Either Remove Both Confederate & Malcolm X Memorials or Remove Neither
Intro: The Current Fight Over Confederate Monuments
There has been a renewed push over the last several years to abolish Confederate monuments. This has had some success, but also some pushback. This week a monument celebrating the abolition of slavery was erected in Virginia, just two weeks after a monument of Confederate hero Robert E. Lee was removed. Also this week, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled to uphold a law banning the removal of Confederate monuments.
Black Americans are the strongest advocates for removal, while white Southerners are the strongest advocates for preservation. This is not surprising, given the history, but the two sides of this issue do not always line up so neatly. Some white Southerners support removal, and some black Southerners are strong defenders of Confederate heritage. Last year in Alabama, Daniel Sims, a black man adopted & raised by a family of white Sons of Confederate Veterans, appeared on his local television news as a strong advocate for the preservation of his local Confederate monuments, on the grounds of preserving familial and cultural heritage:
“It may make my blood boil if they feel like they can just come up here and tear it down. I don’t see me still livin’ if they do that right there. That monument ain’t hurtin’ nobody… it ain’t even racist.”
Sims is not unique. HK Edgerton of North Carolina is another self-proclaimed ‘black confederate activist’, who argues that Southerners, both black and white, fought to defend their homeland from the ‘aggression’, ‘rape’, & ‘carnage’ of the invading Union Army. In Edgerton’s words:
“To equate any of our monuments as racist, as Jim Crow monuments, is a lie. Is a continuation of the one-sided propaganda perpetrated by folks from the North.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, & Malcolm X’s Slave Narrative
Despite the fascinating cases of these two ‘black confederate activists’, on the national level, black activists overall tend to be antagonistic to Confederate monuments, and seek their removal. While I am certainly not a ‘confederate activist’, I regard the fury of black activists over this matter as overblown and misguided. Confederate monuments represent a good opportunity for effective dialogue between black Americans & white Southerners. This is something that is desperately needed, but does not jive with the trending state of black establishment politics nor culture today.
I argue this because ante-bellum and Civil War narratives created by black intellectuals seem to grow more angry and vindictive the further removed we are from these historical periods. For example, the two most famous slave narratives of the past, written by men who actually lived through slavery, Frederick Douglass & Booker T. Washington, were intentionally written without a trace of such negative sentiments, which in my opinion, made these remarkable men appear even more noble in their character & temperament.
In contrast, the narratives we see from people like Ta-Nehisi Coates or Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the 1619 Project, are steeped in bitterness, vindictiveness, and anger. Why would people who are so far away from slavery in time and place be more angry & bitter in their accounts than two men who actually endured these hardships? There is something arbitrary in all of this. While Coates & Hannah-Jones claim to simply be forcing America to ‘honestly face its past’, or to write history from the POV of the so-called ‘black gaze’, this is misleading. The ‘slave narratives’ of Coates & Hannah-Jones in fact are constructed to depict the country with contempt & create alienation in the reader.
The interpretation of these seminal periods in our history deeply reflects the political & cultural agenda of the author. In the case of Coates & Hannah-Jones, this is a cultural politics with deep roots not only in the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 70s, but also the religious movement of Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam.
The so-called Autobiography of Malcolm X is in fact a biography written in the form of a first person narrative by journalist, Alex Haley (author of Roots). Haley wrote this book as a new slave narrative for blacks of the urban Northern ghettos, to replace the old slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, which began with slave life on the Southern Plantation. In Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm Little’s ‘modern slave narrative’ begins with his criminal days in the Northern ghetto and prison. Douglass & Washington’s slave narratives were written at a time when the rural South was still the undisputed locus of black American life. Haley changes the focus to the urban ghettos of the North.
Malcolm X is the central character in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work, the ‘model black man’, and ultimately, the greatest ‘black American prophet’ in Coates’ eyes. Coates mentally prepared for his interviews with President Obama by listening to audio recordings of Malcolm X’s speeches. This put him in the ‘right frame of mind’. It prepared him for intellectual and political battle. In Coates’ own words, when he was growing up, Malcolm X represented to him and his family what Jesus Christ represented to a Christian household. Malcolm X was (is) Coates’ black Messiah. This is significant, since Coates undoubtedly is the preeminent black writer of his generation. Consequently, Malcolm X is the preeminent ‘prophet’ of the ‘new black liberation’ movement that Coates so ably represents.
The Real Malcolm X
Today, Malcolm X is frequently described as a Civil Rights Leader or ‘political activist’, but this is inaccurate and deeply misleading. Malcolm X’s work, from the time he left prison (modern slave plantation), was almost wholly consumed with building up the so-called ‘Nation of Islam’ (NOI). This black religious cult, led by Elijah Muhammad, was in principle dedicated to ‘black secession’ from the Union, and the establishment of a separate ‘black state’ in North America, within the borders of the continental United States. This was (is) a kind of black Confederate Movement, and it is likely that Elijah Muhammad, born a black Southerner, was in fact inspired by the Southern Confederate Movement that we associate with the Civil War.
Malcolm X was a tremendously effective organizer and proselytizer for Muhammad’s movement. What were the keys to his success?
In one sense, Malcolm X was a kind of black George Wallace. Before he was successfully elected in 1960 to be Governor of Alabama, George Wallace ran and lost the 1958 election to a known member of the Ku Klux Klan. At that time, Wallace was known as a ‘relative moderate’ on the ‘race question’. But after his defeat in 1958, Wallace swore to himself that he would ‘never be out-Niggered again’. Wallace was true to his word.
Similarly, one of the keys to Malcolm X’s success as an organizer & proselytizer was that nobody could ‘out-Honkey’ Malcolm X. Think George Jefferson. To this day, nobody talked smack about white people so eloquently and effectively as Malcolm X. Nobody could as eloquently nor effectively depict white Americans with contempt as Malcolm X did. Many black American loved him for that then, and still do to this day.
Being the lead organizer and spokesperson for a black secessionist movement, like the NOI, Malcolm X’s success depended on his ability to exploit and/or create alienation in his black initiates. A successful secessionist movement requires wholesale alienation from the establishment, from the Union. This begins with Elijah Muhammad’s theology:
The white man is the devil incarnate.
According to Elijah Muhammad, and this is the doctrine that Malcolm X preached for most of his adult life, white people are not only evil by their very nature, but also irredeemable. Moreover, they are usurpers. The earth belongs to the Blackman (one word in Muhammad’s teaching), and everything in it or on it is the Blackman’s possession by divine right. The fact that the white man currently controls the world is a consequence of a vast and diabolical race replacement conspiracy thought up by and carried out by diabolical Jews. The original man is the Blackman, but thousands of years ago, evil Jewish scientists created white people in a laboratory, breeding them from the Original Blackman.
The so-called ‘American Dream’ must be depicted as the ‘Blackman’s nightmare’. If America is the ‘white man’s paradise’, it must be represented also as the ‘Blackman’s hell’. All hope of reconciling with white people and achieving the American Dream must be purged from the minds of blacks, in order to create wholsesale black alienation, so that they will accept the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, and join his religious movement.
In fact, Malcolm X’s famous ‘parable’ of the ‘house slave’ and ‘field slave’ is an argument for ‘black secession’. The house slave, depicted with utter contempt as an Uncle Tom, represents people like Martin Luther King, who want to help blacks achieve The American Dream. They don’t want to secede from the Union, but instead to integrate. The ‘field slave’, depicted with reverence, represents blacks who want to run away or secede from the Union and form their own nation-state. These are the followers of Elijah Muhammad.
Either Remove Both Confederate & Malcolm X Memorials or Remove Neither
This is why I argue that if one advocates for the removal of all Confederate Monuments in principle, then one must also advocate the removal of all monuments dedicated to Malcolm X. I regard the rise of Malcolm X as the so-called ‘great black prophet ‘, as promoted by people like Ta-Nehisi Coates, as one of the most frightening indicators of the coming of a second American Civil War.
The strongest argument for removing Confederate monuments is that they celebrate an act of treachery, arguably the greatest act of treachery in the history of the United States. That it is in fact dangerous to celebrate these Confederate icons, because it might encourage another similar act. These monuments depict the Southern Confederacy of the Civil War era romantically. Instead, Confederate secession should be depicted with contempt.
But on this basis, Malcolm X’s monuments should similarly be removed, like ‘Malcolm X Park’ in Philadelphia, Boston, & Washington D. C., because he also romanticizes treacherous secession, and depicts those blacks who wish to remain in the Union with contempt. There is a strong kinship between black nationalism and white Southern nationalism. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ romantic feelings for the memory of Malcolm X has a strong kinship to the romantic feelings that a Son of Confederate Veterans might have for the memory of General Robert E. Lee. The romantic depiction of Malcolm X in a movie like Spike Lee’s biographical and eponymously titled film, or the romantic depiction of the Black Panther Party in the more recent film, Judas and the Black Messiah, has a strong kinship to the romantic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan in DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.
In the end, we should have room for either Malcolm X and Confederate heritage, or get rid of both. It is hypocritical for blacks to celebrate figures such as Malcolm X or the Black Panther Party, and demand that white Southerners not celebrate their Confederate heritage. This requires coercion and breeds resentment, and is likely not even a realistic goal.
The idea that one could wholly purge the white Southerner’s romantic attachment to the Confederacy or black people’s romantic attachment to Malcolm X strikes me as unrealistic. Moreover, it may be undesirable to try, since both the figures of Malcolm X and General Lee are an important part of the history of these two peoples. They are important for understanding who they are. To try and purge their memories would not work and would only create deep resentment and alienation.
Instead, I recommend containment and mutual respect. These legacies must be learned from, but they should also be contained, by de-romanticizing them. Here, I have tried to contribute to containing Malcolm X’s legacy by de-romanticizing it. De-mystifying it of the romantic character in which many blacks are taught to think about Malcolm X by black influencers, like Ta-Nehisi Coates. There is no way to fully rid this country of Malcolm X’s legacy. He resonates too strongly with too many black Americans, especially of my generation and younger. But it is very important to de-romanticize & demystify Malcolm X, and not allow this romantic view to prevail.
Aristarchus Patrinos; September 24, 2021; ~ 2000 words