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".