One of the most revealing aspects of the rich life of Malcolm X, the African-American nationalist leader murdered 46 years ago, is his relationship to the African continent. Unlike many African-American nationalists, Malcolm didn’t invariably view Africa as the “motherland.” His embrace of the peculiar Nation of Islam meant that he didn’t reflexively even consider black Americans as having originated in Africa but rather, according to the wacky and weird cosmology of Elijah Muhammad, saw Asia as the original source of African-Americans (specifically, the Nation of Islam insisted, irrationally, that black Americans were descendants of a lost Shabazz tribe originating in the Middle East) . Only when Malcolm visited the African continent twice in 1964 did he grasp the organic and durable connection between black Americans and African soil.
The late Manning Marable, in his fascinating new biography, closely chronicles Malcolm’s revelatory visits in 1964 to Egypt, Ghana and Nigeria as well as his travels to Mecca and the Saudi Arabian peninsula, the historical home of Islam. A full year before his travels Malcolm displayed a new appreciation for the anti-colonial struggles in Africa and the relationship between colonial racism and the awful Jim Crow segregation system in the U.S. In early 1963, Malcolm said, “The man that you call Negro is nothing but an African himself. The unity of Africans abroad and the unity of Africans here in this country can bring about any kind of achievement that black people want.”
Of Malcolm’s two visits to Africa, Marable views the second as decisive. During this longer sojourn, which came in the last year of his life, Malcolm “experienced the fullness and profundity of his own African heritage,” Marable writes. The trip “immersed him in a broad-based Pan Africanism that cash into relief his role as a black citizen of the world.”
The galvanizng effect on Malcolm of the African independence era was no exception. As I have written elsewhere, much of the moral force and international appeal of the civil rights movement in the U.S. arose from forces unleashed by Cold War competition between the Soviet Union and the U.S. From the independence of Ghana in March 1957 — a milestone of vast significance that drew Martin Luther King Jr. (and Richard Nixon) to West Africa for the first time — to Malcolm’s own celebrated “conversion” to racial tolerance in a pan-racial African Islam, the de-colonialization of Africans and the drive to end legal segregation in the U.S. fueled one another, reflecting the reality that the struggle against racism was, at its core, both global and existential.
Malcolm’s relationship with Africa remains frozen in time — an artifact the turbulent mid-1960s. His murder robbed him of the chance to deepen his appreciation for both the diversity within the African continent and the sometimes rather striking differences between African-Americans in the U.S. and Africans at home. In Marable’s necessary new account of Malcolm’s “life of reinvention,” Africa itself is reinvented in the American imaginary, deconstructed and then reconstructed in a manner that testifies to the powerful hold that the African continent still exerts on the body and soul of the American.