Malcolm X on being American

Jaylon Williams found this piece and thought it would make an interesting discussion about notions of race, politics, nationalism, and war. As many of us already know, Muhammad Ali lost his title belts and went to jail because he refused to fight in the Vietnam War. I have spoken to a number of black folks who too stated that they would have done the same thing Ali did. The general response I have heard is why fight for America during a time when black folks were so highly discriminated against. With Obama leading a number of polls in his race to win the Democratic primary, Jaylon asked me if I thought American blacks were now being permitted to assimilate into mainstream American culture? Malcolm X spent a lot of time with Ali as both wrestled with this. With Obama appealing to so many people of different races, I ask the question: Have we as Americans moved beyond the problem or race?

As people march today for immigrants rights, it’s worth remembering Malcolm X’s ideas about black citizenship. Here’s an excerpt from Malcolm’s famous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, delivered in 1964.

I’m not a Democrat, I’m not a Republican, and I don’t even consider myself an American. If you and I were Americans, there’d be no problem…Everything that came out of Europe, every blue-eved thing, is already an American. And as long as you and I have been over here, we aren’t Americans yet.

Well, I am one who doesn’t believe in deluding myself. I’m not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner, unless you eat some of what’s on that plate. Being here in America doesn’t make you an American. Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American.


20 thoughts on “Malcolm X on being American

  1. There are a couple of questions that must be asked here: one, how do we define American culture, and two, and this one may get me into some trouble, but none of you know where I live so I’m going to go ahead and say it, do black people (or am I, as a white person, supposed to call them African Americans? I get confused about that since no one ever calls me an Irish American) actually want to assimilate into that culture? I am definitely not trying to be rude here; I assure you that you would know if I were, but a great deal of answering this question comes from defining our culture in general, and then asking if black people, or for that matter white people or aisian people or native americans, want to be assimilated?

  2. I think this country has come a long way since Malcolm X spoke those words. In 1964 I could see why he and many others would feel disenfranchised with citizenship. Forty years later, “African-Americans” are much closer to just being “Americans”. Citizens with black skin hold more political offices now than ever before, higher offices than ever before (Secretary of States Powell and Rice), and a sharp increase in Presidential candidacies (Jackson, Sharpton, Braun, Keyes, Obama).

    Have we moved beyond the problem of race? Probably not entirely, but when a black man is leading the early polls in a major party’s primary I would say progress has been made.

    I would respectfully disagree with Malcolm X on the last quotation. Being born in America DOES make you an American, even if you are not treated like one. Obama’s success is due, in part, to the efforts of men before him who asked and demanded the rights and equality they were promised. Again, I understand why Malcom X would be pessimistic in the days he spoke those words, and it certainly wasn’t fair to have to fight for equal citizenship in the first place. However, I would hope that if he were alive today he would concede that progress has been made.

    America is definitely ready for a black President. Both major parties have seriously considered black candidates for President, though Obama is the first to have that “package” of charisma, looks, and ideology that has convinced people he can win. If he’s too liberal for the general election remains to be seen, but that’s a debate over his policies and not his skin color. 🙂

  3. I see what you are saying Kristi, and I’ve wondered the same thing. I don’t think one culture will erase the other, but over time the line will blur between the two—probably whether the the various cultures want to or not.

    That reminds me… a few of my kids’ Sesame Street DVDs are going hard to the hoop in order to indoctrin…er…teach kids about Kwanzaa. For the unfamiliar, this holiday was created in 1966 as an African American alternative to Christmas. I had never heard of Kwanzaa before Elmo got me up to speed. I find that kind of manufactured culture to be a little disingenuous and more than a little reactionary. Both cultures have a lot to bring to the table without making stuff up to make sure their side is represented. Let our two cultures cherry-pick the best stuff and improve together.

  4. Matt S,

    I see things such as Kwanzaa as important for all people to understand? Whay have it? Why does it exist? Some would say it keeps blacks from assimilating, I see it as an example of understanding difference.

    “would respectfully disagree with Malcolm X on the last quotation. Being born in America DOES make you an American”

    I think that has changed of late, but not during his time. The great thing about X is the fact that he understood the role his Islamic faith played later. He denounced the hate of the Nation of Islam and said that it went against the teachings. He still could not understand how White Christians could love their God so much that many would practice hate through their actions and teachings of young people.

  5. A recent article I read from the Journal of the American Hisitorical Review is now saying that the proper name at lest for academics is American Indians. It is more linked to the association of the expansion of America and nationalism (I think).

    I am not too high on the term African American. Althogh, I tend to refer to Asians as Asian Americans. I probably should stop. I have never been to Africa nor have a number of Asian. So, you call blacks black Americans. What about other groups? Some blacks do not like the term “black.” This is a tricky issue.

  6. I think blacks have assimilated. There music, style and culture is really part of everyday life. Racism exist but it has gotten much better.

  7. Wow. I didn’t get near the death threats I thought I would. I’m glad to see that people are significantly more open minded and intelligent than I thought.

  8. Your point is so very good Kristi. For some reason people think that all liberals are or should be politically correct. Although most see the term African American as PC — I see it as being a little misguided. I am all for cultural assimilation. The challenge for many blacks is doing this without losing an identity with your race. Why do we call blacks an Uncle Tom because they communicate well (see future blog on this)? Assimilation does not mean that a black person is “acting” white — that is foolish.

  9. I think that Malcolm X was just being pragmatic with his discription of the dynamics of his time. I think this is really shown well in his autobiography. He is very upfront aboutthe defacto nature of race relations in his work and doesn’t really care for technical status. I think that things have gotten better but I don’t think that it will ever be gone as long as there is still ignorance.

  10. Well, Alejandro, if you have a feasible plan for ridding the world of ignorance that we can actually implement without genocide or a massive incarceration, you should start running for public office right now.

  11. I got it. I am moving to my own island and I am banning stupid people who are racist, sexist, homophobic, and pro Yankees.

  12. Hahahaha! I like that idea Jen, there’s just one problem; the only islands you could call your own are desert isles in the Pacific. The kind with no source of fresh water that would be required to grow crops, sustain livestock, etc.

    “A recent article I read from the Journal of the American Hisitorical Review is now saying that the proper name at lest for academics is American Indians. ”

    Personally, I consider this stupid. I am 1/16 Cherokee (and darn proud of it too), so I include myself (to an extent) in this group since I read somewhere that 1/32 is the limit at which you are no longer considered Native American. Thus said, I have a problem with this. Firstly, WE were here first, the europeans FORCED us to leave. Secondly, we are NOT from India, thus we are NOT Indians. And lastly, seeing as this is an issue regarding us, WE should be the ones deciding what WE want to be called; especially after all the crap WE took from “native” americans for several centuries.

    And if you don’t think 1/16 Cherokee is enough for me to associate myself with them; just change all the “we” and “us”‘s to “they,” because whether or not I am associated with Native Americans I STILL feel the same way.

    Okay, I’m done ^_^

  13. The island idea sounds nice as long as its tropical with nice beaches I’m in and I wouldn’t even mind cheering for A Rod.
    I’m still working on the details but the the working title is called increased education spending. I have to wait until I’m 25 to run for congress but don’t worry i’m getting my contributers lined up while I wait.

  14. I thought you were a republican Alejandro. I was under the impression that it was the evil liberals like me who wanted to increase spending on things. I’m al ittle bewildered.

  15. I am an evil liberal too. Really, how many very academic educators are you going to find that is conservative? Not me. I love being smart and evil. I think we all got Malcolm X wrong. He was not that different from MLK Jr. They both wanted the samething.

  16. I don’t think that they wanted the same thing, they both wanted more black rights. For many years X campaigned militantly for black seperatism. They may have had similar objectives near the end of his life at around 1965 but MLK always promoted a non-violent solution and integration. I still think he was very perceptive of the issues.

    I am a republican but that doesn’t mean I neccesarily tow the party line. I like to think of myself as fairly moderate. I don’t mind spending as long as its countercyclical and not frivolous like pork. I am also for a strong dollar.

  17. I am an African American, Negro or Black is just my skin color, Racism still exist, it just has changed since Malcolm X was alive, Malcolm X was right, I dont feel American. If you express you Black Experience, whites get angry. Today, schools in America is just as prominant as it was when he was alive. I am 26, whites dont mess with blacks. America culture is anti black(african). I feel more African than American. To be American you have to be of European ancestory. If I was American it would be no ghetto, no need or affirmative action.

  18. Pingback: Top Posts « The Professor

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