Malcolm X: Make It Plain


malcol3Here are excerpts from the book Malcolm X: Make It Plain, an incomparable collection of quotes, photos, and commentary about the life and legacy of Malcolm X. The book is out of print, however used copies are available.

The book was produced along with the film (now on YouTube) Malcolm X: Make It Plain. Both are highly recommended for classroom use.

The excerpts below are reprinted with permission of the author and the film documentary co-producer Judy Richardson. 

By William Strickland

From the Introduction: Messenger Malcolm

From the very beginning of America’s history, racism has been its deepest shadow. More than any other force, race has divided the American people, subverted the country’s fullest potential, and mothballed our dreams. The wrongs committed in its name over four hundred years have been incalculable, destroying or damaging countless lives. But from the very beginning, America failed to acknowledge this deepest flow. . . Until Malcolm.

Photo credit: Library of Congress

Photo credit: Library of Congress

It was Malcolm who redefined the discourse on race in this country. He moved the discussion from notions of “prejudice” and “discrimination” and “civil rights” to racism. It was Malcolm who broadcast concepts like “community control” and “white power structure” (taking the blame out of the realm of the amorphous and popularizing a whole new vocabulary with which to help Blacks interpret and combat their condition). It was Malcolm who insisted that the problem was not civil rights but human rights. And it was Malcolm who made it clear that Blacks were victims of a system of domination and exploitation that was not regional but national, not superficial but structural, not episodic but ongoing and intentional. “Stop talking about the South,” he would say. “When you cross the Canadian border you’re in the ‘South’.”

Malcolm pulled the covers off the concealed dynamic of race and political reality in America. His unflinching critical comparison of what was, with what was supposed to be, is what gave Malcolm his moral authority. He would “tell it like it is.” And then ask: “Is that right or wrong?”

 From 1925 – 1940: The History That Made Malcolm

“Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the U.S.A., or know the reason why.”  – W.E.B. Du Bois, The Crisis, May 1919

Because of the tremendous power of Malcolm’s personality and his undeniable impact upon American thought and identity, we tend to think of him as being someone above history rather than someone who shaped and was shaped by it. Yet the Malcolm X we know is unimaginable apart from the family into which he was born and the parents who gave him life. He is unimaginable apart from the Garveyism to which his parents were committed and the Garveyism out of which the Nation of Islam sprang; and he is unimaginable apart from the American racism that radicalized him as it radicalized so many who have wrestled with being both Black and human in a persistently resistant America.

From 1964 – 1965: Fighting on Three Fronts

Much of the focus on Malcolm X’s last year has tended to be on his trip to Mecca, his conversion to “true Islam,” and his “change of heart” concerning white people. What is underappreciated is that Malcolm’s reaching out to nonracist whites was part of a general pattern of outreach and experimentation as he sought to heal wounds and forge alliances to be more effective in his struggle to reform American racial practices. Only the uneasy and the self-absorbed want to dwell exclusively on Malcolm’s “coming to his senses,” as though he now unconditionally forgave America its racial sins. But Malcolm was not into meaningless forgiveness. (Remember, he planned to take the United States before the United Nations to charge it with genocide.) Rather, Malcolm was seeking a rational way out of America’s racist maze. His zigs and zags simply conformed to the convolutions of The Problem.

What he deeply believed—answering a question once posed by the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus: Can a system condemn itself?—was that America would never willingly and peacefully change. He believed that Blacks, only by mustering whatever allies they could inside the country, and bolstered by African and Third World allies outside the country, could pry freedom and equality out of the racist closet into which they had been so long sequestered. But before he could get to that stage, Malcolm had to get his own political-religious house in order.

From the Epilogue: The Man Who Almost Changed America

Malcolm’s lasting contribution to the struggle of Black people—and to the possible rescue of America—is his analysis of the destructive power of American racism. Malcolm did not live long enough to change America himself, but his analysis of racism gave Black folks the cultural and intellectual keys to re-create ourselves and redefine America. His critique was vital, because it demystified white America and the white West, puncturing their historical claims, and wrenching lose their monopolistic hold on the idea and personhood of “humanity”.

Before Malcolm, we knew we were not free, but we had an inferiority complex. We conked our hair, used bleaching creams on our skin, wore stocking caps to make our hair lie flat. But Malcolm asked us, “Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race you belong to so much so that you don’t want to be around each other?. . . You should ask yourself, ‘Who taught you to hate being what God gave you?’” Those questions liberated our spirit and reincluded us in the family of humankind.

Malcolm then liberated our minds by ruthlessly dissecting America. On the police: “We live in a police state.” On integration: “They don’t want you. Why, as soon as you move in, they’re there for awhile, and then they’re gone, and you’re left there all by yourself.” On the law: “It doesn’t protect you, doesn’t work for you and is not enforced.” On white liberals: “They only want to control you.” And on government: “We can see that it is nothing but a governmental conspiracy to continue to deprive the Black people in this country of their rights. And the only way we will get these rights restored is by taking it out of Uncle Sam’s hands. Take him to court and charge him with genocide, the mass murder of millions of Black people in this country—political murder, economic murder, social murder, mental murder.”

Those accusations are why America has called Malcolm a “hater.” But that is vintage tricknology, as Malcolm used to phrase it. For, then and now, America has never said that what Malcolm said was untrue.

Malcolm’s legacy, therefore, is that he discerned the hidden meaning behind America’s racial posture, the private interests beneath the public words. Like Prometheus, Malcolm stole the flame of secret knowledge and set America on fire.

Credit: Directed by Orlando Bagwell. Distributed by PBS, 1994. 150 min.

About the Author

William Strickland taught political science in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he was also the director of the Du Bois Papers Collection. Strickland is a founding member of the Institute of the Black World. Strickland was a consultant to both series of Eyes on the Prize and the senior consultant on the PBS documentary, Malcolm X: Make It Plain. He also wrote the companion book with co-editor Cheryll Y. Greene.

Additional Resources

The Zinn Education Project provides a list of books, films, and articles for teachers and students on the life and legacy of Malcolm X.