Has any American radical of the twentieth century been more strongly embraced by America than Malcolm X? His Autobiography, published several months after he was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965, has sold millions of copies. Since 1999 a photo of Malcolm looking dapper and resolute has adorned a first-class stamp. In defending its decision to issue the stamp as part of its Black Heritage series, the US Postal Service claimed that Malcolm’s downplaying of black separatism in the final year of his life signaled his acceptance of “a more integrationist solution to racial problems.” That might have come as a surprise to Malcolm.
Malcolm’s admirers run the gamut from Dan Quayle to Spike Lee, whose biopic sparked a Malcolm craze in 1992. After Martin Luther King Jr., there is no twentieth-century black American political personality who enjoys greater popular standing and acclaim than Malcolm X. In the eyes of many young men and women, especially but not exclusively African-Americans, his outsider status makes him a more compelling and iconic figure than the middle-class and nonviolent King. How is it that a man who in life was an unrelenting foe of American actions has been in his cultural afterlife so thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream?
One reason is that as Malcolm’s iconic stature has grown, the memory of his political beliefs and commitments has faded. The claim that Malcolm lacked a coherent political point of view has been repeated so often that it has become second nature for people to regard the street tough turned Nation of Islam (NOI) organizer almost exclusively as a cultural symbol of black self-worth, a person Ossie Davis famously eulogized as “our living black manhood.” In today’s America, in which hyphenated identities abound and cultural pluralism often enjoys official sanction, Malcolm X occupies a position for African-Americans similar to the one Christopher Columbus enjoyed among Italian-Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century. When Malcolm’s political views do get discussed, they are often tailored to fit conventional wisdom about race relations or the civil rights movement.
If any strain of Malcolm’s radicalism has remained salient, it has been his fiery talk of revolutionary violence. His declarations about armed resistance and securing one’s rights “by any means necessary” continue to appeal to teenagers (white and black, in suburbs and cities), and their veneration of him is one reason he has become our Che Guevara—a saint of defiance, an enemy of indifference. Like Che, Malcolm endures through talismanic trinkets, his image and words reproduced on key chains and cuff links, T-shirts and tattoos, his legacy publicly commemorated and politically defanged.
In the gripping biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, the late Manning Marable does much to recover the politics in a decidedly political life. (Marable died in April on the eve of his book’s publication, after having been hospitalized for pneumonia.) For Marable, Malcolm’s commemoration—the reinvention of his story by others—began with The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Marable considers Alex Haley, Malcolm’s co-author, to be a “liberal Republican” attracted to “the tortured tale of Malcolm’s life” but decidedly opposed to his ideas. Moreover, because Malcolm died before the book was completed, the text, widely seen as his “political testament,” was shaped by Haley to depict Malcolm as a more palatable civil rights figure. Haley paid hardly any attention to the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which Malcolm founded in 1964 after leaving the NOI, or to its primary objectives, such as creating a united black front at home and abroad.