Histories of Violence: Why We Should All Read Malcolm X Today

THIS IS THE 40th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, director of the Centre for Black Studies, founder of the Harambee Organisation of Black Unity, and co-chair of the Black Studies Association. His latest book is Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century (Zed Books, 2018).


BRAD EVANS: I think it is fair to say that the spirt of Malcolm X is alive and kicking throughout your evocative work. What is it about Malcolm’s message that still speaks so loudly to your thoughts? And how has it directly influenced your understanding of violence in the world today?

KEHINDE ANDREWS: Malcolm X is one of the most important intellectuals of the 20th century. His analysis of racism is so clear and precise that it is almost prophetic over 50 years after his death. It is no exaggeration to say that Malcolm predicted the developments that we have seen in the racial state. His basic premise was the United States and the wider West could “no more provide freedom, justice, and equality” for Black people than a “chicken could lay a duck egg.” Rather than seeing racist practices as a result of the failures of society, he understood them as the logic of the system. Whereas many are looking around six decades removed from the Civil Rights movement, surprised that racism is just as rampant, Malcolm told us that today’s inequality is the cul-de-sac we went down when we tried to reform racism out of a fundamentally racist system. Academia only really catches up with Malcolm with Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the late ’80s, with scholars outlining the “permanence of racism” in US society.

As well as expertly analyzing the problem, Malcolm provides the clearest articulation of the solution. Malcolm does more than anyone else to outline the radical nature of embracing Blackness as a political identity. Rooted in reclaiming pride in African descent and organizing Black communities to fight for liberation, Malcolm’s Blackness was uncompromising. He declared the “new type of Negro” that made no apologies for being Black and refused to accept patiently waiting society to reform itself. This is why Malcolm has resonated so much with the young and the marginalized, he is very much the voice of what he called the “field Negro,” who labored outside on the plantation during slavery.

In terms of violence, Malcolm turned the question away from the oppressor and back onto the oppressed, indicting the US as the main purveyor of violence on the planet. For instance, he chided Black Americans, asking, “How are you going to be nonviolent in Mississippi, as violent as you were in Korea?” reminding his audiences of both America’s colonial violence and their duty to defend themselves against the violence of the state. Malcolm, along with other radical thinkers, articulates the legitimacy of violence in the face of oppression.

This idea of making no apology for one’s existence while making an account of oneself as having a rightful place on earth, even if such rights are being denied, seems integral to conceiving of a more radical account of justice. It also reminds me of the Zapatistas instance that it wasn’t the privilege of the state to “grant” them their rights. Inspired by Malcolm, what does justice therefore look like for you in the face of systematic persecution?

Justice can only be found in the creation of a new political and economic system. The roots of oppression are coded into the DNA of racial capitalism. The pretense that there can ever be justice within this framework is one of the biggest myths that holds back transformative change. One of the first steps for liberation is for the oppressed to define their own terms, their own perspectives, and own mechanisms for bringing about liberation. As Malcolm declared, “Nobody can give you freedom,” you have to take it. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Black movements are predicated on campaigning for those in power to recognize us or legislate for us. The shift from the call for Black Power to the slogan Black Lives Matter is instructive here. Black Power has its roots in a long history of those seeking to build the capacity of Black people to create our own alternatives, be they at a local, national, or global level. Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, is a call for basic recognition of us as human beings, and campaigns for us to be treated fairly. No doubt there were many versions of Black Power that were just as interested in campaigns for mainstream recognition, particularly in politics, but the radical Black Power of Malcolm made the opposite demand. For Malcolm, we stated and defined our own humanity and the task was to build a collective that harnessed Black Power in order to deliver liberation. Before Malcolm died, he was working with others to establish the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), very much echoing the earlier Garvey movement’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The goal was to connect the Diaspora to the African revolution and create a society where freedom, justice, and equality were truly possible.

Mainstream media and indeed the corporate landscape finds it much easier to accommodate and assimilate the legacy of Martin Luther King than the revolutionary fire and spirit of Malcolm. Cornel West has attributed this to reductive caricatures, “a sanitized Martin and a demonized Malcolm,” even though toward the ends of their lives King was notably more radical than his “I have a dream” speech, whereas X was more conciliatory to dialogue, including with those who threatened his life. Why do you think it has been easier for White populations to make peace with Martin than with Malcolm?

Malcolm and Martin represent very different approaches to Black liberation. Martin has certainly been sanitized but can be incorporated into the mainstream because he ultimately believed that the US could be redeemed. Malcolm on the other hand was under no such illusion and therefore advocated nothing short of revolution in order to overturn the social order. It would be wrong to overstate their conversion toward the end of the lives. They only met once just before Malcolm was assassinated and right up until the end, he was heavily critical of Martin because of his liberal stance. Asked on Canadian television in January 1965 whether he had called King an Uncle Tom, Malcolm explained that because people could sue for libel over the term it is not one he would use, but he would say that “Uncle Martin is my friend.” He then went on to explain how Martin’s approach could not bring real freedom to Black people. Black people have disagreed with each other more than we have with White people and the two represent distinct political ideologies, with King’s being more palatable to the White majority. King represents a long tradition of intellectuals and activists who have strived for Black people to gain access to the systems of power and put pressure on them to be reformed. Though this represents a challenge to the dominant it is one that can be very easily accommodated into liberal, well-meaning, left-leaning politics of the White majority. By being aware of their privileges and committing to supposedly anti-racist practices we can all march together to a brighter future. Malcolm offers no such comfort in condemning the political and economic system of White supremacy as unalterably racist, with the only solution a revolution. While King embraced well-meaning White people as essential to the coalition to bring about racial justice, in Malcolm’s analysis those White people who truly understand their role need to do nothing but simply move out of the way. Malcolm was clear that in the OAAU, “Whites can help us, but they cannot join us.”

I’d like to press you on the psychic life to power and violence you continue to make explicit in your work. You have argued that colonization and its continued imperialism reveals a certain White psychosis that is integral to the racial structuring of the world. Can you explain more fully what you mean by this, and how does it affect the radical imperative?

The psychosis of Whiteness is the entirely deluded and irrational discourse produced in order to maintain racial imperialism. The West is built on unprecedented levels of violence and barbarity. The largest genocide in history that killed up to 98 percent of the indigenous population in the Americas; transatlantic slavery that took millions into captivity laying waste to tens of millions more; and colonial violence across the globe. The result was to create the global political economy into the image of White supremacy with African the poorest, Europe and America the richest, and the rest in between in a social Darwinian evolutionary ladder. Today a child dies every 10 seconds because of lack of access to food and water, almost exclusively in the underdeveloped world. Our prosperity is based on the daily pile of Black and brown children and the point of the psychosis is to delude us into believing that Western progress is not based on colonial violence but rather the ingenuity, determination, and science that we can spread across the globe. This is why 60 percent of the British population think the British Empire, which killed tens of millions of people, was a force for good in the world; or that the former British Prime Minister David Cameron can be proud of Britain as the nation that “abolished slavery” while not considering before this she had become one of its primary enforcers. Through Eurocentric education, the press, and the media, the psychosis is reinforced to make us all believe that our blood-soaked hands are clean, that in fact the West is the solution to the problem that it has created and depends on.

Psychosis is really the only way to describe the disorder and delusional logic (replete with hallucinations on film and in television) that hallmarks understandings of race and racism. Once we understand that it is a psychosis, we will stop trying to teach our way out of racism. There is no evidence or rational argument you can mobilize to convince those in the grip of a psychosis. We have been right side of the argument for 400 years, to no avail. The only way to deal with a psychosis is to treat the underlying disorder that produces it. In this case, that is the political and economic system of Western imperialism. Understanding Whiteness as a psychosis means realizing that the only solution is revolution.

Given that Malcolm X is often still seen as a proponent of reverse racism (something I know you have also been accused of mirroring in your critiques of authors who have notably weaponized identity without attending to their own sense of embodied privilege), why should his work still command a non-Black readership? And what would you hope that a White readership might take when reading his thoughts today?

There is no such thing as reverse racism. Racism is the logic that underpins the current political and economic system and as such mobilizes the resources of power. Too often we conflate prejudice with racism. Prejudice is the act of being against someone because of a perceived category like race. But racism is the power to enact that prejudice on a social level. Lynchings in the US were in themselves acts of prejudice, what made them racist was that they were done with the support of law enforce and the courts. They were effectively state-sanctioned violence. Malcolm indicting all White people as devils, while part of the Nation of Islam (NOI) is certainly prejudiced but it is not racist. In fact, the motivation behind the NOI’s creation myth of the White devil was anti-racist, with the point being to mobilize Black people to overcome racial oppression.

One of the main audiences for Malcolm’s work was White college campuses. He visited colleges across the US as well as speaking at the Oxford Union and the University of Birmingham. Part of the reason for his popularity was his condemnation of Whiteness, for which audience often have an almost Catholic self-flagellation obsession with (see Whiteness as a psychosis). But it was also because Malcolm’s analysis and ideas were so insightful that they applied to all. Malcolm talked about racism, colonialism around the world, revolution, class, identity, and argued for radical social change. As he said, “Truth is on the side of the oppressed,” and the Black radical perspective is one that illuminates the real nature and conditions of society for all to see.

Malcolm also explicitly offered a route for the White majority to avoid the “racial powder keg” that was due to explode. In one of his most famous speeches, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” he explains that the US is the only nation in history with the ability to have a “nonviolent revolution” but simply giving Black people all that was due to them. If not the ballot, then he warned it would surely be the bullet. Malcolm’s work is as valid today in understanding both the problem of racism and the stakes if there is no solution.

To conclude, I want to turn our attention directly on the university, which we know has been historically invested in given intellectual validation to systems of racial superiority — often masked behind the language of the enlightenment and claims to scientific veracity. What does a truly decolonized university actually look like, and can it ever be achieved?

You cannot decolonize a university system that was produced by, and in order to, maintain the system of racial capitalism. The reason the university reproduces Eurocentric curricula and stark racial inequalities is because of its purpose in society. The university as ivory tower, an elite space separated from, and looking down on the rest of world is too deeply ingrained the knowledge and practice of Western universities. We can, and certainly should, work to make as many changes as possible in order to introduce new ideas, content, and practices into the university, if for nothing more than to try to make the experiences of minority students more bearable. But in Black Studies we talk about the need to “colonize” the university, using the privileges and resources of the space to support movements for liberation off campus. The university is a major part of the problem, and it will not be the source of the solution. The lesson from Black Studies, and Malcolm is the perfect example of this, is that revolutionary knowledge is produced only in the struggle for revolution in locations very distant, and traditionally by those excluded, from the hallowed halls of the university.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.



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