An inexhaustible myth in times of extreme adversity


Malcolm X: ‘Born Malcolm Little in 1925, he called himself X, a name that was comical, joyous and blasphemous.’
PHOTO/cc Ed Ford, World Telegram staff photographer, Library of Congress

As African Americans, who overwhelmingly voted for Bill Clinton in November 1992, wondered whether the new president would bring about real change to their lives, a revived interest in Malcolm X demonstrated the extent of their expectations. Twenty-eight years after his assassination, the teen delinquent turned activist, convert to Islam and advocate for third-world struggles became a model for millions of young people who refused to be condemned to deprivation. The ‘Malcolm X phenomenon’ — his image on film, and its use in advertising — revealed the fresh relevance of questions once posed by the black leader about American identity, the debate between assimilation and separatism, and between internal cohesion and multicultural community.

When, in 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated, many believed he would no longer pose a threat. Today, the United States enjoys no such peace of mind. Malcolm X has begun to haunt the present again, and to speak (1). A section of black America won’t forgive him for dying so soon, for dying at that moment, in those conditions (2).

But how can we understand Malcolm X without going back to the foundational event that is the trade of black people, that demographic hemorrhage which deprived Africa of at least 20 million men and women? And to slavery, that corrupted form of human existence, that capital of darkness, where death constantly threatens the black man, a world of anguish and misfortune, a logic of excess, against which all the myths the West invented in order to define itself, justify racism and create a universe where masks do not refer to a particular face have broken down one by one (3)?

After the abolition of slavery, the suffering of the descendants of Africa continued. The dungeon that was, and remains, the unnamed presence of black people in the New World remained locked, outlining new forms of alienation on an apparently endless horizon. This is the reason Malcolm X chose to begin with the beginning. He decided to start by working on ‘proper’ names. Born Malcolm Little in 1925, he called himself X, a name that was comical, joyous and blasphemous. Malcolm X began to say — with words that came straight from his own wanderings as a con artist, sex worker, delinquent, criminal, prisoner, drug user, anti-Semite, phallocrat, martyr and, yes, son of a bitch (4) — old things about which we knew almost everything, but that the West persisted in denying, preferring to torment the consciousness of its victims, offload the entire responsibility of their deaths back onto them and then humiliate their corpses (5).

In forced labour against all missing meanings, Malcolm X then had recourse to that great signifier which remains for many black people in the United States of America: Allah, the presumed master of all signs, the one by which all masks fall away. To destroy the dominant myths, he converted to Islam. He tore up his own borrowed identity and, with hammer blows and an abrupt laugh, unveiled the hideous face of the West.

And indeed, it is the resurgence of controversies pertaining to the nature of American identity that explains the volume of references to Malcolm X today. Some ideologues — both Republican and Democrat — deplore the decline of the old idea of assimilation. Insofar as it ever actually existed, it required immigrants to shake off their identities of origin and espouse the dominant Western culture and tradition, derived from the Anglo-Saxon and Judeo-Christian traditions, without compromise. It is on the basis of these values that the United States legitimated its existence as a distinct nation and, for the sake of this nation, forged a democratic personality and attributes.

He tore up his own borrowed identity and, with hammer blows and an abrupt laugh, unveiled the hideous face of the West

Other traditions — be they of African, Islamic, Asian or another origin — are then perceived as being fundamentally antidemocratic, as they are alleged to rest on superstition, the despotism of the group and religious fanaticism. In their extreme tyranny, they would supposedly crush the ideals of the rights of man, threatening the republican foundations of American society (6).

Because America has not totally recovered from its history of injustice and racial oppression, current debates about its present identity directly raise the problem of the presence, and political and economic status, of former African slaves in a society that has never recognised them as an integral part of itself. Malcolm X was already raising this problem thirty years ago.

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