolm X, Manning Marable is quick to distance his subject from al-Qaeda's views of the world, arguing that Malcolm would have certainly found the attacks of September n, 2001, abhorrent - "the negation of Islam's core tenets," as Marable puts it (487). This is a highly debatable point to which I will return. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda's embrace of Malcolm X (genuine or not) and al-Zawahiri's use of one of Malcolm's most famous speeches are revealing of a fascinating but thus far misunderstood historical development: the transformation of a uniquely American public figure, seemingly the product of specifically black American socio-historical circumstances, into a worldwide cultural, political, and religious symbol. In a way, al-Zawahiri's comments were already forecast more than twenty years earlier, when the postrevolutionary Iranian government released a postage stamp featuring an image of Malcolm X to promote the Universal Day of Struggle against Race Discrimination. These sorts of linkages between Malcolm X's politics and radical Islam were perhaps most notoriously put into action by John Walker Lindh, the young white Californian from upper-class Marin County who was inspired, after reading the Autobiography, to leave comfortable suburban America behind him and join the Taliban forces in the mountains of Afghanistan, where in 2002 he was captured by American troops.

These few examples are suggestive of the ways in which a full examination of Malcolm X's political and spiritual legacies can serve as a gateway for scholars seeking to understand the dynamics of international history in the last several decades, and particularly the place of the United States (and most specifically, black Americans) in a global context. …