Alex Haley’s, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, contains one of the great character arcs of 20th-century Western Literature. The story is well known. Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, undergoes several radical transformations throughout his unfortunately brief life. From gifted but oppressed young student, to con artist and street tough, then prison, self-education and The Nation of Islam, on to his renunciation of Elija Muhammad and conversion to Sunni Islam, and near the end of his life, a turn to internationalism and a belief in the possibility of racial integration–Malcolm’s stance on racial integration in the United States, however, is well-contested amongst scholars. The narrative was intentionally crafted by Haley to maintain tension, the kind of tension any good story must have. It’s a great read, and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. What I’m after today, though, is something other than the narrative virtues and unavoidable complexities of representing a historical person using fictional devices. It’s something Malcolm X said about being black in America.
“You see, most whites never feel that Negroes can contribute anything to other areas of thought, and ideas. You just notice how rarely you will ever hear whites asking any Negroes what they think about the problem of world health, or the space race to land men on the moon.” Malcolm X had a voracious intellect whose appetite extended beyond racial fare; he had opinions about anthropology and economics and science. He thought, for example, for reasons that were not altogether ridiculous, that Shakespeare was the nom de plume of King James. Granted, it’s a weird, historically unfounded idea, but it illustrates an important point: not only did Malcolm X’s interests extend beyond race and racism, those ideas were sometimes entirely disconnected from those theories, as in not related at all, as in we could erase entirely his theory on Shakespeare and it would not touch his analysis of the deep roots of racism in America, about the incomprehensible tragedy that was the slave trade, 12 million murdered, give or take the entire population of Houston, TX. Malcolm was right about the institutional support for racism in America, and he was right about America’s spiritual poverty, and his verity in those matters had absolutely zero to do with his race–that is, other than the fuel for its pursuit.
My point is a simple one, and one that is so obvious I would be embarrassed to make it if it wasn’t so eagerly forgotten: a man or woman can hold unrelated or even countervailing ideas and beliefs. Those ideas and beliefs may be at odds with one another, or alternately, may be so differentiated that they could not effectively reproduce even when drunk. The same is true for a culture. I suspect, by the way, that this is what produced so many barely coherent philosophical offspring in the 20th century. The forced copulation of Freud and Marx, two formulations of the human so incompatible that it is no wonder the Frankfurt school wrote prose not even a mother could love–except for Walter Benjamin, who was only a distant cousin–and why the French spent so much of their genius nursing ideas that couldn’t survive outside of an incubator. Of course, as with all generalizations, there is a long list of exceptions. Exceptions like Jacques Derrida, who lamented that terminology he meant to apply to specific works, différance, for example, became the secret handshake to the snobbiest clique in the world–the English graduate student. And exceptions like Michel Foucault who, at the end of his life, abandoned his earlier works in order to explore without irony the “arts of living”–although anyone reading, The Care of the Self, might best accomplish the title by not. It may seem like a digression, but hopefully to some effect: generalizations are useful until they’re not. The marriage of ideas is healthy until it isn’t. The cultural wars that have raged in the humanities for the last sixty or so years and have spilled over into popular culture, made casualties of the good ideas and the bad ones. It assassinated some great writers because they were fantastic pricks–like Hemingway–and it decorated some mediocre ones because they weren’t.
Don’t get me wrong, it was right to infiltrate the historical apparatus that supported primarily white and primarily male artists and thinkers; it was right to expose that apparatus, rally against that apparatus, sabotage it, blow it all to hell, but it was a mistake to dismantle the best of it’s productions: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. In fact, the dismantling of those concepts has been so effective that I blush to write them. My mental monologue is running over with “buts,” and “howevers”; my fingers want to tap out an, “I don’t mean that…” But here’s the thing: I do mean that. I mean that it was a mistake. I mean that instead of post-modernizing our ethics, we should have been expanding it. We should have been broadening our epistemology, not narrowing it. We should have applauded Beauty’s flexibility, her ability to pull off any look, rather than excoriating her on page six. It isn’t that truth is an illusion; it’s just impossible to encapsulate. Too large to corral. But that doesn’t mean you stop trying. Intellectually, we retreated when we should have surrendered–surrendered to more, to different, to integration without assimilation, to universality without banality.
Malcolm X loved when reporters asked him about subjects that had nothing to do with race relations, because he wasn’t just his race, his socio-economic status or his gender. Yes, dead white males got a lot of stuff wrong, including the desire to make everyone dead that wasn’t a white male, but the search for universals, or if you like, unities, wasn’t one of them.