One of the more interesting volumes in Malcolm X’s book collection, held at the Schomburg Center, in Harlem, is an English translation of Jean Paul Sartre’s “Black Orpheus,” the French philosopher’s dense meditation on the idea of Negritude. Malcolm X’s copy is meticulously marked up, with typos circled and sentences underlined. A Paris Metro ticket stub is tucked in between the pages as a bookmark.
Malcolm X by Trevor Jenkins
The civil-rights leader had a curious relationship to France; he was drawn to its culture, but disgusted by its colonial practices. His Grenadian-born mother was proficient in French and taught her children the language. More than one French scholar has suggested that Malcolm X’s political motto, “By any means necessary,” was borrowed from Sartre’s play “Dirty Hands.” And, to the distress of American intelligence agencies, the French were captivated by Malcolm X as well. At one point, J. Edgar Hoover even contacted French authorities to warn them that the film director Pierre Dominique Gaisseau had recently been in touch with Malcolm, the leader of a “fanatical” and “anti-white organization.” When Malcolm was barred from entering Paris, on February 9, 1965, and French border officials mentioned that the American embassy was behind the decision, he taunted them, “I didn’t know that France was a satellite of the United States.”
Malcolm X’s expulsion from France was unusual; France had long prided itself on providing refuge to African-American artists and radicals, if only to show that the republic was colorblind and immune to America’s racial ills. In 1978, when the French government refused to extradite four Black Panthers wanted in the U.S. for a hijacking, the militants became a cause célèbre among French intellectuals. And, of course, France has had a century-old love affair with African-American culture. French fans revelled in jazz in the 1920s, when it was still shunned in the States, and hip-hop found a welcoming home in France some sixty years later.
But France’s relationship to African-American culture has recently turned awkward, as hip-hop and the rhetoric of Black Power and Malcolm X are deployed by minority youth in the country’s banlieues to mock the ideas of colorblindness and secularism (laïcité). After 9/11, some American commentators claimed that “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was a radicalizing text that taught “victimization,” and drove young Americans such as John Walker Lindh to participate in jihad. Similarly, the authorities in France are now wondering if it was a dangerous mix of Islam and black militancy—personified by Malcolm and brewed in France’s prisons—that drove the Charlie Hebdo killer Chérif Kouachi to violence. Fifty years after his death, Malcolm X is again troubling trans-Atlantic waters.
Zeal for Malcolm X is a geo-political bellwether of sorts. Interest in Malcolm X tends to appear at the margins of societies, in urban areas where state institutions and services don’t fully reach, peopled by darker-hued minorities who are developing a racial consciousness. In the mid-nineteen-sixties, a Black Power movement emerged in England, inspired by Malcolm X’s visit in 1965. Soon, other Black Power movements were born: the Black Panther party of Israel, launched by North African Jews in 1971; the Polynesian Panther Party, in New Zealand; and the Dalit Panther Party, founded in 1972 to empower India’s “untouchables.”
Today, interest in Malcolm X is most intense among blacks and Muslims in Western Europe. The last decade has seen the rise of a host of European-based groups that lionize Malcolm and draw on the Black Power movement: the Arab European League of Belgium, the Natives of the Republic in France, the Pantrarna of Sweden, and the Black Panthers of Greece.
For young European Muslims, caught between surveillance states and far-right movements, Malcolm X is attractive simply for how he dealt with state oppression and organized hostility—through transcendence. If America didn’t want him, he wasn’t to be bound by its borders. Malcolm’s awesome trajectory from street hustler to the global arena—rising above any and all states, freed from the shackles of patriotism and national allegiance, fearing only Allah—is riveting to young people living in ghettos. And for young Muslims trying to make sense of global Muslim besiegement, Malcolm’s linking of the local with the international, the struggle against racism with the fight against imperialism, is especially appealing.
Policymakers in Europe and the United States are noting the parallels and connections between the racial militancy of nineteen-sixties America and Islamist militancy of today. European officials worry that young Muslims will identify with a broad-based movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood rather than with the country in which they live. They fear that Malcolm X’s example will undermine efforts to “detransnationalize” Muslim youth. Malcolm, after all, showed that state sovereignty is not inviolable—he linked the African American struggle to liberation movements overseas, countered the State Department’s claims about racial progress, and tried to bring the United States before the United Nations Security Council for human-rights violations. Today, governments are pushing a moderate understanding of the Malcolm X narrative as part of their counter-radicalization efforts. They focus on his “cosmopolitan” phase, after he made the pilgrimage to Mecca and ceased talking about organizing rifle clubs for self-defense.
American diplomacy has also been celebrating Malcolm X in recent years. During Black History Month and on Malcolm X’s birthday, U.S. embassies have plans to honor Obama and the post-hajj Malcolm together, celebrating their rise to international eminence and their relationship to Islam, stressing that it was Malcolm X, a “symbol of a vital, open America,” who made Obama possible. These diplomatic initiatives are ironic, not least because, fifty years ago, the U.S. government harassed and hounded Malcolm at every step. Today, they are using his figure—and black protest more broadly—to win over hostile populations. (In May 2013, after an event celebrating Malcolm X’s birthday—where embassy workers in Sanaa displayed posters of the leader that said “Happy Birthday to Malcolm X, who bravely stood up against injustice and hate”—one Yemeni wrote on the embassy’s Facebook page, “I wish the American ambassador were as courageous as this man Malcolm X who stood in valor against oppression.”) Another paradox is that while the diplomatic arm of the U.S. government deploys the moral capital of the civil-rights movement, domestic law enforcement is reviving the policing and surveillance methods used against black activists half a century ago. The N.Y.P.D.’s surveillance program of American Muslims, for example, is modelled on the F.B.I.’s Ghetto Informant Program, set up in the nineteen-sixties to monitor black neighborhoods.
In recent years, counter-terrorism experts have argued that music is a particularly good way to distinguish a moderate Muslim from an extremist. French officials are thus on the lookout for jihadi rhymes, but they also don’t want youth turning away from music altogether. A poster released by the French Ministry of Interior last month, listing indicators that a friend or family member is becoming an extremist, claims that one telltale sign of radicalization is if a person has stopped listening to music. Experts are now arguing that moderate hip-hop and a moderate understanding of Malcolm X would help reach at-risk Muslim youth, especially as former militants come forward claiming they were set on the path to extremism by gangsta rap and Malcolm X.
The idea that antipathy toward music, admiration for Malcolm X, and attraction to militancy go together is, of course, terribly reductive. As a young man, Malcolm was famously passionate about music. In his autobiography, he boasts of how, as a shoeshine boy in Boston’s Roseland State Ballroom, he shined the shoes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, and other greats. During his Detroit Red phase, Malcolm danced and played drums at jazz bars, under the stage name Jack Carlton. But when he joined the Nation of Islam, his views began to change. In 1950, while in prison, Malcolm penned a letter to a fellow Muslim, describing his love of jazz and its “comforting effects.” “My ace girl was Dina Washington,” he wrote (meaning the singer Dinah Washington). “She’s still the greatest.” But the music also reminds him of his “sinful past” and he vows to indulge only in jazz performed by Muslim artists.
For the rest of his life, Malcolm X would try to balance his love of music with his political and religious commitments. In a speech in 1964, he underscored the importance of music to black liberation, stating that music was “the only area on the American scene where the black man has been free to create. And he has mastered it.” Malcolm’s personal papers are a delight to read in part because they are sprinkled with references to music and literature—they contain mentions of Thelonious Monk and his “Muslim Band,” the vocalist Dakota Staton, and a newspaper clipping of Duke Ellington’s State Department tour in Syria and Iran. While traveling in Africa, Malcolm immersed himself in the musical life of the newly independent states, visiting social clubs and dance centers, heartened by how they were trying to revive indigenous musical forms as part of their decolonization. At the Ghana Press Club, he takes in a heady performance of highlife music, and—in Maya Angelou’s telling—taps his fingers on his lap but refuses to dance. In Cairo, he hangs out with African-American jazz aficionados who are trying to create a “progressive” Afro-Asian genre to counter what’s being broadcast by the State Department. Music for emancipation is permissible.
As nervous European officials contemplate how to de-radicalize Malcolm, and American embassies go all out this month to commemorate the “moderate” Malcolm, it’s worth recalling the man’s complexities and just how much he hated propaganda. I’m not a racist, he once told his diary: I am an extremist. I am, he wrote, “extremely against wrong.”