Selling Malcolm: Black History on the Auction Block

By Marable, Manning | The New Crisis, September/October 2002 | Go to article overview

Selling Malcolm: Black History on the Auction Block


Marable, Manning, The New Crisis


Issues & Views

Earlier this year, when Butterfields auction bouse in California announced the pending sale of a cache of invaluable items that belonged to Malcolm X, there was a firestorm of criticism in the domestic and international media, academia and the Black community. A partial list of the items to be sold included the private journals of Malcolm X's two trips to the Middle East and Africa in 1964; an address book, a copy of Malcolm's Holy Qu'ran; outlines and texts of speeches, including the famous "Ballot or the Bullet" address he delivered on April 3 1964; personal letters to his wife, Betty Shabazz, and brother Philbert Little; photo collections and note cards. Nearly all of these items had never been seen or appraised by scholars or archivists.

How these items fell into the hands of an auction house, rather than an academic archive or library collection along with the rest of Malcolm X's original papers raises questions about the handling of his personal effects since his death. The situation also is a poignant illustration of the importance of public figures gathering, preserving and dictating arrangements for the final repository of their documents. Without such preparation, the essential pieces of our Black history may be forever lost.

When Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City on February 21, 1965, at the age of 39, he was widely viewed as a racial demagogue outside of the African American community. He was still identified for many with a Black separatist sect, the Nation of Islam, which preached that Whites were literally "devils" and opposed racial integration. Relatively few observers, outside of a small cohort of devoted followers, understood and appreciated the tremendous spiritual and political journey that this charismatic Muslim minister had undertaken.

His critics did not examine, or perhaps at that time could not comprehend, the tremendous admiration and respect Malcolm X had earned throughout much of the Black world through his speeches and writings.

In his travels throughout Africa and the Middle East in 1964, El-Hajj Malik El-- Shabazz (Malcolm X) was greeted as a head of state, given audiences with Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Saudi royal family and Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah. Only weeks before his murder, Malcolm had journeyed to Selma, Ala., to express his support and solidarity with Martin Luther King Jr. and several thousand civil rights workers organizing to win voting rights in the Deep South. As King biographer Clayborne Carson and historian Vincent Harding have noted, Malcolm X's views toward the end of his life were not at odds with the most progressive elements inside the Civil Rights Movement.

Today, nearly 40 years since his murder, most African American historians would now place Malcolm X among the most significant figures in the Black experience. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, co-authored with journalist Alex Haley and published in November 1965, almost overnight was recognized an American literary classic. In recognition of Malcolm X's significance to the making of modern America, the U.S. Postal Service several years ago issued a stamp in his honor. Malcolm X's rhetoric and dynamic use of language has been the subject of several hundred scholarly papers.

Malcolm X's legacy also resonates in popular music. John Coltrane's "Afro-- Blue," recorded soon after the assassination, may have been partially inspired as a tribute to Malcolm. It is easy to hear the themes of many of Malcolm's speeches in Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" (1971), Bob Marley and Peter Tosh's "Get Up, Stand Up" (1973) and Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." Living Colour, popular folk singer Ani Difranco and Rage Against the Machine have also drawn upon his words. Most of the artists and groups who comprised what critics now describe as hip hop music's "golden age" from 1987 to about 1993, such as Public Enemy and NWA, used Malcolm X's image and words to express their political and artistic messages. …

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