The haunted death of Malcolm X

January 31, 1995|By Michael Eric Dyson

Chapel Hill, N.C. -- THE ALLEGATION that Malcolm X's daughter Qubilah Shabazz conspired to murder Louis Farrakhan focuses attention on two crucial issues: the persistent role of conspiracy theories in contemporary black culture and the contradictory legacy of Malcolm X, assassinated in a Harlem ballroom 30 years ago next month.

The Shabazz case brings to the surface a submerged but powerful current of lingering suspicions toward the government.

It is well-known that for decades the FBI carried out an aggressive campaign of monitoring and subverting black leaders and organizations.

From the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the Black Panthers, from Paul Robeson to Jesse Jackson, black activists were subjected to a range of perverse tactics designed to distort their public image and undercut their influence.

Such abuses dramatically increased the level of distrust, bordering on paranoia, of many blacks -- not only toward the government but also toward each other, as fellow activists sometimes turned out to be informers. Since then conspiracy theories have continued to proliferate, a ragtag combination of fact, fantasy and fear.

Unfortunately, the proponents of such theories sometimes ignore real culprits lying closer to home.

In the 1960s political groups such as the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam had authoritarian, almost repressive tendencies. Anyone who raised objections to the group's strategy or criticized its leaders was dealt with harshly.

Conspiracy theorists were quick to blame outside manipulation for the resulting turmoil, when the source of the trouble was clearly within.

Many blacks were caught in a dilemma. If they acknowledged the vicious acts of intimidation by the government, they were admitting that conspiracy theorists had a point. But if they played down government interference, because they suspected black groups of exploiting conspiracy thinking, then they risked understating the extent of outside manipulation.

The Shabazz accusation dredges up many of these anxieties. Unquestionably, the timing of the government's announcement provoked enormous skepticism.

If it knew about the alleged murder plot for seven months, why wait until now to bring charges, just weeks before the 30th anniversary of the assassination?

It is probably fruitless to hope for an answer to this question. But more important, we should not allow this sad and bizarre turn of events to distract us from the more difficult business of reassessing Malcolm X's life and work.

And such a reassessment is overdue, for it could point the way toward a moral and social climate in which it no longer makes sense to kill a human being because the vision he or she promotes is strange or threatening.

Perhaps the most harmful legacy of 1960s militant nationalism is the idea that principles can be defended with violence. Though not always manifest in physical violence, intolerance is still expressed rhetorically in the black community.

Malcolm X himself was known to call Martin Luther King Jr. "Uncle Tom" and "Reverend Dr. Chickenwing."

But he was able to change his mind -- primarily because he was also able to criticize himself, a quality that sometimes seems to be extinct among American leaders.

In one facet of his thought, however, Malcolm's views never wavered. His harsh indictment of the depredations encouraged in the ghetto -- drugs, prostitution, hustling -- reflected a fundamental puritanism.

Despite his withering public assaults on white morality, Malcolm, like many blacks, breathed in the ethical atmosphere of mainstream America.

His conservative morality in a sense prevented him from truly respecting or understanding aspects of black culture.

He saw mostly pathology in the conk, the Lindy Hop and the zoot suit, largely because he associated them with his past, the days when he was Malcolm Little, an unrepentant hustler.

Yet like contemporary hip-hop culture -- which Malcolm would most likely have condemned for its explicit sexuality and glamorization of drinking and drugs -- black ghetto culture of the 1940s and '50s must also be seen as a bulwark against the racism of the larger society that embodied the spirit of ordinary people.

Black youth today, for its part, has rightly fixed on Malcolm's rage at racism and economic misery. Angry words from his speeches have appeared in rap songs, on posters and on T-shirts. One can only hope that his humanitarian legacy will eventually prove as powerful a resource.

Surely this is the most lasting feature of Malcolm X's thought -- the vision of social and personal transformation he expressed in his last year, when he renounced narrow nationalism and embraced people of all colors as brothers and sisters.

As we approach the 30th anniversary of his death, one of the greatest gifts black people can give one another is the ability to disagree -- and to turn our disagreements not into reprisals but into opportunities for communication and understanding.

Michael Eric Dyson is author of "Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X."

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