Pursuing Pathology by Another Name
Regardless of all the other philosophical and factual flaws that weaken and undermine the structural and intellectual integrity of Marable’s work, the reef and rock on which his deconstructionist project flounders and is ultimately wrecked is his limited and less than expansive and thus, inadequate conception of Blackness and Black nationalism. He wants to portray Blackness and Black nationalism as narrow notions needing repair and rehabilitation, if not outright rejection. This is one of the reasons he portrays Malcolm as reaching out to the Civil Rights leaders as a repentant and reformed petitioner rather than a colleague and ally, pursuing a politics of united front as a self-conscious and carefully conceived strategy rooted in long-held nationalist views and values.
But Black nationalism is not the reactive practice born of the belief in the impossible assimilation of Blacks that Marable suggests. On the contrary, nationalism is profound commitment to community, to peoplehood and the right and responsibility of a people to exist, to be self-determining, and to define, develop and defend its members and interests. Malcolm is renamed an internationalist, as if nationalism in its expansive and progressive form does not include and require a world-encompassing understanding and ethic, and as if there can be an internationalism without the nations that embrace and practice it.
It is Malcolm, himself, who teaches this expansive conception of Black nationalism, not only in his NOI, early Third World and Bandung period, but also in his last lectures. Praising the global thinking that characterizes the new Black consciousness of the Movement, Malcolm states that one of its defining features is that “the thinking . . is broad. It’s more international.” He goes on to say that “you find the masses of Black people today think in terms of Black. And this enables them to think beyond the confines of America. And they look all over the world. They look at the happenings of the international context.”
Indeed, Marable’s reinvention of Malcolm has him constantly whittling down Malcolm’s feet to fit Marable’s deconstructionist shoes, and desperately and repeatedly trying to reshape Malcolm’s head to fit the various hats he’s chosen for him to wear. Thus, he claims that “Malcolm’s strength was his ability to reinvent himself,” not his brilliant mind, his incisive analysis, his ethics of liberation, his organizing skill or his personal discipline, dedication and courage. Also, he claims Malcolm becomes “less intolerant and more open to multiethnic and interfaith coalitions.” But Malcolm was, since the NOI, committed to Third World alliances and Black united fronts on the model of Bandung.
He also wants us to believe Malcolm “resisted identification as a Black nationalist, seeking ideological shelter under the race-neutral concepts of Pan-Africanism and Third World revolution,” a possible concession to post-racial discourse. But Malcolm is clear about the racial bases of pan-Africanism-defining it as a project of “peoples of African heritage” and the Third World was always defined as the dark peoples of the world, those oppressed and exploited by the White imperialist West. In his last speeches, he talks of “we nationalists,” defines the OAU as nationalist, and in his travel diaries, he wrote that “our success in America will involve two circles: Black nationalism and Islam.”
If we want to advance beyond the philosophical and factual flaws of Marable’s attempt to reinvent Malcolm and understand Malcolm in the most expansive, productive and promising sense, we must read and study him and his ideas as they evolved and developed in processes of both change and continuity. Clearly what is called for here is a critical practice that is emancipatory and inclusive, rather than narrowly focused and faddish, and self-determining and constructive, rather than deconstructionist and derived from the established order.
As Malcolm says, it begins with forming “the habit of seeing for ourselves, hearing for ourselves, thinking for ourselves, and then we can come to an intelligent judgment for ourselves.” It requires also the development of “a new system of reason and logic,” a liberational logic, both oppositional and affirmative, and rooted in our own culture. He says, “we must capture our heritage and our identity if we are to liberate ourselves from the bonds of White supremacy.” Indeed, he said “we must launch a cultural revolution” that frees our hearts and minds and prepares us for and sustains us in the larger liberation struggle. Therefore, he says, “culture is an indispensable weapon in the freedom struggle.”
Moreover, Malcolm says “we should keep an open mind which is necessary to the flexibility which must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.” Malcolm, by his own self-definition, was “a Black nationalist freedom fighter.” And his nationalism is defined by three major principles and practices: self-determination, self-respect and self-defense. This means control of our space, destiny and daily life in this country and the world African community; cultural grounding which affirms our identity and dignity as persons and a people; and the right and responsibility to defend ourselves against systemic and social violence and oppression by any means necessary, including armed struggle.
These are the concentric circles, the hinge and hub on which his thought and practice turn. It is these three principles and practices that we of the organization Us embraced and used to define and struggle for Black Power. As I stated elsewhere, “In the Sixties we had stood up seeing ourselves as descendents of Malcolm with an awesome obligation to wage the revolution he had conceived and called for,” – both the cultural and political revolution. Indeed, we saw ourselves as servants and soldiers of our people and keepers of his legacy and have not abandoned this position or project.
Having met and talked with Malcolm, I have studied, written and lectured on his thought and work and that of the Nation since the Sixties. As a Malcolm scholar in the process of writing a book on his ethics of liberation which has a complex, personal and social transformative dimension, I do not dare assume to “humanize” Malcolm, but rather seek to understand and interpret his humanity in its most profound and expansive form. And I explore not paths to possible pathology, but the ground and applicability of his excellence, as expressed in his intellectual and social practice. For in the final analysis, we engage him, even in criticism, not as a model of flaws and failure, but as a model of excellence achieved against the heavy odds of a history of savage and sustained oppression and in the radical and relentless struggle for liberation which forms and grounds his enduring legacy.