The Two Conversions of Malcolm X

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Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X at a Nation of Islam rally, 1961

In Dreams from My Father, President Obama recalled his confusion about identity when he was a student at the Punahou Academy in Hawaii. “I had no idea who my own self was.” He didn’t feel comfortable talking about white folks with his black friends on the basketball court. Then one night it hit him that black people “were always playing on the white man’s court…by the white man’s rules.” He said he was haunted thereafter by the possibility that “being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat.”

To find out more about what he might be facing, Obama read Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, and Du Bois. But these black writers didn’t speak to him. He concluded that they had all ended up victims of Jim Crow in one way or another. However, the book that didn’t let him down was The Autobiography of Malcolm X:

Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will. All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life.

Malcolm X embodied a blackness that could stand up to the white man’s rules. There may be no slave master’s name to be X-ed out in Obama’s story, but knowledge of his father’s Africa came later; and anyway it was his valiant mother who first put him in touch with his black heritage. In the absence of his father, Obama received the breath of masculine racial pride from Malcolm X—who at the time of his assassination in 1965 was characterized by most whites and many blacks as an extremist.

Yet Obama also found in him a symbol of “some hope of eventual reconciliation,” which he may well conceive of himself as representing as well. He can perhaps imagine black and white meeting in his person because they do so as equal ingredients. In Obama’s account, he didn’t have to be ashamed of the black part of himself, because Malcolm X showed him that being black didn’t mean being conquered. Black nationalism was black macho. The image that Malcolm X projected held the promise of retaliatory power. In his eulogy for Malcolm X, the actor Ossie Davis praised the “shining prince” of “our living black manhood.”

Angela Davis has observed that the cult of Malcolm X as the personification of black manhood implied that male supremacy was the only response to white supremacy and obscured the part of his legacy that stood for intellectual growth. Most civil rights histories cast him …

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