Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 2 March 2015
Last month saw the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, the visionary African-American Muslim leader and human rights activist.
A chance glimpse of a TV news item on the commemoration ceremony, held at the site in Harlem where he was murdered on February 21, 1965, reminded me that I spoke at a similar event at New York’s City College 10 years ago in May 2005 to celebrate what would have been his 80th birthday.
Given that this conference was an interesting but somewhat gloomy affair, with most attendees deeply depressed by the administration of George W Bush, it is heartening to see a decade later a more positive atmosphere and hugely more global media interest in his legacy.
At the time, the poem’s note of despair chimed well with its tiny audience. While the life of Malcolm X, or El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz as he chose to be known at the time of his death, may have been commemorated during intervening decades in US postage stamps and a Hollywood film, he was and still remains the outsider in most histories of the 1960s civil rights struggle.
The caricature of the pre-9/11 world of the 1990s as peaceful and prosperous that largely overlooks the millions of victims of civil wars in the Congo during the same period, was uppermost when I wrote the doggerel that got me invited to the conference and is reprinted today. The other equally pressing reason is that in 2004 I holidayed at an Istanbul guest-house called the Poem Hotel, whose manager had an open challenge for guests to write poems in the visitors’ book.
As someone who saw value in the way Malcolm X had linked struggles to liberate Black America to the wider worldview of Bandung-inspired visions for self determination, and the quest for a more just, non-aligned, post-colonial world, it rankled that human lives in Africa seemed to count for less than others in global media discourse.
This, combined with the sense of powerlessness I felt after marching with millions against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, not to mention a subliminal steal from the Black Eyed Peas, gave rise to the poem’s overarching question “where is the hope?”
Although he may have disappointed many with his failure to bring peace to the Middle East, or to rein in racism and police violence in America, it seems, looking back, that the election victories of Barrack Hussein Obama heralded the hope that millions were seeking at the time …
Over the years, it has proved easy for diverse groups, from Trotskyists to Black separatists, including those who had threatened to kill him, to cherry-pick the life and speeches of Malcolm X to push their own causes.
Were it not for the posthumous publication of the Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was written during the last months of his life in collaboration with Alex Haley and became one of the most influential American books of the 20th century, it is possible that people today might miss the real strengths of Malcolm X’s legacy.
Whereas Martin Luther King’s life includes the tangible gains of civil rights legislation, Malcolm’s impact was more internal and psychological. His autobiography’s power lies in his repeated willingness to be self-critical and to seek change and empowerment.
Contrary to the perception created by Louis Farrakhan and other niche groups like the five percenters, the bulk of African-Americans in the Nation of Islam were to follow Malcolm X’s path in the 1970s, away from a racist black mythology towards conventional Islam. It is, however, Malcolm’s advocacy of pan-Africanism and a more universal internationalist socialism rather than his religious preaching, for which he is most remembered today.
Like those dreams, the poem’s references to the Oscars and Wimbledon remain a forlorn hope in a globalised world, whose agenda, cultural as well as financial, can still be said to be dominated by imperialist legacies.
But people can still draw inspiration from the many hopes which Malcolm engendered. In a local context, Muhammad Ali’s trip to Bangladesh, as captured in Raymond Massey’s 1978 film Bangladesh I love you, could be said to be a direct reflection of Malcolm’s ideals.
For all the black pride generated by The Rumble in the Jungle and Thriller in Manila, and the heroic status Ali achieved by refusing to fight in Vietnam, Malcolm would have undoubtedly disapproved of his former friend taking millions from Mobutu and Marcos. But like Jimmy Carter, he would have welcomed Ali going unpaid at the invitation of a British-based documentary-maker simply to show solidarity with the people of a new nation, whose birth had been resisted by the earlier Nixon presidency.
It is but one of the myriad reasons why Malcolm X’s life and ideals continue to inspire and demand historical attention.
IF MALCOLM CAME BACK TODAY
If Malcolm came back today
Wouldn’t he be disgusted
Wouldn’t he be appalled.
What would he like about being co-opted?
Whom would he thank
And whom would he scold
From Victoria to Mandela
From Memphis to DC
From Haiti to Havana to Harlem
Via Bandung, Saigon and Bengal
Who cares now for the Congo?
While we pine for Palestine
Will Wimbledon fortnight move to Beirut?
And the Oscars come live from Senegal
And can Shanghai really show us the way
From Rio to Timbuktu
Where is the hope ?
From Zanzibar to Al Andalus.