This book brings the indispensable voice of Malcolm X into our current political and social climate.
“A 'conversation' between Malcolm X and activists and organizers will enrich our ability to deal with the destabilized future of Black people in this country.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Michael Sawyer. Sawyer is Assistant Professor of Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies in the Department of English at Colorado College. His book is Black Minded: The Political Philosophy of Malcolm X.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Michael Sawyer: I write in Black Minded: The Political Philosophy of Malcolm X that “[w]hat seems to be important…is the notion that police brutality is distinct from policing. This means that the institution of policing has the possibility, when it functions properly, to provide protection rather than situating itself as a strictly coercive force. Malcolm X notes that the inseparability of the institution of policing from police brutality is a phenomenon that exists ‘[b]ecause our people in this particular society live in a police state.’”(58) As we examine the incidence of police brutality, protests surrounding it, and more police brutality in response to those protests, we begin to see the expansion of Malcolm X’s concern that the United States is a police state in our contemporary moment.
Malcolm X is perhaps the most articulate thinker with respect to the relationship between marginalized citizenship, police brutality, protest, and “violence” that are the kinetic issues of our moment. By carefully studying the philosophical thought of Malcolm X that I expose in the book we locate the foundation for forming political strategies to address the variety of problems that assail our society. Echoing the endorsement of the book by Prof. Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, it is clear “that meaningful Black activism is grounded in an underlying philosophy.” Malcolm X is preoccupied with three modes of justice: social, political, and economic. As we attempt to understand the future of Black life under conditions of plague and increased racism I hope this book brings the indispensable voice of Malcolm X into our current political and social climate.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Malcolm X is an iconic figure in the Black community and internationally for that matter. His life has long been exemplar of our highest ideals of selfless commitment to the humanity of Black people. In many ways we can argue that the notion of Black Lives Mattering is one that underpins everything Malcolm X did or said. As we think about activism and community organizing today we, in my opinion, have to pay careful attention to the history of both. When I say the “history” I just don’t mean biography or historical fact. What I mean to do with this book is to point to intellectual history or the history of thought. In this instance the History of Black Radical Thought that stretches back in uninterrupted fashion to Africa and forward to the on the ground, day-to-day work that our activists and community organizers engage in to deal with issues of police violence, economic justice, food insecurity, gun violence, domestic violence, and education. Malcolm X is an essential thinker in the long history of Black thought and so much of his thought process was related to his relationship to day-to-day life. I think that a “conversation” between Malcolm X and activists and organizers will enrich our ability to deal with the destabilized future of Black people in this country as we grapple with the variety of roadblocks to full citizenship. I think that Malcolm X’s thought is particularly important in dealing with mass incarceration and the struggles of the formerly incarcerated to reenter society, take care of themselves and stay out of prison. I think it will be important for activists and community organizers who work with families and individuals effected by the carceral state to pay close and careful attention to the manner in which Malcolm X thinks about the imperative for society to welcome and embrace the currently and formerly incarcerated and most importantly to interrupt the school to prison pipeline. I hope readers will garner a broader appreciation of Malcolm X as a thinker (philosopher) who gives us tools for moving through and beyond our contemporary problems.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Malcolm X is perhaps most famously (infamously) known as an advocate of violence. I believe that to be untrue and situate one of the central ambitions of the book to “un-learn” just that. His understanding of violence and non-violence is fairly complex but it is worth illuminating a few of the essential elements briefly here. First, he completely blurs the line between violence and non-violence because he proposes that even non-violent protest is perceived by systems of power as being violent in that it destabilizes established power. That is how he understands the violent treatment of non-violent people: systems of established power view any threat to their primacy as violent and treat them as such. I write the following in this book: “Malcolm X has been, reductively, understood to be a proponent of the employment of violence as an inevitable stage of a practical political project. If nothing else is accomplished with this book, I would hope that it would dismantle categorically that assertion and demonstrate that Malcolm X has expanded the definition of political violence in important and productive ways.” (114) Understanding all of this, Malcolm X is preoccupied with employing the discourse of human rights and the international courts to destabilize the US government’s structural mistreatment of Black people: a non-violent forum that will necessarily be perceived as violent and treated as the danger it poses to a system of government designed to marginalize Black citizenship.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
My work is indebted to a great many figures, some of them established thinkers and many of them from everyday people who I have encountered during my life. Obviously, and in many ways the point of this book, is to establish the important influence that the thinking of Malcolm X has had on my work. Not just in his example but also in influencing the manner in which I understood the world around me and other thinkers that I would encounter along the way. In the book I speak about the important intellectual bridge that Malcolm X represents between two other essential thinkers for my work, W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon. I believe that all three of these individuals, Malcolm, Du Bois, and Fanon, are in many ways the Mt Rushmore of Black Political Philosophy and Theory. My work is also greatly indebted to literature. The work of Toni Morrison is essential for me as well as that of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Herman Melville, Octavia Butler, John Edgar Wideman, Nathaniel Mackey and Zora Neale Hurston. Music is also a great influence on my work. Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughn, Pharoah Sanders, Stevie Wonder, and Curtis Mayfield are just a few of the artists that influence my thinking and ability to process the information that I encounter. Visual art is also a great influence as well as photography. Classic artists like Michelangelo and da Vinci have been a great influence on my work and contemporary artists like Emilio Cruz, Rashid Johnson and Wangechi Mutu are also important. Obviously, I have had great professors but the most important is the continued influence of Barrymore Anthony Bogues who was my dissertation chair at Brown University. Finally, there are dozens of contemporary scholars that influence my work. Fred Moten, Robin D.G. Kelley, Saidiya Hartman, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Catherine Malabou and Achille Mbembe are just a few of these thinkers.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Malcolm X is primarily concerned with creating a world that allows for the humanity of Black people (worldwide) to be the first thing we know about ourselves and to have that be the way in which we interact with all other social, political, economic, and cultural institutions. I can’t think of a better way to imagine a new world. When I mentioned earlier that Malcolm X serves as an important bridge between W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon it is much about this notion of a new world. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk understands America to be a world in which Black people cannot achieve a sense of self-consciousness. Fanon proposes that there is a necessity for a “new humanism” in both Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. Malcolm X takes elements of both of these systems of thinking about the world to assemble his own view of two things: a worldwide Black Consciousness and a Worldwide Black Revolution to achieve it. Malcolm X imagines, as I said at the opening of this paragraph, a particular type of humanity for Black people. This is important but he also understands a type of worldwide Black identity which is not a racial category but a category of humanity that is characterized by a struggle to achieve human rights wherever they find themselves on the planet.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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