Adeyinka Makinde trained for the law. He is a contributor to various websites on topics such as boxing, history, music and culture. His first book, Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal was published in 2005. His latest offering is Jersey Boy: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula which was released in 2010.
John Lennon may be lionised -undeservedly, it may be argued- by many for reasons in excess of his worth as a writer and co-writer of some of the most influential songs in popular music, but may also be unfairly derided for his alleged pretensions as rock music's intellectual-in-chief. He was in actuality a rather straight-talking iconoclast and social commentator whose famously incendiary analysis that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ, actually resonated with more than a grain of truth about the shift in Western societal values from the Christian derived sort to those of a more secular vein. In his day, this was encapsulated by the various anti-tradition, anti-authority and anti-establishment currents and movements of the 'Counter Culture' in the fields of art, politics and of course, in music. Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind that contemporarily, the object of popular worship appears to be geared markedly, and grotesquely in the direction of what is often referred to as the 'Cult of Celebrity.'
While it is the case that Lennon may look silly now, as he did to quite a few in the 1960s, with the "Bed-ins" for Peace that were held with his avant garde artiste spouse, Yoko Ono, one set of comments he made to an interviewer on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine in the early 1970s -for me at least- speak of an inexorable truth and logic. It went something along the lines of blues music being like a chair and a foundation. It is not a chair to be merely looked at and admired or a chair to be subjected to mechanical attempts at emulation and replication. Rather, it was as a genre, the first; the life blood and DNA of a host of traditions in music including what came to be known as Rock N' Roll.
Of course, it can be persuasively argued that the blues, while been the distinctive forebear of jazz, rock and their multifarious variants, is itself a branch of a tradition which traces its origins to the savannah regions of the western part of the African continent. In the 1960s, a young Malian musician by the name of Ali Farka Toure was flabbergasted to discover certain patterns of traits in the inflections of African-descended American musicians ranging from the blues guitarist John Lee Hooker to the jazz organist Jimmy Smith, that were pretty much congruent to the music bequeathed to him by his ancestors. Listening to the opening strains of Djen Magni, a 1980s-era tune by Malian singer, Sali Sidibe, one is struck by the similarities with the inaugural manipulations of a guitar by a delta blues maestro.
Which ever progenitor we choose, be it Mandeor Mississippian, the 'chair' has blossomed and branched. The original chair, Lennon opined is not necessarily the 'best' but provides the framework and inspiration for future development by artists of differing geographic and ethnic origins who shape and enrich the genre by breathing it with life anew. Each compelling personality or each wave brings a fresh perspective to the 'original' while remaining aesthetically true to it. It means that the African-American blues practitioner does not sound precisely the same as his West African counterpart because of the changes wrought by transplantation to the Western hemisphere including the loss of the indigenous languages of his forebears as well as the European mould of musical instruments at his disposal. It means that while English musicians who began to play the blues did not sound like the African-American singers and musicians who inspired them, they added a dimension to it, and ironically, sold the genre back to large swathes of the white American population who constricted by the segregation of the races, remained ignorant of the vitality of this brand of music.
Music thrives on the cross pollination of ideas. Where Frederick Delius delved into the rich vein of harmonic and melodic patterns in African-American music to give fresh stimulus to European 'classical' music, English groups like the Rolling Stones, whose band name is derived from a song by Muddy Waters, started off by trying to imitate the African-American sound before eventually developing a style, or styles which fittingly reflected their own personal and cultural contexts.
Muddy Waters himself reflected the change of his environment in his music. From the folksy, acoustic compositions inspired by their rural surroundings, black musicians who migrated to from the southern United States to the industrial and urbanised north, plugged in their guitars and took the genre to another level. If that harder, more voluminous sound was poorly received by ostensibly non-racist 'liberal' connoisseurs who could only stomach the blues as anything other than a vehicle only to be purveyed in an acoustic format by barefooted, straw-hatted rustic types, then tough.
For me, blues rock remains one of the most exciting forms of musical expression to emanate, to borrow Lennon’s phrase, from the 'original' chair. From the guitar playing genius of Jimi Hendrix to the brilliantly evocative stylisation's of the Jagger-Richards partnership at the heart of the Rolling Stones, the extensions made to the possibilities of expression laid down by pioneers such as Robert Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters and The Howlin' Wolf but to name a few, were explored and multiplied in the 1960s; this the tumultuous era of protests, assassinations and hallucinogenic explorations.
And speaking of cross pollination. The ways in which music expression through its travels fertilizes and invigorates never ceases to amaze to the extent that certain features of the playing of Ali Farka Toure perhaps contain the influence of John Lee Hooker much in the manner that Toure has influenced Americans such as Ry Cooder. Or the way in which Nigerian bands like BLO were influenced by the psychedelic sounds of Western rock. Many West African guitarists of the late 1960s and the early to middle 70s appeared to be particularly influenced by both Carlos Santana and Hendrix. What could be a better exemplar of syncretisation; the ‘building of the chair’, than the British rock trio Cream’s extemporisation on Robert Johnson’s Crossroads, itself a spookily recited classic in the tradition of the Delta Blues which was based on the Yoruban folklore of Eshu Elegbara, the trickster in Yoruba mythology and intermediary between humans and the gods; known in the Afro-Diasporean world as Papa Legba, to whom Johnson reputedly ‘sold his soul’ in consideration for the granting of the gift of genius.
The blues in its raw, 12-bar model is often derided and even parodied for its supposed cliché-ridden format. It has been largely disavowed and even disowned by its creators –the African-American community- many of who consider it an uncomfortable reminder of the legacy of bondage; of an outlaw black male who is shiftless and pitiable singing songs inspired by ‘the devil’. That interpretation, whatever its accuracies or its distortions, had no place during the era of the struggle for their civil rights when the optimism and solidarity embodied by gospel-influenced soul music became the popular means of musical expression for black musicians.
I prefer a more positive assessment. Just as it would be wrong to reduce the importance of jazz by narrowly referencing it to its brothel origins or to depict gospel as having been a more accurate reminder of the condition and circumstance of slavery, it is largely unhelpful to couch the blues as an unworthy genre and infinitely
more rewarding to view it as it should: a constantly evolving genre that is at the root of various styles that came to be the popular music of the Western world; one which is rich in its capacity for reinvention and regeneration.
That, to sort of paraphrase B.B. King, is why I love the blues.
Malcolm X. The name is forever redolent of an era of tumult and struggle of Americans of African descent seeking to obtain basic legal rights as well as to affirm a pride in their collective heritage.
His name conjures images of a bespectacled, alternatively clean-shaven and later goateed orator extraordinaire whose incisive diatribes on the ills of America and its treatment of its black inhabitants brought to prominence a religious sect known as the Nation of Islam.
He developed and perfected a rhythmically calibrated style of delivery which was clear and direct, and which he interspersed with a frequently coruscating wit. The arrow-straight finger which jabbed accusingly over a lectern or at a camera toward the oppressor, also served as a stern call-to-arms to the 'deaf, dumb and blind' oppressed masses who he sought to educate and to emancipate.
Phrases which he coined like 'By any means necessary', parables he recounted like that of the 'house Negro and the field Negro' and speeches which he delivered such as the 'Message to the Grassroots", are memorable expositions of his spirited and uncompromising quest for the liberation of his people.
The potted outlines of his story from birth to death are fairly well-known; this aided pre-eminently by the best-selling Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was released some months after his assassination in 1965, and the 1992 film Malcolm X. His metamorphosis from street criminal to religious zealot culminated in a final state of transition during which he was cut down.
It was during this period that the man decried by his detractors as an apostle of hate and a promoter of racial separation altered significantly his approach and attitude to the struggle for rights, and with his break from the Nation of Islam, made a substantive amendment to his religious faith.
And though he continued to profess his adherence to the creed of Black Nationalism, his apparent moderation on racial matters together with shifts in his framework of social analysis, gave much scope to those from disparate schools of thought who wished to project him as having been allied to their ideas.
Malcolm XClaimed variously by black nationalists, pan-Africanists, socialists, Trotskyites and even by the American establishment via the issuing of a stamp in his honour, it sealed a seemingly improbable evolution in perception by a man who when alive had been cast as a pariah by large swathes of American public opinion. By the 1990s he had become apotheosised, his image reaching iconic proportions.
But the idolisation, the hagiography and the crass commercialisation appeared to cheapen his legacy. High up on this pedestal, the man eulogised by the actor Ossie Davis as "our black manhood" and "our shining black prince", seemed to be shorn of nuance and complexity.
Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention seeks to redress this, and his primary focus in terms of deconstructing the life of Malcolm was to scrutinise many of the key features undergirding Alex Haley's autobiography including certain events, characters and chronologies.
Haley, it should be mentioned, was a talented storyteller given to embellishment and even plagiarism, a charge which was proven in devastating fashion by Harold Courlander, from whose novel, The African, he had appropriated substantive plots and characterisations in order to create his international bestseller Roots.
Marable, himself a left-leaning professor, charged that Haley, in his words a 'liberal Republican', had an agenda in shaping Malcolm's legacy to suit a moderate and broadly integrationist philosophy which was the prevailing mood of the times.In the years leading up to the release of his book, Marable spoke of the chapters missing from Haley's work including a whole chapter dedicated to the aims of the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (O.A.A.U.), the secular body Malcolm formed in the last segment of his life.
There was the promise of further revelations relating to the circumstances surrounding Malcolm's assassination, including the role played by government and police agencies and the identification of the assassins.
The book would also present, in a spirit of objectivity, perspectives of the Nation of Islam including interviews with its present leader, Louis Farrakhan.
Breaking from what he construed as the largely hagiographic formula in the works produced on the subject, Marable's professed aim was to construct a more human Malcolm, to write a truly critical biography which would assess the competing narratives and record the public and the private aspects of Malcolm encompassing his brilliance as well as his shortcomings.
The results are decidedly mixed.
In an almost 600-page work filled with copious end-of-book notes and bibliography, Marable's avowed aim of making this the 'definitive' biography on his subject is clearly manifested by the sheer scope and detail of his research.
Contemporary academics who write about serious issues and personalities whose life stories are expected to find an audience outside of the ivory towers of academia can no longer produce manuscripts which are styled in an atypically desiccated drone, but instead are obliged to write consistently in engaging and vibrant prose.
On this count Marable largely succeeds. For instance, he is rather good at conveying the style and rhythm of Malcolm's oratory by analogising his speech patterns to the jazz cadences of be-bop around which Malcolm had lived, worked and hustled during his sojourn in Harlem.
He contextualises Malcolm's life within the prevailing social, cultural and political circumstances in which he lived, and delves into Malcolm's childhood experiences with due note being made of his antecedents within the Garveyite movement.
A key thread of Marable's narration, which is reflected in the book's sub-title, is his portrayal of Malcolm's life as an evolving drama of a character who adopts and projects identities which are rooted in the African American folk traditions of the trickster and the preacher.
The theme relating to Malcolm's changing persona and capacity for self-reinvention is particularly apt as it has been a device employed through the ages by African Americans to serve as a survival mechanism, and indeed, is also a reflection of the American penchant for self-invention, an idea which professes that a person can be whoever they want to be and whoever they say they are.
In his deconstruction of Haley's autobiography, Marable is particularly successful in discovering a number of exaggerations in terms of the extent of the criminality of Malcolm during his 'Detroit Red' phase. And his argument that Malcolm's purpose in doing so was to empathise with the sort of audiences who he was trying to raise out of the cesspit of moral degeneration rings true.
In contrast to the last major biographical attempt by Bruce Perry in Malcolm: The Life of a Man who Changed Black America, which was steeped in references to the supposedly psychological traits of its protagonist, Marable casts his net further by persistently analysing Malcolm's actions in the context of history and the future. For instance, his reference to the fact that Malcolm was one of the few prominent African Americans including Paul Robeson who had sought to internationalise the plight of the black citizens of America.
Some of Malcolm's analysis, he claims, anticipated the works of Frantz Fanon, a contemporary, whose works like The Wretched Earth and Black Skin, White Masks were not yet available in the English language. He even credits Malcolm with an almost unerring prescience in his predicting that it was conceivable in a multicultural future that "the black culture will be the dominant culture".
But Marable's research and presentation in other critical respects are less praiseworthy and, indeed, have led to accusations of shoddy fact-finding, an indulgence in unwarranted speculation and succumbing to the level of tabloid-like sensationalism.
The references to alleged homosexual encounters are based on his inferences of a story recounted in Malcolm's autobiography and an uncorroborated statement by a relative of Malcolm's half-sister, Ella Collins.
Another bone of contention relates to a letter purportedly written by Malcolm to Elijah Muhammad, setting out in intimate detail his marital problems with his wife Betty. This particular item was apparently rejected by author Karl Evanzz when researching his book on Malcolm in the 1980s. Also contentious are the references he makes to two possible extra-marital affairs and one instance of a presumed adulterous encounter while abroad.
Other issues which leave Marable's work vulnerable to devastating criticism include his implying that both Alex Haley and an investigative journalist named Alfred Balk were FBI agents. He may also have erred in absolving one of the alleged assassins of Malcolm.
A Life of Reinvention, the product of years of painstaking research into a quite remarkable man, is an absorbing read and does give a range of fresh perspectives and analysis into the life and influence of Malcolm X. But in his attempt to deconstruct the history and personality of his subject matter, Manning Marable may have succeeded in perpetuating a few myths of his own.
Terrorism as a sub-species of warfare, civil insurrection, and as an apparatus of state oppression has existed for millennia. The slaughter of high status officials, combatants, civilians as well as the destruction of property, is a weapon which is purposefully calibrated so as to effect a result in which the level of psychological damage exceeds the attendant human and material destruction.
carlosAs a tool of liberation, there is some evidence of its success. The terror tactics utilised by the Kenyan Mau Mau, although a largely defeated group, created the circumstances in which the British will to continue to govern Kenya was sapped as was the will of the French to continue their war with the FLN of Algeria.
carlosThe assassination of Admiral Carrero Blanco in 1973 by Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, the Basque separatist group, is seen as one of the pivotal moments in the dismantling of the Francoist state and the transition to the democratization of Spanish society.
The 1970s saw an upsurge in ideologically motivated domestic terrorism in many European capital cities. The West German Baader-Meinhoff group rebelled against the post-World War economic order which they interpreted as being merely a reincarnation of the Third Reich, while Italy saw the Marxist-Leninist Red Brigade trade bombings and assassinations with the sinister forces of the extreme right in the era of Strategia della tensione. In other countries, nationalism and separatist aims motivated the actions of the Irish Republican Army in Britain and E.T.A. in Spain.
Concomitant to this, from the late 1960s and on to the next decade was the development of terrorism as an international instrument for revolutionary warfare.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (P.F.L.P.) in combination with groups like the German Revolutionary Cells (G.R.C.) and the Japanese Red Army Faction traversed national borders wreaking havoc through a succession of high profile airline hijackings, kidnappings and assassinations.
In the midst of a lot of these happenings was Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, who would become better known by his media cognomen of 'Carlos the Jackal', the subject of a biopic by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas.
Carlos, the son of a Venezuelan Marxist lawyer, was born into upper middle class privilege and would become a superstar terrorist subject to a macabre form of celebrity interest; so effectively becoming a poster boy for 1970s terrorism in the manner that the Argentine Che Guevara had been for 1960s guerrilla movements.
Already the subject of a number of books as well as investigatory documentaries, it was perhaps something of an inevitability that he would at some point become the focus of a film given the alchemy of violence, personal mystery and international intrigue that surrounded his life.
Carlos did not fit the mould of the anonymous 'soldier' acting selflessly for a cause. It appeared that he was a buccaneering figure, somewhat a mercenary, and certainly a maverick.
Truth can be an elusive commodity when dealing with a character like Carlos whose role, ironically given his public notoriety, made him well-practised in the dark arts of stealth and deception.
The director does well to warn of the grey areas in the various renditions of Carlos's life and exploits, and to inform viewers that the depictions of personal relations are fictionalised. Assayas is also prudent in only depicting the murders attributed by Carlos for which he has been formally tried and convicted.
Although made largely under the auspices of the French Canal Plus cable company, Carlos has the feel and quality of a motion picture. Assayas, shot the scenes in cinemascope format; favouring a documentary-like mode by which events unfold and avoiding the heavily stylised visual cadences of a Paolo Sorrentino.
And it works. The movie is well-paced and possesses a sense of realism that is heightened with the interspersing of original news report footage of relevant events with the scripted reconstructions of the intrigues within which Carlos was involved.
As a period piece, it successfully depicts the era: from the cars parked on the streets of Paris and London, the clothes worn, right down to the sideburns cultivated by lead actor, Edgar Ramirez.
The eclecticism of the soundtrack which has music by artists ranging from purveyors of post-punk like The Wire and Deadboys to the Malian songstress Oumou Sangare, is matched by the international scope of location shooting which included London, Paris, The Hague, Vienna, Lebanon and Yemen.
Another refreshingly multi-dimensional aspect of the movie contributing to its realism, are the languages spoken in scenes: English, Spanish, French, German and Arabic.
Ably portrayed by Ramirez, who like Carlos is of Venezuelan nationality, the anti-hero turns out to be passionate about his beliefs, but also vain and something of a cad in his use of women. Assayas's scripted dialogue refers to and offers explanations on a number of previously underexplored areas of Carlos's career notably in regard to the reason why he decided to cast his lot with the Palestinian cause under the aegis of Wadi Haddad's P.F.L.P. in a largely European 'theatre of war.'
There were after all, during this period of time a plethora of violently suppressive right wing regimes across Latin America from the Tierra del Fuego to the jungles of Central America.
Would his ideological pretentions, it is worth asking, have been better served if he had honed his freedom fighting instincts by combating the dictatorships in Brazil, Argentina, Chile or fought alongside the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or hunted the Salvadorian death squads of Major D'Aubuisson?
It is left to the viewer to make something of an informed appraisal of Carlos. Did he remain true to the Marxist principles instilled in him from an early age by his father? And did his actions achieve his goals?
Regarding the latter, the film depicts several failures including the attempt to shoot down an El Al aeroplane at Orly Airport, such that Carlos's cohorts could have been monikered as "the gang that couldn't shoot straight".
Certainly, the acts of terrorism perpetrated, while bringing attention to the Palestinian cause arguably did little to further it. Palestine is still not liberated, and it was Yasir Arafat's 'olive branch in one hand and the gun in the other' approach (along with help of the Intifada) which led to the minimal concessions to date by the Israeli side.
Much of Carlos's legend has been demystified over the years and Assayas's portrait is not far from what several believe he became, if he had not already been that way in the first place: a suave, cravat wearing fop who was bourgeois rather than proletarian in his image and in his preferred style of living.
His motivations were seemingly geared towards high living; consuming fine food, fine drink and fine women in almost equal measure.
Carlos, of course, is not the only idealistic revolutionary to be scrutinized and found to be wanting.
Among the secular, radical Marxist-Leninists found in the ranks of the young Palestinian militants who daubed Mosques with Lenin's sayings and who denounced materialism from the microphones used by the muezzins, were many charlatans who while professing to confiscate luxury items such as Mercedes cars "in the name of the Proleteriat"; were actually indulging in thievery disguised as ideological conviction.
The ending of the Cold War proved to be Carlos's undoing as indeed it did for the remnant-survivor terrorists of his era. And although not referred to in the film, the change in the world order since the fall of the Berlin Wall reveals Carlos's opportunism and his principles.
Ever the contrarian, he now professes radical Islam to be the only valid means of unshackling nations from the grasp of capitalist subservience; once announcing himself as being an admirer of the secular Saddam Hussein who he described as "the last Arab knight" and also Osama Bin Laden, the chief symbol of Jihadist terror.
Assayas's film faithfully chronicles the known circumstances of Carlos's downfall, first as an outcast in the post-Cold War world, and then his capture as a middle-aged, paunchy, inactive figure largely insignificant to a world which had once revelled in his infamy.
It was always going to be too much to live up to the legend that was Carlos.
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 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
Two things come to mind after reading Alex Von Tunzelmangripping tale of United States decades cum centuries-long foreign policy towards its neighbours in the Caribbean. First is the overly used truism attributed to the philosopher George Santayana that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", and secondly, the "Ugly American", a catchphrase derived from a 1950s-era novel penned jointly by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer.
That the policies and actions of the United States of America should be consistently scrutinized and often-times be subjected to the most devastating sort of criticism is no surprise given the highly moralistic tone of its national ethos as well as the expansive role it has come to play in the affairs of human kind.
It is the former colony of an empire, but has itself become something of an empire, vying for power and influence in world affairs with other empires or aggregate of nations to which American leaders have given various terms such as "Empire of Evil" and "Axis of Evil".
As an "Empire of Liberty" and a chief proponent for the spread of the values of personal freedom and free enterprise, the United States has acted in ways which have stifled the very things it professes to be the paramount values upon which human beings should organise their societies.
Whether motivated by the expansion of its commercial interests or in the containment of the spread of communism, America has utilized or given support to acts of murder and terror, as well as to overt and secret wars.
At the heart of these endeavours, spanning the hemispheres of the globe, has been the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A) which engineered numerous coups d'etat aimed at installing regimes which would act favourably to US interests.
Among the most notorious were those involving the 1963 assassination of the South Vietnamese leader Ngo Din Diem and a decade earlier, the removal of Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran.
It sounded out military officers in the West African state of Ghana who in 1966 proceeded to overthrow the Soviet-friendly administration of Kwame Nkrumah.
The agency did not remain idle in Latin America where amongst many endeavours it was at the centre of the successful effort to destabilize and overthrow the democratically elected Marxist government of Chile led by Salvador Allende, and of course, it was active in the European Cold War theatre where it gave sustenance to Italian fascist groups which carried out a number of terrorist acts from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.
The object of these operations was to create what was termed La Strategia della tensione, the fostering of an atmosphere of fear, confusion and seeming chaos out of which the populace would make increasing demands for an authoritarian, right-wing government to bring order and protect the society from a 'communist takeover.'
Von Tunzlemann limits her focus to American efforts designed to forestall the spread of communism in the Caribbean, centring her narrative on the largest Islands: Cuba and Hispaniola, which is composed of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.She starts off by giving a concise history of these Caribbean countries while linking each to their respective but similar relationships with their larger neighbour to the north. These parallel histories are not to be read by the fainthearted given, as Von Tunzelmann reminds, the Caribbean's brutal history which is rooted in "genocide, slavery, imperialism and piracy."
What is most striking about the chronologies as they unfold is the perennial corrupting of the avowed aim of successive American governments to help create the conditions for the establishment of democratic government and free enterprise in these and other nations of the Americas.
But like a seemingly ineradicable flaw, the diplomats, the politicians and the spies continued to make many choices, which led to the perpetuation of despotic and corrupt regimes and the resulting stultification of socially progressive change.
These wrong turns inevitably led to anti-American sentiment often expressed via the term Yanqui Imperialism. It also had disastrous consequences in regard to Cuba and the missed opportunities which could have played a part in influencing the direction of the post-revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro.
The stories of Presidents who started off with stated best intentions, but who ended up pursuing short-sighted and reactionary policies are recapitulated. For instance, Woodrow Wilson's desire that "material interests must never be made superior to human liberty" along with his pledge not to "seek one additional foot of territory by conquest" did not prevent him from eventually indulging in what could be termed 'moral imperialism' when it came to his neighbours. Under his stewardship, Haiti was invaded by US marines and occupied for a lengthy period of time.
Again, John F. Kennedy's imaginative Alliance For Progress, which set the target for the alleviating of poverty and social inequality in the southern Americas, ended in failure as the perceived threat of communist influence led for instance to the stifling of a democratic alliance among political parties of the Dominican Republic in favour of a military government, the toleration of the morally degenerate regime of Haiti and the aforementioned missed opportunities in developing a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship with Castro's Cuba.
It was this almost irrational fear of the spread of the perceived 'Bolshevik bacillus' which led to the unintended perpetuation of the murderous regimes of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and Francois Duvalier in Haiti.
Von Tunzelmann's pithy dissections of these dictators are masterful and in this context she relates the cynical manipulations employed by them in successfully soliciting financial aid and support under the pretext of fighting communism.
Both men went so far as to invent communist parties. On assuming power, it had been the unabashed aim of Duvalier that Haiti would become the 'spoiled child' of the United States and like his Dominican counterpart, he milked what he could out of the Americans by playing up to their fear of communist encroachment.
The propping up of these malodorous governments, on the basis of a brand of Yankee-style Realpolitik , was an unsettling but recurring feature of United States policy that had roots in the era pre-dating the challenge offered by Soviet and Chinese communism when the United States under the guidance of the Monroe Doctrine, determined to resist the re-establishment of military or commercial influence of the old colonial powers from Europe.
The 'He-may-be-a-sonafabitch-but-he's-our-sonafabitch' syndrome, an amoral and self-conscious justification in the apparent exercise of political pragmatism, continued to hold sway for long and remained intact despite the ostensible expurgations posited in the 1980s by Jean Kirkpatrick's famous distinction between the support of regimes which were 'totalitarian' on the one hand and 'authoritarian' on the other.
Within the wider story are illuminating mini-biographies of the major players including the Castro brothers, Che Guevara, Nikita Khruschev and the Kennedy brothers: The evolving position of Fidel Castro from having been primarily a Cuban nationalist to his embrace of Marxism and an alliance with the Soviet Union.
Also, Bobby Kennedy's transformation from strident anti-communist hawk to a 'softer', more enlightened position in terms of his understanding of the roots of poverty in Latin America and by extension his taking up of the cause of the downtrodden minorities of his country, is persuasively presented.
She also charts the improbable but radical metamorphosis of Francisco Caamano, the son of one of Trujillo's generals, from die hard rightist to figurehead of a democratic movement who finally became a Cuban-trained guerrilla and was martyred in the process of attempting to overthrow the military regime installed by the Americans after it had snuffed out the burgeoning democratic coalition which was forming after the fall of the Trujillo regime.
Conceptually, there are parallels between Red Heat and Stephen Kinzer's All The Shah's Men, in which Kinzer took to task American policy in Iran and how its bungling had sowed the roots of the anti-Americanism which persists in the Middle East.
Similarly, what Von Tunzlemann makes plain through the succession of events leading up to the Cold War-era, is that by its actions in the Caribbean nations (as well as in Latin America), the United States established a template for intervening in other lands, using methods which it applied and continues to apply in the wider theater of world politics.
This, as the author deftly shows, has not been without significant cost to the prestige and standing of America.