Malcolm X: The Self-Appointed Messiah Of Blacks?
Minorities are generally repressed everywhere. But are their ways always right when it comes to the ways they adopt to demand their rights? What happens to the collective voice when a person chooses to be the self-appointed leader for all? Zahra Khan, our guest contributor, analyzes this with a proxy far removed from the Indian subcontinent, and dispassionately analyzes the mission of Malcolm X.
Minorities, by definition, are communities not in majority. So in countries with skewed sex-ratios (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan), women are minority. There can be other variables, too; for instance, religion. Thus Shias, Christians, Hindus and Ahmadiyyas are minorities in Pakistan, while everyone except Hindus are so in India. When it comes to political struggle, power groups play a major role. In Pakistan, Punjabi community wields a lot of influence in politics, often at the expense of marginalized ethnic groups like Balochs and Pashtuns. In India, Nehru-Gandhi family has virtually ruled the country since 1947. Of course, in such inequitable setups, there will be oppressed groups, and thus, revolutions to change the status quo. If India is dealing with the problem of Naxalites, then Pakistan is having a field day in containing the unrest in Baluchistan. But are minorities always right with the ways they bring forward their cause? More importantly, once the revolutions succeed, do the intended sections benefit from them? It’s necessary to play the Devil’s Advocate sometimes. It may not be necessary always. Without pointing at any ongoing struggles in Indo-Pak, to maintain neutrality, let us investigate the case of Malcolm X – the self-appointed messiah of Blacks in the US. You may read more about him here. And it would be in order to watch the above-mentioned video.
Slavery, a product of racism in the United States of America, started in the 16th century where the Blacks suffered unbearable treatment by the Whites for three hundred years and because of this, activists such as Malcolm X came about to set things straight. Malcolm X faced a lot of harassment by White supremacists, and because of his troubled childhood, Malcolm X had strong feelings of aggression towards the White man. He somehow believed that the American Black and the American White could not live together peacefully, and that a separate state for the Blacks was needed. However, contrary to Malcolm X’s belief, it can be argued that separatism would have only created more hostility between the two races and coexistence would definitely be a better solution, especially in the long run.
In his speech (see the video) to an audience at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights in 1964, Malcolm X talks about nationalism and professes the dire need of freedom for the Blacks in America. He talks about how the Blacks were forcefully brought to America to invest; that is, ‘investment of 310 years of slaved labour’. Because of being negatively conditioned by that injustice and cruelty, Malcolm X went on to adopt a radical approach for attaining freedom. He came across as an advocate of separatism in most of his speeches and emphasised on the mere fact that Blacks and Whites cannot coexist.
Nationalism, being the focal point of Malcolm X’s speech, was averred to be the reason behind countries like Uganda and Nigeria achieving freedom. In the video, Malcolm X reiterates that the Black Americans need to adopt nationalism to set themselves free. The definition of nationalism in its purest form is to have a feeling of superiority over other countries. The fact of the matter is: developing a society, that has ethical values primarily based on issues of racism, is an unrealistic and limited approach which would be achieved with more difficulty and cost than peaceful coexistence. Such a society will always be averse to the idea of change – something which cannot be avoided in this globalised world. Nationalism is meant to unify race and ethnicity under one flag and a strong sense of citizenship. It can, at times, be used more effectively as a means of unity than separation. The ‘Black Nationalism’ that Malcolm X frequently proposes would only facilitate slower moving economics, politics and society in general. Ideally, it may be favourable given the treatment of the Blacks, but realistically, it may worsen the standards of living, productivity, etc.
Moving on, when the idea of having a separate state for the Blacks comes up, it leads one to question how other races would be treated under a Black separatist nation. This might just lead to the same problem, that is, others race under Black rule may go through what the Blacks went through initially. Filtering a society out by its colour only creates more hatred amongst races and robs the nation of diversity. Black Nationalism is limited in the sense that it promotes a kind of counter-racism towards the Whites. Fighting for equality and fighting for separation are two entirely different things.
In the hindsight, coexistence has proven to liberate Black people. While the presence of racism may never be eliminated entirely, its prominence most certainly has: ideas of white supremacy and organizations like the Ku Klux Klan have deteriorated as the majority in America stands for racial equality. Ruby Bridges, the first African American school teacher in the States, was the first major example of ending segregation in schools, and Oprah Winfrey, who created a good image of African American people, were two of many Black Americans who defeated whatever was left of racism even though their ancestors were treated with unfairness. If Malcolm X's philosophy was approached and followed, it might have had profound impacts on the situation in the US today. A method of separation might have caused an entire race of black people in the United States to come in direct conflict with the more dominant race at the time, which would justify claims made by white supremacist groups and create further division and hatred amongst everyone. This would mean that the subject of racism could possibly have been more heated than it is now and the possibility of a president from African heritage in a unified US would seem improbable, if not impossible.
The problem with the feelings and ideas Malcolm X expresses in his speech is that he uses history as a weapon to emotionally stimulate his audience. History must be used to take lessons, to conceptualise a better society, which ultimately happened when the US government adopted affirmative action for the Blacks, thereby paving way for the criminalisation of the acts of racism, and reservation and other benefits for them. It’s not justified to commit a bigger vice to fight an existing one. Malcolm X kept an assumption that the situation 300 years back was the same as the situation in 1964 and things hadn’t changed at all. He used history negatively to charge his audience up and instilled anger in them. Martin Luther King Jr. on the other hand was strong enough to identify a change in culture; as to how people had changed and how people wanted a change. King used history positively, and propagated coexistence between the Blacks and the Whites. Neither of the strategies gave an instant result, but one was better than the other, and therefore, quite justifiably, history exalts King and condemns Malcolm X somehow.
Another important point to note is that the countries that Malcolm X talks about, such as Algeria, Tanganyika and Uganda, continue to struggle economically, even today. Also, the key reason for their independence was the simultaneous fall in the British dominance around the globe, and not the Black Nationalism. The British, crippled by the War losses, could not afford their empire any longer. The nationalist parties existing in those countries had as much power as the Congress party did in India in the 19th century, which is not too much. Therefore, nationalism was a contributing factor but not a dominant factor. There was a rise in disgruntled people for sure, but it was not the ultimate factor, the way Malcolm X makes it look like.
Malcolm X was a thorough politician, who knew how to use facts to his advantage. He spoke very truly when he said people couldn’t sit back and wait for the change to come. He vehemently stressed upon action and spoke about how the Africans didn’t get freedom by singing ‘we shall overcome’. Malcolm’s revolutionary mindset can be seen as commendable and inspirational, at the most, but preaching division because of the differences in colour is something which deserves disapprobation in no unclear words. Separatism would not have favoured the US; on the other hand, the coexistence of the two races, has gone a long way in making America the great nation that it is today.
As we saw above, ends may be all noble, but means must be rational and non-discriminatory. In India, for instance, reservations for scheduled classes have constitutional mandate. But it’s a bitter truth that in spite of all the struggle that Dalit leaders went through, only about four scheduled classes have benefitted from reservations in states like UP. The ways of Dalit leaders, unlike Malcolm X, were peaceful, but as we said at the very outset, history evaluates a revolution by not its aim, but by its impact. Therefore, one must not be too sceptical of the need to uplift downtrodden minorities, but one must also be sure that the movement doesn’t fall prey to propagandas vested in selfish interests and self-styled leaders.
(Zahra Khan is an economics student at the prestigious Lahore University for Management Sciences. Having spent most of her life in Saudi Arabia, she has been exposed to a myriad of cultures. A self-confessed Narcissist, she likes to listen to music in her spare time, and is equally close to her relatives in Pakistan, India and other parts of the world.)