Malcolm X and pan-Africanism today
Today, May 19th, marks Malcolm X’s 81st birthday. It is sad to observe that 41 years after his assassination on February 21, 1965, the pan-Africanist awareness and consciousness that Malcolm celebrated on the continent are dead, at a moment when they are in fact needed most. What happened to such a promising start? What can we do today to make pan-Africanism once again the ideological force that it once was?
When he visited the continent of Africa twice in the last twelve months of his life, Malcolm X followed in the footsteps of Dr. WEB DuBois in demonstrating how, to paraphrase his own words, the struggles of African Americans in the United States, and those of Africans on the continent, were “interlocked.” Malcolm X’s visit, which followed the settling in 1961, and eventual death in 1963 of Dr. DuBois in Ghana, was a key moment in the history of pan-Africanism. Malcolm X believed in internationalizing the African American struggle against racial injustice and inequality in the United States, which he suggested ought to be a human rights issue, above and beyond being a civil rights issue. He saw the support of Africans on the continent as key to achieving this heightened awareness of the struggle. Malcolm was able to hold this view for the specific reason that on the African continent itself, pan-Africanism was very much alive and thriving, with Africans exhibiting an acute awareness and a global consciousness of the struggle needed to liberate Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora.
Malcolm X visited the continent of Africa for the first time in his life in May, 1964. He had just finished his Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, where he changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbaz. He was to return to the continent later that year, and stayed for 18 months. The two trips took Malcom X to several countries in Africa, including Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal, among others. He was able to meet and have private audiences with presidents of several countries, including Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sekou Toure of Guinea, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, and Dr. Milton Obote, then prime minister of Uganda.
In his autobiography, as told to Alex Haley, published in 1965, Malcolm X repeatedly spoke of how his whole life had been about constant change. Born on May 19, 1925, he grew up very poor, and lived in Lansing, Michigan, the very town I am writing this from. His father, Rev. Earl Little, a Baptist preacher, was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan here in Lansing, in 1931, for his active involvement in the Marcus Garvey back-to-Africa movement, known as Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Malcolm was six years old at the time. After eighth grade, in which he was voted class president, in a white-dominant school, he moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he worked menial street jobs, and led a life of crime selling narcotics, pimping, and armed robbery. He was later arrested with a colleague, and served 7 years of a 10-year sentence.
In prison, Malcolm discovered the library, and became a voracious reader. He took classes taught by instructors from Harvard and Boston Universities. He participated in debates, and imprived his writing ability. He read HG Wells, WEB DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, JA Rogers, Gregor Mendel, and many other scholars, on topics including world history, world civilizations, religion, genetics, and linguistics. One of his brothers told him about The Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, which he later joined and became its strongest and most steadfast disciple. He became second in command to Elijah Muhammad, and his faith in the religion was deep and unshakeable. He was responsible for the growth of The Nation of Islam, from a gathering of about 400 to a national movement of more than 40,000 people. He made speeches across the United States, in which he spread Elijah Muhammad’s message that all white people were devils, created to contaminate the world and rule it for 6,000 years; and that black people, created a superior race, would soon take over and rule the world again. Beyond the black supremacist and racist ideology of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X represented an unparalleled deep understanding of the fundamental basis of the white racism that kept black people in America down and relegated them to a life of misery, injustice and ignominy. They did this at a time when most black people did not even have the courage to speak truth to power and teach whites about the disastrous consequences of racism unto African Americans. Later Malcolm was shocked beyond belief to uncover immoral acts committed by Elijah Muhammad. When he consulted Muhammad to find out how to deal with and contain the breaking scandal, Muhammad turned against him, and sought ways to restrict Malcolm. Muhammad’s opportunity came when, reacting to the assassination of President John F Kennedy on November 22, 1963, Malcolm X remarked that the violence that the US government had inflicted in different parts of the world had come back to haunt it. “The chickens have come home to roost,” said Malcolm X.
Elijah Muhammad suspended Malcolm from his position, and their differences grew. Malcolm made his pilgrimage to Mecca, which exposed him to the larger, original and authentic Islamic faith. During the pilgrimage, Malcolm mixed, mingled and prayed with Muslims from different ethnicities and skin complexions. While there he received honor and respect from people who looked as white as the white racists in America, something that he had never experienced in the United States. That began for him what was to become a profound, cosmic change in his worldview, in which he began to question his black supremacist ideology. Malcolm did not lose sight of the racism that black people continued being subjected to in the United States, but he was now able to see the positive role that white people could play in helping end racism. His thinking in this matter was most incisive and prescient, as he states in his autobiography:
"I said that both races, as human beings, had the obligation, the responsibility, of helping to correct America’s human problem. The well-meaning white people, I said, had to combat, actively and directly, the racism in other white people. And the black people had to build within themselves much greater awareness that along with equal rights there had to be the bearing of equal responsibilities" (Autobiography, p. 375, 1964).
He adds: “I knew, better than most Negroes, how many white people truly wanted to see American racial problems solved. I knew that many whites were as frustrated as Negroes.”
Malcolm X’s activism, both before and after the Hajj, was well known even outside the United States. In Africa he was as relevant to the struggle for independence as the other nationalists on the continent. His wish was for more black Americans to develop a greater awareness about the inter-linkages between their struggle and that of other black people on the continent. To a certain extent, that wish has been achieved in some sections of the black community in the United States. In Africa, one can’t help but feel that the awareness of the importance of pan-Africanism and the trans-Atlantic linkages of the destinies of black people around the world has been dying a slow death. Today, very few African leaders even address the issue. Very few African students from primary school to university have any idea about pan-Africanism, let alone Malcom X and what he stood for. The most obvious consequence of this can be seen in the discourses of the elites in discussing current affairs. Most of the discussion focuses on the heat of the moment, with very little historical, informed analysis of the broader contexts that keep churning out one crisis after another, as is the political situation in Malawi today. It has not always been like this.
In his autobiography, Kanyama Chiume (1982), one of the leading nationalists in the struggle for Malawi’s independence, writes about the continent-wide pan-African network that provided nurture and support to most countries fighting for independence. Serving as Malawi’s foreign minister up to the time Malawi achieved independence, Kanyama Chiume’s travels around Africa connected Malawi’s struggle to those in Algeria, Tunisia, Ghana, Guinea, Tanzania, South Africa, and many other countries. Malawi received support, financial, strategic and otherwise, from India, Egypt and other countries who were also fighting imperialism and colonialism. Chiume writes about meeting and discussing the African struggle with Algeria’s leader Ben Bella, Egypt’s Nasser, Ghana’s Nkrumah, Guinea’s Toure, Tanzania’s Nyerere, among others.
It is not too late to revive and re-energize the pan-Africanist ideals of African unity, as preached by John Chilembwe, WEB DuBois, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Frantz Fanon, Sekou Toure, and many others. I wish this message had received wider media attention when Malawi’s president Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika invited, and named a road after, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe earlier this month. While a lot of the criticism against the visit and the road-naming was based on Mugabe’s human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, none of the criticism, including and especially newspaper editorials, exhibited any pan-Africanist consciousness and awareness, choosing, instead, to toe the Euro-American line and thereby perpetuate the fatalist, dependency syndrome designed to ensure that Africa is forever shackled to imperialism. This has to change. And we must begin with the young people, who hold the promise for the future.