Malcom X, State Oppression & Black Lives Matter

The Perpetual Struggle For Black Personhood

By Professor Saladin Ambar (Lehigh University)

July 14, 2016             Picture: Time Life Pictures/Getty

This article is part of The Critique’s May/June 2016 Issue “Black Lives Matter (Part II): Understanding The New Movement For Racial Justice”

“Identity is a weapon of the republic of property, but one that can be turned against it.” Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Commonwealth, 2009.


“We are the ones who have our skulls crushed, not by the Ku Klux Klan, but by policeman…” Malcolm X, Oxford Union, 1964. 


Placing the political thought of Malcolm X in conversation with that of the Black Lives Matter movement requires moving past several disclaimers.

The first disclaimer is that while Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) did not have a singular, consistent, and coherent political ideology, he did exemplify in word and deed, something akin to an underlying and steadying political thought.

Second, Black Lives Matter, while having an institutional founding tied to specific political claims and thought grounded in antiracist, antipatriarchy, and antiheteronormative ideology – likewise remains somewhat of an elusive entity in terms of uniformity of thought. The expansiveness of our social media world and its multitude of often anonymous players and contributors makes tackling specificity in thought virtually, and the pun is intended, impossible.

But place them in conversation we must. Beyond the disclaimer and apologetics lies a unifying theme – a discourse of rebellion emanating from blacks in America – be they called “New World Africans,” “African Americans,” or any other of the etymological strivings to reaffirm personhood among whom W.E.B. Du Bois described as the “dark souls” of this continent.

Indeed, the evolution of the self-descriptor itself demonstrates a quest for personhood – the “lives” within Black Lives Matter. This striving was at the heart of Malcolm’s message, one that surely dates at least to 1619 and the first arrival of Africans in Jamestown, Virginia.

It is not coincidental, that dating from the year of Malcolm’s assassination in 1965, there is a dynamic spike in the use of the term “blacks” and a slow and steady decline of the use of the term “Negroes” to describe the personhood of African people (and their descendants) living in the United States.

It may be too much for this author to adduce, but Google Ngram, which traces such things, shows a slight uptick in the use of the term “Negroes” over the last 10 years. Just who among the atavistic few are seeking solace in that term today, in the age of “Black Lives Matter,” is beyond me – but there it is.

But perhaps this is part of the conversation; with black resistance and self-affirmation comes the concomitant conservative reaction – and not merely from whites. But this is not to suggest that the world of negro-seeking parvenus will replace or threaten appellations of blackness. No, hardly. But it may incline us to think about Black Lives Matter and the legacy of Malcolm X in the context of the dual Black Bourgeoisies of Malcolm’s time and our own.

American history has always been one Gilded Age for black people. What is new, or at least uncommonly so, is the wider latitude among the black middle and upper class to dissolve itself of its ties to the mass of black people in America. To wit, the population of Negroes (at least as Malcolm derisively used the term) is growing, even if their lack of connectedness resembles a form of “false consciousness.”

Unlike in Malcolm’s time “our astronauts,” for example – a laughable expression he mocked coming from the mouth of a segregated and otherwise oppressed Negro of his day – may on occasion be black. But those astronauts, like so many members of the upper black classes, must come tumbling down from space, back to the earthy world of highway policemen, and loan companies, and real estate brokers, and public schools. In short, they too, must descend to the world where black lives matter less.

Malcolm’s encounters with the police arm of the American state hold a number of lessons for, and parallels with, the Black Lives Matter movement today, one that is affirmatively becoming global, as Malcolm suspected it would.

Malcolm’s arrest and imprisonment in 1946 was for larceny. But his lengthy sentence was owing to his presumed “corruption” of white women. While this is less of an issue today, Malcolm’s incarceration bore the hallmarks of a government – even that of “cosmopolitan” Massachusetts – deeply committed to a racial social order.

The antimiscegenationist horror of black and white bodies mixing was part of the psyche of statecraft designed to limit the expressiveness of black sexuality and personhood. Malcolm got 8 to 10 years; Bea, his white girlfriend and accomplice, got six months.

While the social order’s demands of today do not mimic those of 70 years ago, they manifest themselves in uneven, unequal, and unconscionable sentencing differences between blacks and whites; between whites and all others.

The prefix non, to denote the other (as in nonwhites) as a socio-political category, may be less concerned with who’s sleeping with whom today – but it is equally concerned with which bodies are deserving of confinement, physical abuse, and social assistance.

To this end, color matters as it always has. Racism in America isn’t “stubborn,” in this regard. It is American. Malcolm knew this with every fiber of his being and he assaulted any Pollyannaish claims to the contrary.

“The prefix non, to denote the other (as in nonwhites) as a socio-political category, may be less concerned with who’s sleeping with whom today – but it is equally concerned with which bodies are deserving of confinement, physical abuse, and social assistance”.

Ten years after his release from prison, Malcolm faced a turning point in his relationship with both the Nation of Islam, and his spiritual mentor, Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm sought direct, and in all probability, violent confrontation with members of the Los Angeles police department, who in April of 1962, during a raid at the NOI mosque, murdered Ronald Stokes, one of Malcolm’s closest aides and friends.

That shooting death – an example of the protection of the United States’ political order (as the Muslim movement was seen as linked, somehow, to a “growing Communist” presence) – moved Malcolm deeply. His entreaty for retaliation to Elijah, rejected, Malcolm began to drift away from the political conservatism of the Muslim movement towards a more direct confrontation with the American state.

His subsequent murder three years later at the hands of black men revealed the labyrinthine relationship between heterodoxy within the black freedom struggle in America, and an American state deeply interested in exploiting, and at times, fomenting those divisions. That New York City’s Police Department and the FBI have long been considered by any number of authors to have been aware of, and complicit in Malcolm’s death, reflects the most searing connector between Malcolm’s life and the Black Lives Matter movement, perhaps one that is yet to be fully realized: America’s order is a global order, and nonconformity beckons a violent response.

“That the NYPD and the FBI have long been considered to have been aware of, and complicit in Malcolm’s death, reflects the most searing connector between Malcolm’s life and the Black Lives Matter movement”

In the last weeks of his life, Malcolm visited Paris, London, Oxford, Manchester (UK), Birmingham (UK), and Smethwick (UK) – and he had plans to establish his Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) in Amsterdam.

Malcolm was expanding the purview of human rights for black lives in the US to the population centers in Europe experiencing their own racial uprisings, their own rebellions for selfhood. And, he was doing so within the confines of a universalist message within Islam, one that eschewed racial categories among believers and indeed all humanity.

But such beatific understandings of brotherhood and sisterhood were not present – at least not for Malcolm – to emaciate understanding the function of racial oppression by Western states. Malcolm understood the end of racial oppression may have been the maintenance of not only white power, per se, but that of capital. But the means and ends were never far apart for Malcolm, and he was not about to bypass the means of exploitation much less reject its significance.

He had long concluded that the vast majority of whites were psychically unstable vis-à-vis racial obsession with their presumed superiority at every level of society. Every white Georgian didn’t want a piece of the Congo. But they sanctified that piece of their whiteness.

Which brings us back to Black Lives Matter. This still young (and yet historically old) movement, like Malcolm, has found a way to confront the polis, the linking etymological connector to the police, politics, and cosmopolitanism.

To wit: if support for the police means blinding oneself to the horrors of not merely bad policing, but a veritable metaphysical orientation of disdain for black personhood; if support for conventional politics means forgetting the endemic corruption and selling-off of black, brown, and poor communities; if cosmopolitanism means trading one’s black identity for the nonidentity of “global citizen,” well, then, you must part ways with Malcolm and one must presume, the Black Lives Matter movement.

For, in the end, it is the particularity of the struggle that gives its universality meaning. Identity in all its shades and forms cannot, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri remind us, be the raison d’etre of our existence. But we must not flee from it either – not when it is so embedded and connected to our unique forms of oppression. To the end, Malcolm desired to keep his “X” so long as the conditions that produced the need for it remained. And, similarly, we are a great distance from needing to proclaim “All Lives Matter.” [See Thalos for a discussion of the logic of the ‘All Lives Matter’ mantra].

No, Malcolm was correct to point out, “We are the ones who have our skulls crushed,” as he told his Oxford audience weeks before his assassination. “We” may be indigenous, gay, female, Chicano – “We” may be anything; but we isn’t “all.” And America has a particularly powerful historic and still deeply present aversion to recognizing black suffering. Injustice everywhere may well be a threat to justice everywhere, but injustice everywhere isn’t always felt everywhere.

Malcolm’s life and politics were built around making it felt. And that mission is at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. Until it is felt everywhere, for all human beings, suffering under all banners of oppression, we may not say we are all truly citizens of the cosmos, citizens of the world. Let it be felt.

Saladin Ambar
Saladin Ambar
Saladin Ambar is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. He is the author of Malcolm X at Oxford Union: Racial Politics in a Global Era (Oxford University Press, 2014) and the forthcoming American Cicero: Mario Cuomo and the Defense of Liberalism in America (Oxford University Press, 2017).
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U.S. President Barack Obama wipes water off his face during a rain shower at a campaign rally in Glen Allen, Virginia, July 14, 2012. Obama travelled to Virginia on Saturday for campaign events. Rain drops on the lens created the highlights in the image. REUTERS/Jason Reed  (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTR34XTIPeople, including a man wearing a confederate flag, hug after taking part in a prayer circle after a Black Lives Matter protest following the multiple police shootings in Dallas, Texas, U.S., July 10, 2016.  REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RTSH9MV