Malcolm X at 98: Angela Davis on His Enduring Legacy & the “Long Struggle for Liberation”
Written by GRB on 20/05/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Malcolm X was born 98 years ago today in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925. Malcolm was assassinated just 39 years later, on February 21st, 1965, when he was standing at the podium before a crowd in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. His wife, Betty Shabazz, pregnant with twins, and his four daughters, age 6, 4, 2, and 5 months, were in the ballroom looking on.
In February, the family of Malcolm X filed a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against the FBI, the CIA, New York City and state, and the NYPD and the District Attorney’s Office for concealing evidence of their involvement in Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination.
Well, today we spend the hour remembering Malcolm X. We begin with Angela Davis, the world-renowned abolitionist, author, activist, distinguished professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her many books include Abolition. Feminism. Now., Freedom Is a Constant Struggle and Are Prisons Obsolete?
Earlier this year, she gave the keynote address at a February 19th event at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, housed in the former Audubon Ballroom. Professor Davis spoke about Malcolm’s legacy, as well as the increasing attacks on the teaching of Black history by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and others. She began by referencing the actor Ossie Davis, who gave the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral, describing him as, quote, “our own Black shining prince!”
ANGELA DAVIS: Ossie said the following in Malcolm’s eulogy. “Last year, from Africa, he wrote these words” — Malcolm wrote these words — “to a friend. ‘My journey,’ he says, ‘is almost ended, and I have a much broader scope than when I started out, which I believe will add new life and dimension to our struggle for freedom and honor and dignity in the States. I am writing these things so that you will know for a fact the tremendous sympathy and support we have among the African States for our Human Rights struggle. The main thing,’” he wrote, “’is that we keep a United Front wherein our most valuable time and energy will not be wasted fighting each other.’”
Malcolm’s words and his trajectory as a movement leader and a movement participant are as valuable today as they were six decades ago. They resonate in powerful ways, because the change Malcolm was calling for, the change we were calling for, has not yet happened. And therefore, Malcolm’s vision cannot be relegated to the past. His vision still helps us to imagine the future we want to see.
Now, official United States narratives of past history always attempt to assimilate demands for radical transformation into a neat story of progress and triumph. The very fact that Black freedom struggles came to be compressed and constricted by the rubric “civil rights movement” — and, of course, the civil rights movement was important, but that was not the entire story of the Black freedom movement. And that, in itself, is indicative of this assimilationist tendency, the fact that we ourselves often refer to the movement for Black freedom as only a civil rights movement.
During the 1960s, Malcolm emphasized the need to expand our vision. He told us that it was not only about civil rights, the rights that can be accorded to individuals by a single nation-state and its government. Our vision needed to be broader. It had to move, Malcolm said, across the borders of nation-states. It had to be transnational. It had to be international. The framework that Malcolm urged us to use was human rights.
Now, Malcolm’s trajectory, and his insistence on radical frameworks, has never been easily assimilable into a narrative of U.S. history as one in which increasing numbers of people get to participate in the circle of justice, equality and freedom. And I’m thinking about the way in which Dr. King’s image has been entirely assimilated into a capitalist narrative, which is not to say that Dr. King represented those ideas, but this is the official narrative, the official representation.
Now, Malcolm’s vision, from the very outset, or at least from the time he made the pilgrimage to Mecca, was an international vision, including not only people in the U.S. and not only Black people, but people all over the world. And I tell you that I treasure the story that was told to me by Yuri Kochiyama about hosting a meeting in her Harlem apartment, where Malcolm met with survivors of the bombing, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. And there’s also a photograph of Yuri leaning over Malcolm’s body in this place, shortly after he was assassinated. And I often wonder: Why is it that that photograph is not circulated more widely? You know, why didn’t we see Yuri represented in Spike’s film? …
This is a time when we can reflect on what we should call the long struggle for freedom, the long struggle for freedom conducted by and on behalf of Black people in the Americas, the struggle against slavery, the struggle against segregation and secondhand citizenship, and, of course, the struggle of Africans against the slave trade and colonialism and neocolonialism. This is a time to reflect deeply on the long struggle for liberation that has already spanned multiple centuries. It is also a time to reflect on how we might accelerate that struggle in order to guarantee that those who have been denied entrance into the circle of freedom might not only be admitted, but by recognizing their struggles, their collective, multigenerational vision, it might be possible to imagine future worlds. And Malcolm asked us to keep our eyes on the future, future worlds, radical democratic futures for all beings who inhabit this planet.
And so, in the spirit of Malcolm’s contributions, I want us to ponder a couple of questions. How has it actually been possible for Black people and our allies, including in the first place Indigenous people — how has it been possible to remain committed over so many centuries, over so many generations, to the struggle for freedom? That is phenomenal, that each generation has passed on that impulse to fight for freedom to the next. And oftentimes, even when we thought the flames had been extinguished, we have a Black Lives Matter movement erupting.
And so, I think that we should acknowledge the phenomenal quality of Black culture, Black political culture, Black music, because where have we learned to cultivate that impulse for freedom? I mean, that is — that is the reason why we observe Black history. You know, Black history is not just because there are Black people in various parts of the world. It’s about what Black people have offered to people all over the world. And that is the desire, the cultivation of the desire to keep on struggling for freedom. It is in the art. It is the very heart of the music. And that is why Black music is known by people all over this planet.
Now, there’s also the question, which we have to acknowledge: Why is it that racism has persisted for so long? And why has it become so naturalized that its proponents often believe that what we refer to as racism is the natural destiny of the world? Now, Malcolm understood the deeply ideological character of racism. And I use the term “ideology” to mean the way that we humans imagine ourselves in relation to the conditions of our existence. Malcolm understood that ideology, even when you define it as the source of illusory ideas about such conditions, that ideology’s role is precisely to make the conditions of our lives appear to be normal. And as a matter of fact, the more normal something appears to be, the more likely it is to be produced in and through ideology.
This is the point that abolitionists make about the seeming permanence of jails and prisons, about the permanence of police, about the so-called school resource officers, about the child protective — so-called Child Protective Services that Dorothy Roberts calls the family policing system. But thanks to the way in which Malcolm taught us to engage in the kind of radical reflection on that which is ideological, we know that we can envision life beyond prisons and police. We can envision life beyond capitalism.
Now, Malcolm used his remarkable oratory and his phenomenal sense of humor to trouble our sense of comfort in a world that was predicated, that is predicated, remains predicated, on white superiority. Malcolm helped us to understand how we internalize those ideological assumptions, and how their persistence depends on all of us doing the work of prisons, the work of the police, the work of capitalism, white supremacy.
Now, I had the opportunity to hear Malcolm in person. And as a matter of fact, one of the things I’m most proud about, connected to my time in college, was the fact that Malcolm came in April of 1963 to speak at Brandeis University, and because there was only a handful of Black students there, I got to meet him. I was — all of the Black students got to meet him and to spend time with him. But that’s another story.
You know, I wanted to point out that there are — there are signs, there is evidence, that we can challenge that which is ideologically imposed. And I’m thinking about one area that we’ve seen a lot of change in over a relatively short period of time. And that is the demystification of the gender binary. Yes. I mean, who would have ever thought 20 years ago that we would be acknowledging, again, the ideological character of gender, that we would be attentive to pronouns? No, who would have ever imagined that? And I think it’s important to recognize it not only in terms of the advances that the trans movement has made, but also is evidence that we can dismantle other institutions whose seeming permanence is also a product of ideology.
And even as we develop the capacity to think about the damage wrought by racism, we often take shortcuts, and we capitulate to heteropatriarchal assumptions that the targets of racism are primarily Black men, or ethnocentric assumptions that racism affects exclusively Black people. Ron DeSantis — and, Ben, thank you for asking us to reflect on what is going on with that — don’t let me characterize him, but —
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Go on. We’re family. [inaudible]
ANGELA DAVIS: But I just heard him — well, OK, I’ll tell you that I just heard him — I think it was yesterday, maybe it was the day before — making fun of the fact that queer theory was included under the rubric of the Black studies Advanced Placement course that you were talking about. And, you know, he’s pretty stupid. You know, one of the things you learn — one of the things you learn, when you really try to engage in a serious process of learning, you learn that the more you learn, the less you know. You know, you learn all — you learn that there’s always so much more to learn. And this governor, this — OK.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: We’re family. Come on.
ANGELA DAVIS: Absolutely, absolutely. So, but, you know — and what does he say? I guess he also — they also removed Kimberlé Crenshaw, so you’re not allowed to talk about intersectionality. But I was just going to say that we have to think about the intersectionality of racism. You know, it’s not just about identities.
And because this is a historical moment, when we are called upon to comprehend the structural, the systemic, the institutional character of racism, and then — OK, I’m just going to call them counterrevolutionaries, right? Because it reminds me so much of the period of Radical Reconstruction and the responses to it, and following W. E. B. Du Bois, I’m just going to call them the counterrevolutionaries, because they are trying to prevent the progressive developments from transforming our lives. And all he can think about is wokeness. I mean, he doesn’t even know what wokeness means. But he thinks that Black studies will cause white children to feel bad about themselves. I think he must be talking about himself.
But in any event, the reason we are witnessing these uproars right now, from DeSantis’s strategies in Florida to the actions of the College Board, is that education is integrally related to social change. And this is something Malcolm taught us, both through his words and through his actions, you know, thanks to Malcolm’s decision to teach himself in prison. Vast numbers of incarcerated people do the hard work of learning, often learning how to read, as Malcolm did, but certainly learning how to use their intellects. And as a matter of fact, there’s probably more intellectual greatness behind bars now than in any other place.
We’re on the verge of substantial shifts in the way people think about race and racism. And those who want to prevent these shifts from happening are frantically trying to turn back the clock. At least 36 states have adopted or introduced laws that impede educational projects about race and racism. And here in New York, at the end of 2021, Republican lawmakers introduced bills that prevent public schools from providing instruction on structural racism. Even in the most progressive states — and, you know, I come from California, and most of the times I’m happy to say that I come from California, because, well, first of all, I live in Oakland, and Oakland celebrates May 19th, Oakland and Berkeley. Malcolm X’s birthday is an official holiday in both of those cities. But even in the most progressive states that we see efforts to restrict and confine instruction. California is also, I think, the only state with a statewide ethnic studies curriculum. But there have been major efforts, vociferous efforts, to prevent the inclusion of Palestine and Palestinians and Palestinian Americans in the curriculum.
Amidst all of the pain and suffering produced by the COVID pandemic — and we’re not that far removed from that era — this new collective awareness of the structural character of racism was generated. Not that it was a new way of thinking about racism. Scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois pointed this out scores of decades ago. Malcolm talked about institutional change. But the change, as many people have recognized over the decades, is one that involves not so much of a shift in subjective attitudes, although that’s definitely welcome, but it’s about structural transformation. It’s not about white people not liking Black people or Indigenous people or Latinx people. And that will change if there is structural change. But we can treat racism as a character defect or a character flaw and leave the entire systematic structure of racism intact. You know, they talk about racism without the racists.
But in the spirit of all of the freedom movements, that I tried to evoke at the beginning of my presentation, all of the freedom movements that have preceded us, let us vow never to forget the summer of 2020. It was only two-and-a-half years ago, and we’re already treating it like — yeah, like it’s a relic of history. It was two-and-a-half years ago when we were deep in the throes of the worst crisis most of us can remember, and we collectively experienced the police lynching, the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and all of the others that have been referred to. This occurred in the process of also recognizing that communities that were already subject to racism were the ones who were suffering most from the COVID pandemic — a new awareness of the structural racism within the healthcare system, within the privatized healthcare system, within the capitalist healthcare system. Actually, not so much a new awareness, but a collective attentiveness to an idea that activists, scholar-activists have been insisting on since the era of Radical Reconstruction in the aftermath of slavery.
And there have been those who have pointed out that racism is connected to capitalism, that capitalism is at its core racial capitalism, and not only here in the U.S. Capitalism was produced by colonialism and slavery. But, finally, it seemed, people seemed to get it. Racism does not emanate from the fact that white people don’t like Black people or Indigenous or Latinx or Asian people. It is produced and reproduced structurally, systemically, institutionally. And this was a kind of collective aha moment. And we should never forget that.
This is why more people poured out into the streets of this country than ever before in the history. This is why people joined the mobilizations. This is why more white people joined all of the mobilizations. And people were out in the streets, even though we did not yet know then how COVID was transmitted. Millions of people poured out into the streets at the risk of their own lives. Demonstrating this new awareness became more important than the lives of individuals — the most remarkable moment in our recent history, maybe even in the history of this country. And this is why DeSantis and others are excising examination of this movement from the school curriculum.
And so, the stage was set for us to attempt to accomplish what should have been done in the 19th century in the immediate aftermath of slavery. And it seemed that a good majority of people in this country, people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, seemed to realize this. To overlay the political context, all of this was happening during the presidency of the person whose name shall not be pronounced during our meeting this evening. Thus the counterrevolution. Thus the attack against critical race theory, which is a serious interdisciplinary field founded on the work of those who were attempting many years ago to understand the way structural racism expressed itself through the law.
So, those of you who are interested in history will be utterly struck by all of the parallels between the reaction to Radical Reconstruction, 1867 to 1877, and what we are currently witnessing. The police murder of Tyre Nichols in the very same city in which Dr. King was assassinated punctuates the message that racism is structural. Awareness of racism is not about making white children feel guilty. It is about recognizing the deep structures of racism in all of our institutions, regardless of who the individual perpetrators might be. It is a machine. It is a system. It is a culture that is produced and reproduced.
And now we know better how to initiate the process of ridding our world of racism. We know better than ever before. And I just have a few more words. I just — I want to say it involves standing up against heteropatriarchy. We know that it involves saying no to economic exploitation We know we cannot exclude any community that suffers from the effects of racism. And this includes Asian Americans. And this includes Arab Americans. This includes Palestinians. We know.
We know, finally, that we cannot struggle for human freedom without recognizing that we are all animals and that we must stand in support of our nonhuman coinhabitants of this planet. And thank you so much for the beautiful metaphor of the rabbit, the pattern of the rabbit escaping. But I think that we look at — we look at simple creatures like ants that are able to entirely transform a place and build these edifices, these architectural edifices, without at all harming the environment. I think we have much to learn from them, that it is possible to benefit from this Earth, even to transform it, without annihilating the very conditions of future life on this planet. Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Angela Davis, speaking at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, the site of the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, where Malcolm X was assassinated February 21st, 1965. Angela Davis was speaking on the 58th anniversary of his death this year. Malcolm was born 98 years ago today, May 19th, 1925. When we come back, we hear civil rights attorney Ben Crump, and then Malcolm X in his own words. Stay with us.