Malcolm X is one of the most controversial figures in US history. His dominant image is that of a ‘black supremacist’; an image embedded into the mass mind to such an extent it has become an ‘historical fact’. The picture painted has associated Malcolm with violence, racism and hate, so future generations will dismiss him as just a racist demagogue – a one-dimensional, fanatical enemy of America. This raises the issue of ‘facts in history’, and how such accusations became ‘facts’. However, in this essay, I will show that such images belie Malcolm X’s extraordinary dynamism and non-fixedness, and his immense metamorphoses as a man, leader, and thinker. Having divided his life into three stages – since he did live his life in three distinct stages, with three different personalities and goals – I conclude that while the dominant image is superficially plausible, it is in fact an image severely distorted due to the threat that Malcolm posed to racial domination and inequality, and by extension his threat to both US domestic security and US foreign policy, even after his death. Malcolm X himself predicted exactly this in his autobiography – that after he dies “the white man, in his press, is going to identify [him] with ‘hate’. He will make use of [him] dead, as he has made use of [him] alive, as a convenient symbol of ‘hatred’” (MALCOLM X, 1964, 381).
Malcolm Little was born to a mixed race mother, Louise Little, and a black father, Earl Little, a Baptist minister. An outspoken supporter of Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey, this was believed to have caused Earl’s murder by white supremacists in 1931. The significance of Earl’s murder is often totally and inexplicably overlooked: it should never be forgotten that the causes for which Malcolm would later fight were those exact causes for which his father had died.
It was during this stage of his life that Malcolm X admitted he was proud to be a light-skinned “Negro”, revealing an inferiority complex that was a reality for the vast majority of African-Americans, another aspect of his youth vital in Malcolm’s eventual conversion to the Nation of Islam (NOI), where he, conversely, strongly advocated and encouraged black pride – pride lost when the “white man went into Africa … and kidnapped … millions of black men … tortured as slaves” (MALCOLM X, 1964, 162); an inferiority complex brought about when “the slavemaster injected his Christian religion into this "Negro" … taught to worship an alien God having the same blond hair, pale skin, and blue eyes as the slavemaster” (MALCOM X, 1964, 163). Such personal experiences are often completely disregarded when Malcolm’s eventual descent into racism is considered. Hence, this first stage demonstrates how the NOI were able to mould him into that racist we have heard so much about, but also into that figure for black unity and pride about which less is heard. Malcolm X himself remarked that “to understand … any person, his whole life, from birth, must be reviewed. All of our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that ever happened to us is an ingredient” (MALCOLM X, 1964, p150). And this was certainly true of him. First Metamorphosis
The second stage of his life began in prison (1946), where he became literate and began first to appreciate religion, which rehabilitated and totally transformed him. He gained nationwide recognition as ‘Malcolm X’, through his involvement with the NOI, a religious, US-based organisation for black people, which taught that the ‘white man’ was the devil who had brainwashed the black man. Crucially, the Nation believed that for black Americans to be truly ‘free’ from whites, they needed to be fully separated and economically self-sufficient. Malcolm, convinced that the Nation was his calling, unequivocally accepted the racist views central to the religion.
Some argue that Malcolm accepted the Nation so...