By Yemi Toure -Guest Columnist-
A tear rolled down the face of Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s oldest daughter, as she spoke in Harlem, N.Y., at the unveiling of a U.S. postage stamp with the image of her father. Also present at the Jan. 20 ceremony at the Apollo Theatre were Shabazz’s five sisters; Ossie Davis, who eulogized Malcolm in 1965; and many other well-known persons.
While Attallah Shabazz shed a tear, I wonder if her father was shaking his head at the turn of events.
I wonder if Malcolm was saying, “If you stand up to this society, it will crush you or co-opt you. And with this stamp, they now have done both to me.”
The government issued a stamp, but it has not issued all of its secret files on Malcolm. The issuing of a stamp draws attention away from the same federal government’s still-hidden role in illegal spying on Malcolm, the disruption of his activities, the hounding of his followers, and its role in his death. Scholar Clayborne Carson writes in his book “MalcolmX: The FBI Files” that the spying started in 1953, and “the FBI’s interest in Malcolm did not end with his death.”
I say, give us the files—keep the stamp. Malcolm, in my opinion, would have wanted us to focus on the files, not on seeing his face on a stamp.
CRUSHING AND CO-OPTING
Crushing and co-opting are two of the weapons that American culture uses against powerful voices of dissent. A classic example is Malcolm’s own transformation in the media:
Right after Malcolm was assassinated in 1965, major newspapers—the New York Times and the Washington Post among many—denounced him in editorials as a “preacher of hate” who got what he deserved.
But when the film “Malcolm X” hit the screens in 1992, these same media outlets printed another set of editorials, this time praising Malcolm almost as a saint. Why were the editorials so different? Did Malcolm change his politics from beyond the grave? No.
The reason: Malcolm would not die. His words and power continued to stir many of us, and his message continued to spread. So after some years, the strategy in the media and in the culture in general changed: “We have crushed his body, and that did not stop his influence, so now let us co-opt his words and image.”
LIES AND MANIPULATION
I actually prefer the lying words that the media told about Malcolm in 1965 to the manipulating words they told about him in 1992 and since. Why? The lies are easy to see. But the manipulation? It’s like those chemical flavors they put in food: They taste good, and you won’t notice the harm they are doing to your insides.
But the manipulating words that spewed out when the Malcolm X stamp was unveiled in New York are enough to burn a hole in your stomach. The Postal Service’s S. David Fineman called Malcolm “a modern-day revolutionary who openly fought for the end of oppression and injustice. He was a visionary, a man who dreamed of a better world and dared to do something about it.’’
Let me stop before I throw up. I am upset not with the words, mind you, but with the context around them. Do you believe this society has changed, transformed, overturned, revolutionized, so much, that Malcolm would smile down on it? I don’t think so.
Which Malcolm X was Fineman praising? Surely not the earlier Malcolm who called white people “devils by nature” with such convincing arguments.
So was Fineman talking about Malcolm’s later years? Let’s see.
Fineman was repeating the popular idea that Malcolm had “grown” in his last year.
But if the Postal Service, the federal government or this culture in general, were really interested in the “growth” of our leaders, why is there no focus on Martin Luther King’s “growth” in HIS last year? We hear almost nothing about King’s Poor People’s Campaign, about his opposition to the federal government’s war in Vietnam, about his critique of capitalism and exploitation in his last year, of his calling the American mainstream “polluted.”
MALCOLM STOOD APART
Malcolm resisted co-optation into this society. He saw past all the flash and cash, all the way to the racist, corrupt, exploitive, aggressive, manipulative, violent heart of this society. He was able to see that because he was an independent voice. He was able to shoot darts or bullets at this society, as the situation demanded. So this stamp is not just for mailing letters. It is an attempt to bring Malcolm “in.” It is a cultural symbol, a conferring of status, a mark of acceptance.
“Come in, Malcolm,” American society is saying. “Stop looking out that window and put down that rifle. Take off your shoes and have a seat. Make yourself comfortable.”
If Malcolm was alive, could you see him getting comfortable enough to get up on that stage to accept some kind of award? No. So a stamp ain’t gettin’ it. And only when we defend this righteous legacy of Malcolm as an outsider, as someone separate and apart, can he remain strong and valuable to us. ..
I will stand back and let Malcolm speak for himself:
“No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of democracy—nothing but disguised hypocrisy I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
Nobody quoted that from the Apollo stage.
And this was not the “old” Malcolm, during his Nation of Islam years. This was part of a speech on April 3, 1964. “People involved in revolution don’t become part of the system,” Malcolm said to A.B. Spellman in an interview in May 1964. “They destroy the system; they change the system.”
Nobody quoted that from the stage.
“I’m for the freedom of … Afro-Americans BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY! BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY! I’m for freedom. I’m for a society in which our people are recognized and respected as human beings, and I believe we have the right to resort to ANY MEANS NECESSARY to bring that about.” This is Malcolm in an interview with Claude Lewis in December, 1964. (Emphasis is in the original.)
Nobody quoted that from the stage.
MALCOLM, AMERICA, THE MILLENNIUM
Do you think Malcolm would want his face on a stamp when he knows that in Riverside, Calif., Tyisha Miller, 19, was killed in a hail of 27 bullets by cops who are as brutal as Klansmen?
Do you think Malcolm would want his face on a stamp when he knows that in New York, N.Y., Amadou Diallo, 22, was killed in a hail of 41 bullets by cops who are as brutal as Klansmen?
Do you think Malcolm would want his face on a stamp when he knows that parts of the Voting Rights Act, which protected some Black people’s right to vote, may expire in a few years?
Do you think Malcolm would want his face on a stamp when he knows that this is a culture so racist that Black people even need a Voting Rights Act in the first place, when other people don’t?
Do you think Malcolm would want his face on a stamp when he knows that the conditions that produced the Black uprisings of 1965, 1967 and 1992 still exist?
Or would Malcolm most likely say, in that rich voice of his, forceful as thunder and bright as lightning, “As long as my people are not free, don’t identify me with ANYTHING having to do with this government.”
I still hear that voice. I still feel that presence. The least we can do, out of respect for Malcolm and his enduring legacy, is not buy any such stamp.