Saturday 25 June 2011

MALCOLM THE LEADER: A Response to Ozodi Osuji’s ‘Thoughts On The Personality of Malcolm X’

The purpose of this piece is to provide a response to Dr. Ozodi Osuji’s recent article entitled ‘Thoughts on the Personality of Malcolm X’. It is of course written in the spirit of wholesome and positive debate, and in what I believe to be an overarching quest for a positive exchange if ideas and the acquisition of knowledge.

It is not intended to serve as a polemic, or, given the esteem to which Malcolm is held by swathes of black and African opinion, an argumentum ad hominem. The aim is to present a counterpoint wherein facts, where they can be agreed upon, can nevertheless be subject to varying degrees of interpretation and analysis.

My thinking on sighting the title of Dr. Osuji’s piece, given his academic and professional expertise, was that he had produced a paper which dissected Malcolm’s persona in the dry and rigid manner of a practitioner report. This thankfully was not the case.

On reading it, my understanding was that he was attempting to highlight what he felt were some of the significant character traits in Malcolm and also to fit these into a context of what he feels are widespread character traits among black Americans which has had implications in terms of how they view themselves and the sorts of leaders who have represented their interests.

It is a worthy angle from which to proceed, but one which ultimately does not succeed due to a number of unhelpful digressions and some flawed analysis. Dr. Osuji’s thesis is essentially slanted and rather tendentious.

It is a symptom of a mature, progressive society when leaders and icons are not placed beyond the realms of critical exploration. Dr. Osuji is clearly of the belief that there should be no sacred cows. The lives and deeds of political and social figures should not be placed above limits of criticism.

Sensitivity about the criticism of a figure like Malcolm X who is revered among many African Americans was brought to the fore recently with the release of a long awaited biography by Manning Marable.

In some countries the lines of demarcation are clear and unequivocal; with some figures being sacrosanct and literally above criticism. Such persons may be deified to the extent that criticism of their philosophies or lives would place the critic outside the law and render them liable to criminal sanction. One example is that of Turkey which has laws prohibiting criticism of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.

But even where laws do not exist to protect the revered leader of a nation, sensitivities may run high when national or culturally important figures are subjected to criticism and revaluation.

Leaving aside the matter of a powerful mystique developed over the decades by reason of his spellbinding and charismatic oratory, his early and tragic death, all of which were burnished by as memorable a eulogy as has ever been delivered to a public figure, any examination of the personality of Malcolm X presents problems.

This is a man who underwent several transformations during his life including two far reaching ones related to his spiritual framework, and concomitantly, to his political outlook.

Is it Malcolm the hoodlum, Malcolm the Black Muslim or Malcolm the Sunni Muslim? Is it Malcolm the public figure or Malcolm the private figure? Or is there a common thread in regard to his behavioural patterns which inhabited both the public and private sphere regardless of the transformation from the amoral life of freewheeling, street-level criminality to the hyper-disciplined strictures of racially-conscious religious zealotry?

If it can be successfully argued that we are born with or develop patterns of behaviour which remain with us for life and impact on not just our social relations, but also in regard to the manner in which we carry out our professional duties, one would think of our capacity for clearly communicating our thoughts and our desires which may or may not be influenced by our tendencies to introversion or extroversion.

Further, inquiry may be made of our relative stubbornness or our lack of will, our capacity for conciliation, our adeptness at tackling problems and solving them, our ability to influence others or be duped by others.

Questions may be raised as to the levels of our self-discipline, our ability to think creatively, our ability to handle stress and so on. The next stage would be to ascertain the degree to which these and other relevant factors affected Malcolm X in terms of his ability to exercise leadership.

Dr. Osuji, while providing an extensive piece does not attempt such an all-encompassing approach. Along the way he makes several digressions, but he does make critical observations and assessments in three key areas. These relate to questions concerning Malcolm X’s organisational skills, his physical courage and the choice of his religion.

Relying almost exclusively on the narrative provided by Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he gives a detailed rendition of Malcolm’s story while interjecting points of analysis at various junctures.

Time line is critical, and Dr. Osuji acknowledges changes in Malcolm’s philosophy and stratagem. While portions of his analysis does not always respect this, one of the central themes of his piece relates to Malcolm’s political stance, which co-existent both with his belief in the teachings of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam and his later re-adapted allegiance to the Sunni faith was that of Black Nationalism.

Various streams of Black Nationalist thinking have existed since the establishment of an African presence in North America and have competed with integrationist schools of thought for the hearts of America’s blacks.

But while Nationalist thinking has typically encouraged black economic and political independence as well as stridently advancing the cause of black pride, its focus on the ill-effects of white racism on blacks has arguably relied on the promotion of black victimhood.

Black Victimology, a phenomenon by no means restricted to black nationalists, is a theory which holds that blacks have tended to blame all their contemporary failings on the historical oppression of whites which has arguably entrenched a cultural mindset that results in the avoidance of personal and collective responsibility for the malaise in African-American communities.

Dr. Osuji feels that Malcolm’s memoir reflecting on the conditions which led him to turn to crime as a young man as well as his later denunciations of white racism for perpetuating the moral degeneration of black communities fits into this pattern. To quote him, Malcolm “merely engaged in the ego trip of making whitey feel guilty for his own anti-social behaviours”.

The pivotal moment when Malcolm decides to give up his schooling, captured in the autobiography and the movie directed by Spike Lee, when his teacher advises that legal practice was not the sort of profession to which a “nigger” should have aspirations is held up by Dr. Osuji as an example of the victim mentality.

But as Malcolm explained, and can be deduced from the narrative, it was an incident among many which accumulated in his young mind. The reformed Malcolm, the one who once mused that he could spend the rest of his life reading “just to satisfy my curiosity” and who mentions his regret at not completing his education was surely promoting the idea that black youth could achieve in the education field despite racism.

Dr Osuji also takes issue with Malcolm’s decision to proselytise a separatist sect while promoting ‘hate’. To quote him, “His was a philosophy of hatred of white folks. Considering white racism it is very easy for black folks to see white folks as evil and many black Americans joined Elijah Mohammad’s religion of hate (as opposed to Jesus Christ’s religion of love and forgiveness…though few practice the tenets of that religion).”

This is arguably a lazy analysis which tries to have it both ways. It is important first to point out that not ‘many’ black Americans actually joined the Nation of Islam. In the late 1940s at the time of Malcolm’s conversion, the NOI had a membership of around 5,000, a figure which peaked at approximately 30,000 in the decade and a half that followed. When put into the context of an overall population of 20 million blacks, that does not amount to ‘many’, although it is fair to say that the NOI’s sphere of influence exceeded its relatively miniscule numbers.

Dr. Osuji further contradicts himself by writing that “It is perfectly understandable to hate the white man if you are a black American and one can understood Malcolm’s rants against the white man.”

Yet, it provides the key to understanding the genesis of Malcolm. Where he started and where he was heading at the time of his death. He was a product of the conditions into which he was born and raised, and he happened to be an exemplar-proponent of one of the two enduring and competing schools of thought which are symptoms of an overall reaction of blacks to their experience in America which as mentioned earlier has over the ages shifted between sentiments emphasising integration and separation.

The NOI, bizarre theories of Yacub notwithstanding, fit into this historical dynamic along with Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple and Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association.

And how would Minister Malcolm of old, a keen debater and polemicist, have responded to the accusation of being a peddler of hate? One recalls a speech recorded at an outdoor rally in Harlem where he claims the only things his sect where taught to hate were “dope and alcohol”.

He would have argued that he was teaching blacks not to ‘hate’ but to be ‘wary’ of whites given the record which Dr. Osuji admits permits an observer to view black hatred of whites as being “perfectly understandable.” Malcolm would have turned the argument on its head and profess to have been a preacher of ‘love’; love, that is, of self.

Yet as Dr. Osuji himself acknowledges, in the final stages of his life, Malcolm was “moving from hate to love.”

On the matter of Malcolm’s skills as a leader. Dr. Osuji waxes eloquent on what a true leader is, by writing that “in true leadership a person rises above his self-interests and fights for public good; a true leader is a lover of human beings, regardless of their race”.

While this postulates a laudable standard by which to measure leadership, the truth is that such leadership is usually not practicable given the constraints placed by the very nature of evolving human existence. Many of those who are considered to be great leaders embarked on policies and programmes designed to enhance the power and prestige of particular races, nationalities and religions at the expense of others.

While Martin Luther King justifiably preached the gospel of love, his primary interest was in alleviating the plight of the black American masses as it was the primary purpose of Mohandas Gandhi to secure the liberation of Indians from the grip of the British Empire.

While most ought to be in agreement with Dr. Osuji’s sentiment, the counter-argument again is that Malcolm, although promoting the goals of what many consider as a sect representing certain negative values, nonetheless was fulfilling a larger task of effectively expanding the range of the cultural awareness of blacks and their knowledge of black and African history.

It provided a model of a nationwide black endeavour which propagated values of communal solidarity, self-discipline and self-reliance, and even the value of proper nutrition.

The notion of what constitutes “self-interest” is fairly loaded. If one were to argue that Malcolm loved the spotlight as some figures within the NOI, threatened by his bourgeoning fame grumbled, this did not extend to him utilizing his position of leadership within the NOI and his subsequent organizations for his personal enrichment.

At one point Dr. Osuji mentions that fanning white guilt by playing the ‘wronged party’ line is used by contemporary African leaders to steal from their people. Whatever the truth of this, it does not make a successful analogy to the personality and leadership legacy of Malcolm.

The issue of leadership warrants a note on Malcolm’s organizational abilities which Dr. Osuji disparages; referring to his post-NOI split Organisation of Afro-American Unity as “a mess.” It is an argument which has often been put forward by his NOI detractors who want to promote the view that he was less than a substantive figure outside the influence of Elijah Muhammad. But it is certainly the case that both of Malcolm’s personally initiated bodies, the religious Moslem Mosque Inc. and the secular O.A.A.U. were not being administered in an efficient manner.

There are however important background details to consider. Both entities were formed, in some measure of haste, soon after his ouster from the NOI. The O.A.A.U. suffered from internal squabbling which was due to the disparate backgrounds of the individuals within it: street-toughened renegade NOI members and middle class college graduates vied for Malcolm’s attention and found it difficult to cooperate on his extended travels abroad.

Consider also the background circumstances of Malcolm striving to operate in a hellish atmosphere of constant and intrusive surveillance by government agencies (NYPD, FBI and CIA) as well as the harassment and physical intimidation tactics of the NOI which culminated in his bloody assassination in 1965, and any definitive judgment on his capabilities as a leader-administrator must be viewed with extreme caution.

A final piece of evidence to consider apart from his having to cope with the pressure ploys geared towards ensuring the maximum disruption to his affairs was his record while within the NOI.

He was by all accounts a successful head-administrator of New York’s Mosque No.7, a role he continued while serving as Elijah Muhammad’s national spokesperson, and one which he performed while simultaneously performing pastoral duties at a range of newly opened mosques on the eastern seaboard until other recruits were able to establish themselves as mosque leaders.

The NOI would never have multiplied its membership, or the scope of its influence outside its immediate membership base without the charismatic leadership and organisational abilities of Malcolm.

Another important point worthy of scrutiny is Dr. Osuji’s assertion that Malcolm was good at “talking the talk but not walking the walk.” In doing so, he refers to the undoubted courage of the members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Leadership Conference who faced up to the snarling dogs, vicious baton-wielding policemen and baying pro-segregationist mobs which they encountered in the South on voter registration drives and other anti-segregationist manoeuvres.
But reducing Malcolm to merely a lectern-warrior at middle class colleges is misleading to say the least as it fails to take into account the fact that Malcolm was under the straitjacket of Elijah Mohammad’s organisation which had a policy of remaining aloof from involvement in politics, hence he had no part to play in the call for electoral roll drives.

Neither did he have a part to play in marches and acts of civil disobedience because the NOI’s policy was that blacks should not ‘demean’ themselves by forcing themselves onto whites who did not want them. Malcolm thus had to defend the policy regardless of the bravery of the protesters, and indeed he mocked them for allowing “two-legged dogs” to stick “four-legged dogs” on them.

Another reason why Malcolm wasn’t down South confronting ‘Jim Crow’ and the likes of Sheriff Bull Connor was that his ‘immediate’ constituency was among urban black dwellers in the North while King, although a city-based pastor, was associated with the rural poor.  Malcolm had in many instances disobeyed Elijah Muhammad’s edict against involvement in civil matters by working with Harlem’s Reverend Adam Clayton Powell and other figures in protest against a range of matters including police brutality.

It is important to mention however that Malcolm’s evolving thinking made him become increasingly dissatisfied with NOI policy. He was in fact anxious to be a part of the mainstream struggle and was aware that a large segment of blacks often muttered about the NOI appearing to “talk the talk”, but not “walk the walk,” or that they only acted to protect their ‘own’ such as when Malcolm himself famously led a detachment of the NOI to demand the release of one of its members from police custody into the care of a medical hospital.

After been cast out of the Nation, Malcolm did ruminate on how the NOI was better at exacting vengeance on those of its members who had transgressed it rules or worst of all, as in Malcolm’s case, become apostates, than it was in taking on racist whites including heavy handed police officers.

The Roland Stokes affair was a case in point. Stokes, was shot to death, by an officer of the Los Angeles Police department during an invasion of a local mosque despite the fact that he had put his hands up to surrender.

Malcolm talked tough and intended to back up his talk with a planned form of retribution, but he was prevented from doing so on the direct intervention of Elijah Muhammad. It was a pivotal moment in Malcolm’s increasing disillusionment with Muhammad and the NOI.

In the final analysis, when all aspects of his work and character are considered, it would arguably be engaging in an exceedingly dubious proposition to assert that Malcolm lacked physical courage. Like any black leader of the time, he knew that he was perpetually at risk of being struck down by an assassin’s bullet or bomb. The fact that threats came from those to whom he had once been allied does not diminish this.

A man of lesser nerve would not have been prepared to have bourne the brunt of the incessant threats and plots carried out against him by the NOI. He may for instance have taken on a post with the Organisation of African Unity or the Nkrumah government in Ghana (where in Accra they had a thriving expatriate African American community which included the likes of Maya Angelou and the widow of W.E.B. DuBois).

He faced up to the officially sanctioned wiretapping and physical surveillance as well as the machinations of the NOI which included the firebombing of his home with a steadfast courage.

In the process of examining his personality, Dr. Osuji made misplaced assumptions and assertions; writing for instance that “like most criminals, Malcolm was a smooth talker but not a true doer”. That statement posits a somewhat unscientific assessment. There is no scientific basis for alleging that ‘most’ criminals are somehow endowed with oratorical acumen, or the gift of the glib tongue.

The reference to Malcolm having “found a gig that he was good at” implies that he was something of a charlatan hustler-trickster and trivialises the genuineness of his spiritual awakening. It suggests that Malcolm’s professed concerns for the plight of his people was made up and cynical.

Yet, many who knew him or who studied him and among those who opposed him were struck by his sincerity. His family antecedents were solidly Garveyist. He was not ‘hustling’ whites by taking them on a guilt trip since he did not benefit from liberal whites who feared him and severely admonished him for his stances.

Malcolm admitted that he probably believed in the tenets of Elijah Muhammad’s creed more than Muhammad himself and had the courage to admit that he had been duped. Surely, one key criterion in determining the credentials of a leader is that they are able to admit their mistakes.

There were a number of evaluations which appear to be off-key. Such as ascribing hypocrisy on the part of Malcolm for having opposed integration on the grounds that a white girlfriend in his hoodlum days had once “kept him afloat with money.”

The logic fails to fit.

Whatever the merits of his decision to become a separatist he did argue the point that in his childhood, given the parts of the country in which his family lived and after the break of his family the foster family in whose care he was placed, no one had been more integrated than he had been. His experiences, he claimed, had convinced him to follow a different path.

One key aspect missing from Dr. Osuji’s evaluation of Malcolm’s personality was in examining his post-conversion standards of personal morality and discipline.  The extensive surveillance mounted by US government agencies were unable to uncover any extra-marital dalliances as it had with Martin Luther King or financial misappropriation of the funds of the organisations he controlled.

One area of exploration lacking from a consideration of Malcolm’s effectiveness as a leader was an examination of what sometimes appeared to be an impulsive, often rebellious personality. He made a number of unwise comments and some of his actions appeared to goad his enemies into taking action against him.

Did he retain that streak of self-destructiveness in the challenges that he issued to authority figures? From his school teachers, the numbers king pin with whom he was associated in Harlem, prison staff (in prison he was labelled ‘Satan’) and finally to Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm issued challenges which had a detrimental impact on himself.

With Muhammad, he went against the explicit instruction that no minister should comment on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy which provoked the ire of Muhammad and the jealous clique around him who sought to throw him out of the NOI.

His not wisely chosen words about the president’s demise, for instance, put at risk members of his sect who like himself became converts to the NOI in the prison system from retribution by prison guards, many of who would have been of Irish Catholic heritage.

Dr. Osuji raises an important point of victimology, a state of mind which some would argue has continued to shackle the progress of black America. This is a state of mind operating in both the integrationist and nationalist philosophies.

And in the Autobiography of Malcolm X, there is a consistent undertone of Malcolm affixing whites with blame for the ills of the ghetto and not holding its denizens to a greater responsibility for their plight. The Garveyite message of self-reliance seems missing even though Malcolm, did consistently exhort his audiences to not depend on ‘the man’: “If you can’t create a job or a factory in your own community then don’t say that you’re equal to the white man,” he railed in a famous recorded speech.

Malcolm’s increasingly internationalist perspective and his drift into pan-Africanism also emphasised the role played by European colonialism in the underdevelopment of the continent, mirroring his emphasis on the responsibility of American whites in creating negative conditions for its black citizens.

But his message was silent in regard to the role played by blacks and Africans in their misfortune. As Dr. Osuji puts it: “That is why much as it is true that white folks screwed Africans, I do not like it when Malcolm only stressed that fact and refused to emphasize what Africans did to hurt themselves.”

We can only speculate on how his approach would have been had he lived. Africans were selling slaves to Arabs long before the European slave trade and in both instances these enterprises were aided in large measure by African collaboration. 

It is very likely that Malcolm would have had some knowledge of Arab enslavement of Africans right up to the period of his death and that he would have been aware of Arab racism. But it would obviously have been impolitic to mention this at a time when he was establishing cultural and financial links with the Arab world including contacts in the higher echelons of the rulers of Saudi Arabia, a country which did not abolish slavery until 1962.

A strong argument can be made that much of the tone of Black Nationalist rhetoric as espoused by Malcolm is out-dated. But it is also the case that many of the goals he promoted, namely of self-reliance, the propagation of strong family units and genuine communal solidarity are sorely needed among black communities.

Dr. Osuji’s piece raises some important questions but it unfortunately misses out on making genuine psychological analysis on Malcolm’s actions throughout his phases of reinvention. Indeed, at times he writes as if Malcolm in his post-conversion period was substantively the same as the young Malcolm who had been criminally disposed.
An analysis of Malcolm’s personality should encompass his ability to change for the better and to acknowledge that he admitted to making mistakes.

He achieved a great deal in terms of articulating the grievances and concerns of the northern black urban populace in a way which was not reflected by leaders in the mainstream civil rights movement. He raised the levels of esteem of millions of blacks and also provided a means through which black Americans reconnected with and identified with their African roots.

To sum up, Malcolm X was by no means a personality devoid of flaws. But neither is he deserving of been affixed with a mantle of anything less than having been one of the most important leaders to have emerged in the cause of black Americans.

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