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The Pragmatic Nationalist: The Racial Politics and Rhetoric of Malcolm X 1964-65

Masterarbeit 2010 67 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur





Copyright Statement




Chapter One: The Domestic Parameters: African Americans and the Strategic Use of Race
Black Solidarity as a Reaction to American Racism
Whiteness as a Site of Privilege
Black Skin, White Masks: The Black Bourgeoisie/Elite and the Grassroots

Chapter Two: The International Dimension: Pan-Africanism, Subaltern Politics and Islam
The Background to Malcolm X’s International Outlook
Recovering a Lost Base: The (Re) turn to Africa
Blackness as Oppression: Malcolm X and Pragmatic Nationalism
Universal, Yet Exclusive: Islam in Malcolm X’s Political Ideology




In this thesis, I look at the constraints, most notably the white power structure, present in the United States during the mid-1960s which, on one hand gave form to Malcolm’s political ideology, and on the other, made it necessary for him to add an international dimension to his thinking. Central to such a discussion is Malcolm’s racial theorising in 1964-65 when he identified the two stages which were necessary for the attainment of a colour-blind society. While Africa, as both idea and place, served as a cultural base, it also acted as a springboard to an international coalition of oppressed people. By linking the domestic and the international politics of Malcolm X, this thesis highlights the sense of purpose with which Malcolm X articulated his arguments concerning the future of the African- American community and their involvement in the American society.


No portion of the work referred to in this dissertation has been submitted in support of an application for another degree or qualification of this or any other university or other institute of learning.


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My thanks go to my supervisor Dr. Eithne Quinn for her precious suggestions and kind patience. Above all, her guidance has proved crucial to the development of this thesis.

Words cannot convey my feeling of indebtedness toward my parents. They have been wowing me every step of the way.

Finally, I am grateful to Musarrat for the proofreading. And everything else.


Over the years, much has been written on Malcolm X, most particularly the last year of his life. The period extending from 12 March 1964, the date he officially announced his split from the Nation of Islam, to 21 February 1965, when he was assassinated, has attracted the most attention due to its political significance.1 The change in Malcolm X brought about by the split was both secular and religious. During the last year of his life, Malcolm’s critique of the American social, political, economic structures was incisive as he identified and tried to solve the central problems facing the African-American community. Adopting a pragmatic position, Malcolm formulated conceptual strategies which he believed would help to bring an end to oppression. Central to this was his strategic use of race to unite African-American initially and then the oppressed people in the world. Race was used as a strategy with the aim to abolish racial oppression. The literature devoted to Malcolm’s last year is both diverse and enriching. The scholarship which will be discussed in the following paragraphs either deals with how the domestic and international dimensions of Malcolm’s thinking are linked or some of the domestic factors which shaped Malcolm’s global perspective.

George Breitman was among the most prolific scholars writing on Malcolm X during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In line with his own socialist leaning, Breitman, in The Last Year of Malcolm X, explores Malcolm’s links to the left, and posits that after his break from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm became increasingly pro-socialist and anti-capitalist.2 Breitman highlights the fact that the change in Malcolm’s approach to the black struggle in the United States, his political involvement in particular, upset white supremacists who “believed that the ‘new Malcolm’ could pose a greater threat to the status quo than the Black Muslim Malcolm.”3 Although Breitman identifies black unity as a pre-requisite to freedom and equality, he however concedes that “Black nationalism is a means, not the end; it is a means, but not the only means; it is probably and indispensable means toward a solution; but it is not the solution itself.”4 Despite his new, pragmatic approach, Malcolm X remained deeply suspicious of whites in the United States, fearing their complicity - whether voluntary or involuntary - with the oppressive structures of the country. In this regard, Breitman points out that: “he [Malcolm] did not share the belief of the Marxists that the working class, including a decisive section of the white workers as well as of the black workers, will play a leading role in the alliance that will end both racism and capitalism.”5 Breitman’s The Last Year of Malcolm X highlights the political contribution of Malcolm X after his break from the Nation of Islam. Although he explores Malcolm’s connections with leftist organizations, mainly socialism, Breitman acknowledges that race, as a marker of identity, often displaces class.

In its “attempt to place the political thought of Malcolm X within a broader context of fundamental concepts of Geography,”6 James Tyner’s The Geography of Malcolm X highlights the political importance of Africa in his thinking. Malcolm X’s attempt, during the last year of his life, to build a diasporic consciousness in African-Americans was above all aimed at creating a positive sense of identity for the community. Tyner points out that “the recognition and analysis of negative representations of African Americans provided an important building block to the development of Malcolm X’s own political thought and geographical imagination.”7 By extension, Malcolm X’s exhortation for African-Americans to recover the lost base that was Africa was likewise part of the evolution of his political thought. Tyner acknowledges the fact that the American political, economic, and social structures could not ensure the equal participation of blacks. He argues that “the objective of Malcolm X’s black radicalism was the attainment of respect and equality within American society; this was to be achieved through a remaking of American space.”8

Robert Terrill, in Malcolm X: Inventing Radical Judgement, posits that Malcolm’s thinking was in incessantly evolving after his separation from the Nation of Islam and thus he did not leave behind a set ideology or strategy. Instead, Malcolm encouraged people “to think for themselves in ways beyond the limitations imposed by the dominant culture and to entertain a wide range of inventional possibilities always tempered by the need to stay focused on making positive contributions toward obtaining freedom.”9 Robert Terrill does well to identify the importance of both the domestic and the international dimensions working in tandem in Malcolm’s thinking. Terrill says that during the post-Nation of Islam phase of Malcolm’s life, his speeches followed a pattern where “Malcolm works first within a scene defined by the borders of the United States and then expands it to an international scene, drawing parallels between the two.”10 In line with his view that Malcolm’s thinking was in constant flux, Terrill posits that “Malcolm does not offer any political action.”11 As such, Malcolm’s contribution was in terms of changing the mindset of the African-American community, by encouraging them to think independently instead of abiding to a specific framework.

Like Terrill, Eugene Victor Wolfenstein highlights the link between Malcolm’s domestic and international politics. In The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution, Wolfenstein posits that in the post-war period, during the decolonisation process, Malcolm X “was the most persistent and most successful in heightening black American consciousness of the African cultural heritage, and in linking the national struggle to the international one.”12 Wolfenstein underlines “Afro-American Unity, Black power, and Black Pride” as representative of Malcolm’s significance.13 Wolfenstein’s analysis of Malcolm’s political thinking leads him to conclude that “Malcolm both represented the interests and mobilized the emotional resources of the black masses and black people in general.”14

Both James H. Cone and Michael Eric Dyson delve into the influence that intra-racial class differences had on Malcolm’s articulation of black struggle. While both of these scholars affirm the existence of such differences, they nevertheless have diverging views on how such differences shaped Malcolm’s ideology. Cone, a professor of Theology, sets out to underline the distinct differences between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare. Cone says that Malcolm’s perspective “of the ‘black masses living at the bottom of the social heap’” was “in opposition to Martin King’s middle-class, integrationist image.”15 In addition to class differences, Cone states that divergences between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King also stemmed from geographical differences as “each developed a strategy for freedom that was appropriate for the region in which he worked.”16 Dyson’s analysis of class differences existing within the African-American community during the 1960s is much more critical of the middle-class. Dyson says that:

It is the presence of class differences within black life that bestowed particular meanings on King’s and Malcolm’s leadership. Such differences shaped the styles each leader adapted in voicing the grievances of his constituency - for King, a guilt-laden, upwardly mobile, and everexpanding black middle-class, for Malcolm, an ever-widening, troubleprone, and rigidly oppressed black ghetto poor.17

According to Dyson, Malcolm’s close links to the lower class put him in a better position to criticise the racist American political, social, and economic structures. Dyson talks of “the common moral worldviews occupied by King and his white oppressors,” and is of the opinion that “Malcolm was perhaps the living indictment of a white American worldview.”18 Cone and Dyson both contribute to a better understanding of the complexity of black solidarity in the face class differences.

There is sufficient proof in Malcolm’s speeches and interviews to say that after his break from the Nation of Islam, he developed a concept of strategic black racial identity. ‘Race’ was a strategy in the sense that it was a necessary rallying point; one of several stages in his ultimate objective of bringing about an egalitarian and colour-blind society. This, arguably, was his most significant contribution to racially-oppressed people in general and the African-American community in particular. Malcolm X’s particular conceptualisation of ‘race’ sought to resolve a dilemma, found in the 1960s black struggle, and which Howard Winant explains below:

“The very comprehensiveness of the racism the movement sought to overcome served as a practical limit to the movement’s demands. The movement was repeatedly forced to choose between radicalism and moderation: the former was a constant temptation, imposed by the embeddedness of race in the social and psychic structures of U.S. life. The latter was a political necessity, a pragmatic imperative in the real situation where (let it be remembered) whites vastly out-numbered blacks.”19

In a nutshell, either African-Americans complied with the white power structure and articulated their demands according to the possibilities offered within such a framework or they risked being branded subversive and radical. Acting within the framework offered by the United States, according to Malcolm, meant acceptance of tokenism. Malcolm tried to find a way out of this conundrum. The intractability of racial formation highlighted by Winant led Malcolm X to embrace this marker of identity in a way which was distinctly different from that used by white supremacists to project African-Americans. Essien-Udom, in his 1962 analysis of the African-American community, points out that “they [African-Americans] cannot wish away their racial identity. Whether they view it positively or negatively, they cannot be indifferent to it.”20 Malcolm chose the first option and tried to instil pride and self-respect in African-Americans through the recovery of their African roots. Employing what Gayatri Spivak has termed ‘strategic essentialism,’ “a strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest,”21 Malcolm X sought to initially effectively counter white racism with the long-term vision of abolishing this form of oppression.

While Malcolm acknowledged the need to work within the domestic framework, he constantly stressed the importance of Africa in order to inculcate African-Americans with a positive sense of identity. This dual aspect of Malcolm’s thinking is highlighted in one of his last interviews, given on 12 December 1964, where he says that African-Americans need to “migrate back to Africa culturally, philosophically, while remaining here [in the United States] physically.”22 Malcolm X’s emphasis on the recovery of a positive identity (via Africa) however does not necessarily imply that he was a separatist and/or an essentialist. I regard Malcolm X as a pragmatic nationalist, espousing ideals of a black nationalism which in Tommie Shelby’s words, “urges black solidarity and concerted action as a political strategy to lift and resist oppression ... it could ... mean working to create a racially integrated society or even a ‘post-racial’ polity, a political order where ‘race’ has no social or political meaning.”23

A necessary point of departure, Malcolm’s strategic use of race to unite blacks was designed to ultimately defeat racism.

This thesis builds upon Robert Terrill’s observation that Malcolm X’s rhetoric encompasses both a domestic and an international dimension.24 I argue that both these dimensions form part of a coherent political ideology which, though in constant evolution, has the elimination of racism as primary objective. Central to such an objective is Malcolm’s radical stance whereby he refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the domestic authorities. Indeed, Michael Dyson asserts that the fact that Malcolm shared a worldview different from that of that shared by both the mainstream Civil Rights movement and the U.S. government enabling him to critique the inherent racism of the American political, social, and economic structures.25 The domestic parameters made the inclusion of an international dimension in Malcolm’s thinking inevitable. While I agree with Eugene Victor Wolfenstein’s claim that Africa has a prominent place in Malcolm’s scheme to eliminate racial discrimination in the United States26, I regard the continent as more than a cultural base. Africa, as evident in Malcolm X’s rhetoric, was above all a political resource which, as a pragmatic nationalist, he sought to employ in the fight against racism.


1 Breitman G. 1970, The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary, Pathfinder Press, New York; Dyson M. E. 1995, Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York; Terrill R. 2004, Malcolm X: Inventing Radical Judgement, Michigan University Press, East Lansing; Tyner J. 2006, The Geography of Malcolm X: Black Radicalism and the Remaking of American Space, Routledge, New York & London.

2 Breitman G. 1970, The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary, Pathfinder Press, New York, p. 27.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., p. 67.

5 Ibid., p. 50.

6 Tyner J. 2006, The Geography of Malcolm X: Black Radicalism and the Remaking of American Space, Routledge, New York & London, p. 13.

7 Ibid., p. 106.

8 Ibid., p. 13.

9 Terrill R. 2004, Malcolm X: Inventing Radical Judgement, Michigan University Press, East Lansing, p. 145.

10 Ibid., p. 122.

11 Ibid., p. 127

12 Wolfenstein E. V. 1981, The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, p. 23.

13 Ibid., p. 24.

14 Ibid., p. 369.

15 Cone J. 2005, Martin and Malcolm and America: Dream or Nightmare, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, pp. 38-9.

16 Cone J. 2005, Martin and Malcolm and America: Dream or Nightmare, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York , p. 247.

17 Dyson M. E. 1995, Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, p. 43.

18 Ibid., p. 45.

19 Winant H. 2001, The World is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II, Basic Books, U.S.A., p. 149.

20 Essien-Udom E. U. 1962, Black Nationalism: The Search for an Identity, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, p. 3.

21 Spivak G. 1985, “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography,” In: Donna Landry & Gerald Maclean (eds.) 1996, The Spivak Reader, Routledge, New York & London, p. 214.

22 Malcolm X [12 December 1964], “Last Answers and Interviews,” In: George Breitman (ed.) 1965, Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches & Statements, Grove Press, New York, p. 210.

23 Shelby T. 2005, We Who are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity, The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, p. 28.

24 Terrill R. 2004, Malcolm X: Inventing Radical Judgement, Michigan University Press, East Lansing, p. 145.

25 Dyson M. E. 1995, Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, p. 45.

26 Wolfenstein E. V. 1981, The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, p. 23.


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Titel: The Pragmatic Nationalist: The Racial Politics and Rhetoric of Malcolm X 1964-65