Who owns identity? Malcolm X, representation, and the struggle over meaning. Article Metrics Views. Article metrics information Disclaimer for citing articles. People also read Article. Lisa M. Published online: 12 Apr Published online: 17 Nov The Black Scholar Volume 41, - Issue 2. Published online: 15 Apr Rhetoric and autobiography: The case of Malcolm X. Thomas W.
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Published online: 5 Jun August H. Yet he was not the increasingly hardened and violent criminal he later made himself out to be. Along the way he hung out with jazz musicians, performed as a bar entertainer, became romantically involved with a white woman, and moved in the vibrant cultural and political environment that was Harlem. But if Malcolm was not quite a full-fledged criminal, theft did prove to be an important way of getting by. When, especially down on his luck, he returned to Boston in late , he formed a gang that included his white girlfriend and her younger sister to rob homes in affluent neighborhoods.
By the spring of , he was doing time in the wretched Charlestown State Prison, among the oldest penitentiaries in the world. Two significant things happened to Malcolm Little while he served out his prison terms. The first was that he met a fellow inmate, twenty years his senior, named John Elton Bembry, who introduced him to a new world of ideas and self-discipline.
Recognizing the connection, Bembry encouraged Malcolm to enroll in correspondence courses and make use of the small prison library. Malcolm responded with avidity, completing the requirements for university extension courses, studying Latin and German, reading in linguistics and etymology, and memorizing word definitions in the dictionary. In the process he gained in self-confidence, and determined to change his life.
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Philbert explained that he and the other members of the Little family had become members of the Nation of Islam, and hoped that Malcolm would join them. His brother Reginald and his sister Hilda soon visited Malcolm in prison, told him more about the Nation and their attraction to it, and urged him to contact the supreme leader known as Elijah Muhammad. When he finally decided to embrace the Nation, his commitment to it was already very deep. Scholars have demonstrated that Islam established a broader base among African Americans, from early on, than has previously been imagined, and by the second decade of the twentieth century a North Carolinian calling himself Noble Drew Ali founded the Moorish Science Temple of America, with an initial base in Newark, New Jersey.
When Ali died suddenly in , the Moorish Science Temple fragmented and went into gradual decline, but before long an obscure figure named Wallace D. Fard appeared in Detroit, another Garveyite stronghold. Poole had been born in Sandersville, Georgia, in , not very far from the birthplace of Earl Little. His father was a preacher and a sharecropper, and moving to the small town of Cordele and later to the larger one of Macon, Poole learned the skills of brick-making and sawmilling. Then, in the early s, he followed in the footsteps of Earl Little and thousands of other black southerners, moving to the urban north, in his case to the city of Detroit, with his wife, two children, and several other family members.
At the time Poole encountered Fard, he was searching for a movement and a community still dedicated to the ideal of racial pride and destiny. Garvey, after all, had been deported in , and the UNIA was very much at the crossroads. Some of the faithful remained committed to the UNIA and either maintained the organization it survives to this day or entered into alliances, on the ground, with early civil rights and labor activists; others were drawn to men like Fard who combined, as Garvey had, spirituality and popular black nationalism.
To Poole, Fard was electrifying and transcendent. Fard took an interest in Poole, found him a position of responsibility, and gave him the name Elijah Muhammad. But the Nation was soon scandal-ridden—Fard was arrested in connection with a murder and then vanished—and beset by internecine struggle, and Muhammad ended up in Chicago with a small cohort of supporters trying desperately to keep the movement afloat.
By the time Malcolm learned of him, the Nation had only a few hundred members and tiny beachheads in Washington, D. Malcolm corresponded with Muhammad, came to accept the divinity of W. Fard, and appears to have joined his new faith to the intellectual journey that he had begun under the tutelage of Bembry. He became something of an evangelist-in-training while in prison, developing his indictments of white supremacy, sharpening his critiques of Western institutions and values, and honing a distinctive speaking style marked by some of the cadences of jazz.
He then moved on to Boston, Philadelphia, and Harlem, where, in , he was named minister of Temple No. When Malcolm left prison and took the ministerial path, the Nation of Islam was struggling with a tiny membership and a problematic message—not so much in its spiritual orientation, its Manichean theology, or its ideas of community as in its rejection of worldly engagement.
Early years and conversion
Elijah Muhammad strongly discouraged civic and political involvement, whether public protests against Jim Crow or even voter registration, and counseled a full withdrawal from the life of civil society. Malcolm contributed a new energy and dedication, a clear-minded outlook, and a deep charisma to the cause, and they proved increasingly irresistible. He brought his prison learning to bear in constructing a historical narrative of white sin and black resistance, his Garveyite perspectives in representing racial destiny and empowerment, and his street wisdom in communicating with his audiences.
He helped boost membership from around 1, in to around 6, in , and then to as many as 75, in It was nothing short of astonishing, and it put the Nation on the political map of the United States.
The Assassination of Malcolm X in Photos: 50 Years Later
This is where Marable allows us to see the intellectual growth and dexterity that make Malcolm such a significant figure of the mid-twentieth century. Malcolm was extremely demanding of Nation members while holding himself to the strictest standards of comportment. I never heard Malcolm curse. I never saw Malcolm wink at a woman. I never saw Malcolm eat in between meals.
He ate one meal a day. I never saw Malcolm late for an appointment. Malcolm was like a clock. Malcolm took special notice when, in , representatives from twenty-nine African and Asian countries, many of them newly independent, met in Bandung, Indonesia, to discuss political cooperation at a time when the Cold War was intensifying, hatching a non-aligned movement.
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Here, he imagined, were possibilities for unifying African Americans with followers of Islam elsewhere in the world. Before long, Malcolm became even more engaged in the tumultuous political atmosphere of Harlem. Reacting to the beating of several black men, including two Nation members, by New York police in the spring of , Malcolm succeeded in mobilizing several thousand local blacks, conducting a march down Lenox Avenue, and pressing the police to provide medical treatment for one of the victims.
Malcolm now saw that the Nation would only grow by becoming immersed in the daily struggles of the black community. However much contemporary observers liked to stuff Malcolm X into a fixed political category, Marable demonstrates very powerfully that Malcolm increasingly defied those categories and set out on his own odyssey of intellectual discovery and transformation.
The initial leg was facilitated by Elijah Muhammad, who had received an invitation from Gamal Abdel Nasser to visit Egypt and make the haj to Mecca in the summer of , but decided to send Malcolm in his place. This would be the first of three trips to Africa and the Middle East that Malcolm would make, and as Marable shows, it would begin to unsettle and to re-configure his political sensibilities.
When he returned to the United States Malcolm set out to broaden his appeal, looking beyond the Nation of Islam to a wider black public. His fame steadily grew. And he began to receive invitations to debate other black leaders, to lecture at universities, and to appear before the media. To be sure, Malcolm remained steadfast in his critique of integrationism and committed as he understood it to his role as a Nation of Islam minister.
Philip Randolph, who saw him in the tradition of Martin Delany and Garvey, had Malcolm appointed to a unity committee. Thus, by the spring of , Malcolm had moved in a number of new political directions.
NYPL, Malcolm X: A Search for Truth
He accepted the possibility that ballots might offer a viable alternative to bullets in the quest for change, so long as the federal government guaranteed black political rights. And he began to draw more explicit parallels between the legacies of European colonialism in Africa and the web of institutional racism in the United States, and compared the struggles of African Americans with those of Chinese and Cuban revolutionaries. But for all his intellectual growth, political charisma, and public celebrity, Malcolm made a fatal miscalculation.