Malcolmania: The Cultural Rebirth Of Malcolm X As Pop Icon

Bachelor Thesis, 2004

49 Pages, Grade: 1,15



1 Introduction
1.1 Methodology
1.2 History, Voice and Identity

2 Malcolm in the 1950s and 1960s
2.1 Political & Socio-Economic Conditions of Blacks
2.2 Malcolm’s Life in Three Stages
2.3 Reception and Meaning of Malcolm X

3 Malcolm in the 1990s
3.1 Malcolm in Film: Spike Lee’s Malcolm X
3.1.1 Portrayal of Malcolm in the Film
3.1.2 Commercializing and Merchandising Malcolm X
3.1.3 Spike Lee’s Audience
3.2 Malcolm in Music
3.2.1 Afro-American Oral Traditions in Malcolm’s Rhetoric & Rap
3.2.2 Development of Rap Linked to Malcolm X
3.2.3 Malcolm’s Meaning in Rap

4 Conclusion
4.1 What Malcolmania Did to Malcolm’s Legacy
4.2 Integrational and Separational Aspects of Malcolmania
4.3 The Gains and Losses of Malcolmania for the Black Community

5 Selected Bibliography

6 Discography

7 Filmography

1 Introduction

In recent years “Malcolm X” – pop culture icon, posthumous superstar – has pervaded all popular domains. His image, logo (X), and his writings appear everywhere in the world of clothing and fashion, [...] in rap samplings, and recordings of his speeches. (Zarzycka, 165)

More than a quarter of a century after Malcolm’s death and two decades of merely academic treatment focused on the literary value of his autobiography,[1] the film, fashion, and music industry brought Malcolm back on the national stage. With the rising popularity of rap in the late 1980s, many rappers quoting Malcolm X reached a growing African-American audience. Soon after black film-maker Spike Lee had launched his merchandising campaign advertising his movie biography on Malcolm X, an increasing number of young urban blacks sported Lee’s X-hats and X-shirts. When Lee released Malcolm X in 1992, he reached millions of young blacks across the United States, and thus helped to turn the developing Malcolm X cult into a nationwide Malcolm X craze: Malcolmania.[2]

The entertainment and fashion industry not only boosted Malcolm’s posthumous popularity, but also turned his legacy into a commodity – an item to buy and to consume. Spike Lee and numerous rappers sold their interpretations of Malcolm’s legacy to mass audiences. Although artists interpreted Malcolm in different and sometimes contradictive ways, they faced the common challenge to position Malcolm in the context of the 1990s in order to allow their mostly young audiences to connect to a man who was born in the 1920s. Consequently, the recontextualization and commercialization of Malcolm’s legacy led to an altered reception and meaning of the historical figure Malcolm X.

Cultural critics claim that Malcolmania transformed the radical leader of the 1960s into an easily accessible icon, a hero for the masses. Critics such as Adolph Reed, Jr. or Amiri Baraka condemn Malcolmania because they expect popular artists’ allegedly shallow interpretations of Malcolm’s legacy to distort the radical and complex meaning Malcolm had in the 1960s. In this study, I want to get away from the idea that a historical figure has or should have one fixed meaning that has to be preserved for all times. I assume that Malcolmania changed the reception and meaning of the historical figure Malcolm X, as history is a discourse relative to the social, political, and conceptual context of the interpreter (Campbell, 6).

I am interested in the reasons for, the mechanics, and the consequences of Malcolmania. I want to explore why black youths in the 1990s were overly receptive for the entertainment and fashion industry’s repackaging of Malcolm X. I will study how the fashion industry, Spike Lee, and rappers interpreted and portrayed Malcolm in popular culture. Finally, I want to analyze how these interpretations influenced the reception and meaning of the historical figure Malcolm X in the 1990s.

Since Malcolmania draws on Malcolm’s reception and meaning in the 1960s, both the reasons for Malcolmania and the altered meaning of Malcolm X in the 1990s can only be studied in the light of the 1960s. Thus, chapter 2 will first explore the political and socio-economic conditions of the 1950s and 1960s, second analyze the three major stages in Malcolm’s life, and third examine how Malcolm’s messages were received by both black and white Americans. Once I have identified Malcolm’s reception and meaning in the 1960s, I will be able to point out the reasons for Malcolm’s cultural rebirth by looking at the connections between what Malcolm meant in the 1960s and what African-American youths want to hear in the 1990s.

In chapter 3, I will analyze how fashion, film, and rap portrayed Malcolm, and how each portrayal had a different effect on the reception and meaning of Malcolm’s legacy in the 1990s. The interpretation of Malcolm’s legacy is particularly wide open as he held vastly different opinions during his lifetime. Malcolm’s reception thus depends heavily on how Spike Lee and rappers interpret and represent him in fashion, film, and music. Consequently, chapter 3.1 will analyze Spike Lee’s Malcolm X; chapter 3.2 will examine Malcolm’s appearance in rap music. In chapter 3.1, I will describe the way Lee portrayed his protagonist, study Lee’s merchandising of Malcolm, and look at the audience he courted to. Chapter 3.2 will explore the connection of Malcolm and rap to oral African-American traditions such as talking back or signifying, discuss the link between the development of rap and Malcolm, and illustrate the reception of Malcolm by rappers such as Ice Cube.

In the conclusion, I will summarize what Malcolmania did to Malcolm’s legacy, point out Malcolmania’s integrational and separational aspects in regard to American society, and examine the gains and losses of Malcolm’s commercialization for the black community.

1.1 Methodology

Up to this point, I have outlined the aspects of Malcolm’s legacy that I am interested in and the order in which I will proceed to investigate these aspects. In the following, I will describe the underlying method of my investigation: a Cultural Studies approach. Cultural Studies is a relatively young movement in literary theory that has developed into one of the most influential areas of literary studies in the 1990s (Klarer, 96). In order to set my approach in context to other movements in literary theory, I will sketch two methodological alternatives: biographical criticism and Semiotics.

In the nineteenth century, biographical criticism developed into a dominant movement that “established a direct link between the literary text and the biography of the author” (Klarer, 90). Applied to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, this author-oriented approach would compare the text’s literary elements to events, dates, and facts in Malcolm’s life. As we know today that the Autobiography includes facts as well as fiction, an author-centered approach would yield interesting results about Malcolm’s reasons for stylizing his life story.

In contrast to biographical criticism, Semiotics, one of the most recent trends in literary theory, focuses on the internal textual aspects of a literary work and excludes any information about the author (Klarer, 79). This text-oriented approach views literary texts as systems of signs.[3] As Semiotics extends the term text to non-literary sign-systems, it allows a student of Malcolm X to turn away from focusing on the Autobiography. The analysis of the appearance of Malcolm’s logo X in the world of fashion[4] would be an example for a study of a non-literary sign-system. Semiotics, however, deliberately excludes extra-textual information about audiences, historical, social, or political conditions (Klarer, 79).

Since I am interested in how the meaning of the historical figure Malcolm X has changed in relation to different historical, social, and political conditions as well as in relation to products of so-called low culture such as rap and movies, I need a different methodological approach.

In contrast to Semiotics, which is equally interested in non-literary phenomena from a text-oriented, structuralist approach, Cultural Studies adopts a comprehensive perspective, which attempts to grasp culture’s multi-faceted nature. (Klarer, 96)

The roots of Cultural Studies are to be found at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham. In 1964, Richard Hoggart started the center with a ground-breaking program dealing with the interdisciplinary study of class, culture, and communication. The Birmingham center positioned the emerging field between the humanities and the social sciences and became world-famous under the direction of Hoggart’s successor, Stuart Hall. Hall breaks with the convention that popular culture is inferior to high culture[5] and asserts that both cultures can produce valuable cultural products (Storey 2001, 52). Applied to this study, a comprehensive perspective on culture should enable me to examine fashion trends, a Hollywood movie, and rap songs featuring Malcolm X with a focus on race, as these products of popular culture not only triggered but shaped Malcolmania. The comprehensive perspective adopted by Cultural Studies questioned and shifted traditional attitudes toward culture and led to a wider definition of the word. Instead of focusing entirely on high culture, Cultural Studies is therefore also interested in the different aspects of human self-expression, including the visual arts, film, TV, commercials, fashion, architecture, music, popular culture, etc. as manifestations of a cultural whole. This evidently context-oriented approach considers literature as an important, but not the only manifestation of larger cultural mechanisms. (Klarer, 96)

Popular culture and mass culture, the latter relying on mass media for its dissemination, have been referred to in the past as low culture. Since cultural critics broadened the idea of culture to an extent in which every aspect of human expression seemed to qualify for literary analysis, there was a need to redefine the concepts of culture and text. I favor a definition suggested by Cultural Studies critic Tony Thwaites and American Studies critic Neil Campbell, as it is both simple and compelling:

culture is ‘the ensemble of social processes by which meanings are produced, circulated and exchanged’ and all these ‘social processes’ can be ‘read’, interpreted, and contested as texts. (qtd. in Campbell, 12)

In accordance with this definition, fashion trends, Spike Lee’s movie Malcolm X, and rap music featuring Malcolm’s voice are “social processes” that produce, circulate, and exchange new meanings of the historical figure Malcolm X. By reading and interpreting these “social processes” as texts in comparison to the “social processes” shaping Malcolm’s reception during his lifetime in the 1950s and 1960s, I will be able to analyze the effects of Malcolm’s cultural rebirth on his legacy.

1.2 History, Voice and Identity

I have stated earlier that this study is based on the assumption that history is a discourse rather than an “empirically based quest for the truth about the past” (Campbell, 5). In their book American Cultural Studies, Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean explain that this assumption is derived from recent works in cultural theory reminding us that written history is a collection of stories recorded in order to represent events to the reader.

Campbell and Kean make a critical distinction between the terms history and the past. History is an account of the past, written down by an historian who observed, selected, interpreted and evaluated certain events in relation to the social, political and conceptual context of his time. The past is too big, too voluminous, and too detailed to be recorded as a whole. Therefore, we have to make sense of the past by weighing different accounts or histories of the past against each other as there is no standard history book containing the truth about the past (Campbell, 5-6).

Some histories, however, remain unwritten as long as repressive regimes silence minorities or oppressed peoples. The long-time unwritten histories of Native Americans or African-Americans in the United States exemplify the systematic silencing of minorities. In 1962, Malcolm X declared in his speech Black Man’s History that a people’s lack of knowledge about its history was the most important reason for its successful oppression:

The thing that has made the so-called Negro in America fail, more than any other thing, is your, my, lack of knowledge concerning history [...] what the white man has taught us concerning history has actually been a distortion. He’s never given you and me true facts about history, neither about himself nor about our people. (qtd. in Goodman, 33)

When Malcolm accuses “the white man” for having denied African-Americans their history, he is referring to a practise of denial that began with the enslavement of Africans in the seventeenth century and has continued in less obvious ways until today. To gain more control over them and to keep them silent, masters denied their slaves to speak their African languages, to practise their customs, and to educate themselves (Campbell, 76). By systematically separating and alienating their slaves from their indigenous cultures, the masters tried to erase their slaves’ sense of identity and humanity both as a means to make them dependent on the master culture and to justify the very institution of slavery.

One of the common arguments to justify slavery was to regard Africans rather as animals than as humans, because they were seen as unintelligent, uncivilized, and uneducatable creatures formerly living in the jungle. The argument that Africans were uncivilized creatures depended heavily on the Africans’ lack of mastering the English language, especially in written form. In his book The Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy notes that

It is important to remember that the slaves’ access to literacy was often denied on pain of death and only a few cultural opportunities were offered as a surrogate for the other forms of individual autonomy denied by life on the plantations [...]. (Gilroy, 74)

Gilroy calls music one of the most important “cultural opportunities” the slaves developed to resist the master culture. The book Black Culture and Black Consciousness by Laurence W. Levine complements Gilroy’s approach to music as Levine explores the significance of African-American oral traditions from the times of slavery until today. I will talk more about Levine and Gilroy and the significance of music in African-American culture in chapter 3.2.

Related to music and language is the concept of silence and voice. By keeping their slaves illiterate, masters supposedly silenced their slaves and thus reinforced the colonial myth of the African as wild animal which has to be tamed. Campbell and Kean argue that in fact, “there was always a powerful voice of resistance within the black community” (Campbell, 96). Living in a country dominated by a white historical voice, there is a vital need for African Americans to present their lives, past and future, as of equal importance in the ‘American story’. [...] African-American ‘voices’ [...] articulate African-American identities to break the imposed ‘silence’ inherited from slavery and perpetuated in the written history and social frameworks of the USA. [...] This concept of expressive ‘voices’ takes a variety of forms: slave songs, autobiography, fiction, political speech, rap music and film, but together they create an alternative mode of communication through which the African Americans both state their own culture and assert their difference, whilst positioning themselves alongside the often more dominant voices of white mainstream culture. (Campbell, 74)

Thus, what connects the political activist and writer Malcolm X, the director Spike Lee, and contemporary African-American rappers, is their creation of cultural products as a means to collectively construct an identity that is an “essential part of the freedom struggle, alongside fighting for economic, political, and social power” (Campbell, 94). The active and open struggle for economic, political, and social power is best exemplified by the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Never before had so many African-Americans cooperated to openly fight racism and discrimination in the United States.

2 Malcolm in the 1950s and 1960s

Malcolm X and the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement had the same goal. They wanted to achieve social, political, and economic equality for black people living in the United States. While civil rights leaders believed they would reach this goal by integrating into the white dominant society, Malcolm and other Black Nationalists suggested the exact opposite. They wanted to “close ranks,” that means to separate from the dominant racist society in order to become independent from white people. Professor of African-American Studies Michael Eric Dyson defined Black Nationalism as follows:

If nationalism is viewed as an attempt to establish and maintain a nation’s identity, growing out of circumstances of social and cultural conflict, then black nationalism is a response of social solidarity to the divisive practices of white supremacist nationalism. (Dyson 1995, 80)

It is important to bear in mind that liberal integrationist ideology and Black Nationalism are far older than the Civil Rights Movement. Black Nationalism was born in the early eighteenth century when the first African slaves rioted, killed their masters, and demanded a separate nation. One of the most famous Black Nationalists before Malcolm X was Marcus Garvey, who settled in Harlem in the early twentieth century, advocated black business power, and founded a massively popular back-to-Africa movement. A famous integrationist before Martin Luther King, Jr. was Frederick Douglass, a rhetorically gifted run-away slave who rallied for the Abolitionist Movement in the mid nineteenth century. Both Malcolm’s and King’s political struggle has to be seen in the tradition of the competing political strategies of separation and integration that both aim at liberating blacks.

2.1 Political & Socio-Economic Conditions of Blacks

The domestic political climate of the late 1950s and the early 1960s for both African-Americans and American society as a whole was dominated by the struggle of African-Americans fighting for social, political, and economic equality. In 1954, the NAACP[6] set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement by challenging segregation head-on in the courts. In the following famous Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the US Supreme Court declared segregated public schools to be unconstitutional. This decision revised the separate but equal doctrine that had been legalized by the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling in 1896. The Brown decision not only destroyed the legal basis for Jim Crow[7] laws but also provoked heavy resistance by white Southern racists. As the Supreme Court judges had set no deadline for the implementation of Brown, most Southern superintendents legally delayed the desegregation of their schools. New strategies with broader support and deeper commitment were necessary in order to advance in the fight for freedom (Fairclough, 225).

If Brown was the legal turning point in the struggle for black equality, the Montgomery bus boycott was the psychological turning-point [...] Montgomery truly was the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. (Fairclough, 234)

In Montgomery, the whole black population closed ranks and successfully boycotted the segregated public bus system for more than one year until the city agreed on its desegregation. Montgomery both marked the launch of a rapidly growing, non-violent, and integrational Civil Rights Movement and the beginning of the career of its most charismatic leader: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist preacher and academic from Atlanta, who led the Montgomery boycott in 1955 and became the head of the newly founded SCLC.[8]

From the mid 1950s to the late 1960s, the SCLC and student organizations like the SNCC[9] aroused thousands of both black and white followers in order to desegregate public transport services, lunch-counters, and public institutions by applying strategies of civil disobedience. The Civil Rights Movement’s greatest legal achievements were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act one year later. The former ended segregation in public life, the latter guaranteed and protected African-Americans’ access to the ballot. While the Civil Rights Movement had been successful in the Southern United States, it failed to improve the conditions of Northern blacks (Fairclough, 297).

The Civil Rights Movement failed in the Northern cities because urban blacks faced different problems than in the South. On the one hand, Northern whites discriminated African-Americans far less obviously than Southern whites did. In contrast to the South, public services and institutions in the North were desegregated, blacks were allowed to own land, and even encouraged to vote. However, many Northern blacks were poor, unemployed or badly paid, and lived in overpopulated urban ghettos where housing and education deteriorated whereas housing deals were overpriced.

Racial discrimination in employment, for example, was commonplace, despite fair employment laws in most Northern states [...] Housing was perhaps the strongest and most visible expression of racial discrimination in the North [...] Where housing was concerned, racial discrimination in the North left its subtlety; it was raw and open. (Fairclough, 299-300)

While affluent middle-class whites moved to the suburbs, blacks and other minorities faced rising crime and ghettoization in the city centers. Although there was no legal basis for segregation, the rigid residential segregation in the North led to de facto segregated schools of vastly different quality standards (Fairclough, 300). King and the SCLC, relying heavily on the rhetoric, influence, and prestige of black churches, failed to adapt to the more secular and urban culture of Northern blacks (Fairclough, 301). Additionally, blacks had a “gut resentment of white people that seemed far more intense in the North than in the South” (Fairclough, 297). As a result, King’s non-violent marches, sit-ins, and boycotts failed to inspire Northern blacks on the one hand and did not arouse the consciousness of a deeply racist nation on the other. “Nonviolent protest could only be sustained by hope and optimism. In the North, bitterness and disillusionment seemed to rule” (Fairclough, 304). Northern blacks needed a leader speaking their language, appealing to their logic, and attacking their common enemy. Malcolm X fulfilled all three preconditions.

In contrast to King, Malcolm preached Black Nationalism, which means unity of all black Americans and consequently separation from whites. Malcolm appealed to the Northern proletariat because he was one of them. Born in Omaha but grown up in Boston and matured in the streets of Harlem, Malcolm combined the language of the streets with a fierce rhetoric and crystal clear logic. When he was assassinated in Harlem in 1965, he had built a reputation as the leading black critic of non-violence, the foremost advocate of self-defense and the black man who most efficiently articulated anti-white anger (Fairclough, 304). Historian Adam Fairclough noted that “In the Northern ghettos, Malcolm, dead, often seemed more influential than King, alive” (Fairclough, 304).

2.2 Malcolm’s Life in Three Stages

When talking about Malcolm, most scholars used the Autobiography as the major source for information about his life. This practise, however, is problematic because Malcolm’s recollections are not without distortions, which caused Professor of Afro-American Studies David Bradley to ask: “All we know of Malcolm is what he wanted us to know – and not one damn thing more. So … what if he lied?” (Bradley, 34). Bradley’s colleague Dyson agreed on the authenticity problem and concluded: “By itself, self-description is an unreliable basis for reconstructing the meaning of Malcolm’s life and career” (Dyson 1995, 55). Bruce Perry, a Professor of Political Science, devoted more than a decade to detailed, rigorous research of Malcolm’s history separating facts from fiction. In his book Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America, he argued that Malcolm had constructed his myth mostly on his own, adding invented events or concealing facts in some cases. From the point of view of a historian, Malcolm thus could be accused of “determined and remarkably successful deception” (Bradley, 39). But was Malcolm X a historian and his Autobiography supposed to be a history book? In order to approach these questions, I will use Professor of Geology David Lowenthal’s definition of a historian. The historian should not knowingly … invent or exclude things that affect his conclusions … he dare not fabricate a character, ascribe unknown traits so as to make his tale more intelligible, because he could neither hide such inventions from others with access to public record nor justify them when found out. (Lowenthal, 229)

When applying this definition in combination with Perry’s research, Bradley’s accusations against the Autobiography as history book sound reasonable. However, Malcolm did not want his autobiography to serve as a history book. Instead, “The Autobiography tells a [morality] tale of personal development that is in many senses a desirable model for the black urban masses” (Bradley, 35). Malcolm changed some details and stylized his story with the intention of offering a handbook to help blacks find their way to self-respect, black unity, and resistance to white oppression. In reference to the authenticity problem of the Autobiography, I took Dyson’s warning into consideration and relied on several independent sources to sketch Malcolm’s biography.

Compared to the secure, stable, and religiously rooted middle-class upbringing of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X’s childhood sounds like a nightmare. Born Malcolm Little in 1925 in extreme poverty, Malcolm moved from Omaha, Nebraska to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Lansing, Michigan before he was four years old. His father, a devoted follower of Marcus Garvey, allegedly died in a streetcar accident in 1931. Malcolm later claimed in his autobiography that his father was killed by white racists. After eight years of struggling to keep her family together, Malcolm’s lone mother collapsed due to the constant economic pressure to feed her eight children. She was committed to a mental institution and Malcolm’s siblings were separated. Malcolm was placed in a juvenile home run by a white couple, later lived with black foster parents, completed eighth grade and moved to his half-sister Ella living in Boston. He instantly sympathized with the local black community, which had been virtually inexistent in Lansing. However, he soon turned away from middle-class blacks like his half-sister as he instinctively mistrusted successful blacks struggling to integrate into a society dominated by whites (Ensslen, 48).

Fascinated by Boston’s black ghetto culture, Malcolm adjusted by conking his hair, wearing funky zoot suits,[10] and picking up black slang. When he submitted to the painful process of straightening his hair, Malcolm unconsciously aped the aesthetics of the white man and thus made the first self-abasing step toward losing his identity (Ensslen, 49). While drifting into a street life of drugs and crime, he felt “the sense of being a real part of a mass of my own kind for the first time” (Haley, 35). From that time on until his death, Malcolm identified and stayed true to the poor, oppressed black masses. Separating from Ella, he moved to Harlem, dealt drugs, became a street hustler, pimp, and finally head of a gang of thieves. In 1946, Malcolm was arrested and charged with grand larceny as well as breaking and entering, and served a prison sentence until 1952.

The time he spent in prison is commonly referred to as the beginning of the second stage in his life. Leaving behind the crippling forces of the ghetto, he remembered his curiosity as a bright high school student and decided to gather more knowledge. With the utmost self-discipline, he slowly improved his poor reading skills and became an avid reader. He made the extensive prison library his second home: “You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge” and soon focused on the study of history, philosophy, and religion (Haley, 173). After two years in prison, his brother Reginald introduced Malcolm to the Black Nationalist teachings of the Nation of Islam[11] (NOI), which had specialized in recruiting criminals and transforming them into “models of piety and puritanism [by] inculcating values of racial pride, sobriety, hard work, and self-respect into its members” (Fairclough, 304). The NOI’s radical but simple doctrine “The white man is the devil” made sense to Malcolm as it coincided with his personal experiences and the colonial stories he had read in history books. For Malcolm, those books provided “indisputable proof that the collective white man had acted like a devil in virtually every contact he had with the world’s collective non-white man” (Haley, 177). In 1948, Malcolm became a follower of NOI leader Elijah Muhammad and positioned himself in the social and religious framework provided by the Nation of Islam.

I still marvel at how swiftly my previous life’s thinking pattern slid away from me, like snow off a roof. It is as though someone else I knew of had lived by hustling and crime. (Haley, 170)

From 1948 to 1952, Malcolm continued to devour all kinds of literature and used the remaining time to improve his rhetorical skills in prison debating clubs: “speaking to a crowd, was as exhilarating to me as the discovery of knowledge through reading had been” (Haley, 184). On the one hand, the self-disciplined, broadly educated, and devoted Muslim who left prison in 1952 could not have been more different to the drug-addicted gangster who had been arrested six years before. On the other hand, Malcolm was still an angry black man, with the difference that he had learned to transform his self-hatred to strike the black man’s alleged common enemy: the white man.

After prison, Malcolm became the protégé of Elijah Muhammad and was initiated as an official member of the NOI by replacing his surname with an X, symbolizing his unknown African name. Due to his oratorical skills and his charisma, Malcolm quickly went through the ranks of the NOI, became the number one preacher of the influential Harlem Temple and was promoted to Muhammad’s official spokesperson in 1963. Although Malcolm had always subordinated his personal beliefs to the message of his mentor, Muhammad grew suspicious that Malcolm could claim the lone leadership. Muhammad silenced his spokesperson in December 1963, after Malcolm had violated his orders not to comment on President John F. Kennedy’s death. In early 1964, Malcolm broke with the man and the organization that had so thoroughly changed his life, when he found out that his silencing would be permanent and that Muhammad had repeatedly committed adultery. According to NOI dogma, adultery is one of the most evil sins, which leads immediately to the exclusion of the adulterer. Malcolm, who by all means practised the puritan lifestyle demanded by NOI dogma, lost faith in the righteousness of his supposedly infallible prophet.

The third and last stage of Malcolm’s life lasted less than one year. After having split with the NOI, Malcolm converted to orthodox Islam, renounced the idea that all whites were devils, and founded two organizations (Fairclough, 310). While the Muslim Mosque Incorporated was designed to promote orthodox Islam, the Organization of Afro-American Unity was created to advance Malcolm’s program of Black Nationalism. Literary scholar Klaus Ensslen argues that both organizations failed because Malcolm was unable and unwilling to take care of the little details of daily political work (Ensslen, 65). Instead of dealing with these trivialities, Malcolm held numerous speeches at American and foreign universities, travelled extensively through Africa, accomplished a pilgrimage to Mecca, and changed his name to Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Malcolm realized that the black man’s enemy was no longer the white man but the white racist attitude (Haley, 399). In contrast to the NOI-proclaimed “evil race,” an evil attitude is changeable by education, which Malcolm repeatedly emphasized together with self-reliance as being important tools to overcome black oppression. Due to the interracial brotherhood he had experienced during his travels, Malcolm realized that the struggle of African-Americans for civil rights was just part of the worldwide struggle of the black man for human rights. Shortly before his death, Malcolm approached civil rights leaders in vain asking them to collaborate on the basis of his new found pan-Africanism.[12] As Malcolm continued to give interviews about Elijah Muhammad’s adulteries branding Muhammad a faker, the NOI leader had a pressing motif to silence his former protégé. Although Muhammad may not have directly ordered Malcolm’s assassination in early 1965, “he had made it quite clear […] that the slaying of his former minister had his implicit support,” concludes historian Claude Andrew Clegg (Clegg, 228).

2.3 Reception and Meaning of Malcolm X

During the longest part of his adult life, Malcolm was known as the most prominent voice condemning the integrationist strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. Between 1954 and 1963, he was the major force that transformed the separatist NOI from a regional sect into a mass movement with hundreds of thousands of followers. But once he had separated from the clear cut religious dogma and social framework provided by the NOI, Malcolm ran into problems as an independent thinker:

Malcolm failed to build either an organizational base or a plausible strategy for black liberation. (Fairclough, 310) [He was not even] a major leader, if one defines leadership in the narrow sense of having a large and organized following under one’s approximate control. (Goldman, 396)

While King’s non-violent direct action improved the material conditions of Southern blacks, especially in regard to the desegregation of public life and their opportunity to vote, Malcolm’s merely rhetorical protest appeared to have been futile for black Northerners, as it did not improve their social and economic situation in the ghettos. Thus, historian Adam Fairclough concludes, that “In terms of racial leadership, Malcolm Little became a talker rather than a doer, a rhetorician, not a tactician” (Fairclough, 306).

However, Malcolm’s meaning as a rhetorician proved more durable than a well-built organization or a clear political program, since it was Malcolm who really began the difficult passage from Negro [13] to African-American (Goldman, 397). Today it is easy to overlook Malcolm’s achievement because it is commonplace to use the terms African-American or black, but at his time, Malcolm’s argument for a celebration of black consciousness and black pride was revolutionary. In contrast to King’s external victories, Malcolm’s meaning has to be measured by the internal or private victories he left to African-Americans.

Malcolm’s most radical and original contribution rested in reconceiving the possibility of being a worthful black human being in what he deemed a wicked white world. (Dyson 1995, 50)

According to Goldman, Malcolm was “attempting the liberation of black men by altering the terms in which they thought and the scale by which they measured feeling” to be black, to be human, and to be internally free (Goldman, 398). Instead of tackling the symptoms of racial discrimination in the streets, Malcolm attacked and changed the very concept of race by waging a furious war on the myths and manners and polite hypocrisies of race in America […] What interested Malcolm first was the decolonialization of the black mind - the waking of a proud, bold, impolite new consciousness of color and everything color means in white America. (Goldman, 396)

Instead of focusing on integration where the momentum drifts away from blackness, Malcolm tried to instil racial pride in his people. Having experienced racial self-alienation in his days as a hustler, he wanted to free blacks from their long-bred self-hatred by showing them their beauty, their worth, and their competence in a racist society. One week short of his death, Malcolm powerfully expressed how it feels to hate oneself in his Speech at Ford Auditorium:

We hated our heads, we hated the shape of our nose, we wanted one of those long, dog-like noses, you know; we hated the color of our skin, hated the blood of Africa that was in our veins. And in hating our features and our skin and our blood […] we had to end up hating ourselves. […] Our color became to us a chain -- we felt that it was holding us back […] It made us feel inferior; it made us feel inadequate; made us feel helpless […]. (qtd. in Breitman 1990, 169)

By pointing at the collective white man, Malcolm wanted to turn his people’s hatred outwards against an enemy instead of inwards against themselves. Malcolm stressed the right to self-defense, the duty of black males to protect their families, the benefits of black business power, and the idea that all black men in the world should work together to fight white oppression.

Many blacks felt that Malcolm expressed the things that other black people had been afraid to say, even to think. By revealing and attacking “the hypocrisies that underlay the public mythology of the melting pot,” historian Eric Lincoln remarks that Malcolm became “a kind of alter ego for people who were too vulnerable and too insecure to say what they really felt regarding our situation in America” (qtd. in Goldman, 399-400). But unlike King, Malcolm was not publicly accepted as the spokesperson of the poor black masses, neither by blacks nor by the white media. Thus, Malcolm was pushed to the margins by his own people. Most black leaders and black intellectuals “jollied him in private (You’re saying all the things we can’t) but seldom dared stand with him where anyone white or bourgeois black might see” (Goldman, 381). While black integrationists shunned Malcolm because they feared he could scare away the white man’s new found generosity, the white media loved his polemical comments that were always good for a first page headline.

From 1959 on, when CBS broadcasted a TV documentary on the NOI entitled The Hate that Hate Produced, Malcolm X became a household name in white America. The white media mostly presented him as a dangerous racist black leader inciting the black urban masses to riot (Fremont-Smith, 35). Due to his taste for publicity and his “intuitive genius for modern communications,” Malcolm remained a popular, but neither accepted nor influential counter force to integrationalism until his death (Goldman, 397). His reception and his meaning, however, changed dramatically when the Civil Rights Movement’s dream of integration faded away in the late 1960s. In his biography on Malcolm, the distinguished journalist Peter Goldman notes that It was his mischance to have lived during the great romantic flowering of the civil-rights movement and to have died before it spent itself. (Goldman, 382)

In the year Malcolm died, the Voting Rights Act marked the last victory and the subsequent decline of the Civil Rights Movement. After it had become abundantly clear that white Northern Americans were unwilling to trade parts of their socio-economic power for black equality, racial violence erupted in major American cities. Deadly riots, such as in Watts, the black ghetto in Los Angeles, led even Martin Luther King, Jr. to acknowledge that his dream of 1963[14] had turned into a nightmare. Facing the traumata of the riots and the exhaustion of the Civil Rights Movement, many blacks lost faith in the dream of integration and embraced Black Nationalist thoughts.

This change in black sympathy proved to be an ideal medium for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published shortly after Malcolm’s death. Separated from Malcolm’s violent image, which had been constructed by Malcolm himself and the white media, the Autobiography sold well and was read by millions of black and white Americans. Malcolm became a posthumous celebrity although his last speech had courted less than 400 listeners and only about 1500 blacks had paid him tribute at his burial in Harlem. Having read the Autobiography, some white critics changed their opinion of Malcolm and hailed his life as a typical American success story where both the hero and the enemy got redeemed (Ensslen, 11). Black readers, on the other hand, read the Autobiography as a record of white brutality and Malcolm’s triumph over it. Blacks thus did not stress Malcolm’s last months when his binary concept of the white devil showed shades of grey, but embraced “the defiant blackness of all his adult life” (Goldman, 382).

While the Autobiography had contributed to a resurgence of interest in Malcolm, the Black Power people later raised him to sainthood although they “would not work with him, nor let him work with them, in life” (Lomax, 157-158). Ironically, the Black Power Movement[15] resented all goals the Civil Rights Movement had achieved, the very goals Malcolm had approached at the end of his life (Fairclough, 310). Peter Goldman remembers that in the late 1960s, black schools took on Malcolm’s name, black kids were suddenly wearing Malcolm X bumper stickers and sweatshirts, and Malcolm X posters flowered everywhere. However, it was not the prophetic Malcolm of the last year, but the pitiless finger-pointing NOI preacher that was pictured (Goldman, 378-379).

Malcolm’s beatification on the one hand and his transformation into a commercially tradable image on the other, added to the development of a Malcolm myth. According to the myth, Malcolm soon would have been accepted by the other civil rights leaders, would have successfully built two mass organizations for ghetto people, and would have produced a convincing program for black liberation. The deadly war with the NOI, the resentment of civil rights leaders, and Malcolm’s shaky political program appeared to be forgotten. Thus, Malcolm’s myth veiled the historical figure’s “gifts and flaws and passions and private ironies - his humanity - all smoothed flat and stylized” (Goldman, 381). As a result, Malcolm posthumously achieved the acceptability he had always struggled for during life, but was celebrated as a saint, whose legend and martyrdom were more important than his theology (Goldman, 379). The meaning of Malcolm’s legacy thus broadened from black power icon to would-be-integrationist and white liberal model for a self-made man. Professor of Political Science Adolph Reed, Jr. argues that at the end of the 1960s, Malcolm’s legacy had been transformed into a symbol, a romanticized heroic image larger than the historical figure Malcolm X, “which is at bottom, a decontextualized, hollow thing” (Reed, 201). Reed calls the romanticizing of Malcolm to be the precondition for Malcolm’s later rebirth in popular culture.

The fall of the Civil Rights Movement as a national force and the failure of Black Power as a political strategy in the late 1960s saw both a declining popular interest in Malcolm X and a rising pessimism in the black community. With the presidential election of Richard Nixon in 1968, the race problem was pushed out of the focus of domestic politics. Most Southern children still went to segregated schools, many blacks still suffered from unemployment, poverty, and racial discrimination (Fairclough, 324). However, the legal victories of the Civil Rights Movement proved to be profound enough to slowly improve the situation of African-Americans. Due to the Voting Rights Act, black voters became more important in local, state, and congressional elections. By 1976, the black voter registration in the South almost equalled the percentage of whites (Fairclough, 324). The increasing number of black voters led to a growing number of black elected officials. In 1994, the percentage of black congressmen in the House of Representatives was only slightly below the percentage of the whole black population across the nation (Fairclough, 326).

In 1969, the Supreme Court enforced the Brown decision, and thus forced Southern public schools to desegregate. It did not take long until there were more de facto segregated schools in the North than in the South (Fairclough, 325). Apart from social and political improvements, some blacks also succeeded in enhancing their economic situation. Between 1960 and 1990, the proportion of middle-class blacks more than doubled. Despite these promising figures, only a small fraction of the black population was able to improve their living standard in the post-King era.

In the 1970s, the majority of blacks saw little improvement in jobs and wages. Between 1970 and 1990, the income-gap between blacks and whites even widened, the number of black high school drop outs increased, as did the number of black teenage mothers. When more and more black middle-class families moved from the ghettos to the suburbs in the 1990s, the poorest third of the black population was left behind. Today, blacks face an unemployment rate twice as high as that of whites, and more than 40% of black children live in poverty (Fairclough, 327). Particularly young black males often drift into a criminal ghetto subculture dominated by the rule of the gun, drugs, and hustling. In 1998, blacks made up slightly more than 10% of the country’s population, but comprised over 50% of all prisoners. Today, more black men are in prison than are enrolled in college. As neither the living conditions of the black masses, nor police brutality and racism have significantly improved since the 1960s, it is not surprising that the 1990s saw the worst race riots since the assassination of Malcolm X (Fairclough, 331).

Despite the growth of black electoral votes since the 1960s, blacks have lacked political influence to improve their socio-economic conditions. In contrast to the 1960s, no black leader of the 1990s succeeded in organizing a durable mass movement to express and fulfil black demands.

In the years since 1968, black leadership has become increasingly fragmented and uncertain. No one person has ever rivalled the prestige and influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Fairclough, 330)

Both former SCLC staffer Jesse Jackson and Elijah Muhammad’s successor Louis Farrakhan[16] rose to national fame in the post-King era, but failed to translate their prominence into political influence (Fairclough, 334). In a time of socio-economic crisis for the majority of African-Americans, where the urban black community yearns for a strong black leader with a clear and unifying message, and where many young black males live the violent and destructive way Malcolm X had lived 50 years ago, the music and movie industry unlashed Malcolmania: the cultural rebirth of Malcolm X as pop icon. Given Malcolm’s multi-levelled reception and meaning during the late 1960s, the question arises which interpretations of Malcolm’s legacy gained the most influence, and thus determined Malcolm’s meaning in the 1990s.

3 Malcolm in the 1990s

When African-American film director Spike Lee released his movie Malcolm X in 1992, he benefited from Malcolm’s recent popularity in hip hop. Asked about the origins of Malcolm’s cultural rebirth in the late 80s, Lee answered:

Chuck D. with Public Enemy and KRS-One with Boogie Down Productions have to be credited with really giving black youth Malcolm through their lyrics. (Lee, 183)

One may wonder why rappers such as Chuck D. and KRS-One particularly quoted a Black Nationalist leader shot dead in the 1960s. Spike Lee reckons that rappers revitalized Malcolm because his angry rhetoric still worked for the 1990s. As I have shown earlier, the miserable conditions of black youths living in urban ghettos have not improved since 1965, but rather deteriorated. If they had not, “there wouldn’t be a need to listen to what Malcolm X said anymore” (Lee, 183). Moreover, in order to understand his re-emergence, we have to consider his iconic power:

In these hostile times, many African Americans are hungry for an honourable sanctuary, and Black spirit fits the bill. When used as a shelter – as a tool for emotional alliance – spirit despite being fragile as a ghost, helps people weather alienation, despair, and weariness. (Joe, 6)

The problem with icons, saints, and myths is that they hover beyond criticism. By transforming Malcolm X into “an honourable sanctuary,” many African-Americans idealized Malcolm to a point where a critical analysis of his life and meaning is equalled with blasphemy (Goldman, 378). The ever self-critical Malcolm would agree that only by approaching him critically, it is possible to fully understand the meaning of his legacy. In the following chapters, I therefore want to examine how Spike Lee and several rappers portray Malcolm and how this portrayal influenced Malcolm’s reception in the 1990s. Similar to his multi-layered reception shortly after his death, Malcolm’s legacy in the 1990s comprises a set of different meanings. In the words of Spike Lee:

Everybody has their own Malcolm who is dear to them, and their Malcolm fits their own personal and political agenda. So everybody claims him in whatever period of life he was in at that particular time. (Lee, 178)

Spike Lee maintains that Malcolm’s legacy has been transformed into a multi-functional tool, open to anyone’s individual purposes. On the following pages, I will explore Lee’s and several rapper’s reasons for using Malcolm as a tool. As black artists have different agendas, they highlight different aspects of Malcolm’s legacy. The following chapters will take a closer look at these aspects.

3.1 Malcolm in Film: Spike Lee’s Malcolm X

Malcolm X was murdered in 1965; Spike Lee released his movie in 1992. Why did it take almost thirty years to make a movie about Malcolm X, what difficulties were there in particular? Of course, it was not for the lack of talented writers: James Baldwin, Arnold Perl, David Bradley, and many more artists contributed to the film’s script. Director Spike Lee openly admitted that it was more the story itself that was wrong: “Malcolm X was basically disputing the American Dream. And if there’s one thing Hollywood is about, it is selling the American Dream” (Lee, 176). White America and white film industry bosses did not seem eager to promote an almost forgotten radical Black Nationalist who taught aggressive anti-white lessons during a long period of his life. On the other hand, Malcolm X is the American dream: a self-educated, self-made man - with the difference that Malcolm was black and proud to be black (Lee, 176). The final break-through for Lee came due to economic considerations; Malcolm’s rise in popularity in the late 80s promised an audience too large to ignore. When asked about his cinematic interpretation of Malcolm’s legacy, Lee promised to show all stages of Malcolm’s development:

Our intention is not to tear down Malcolm; for us this is an act of love. [...] You have to realize we’re not making a documentary, we’re making a drama. [...] we want to show the total evolution of what made him, we want to show the three or four different people he was along the line. (Lee, 178)

While shooting the movie, Lee did not only face harsh criticism by Amiri Baraka[17] and other critics, who claimed that Lee’s middle-class upbringing disqualified him from making a movie about “the man of the people,” but also had to fight Hollywood’s white power structure, in this case: the movie company Warner Brothers. With Malcolm X, Lee wanted to bring the first epic movie biography, a so-called biopic, on an African-American in the movie theaters. When Lee attempted to transcend the conventions of contemporary black film, he ran into a problem:

if the major studios are going to finance Black films, for the most part it’s two genres: You have the homeboy shoot-’em-up drug movie or you have a hip-hop musical comedy. I think Black film should be broader than that. (qtd. in Turvey, 53)

Following the tradition of biopics like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) or Oliver Stone’s J.F.K. (1991), Lee planned to do a movie with epic dimensions in length (at least three hours long), scale (widescreen), and production budget. As Warner Brothers refused to grant him more money than usually needed for a two hour movie, Lee had to beg black superstars like Bill Cosby and Magic Johnson for money to be able to deliver a final cut of the film. In the end, Lee overcame the censorship-like institutional pressures brought to bear on a black film-maker in Hollywood, and released his biopic with an overall duration of three hours and 21 minutes (Turvey, 56).

As the biopic is clearly based on the best-seller The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the urtext of almost any work about Malcolm, one has to ask what Lee had to add to the Autobiography, which has entered the literary canon and is read on most college campuses today. I think Lee adapted the Autobiography for the movies because he wanted the millions of Americans who have never read or heard of the Autobiography to get a chance to benefit from Malcolm’s teachings. We cannot ignore that until today, more people have seen Lee’s movie than have read the Autobiography.[18] This, however, does not mean that Lee’s movie has led to a declining readership of the Autobiography. Indeed, the opposite is the case: Lee’s movie made many people curious to read the more extensive Autobiography. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a renowned black literary scholar, hailed Lee’s movie because it motivates people to get a deeper understanding of Malcolm’s life and meaning:

One of the most gratifying effects of Spike Lee’s film “Malcolm X” is that its success has prompted the restoration of Malcolm’s autobiography to the best-seller lists.[19] The country is reading the 1965 book once again, as avidly, it seems, as it is seeing Mr. Lee’s movie. Today, on the 28th birthday of his assassination, Malcolm’s story has become as American […] as violence and cherry pie. (Gates 1993, 11)

In order to make his movie appealing to the masses, Lee had to transform Malcolm’s legacy to meet contemporary expectations of a generation of Americans who grew up in the social and political context of the 1980s and 1990s. Thus, “The Malcolm X of the film is less self-conscious, less square, more romantic, less dogmatic, and less divisive than the autobiographical Malcolm X” (Locke, 7). In the following chapter, I will show how and why Lee changed Malcolm’s portrayal in comparison to the Autobiography.

3.1.1 Portrayal of Malcolm in the Film

In accordance with the Autobiography, Lee’s movie elaborates three stages of consciousness in Malcolm’s life. The first stage can be described as that of racial self-hate, the second one that of black counter-racism, and the third one that of inter-racial brotherhood. Malcolm’s late shift of thoughts from counter-racism to inter-racial brotherhood is the most remarkable one for Spike Lee: “I think Malcolm post-Mecca is the one where he evolved the most” (Lee, 179). That does not mean that the other stages are less important for him:

People tend to have one view of Malcolm, but he had many different views over his life [...] We leave it up to the audience to pick and choose which one they agree with, but we want to show all Malcolms. (Lee, 178)

Although Lee complied with his claim “to show all Malcolms,” he put a different emphasis on each of the three stages in Malcolm’s life. Amiri Baraka has fiercely criticized Lee’s highlighting of Malcolm’s first stage of racial self-hate. I agree with Baraka on the point that Lee dwelled too long[20] on Malcolm’s early days as a ghetto hustler, but also understand Lee’s motivation to do so. One reason for this might be that this part of Malcolm’s life promised the highest entertainment factor; the picture of the conked and zoot suit-wearing criminal, hustling and dancing in the colorful and dangerous Harlem ghetto environment, contains too much natural dramatic tension to cut it short in a Hollywood movie.

However, it is problematic that, compared to the Autobiography, Lee downplays Malcolm’s experiences of self-degradation in the ghetto in favor of entertaining his audience by glamorizing drugs and crime. Lee shows Malcolm’s drug-addiction to be rather hip than destructive, and fails to explain Malcolm’s attraction to his white mistress Sophia as Malcolm’s ultimate step toward racial self-hate. While Lee succeeds in dispelling the myth of Malcolm’s violent gun-swinging reputation by showing him to be rather an aggressive scholar than a violent activist, Lee reinforces stereotypes of power and manhood. In the scene where Malcolm plays Russian roulette with his gang members, for example, Lee lets Sophia admire Malcolm’s masculinity and power to play with a deadly weapon, but fails to associate Malcolm’s behavior with a break-away from civility, as Malcolm does in his Autobiography (Locke, 5).

Another familiar issue that critics focused on is the lack of social context in Lee’s movie. Richard Corliss argued in Time magazine that Lee obscured Malcolm’s historical background as he failed to put Malcolm in context with other great orators of his time, namely: James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Eldridge Cleaver (Corliss, 59). I agree with Colriss on that Lee did not take great pains to set Malcolm in the historical, social, and political framework of the 1950s and 1960s. However, Lee is not a historian, and his movie is not supposed to be a documentary. When making the movie, Lee had to appeal to a mass of Americans who grew up in the 1980s and matured in the 1990s. Consequently, Lee rather sets Malcolm in context to Rodney King and Nelson Mandela than to Watts and Martin Luther King, Jr. Thus, I disagree with Colriss on the issue that Lee’s movie obscured history. Lee’s movie rather attempts to establish a connection between Malcolm’s meaning in the 1960s and his meaning for the 1990s.

In his article Spiking the Argument, Paul Gilroy accused Lee for stylizing blackness as a homogenous culture by downplaying internal divisions in the black community. Gilroy argued that, by omitting to reflect on homophobia, misogyny, and the growing economic differences in the black community, Lee would naturalize racial conflict as inevitable consequence (Gilroy 1991, 29). In reference to Gilroy’s argument, film critic Malcolm Turvey maintained that on the one hand, Lee did not discuss homophobia and misogyny in Malcolm X, and thus failed to represent the black community in all its varieties. Lee did not live up to the constructed image of the authentic radical black film-maker who should always adequately represent the black poor, should always include a woman’s point of view, and must by all means always discuss homophobia. On the other hand, Turvey argues that Gilroy’s demand “severely limits and above all controls who may be a ‘black film-maker’, and what black film-makers may produce” (Turvey, 56). I agree with Turvey on that it was impossible for Lee to meet the requirements of “the perfect, radical, real black film-maker” (Turvey, 56). Although I concur with Gilroy’s claim that Lee naturalized racial conflict, Lee’s somehow decontextualized and stylized treatment of Malcolm X was justified, as it enabled Lee to connect to a new generation of African-Americans driven by “a post-civil rights, ultra-urban, […] hyperrealistic, neonationalistic, antiassimilationist, aggressive Afro-centric impulse” (Jones, 10).

Lee courts to the “Afro-centric impulse” of his audience as he ends his movie with a scene featuring Nelson Mandela teaching a history class of black African and American children about Malcolm X. Students stand up crying out: “I am Malcolm X!” internalizing him as a role model, and his ideals of self-education and black pride as own ideals. Spike Lee made this connection to South Africa “trying to build bridges between people of color,” referring to the political conflicts in apartheid and Malcolm’s belief in pan-Africanism (qtd. in Rule, 23). The end of the film thus depicts a Malcolm who became a powerful teacher combining Black Nationalism and humanism. Although Lee showed all Malcolms to let his audience pick one who fits their agenda, he revealed his favorite in the final scene when he made clear that Mandela’s class – and the audience– should identify with the late humanist and pan-Africanist Malcolm and not with the anti-white NOI preacher or the ghetto hustler. In contrast to Lee’s interpretation, many rappers favor Malcolm the criminal or Malcolm the counter-racist, as I will outline later in my chapter on Malcolm X in hip hop.

3.1.2 Commercializing and Merchandising Malcolm X

After having seen the movie, Lee’s first critic Amiri Baraka remained dissatisfied. Apart from Lee’s allegedly inappropriate personal, social, and economic background, Baraka criticized Lee for distorting the life of Malcolm X by turning it into a commercial property. His fear was the “cooling down” of Malcolm’s radical message, and a detachment of Malcolm’s logo “X” from its referent, which means a separation of the “X” from its political significance, replaced by an expression of “cultural hipness” (Zarzycka, 168). According to Bianka Zarzycka, a contributor to FORECAAST,[21] Baraka’s fears became partly true:

Dotting the pop culture with Xs, however, did not meet Lee’s expectations. It seems that the message he wanted to convey got crushed by the cogwheels of the fashion industry, where for a while the ubiquitous X became merely a fashion statement. (Zarzycka, 167)

In contrast to Zarzycka’s observations, Spike Lee justified the launching of a merchandising campaign as necessary to finance the costs, attract a wider audience, and promote his movie: “Nowadays you got to sell your product out there or nobody’s going to come. And if nobody sees your movies, you won’t be able to make another one” (Lee, 186). What Lee did not mention is that, especially with Malcolm’s biography as story, it was essential to make money in the theaters. Lee knew that it would be nearly impossible to sell Malcolm X to TV because he would find no sponsors. White sponsors would not be eager to support a movie about a black male role model who rejected tobacco, alcohol, and white women, the fundamental icon of American advertising, as Malcolm believed that these were the white man’s tools to keep the black man oppressed (Bradley, 26).

Moreover, Spike Lee argues that wearing an “X” is not only a fashion statement but can as well be seen as a first step toward a growing consciousness of black pride, resistance, and the need for education:

You have to realize there’s a lot of re-education that has to go on. I guess the first step is their wearing a cap or T-shirt with a slogan. But hopefully that’s only a first step. Then you hope that it starts to be more, and deeper, than this cosmetic bullshit. For a lot of people, that’s where they’re at: they wear an X hat, they’ve got the Malcolm X T-shirt – and maybe it’s better than wearing Batman or Bart Simpson, but it’s going to take more than that. The hat or the T-shirt isn’t going to get you far. (Lee, 183)

In Transition magazine, Robert Elliot Fox questioned if consumers of Malcolm memorabilia ever make it beyond Lee’s “first step” to gain a deeper understanding of the man. Fox dispelled Lee’s hopes by claiming that the wearers of such memorabilia remain “largely uninformed about Malcolm and what he actually stood for” (Fox, 17). Fox explained his pessimistic view by comparing the effects of merchandising and sampling. The term sampling refers to a technique in rap music where sound bites from other performers are mixed with a rapper’s own rhymes and lyrics. Fox claims that when listening to sampled voices, consumers get a taste but do not necessarily digest and understand as the consumer’s familiarity with the sampled subject is likely to be superficial. Thus, wearing merchandise articles is a kind of sampling Malcolm in a commodified culture “in which we sample everything but have deep experience of nothing” (Fox, 18). Hence, Fox generally maintains that neither Lee’s movie nor merchandise articles could educate consumers about Malcolm’s meaning:

There’s little reason to suppose that the heightened interest in the man will further an understanding of the deeper truths concerning him and his importance. What is needed […] is Malcolm’s story and teachings as part of our education, not as series of ephemeral media events (Lee’s film, the opera X, etc.), here today and gone tomorrow in the constant flux of the market. (Fox, 18)

I agree with Fox’s claim that ephemeral memorabilia do not contribute to a deeper understanding of Malcolm X. Lee’s theory of “hoping for the second step” obscures his primary motivation for selling merchandise articles: to make money. Particularly black people felt that Lee exploited Malcolm’s legacy and questioned his integrity: “Lee’s merchandising of Malcolm memorabilia led many to conclude that he was hustling Malcolm’s history to his own financial advantage” (Dyson 1995, 131). Moreover, I share Baraka’s worries that, by reducing Malcolm to a culturally hip letter or icon featured on T-shirts and baseball caps, the historical figure’s complex meaning gets trivialized and loses its remaining significance once the trend has faded. I concur with Fox that students have to learn a lot more about black history, but disagree with him in that limiting education to high schools and colleges is not sufficient. Spike Lee argues that particularly black students often have a negative attitude toward the classic education system:

One of the things Malcolm stressed was education. Well, we’re just not doing it. It’s such a sad situation now where male black kids will fail so they can be “down” with everyone else, and if you get A’s and speak correct English, you’re regarded as being “white.” (Lee, 182)

Thus, we cannot afford to neglect the educational potential of popular culture’s mass appeal. Lee’s movie captured enough of Malcolm’s complexity to dispel some common myths and to spark further interest in the historical figure Malcolm X. As mentioned earlier, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. hailed Lee’s movie for making people buy and read the Autobiography (Gates 1993, 11).

It has been a tightrope walk for Lee to portray Malcolm as a black hero without mystifying him. There is a fine line between dramatizing and distorting a historical figure’s life. Cultural film analyst Marita Sturken called Lee’s movie a “contemporary docudrama [which] allows us to experience history as re-enactment” (Sturken, 39). Of course, Lee’s audience will not experience Malcolm in the same way as people did in the 1960s. By fitting him into a dramatic narrative framework, Lee makes his interpretation of Malcolm’s legacy available to the masses. Sturken is well aware of the danger of Hollywood making history:

These docudramas subsume the documentary and contain it for history, and this is in part why their blurring of fiction and fact is a source of public debate. The mimetic becomes the original; through it the status of the original ceases to have meaning. (Sturken, 40)

But what is the original in the case of Malcolm X? The original is certainly not the Autobiography, as it naturally highlights only particular events in Malcolm’s life and additionally contains facts as well as fiction. In the Autobiography, Malcolm both wants to make readers understand his actions and attempts to provide blacks with a handbook for internal liberation. When Sturken speaks of “the original,” she is referring to the past in its totality. However, as I have explained in the introduction, we can only approach the past by collecting and comparing histories describing events that happened in the past. As a cultural critic, I argue that docudramas are as valuable as documentaries for making sense of the past. Thus, the question is not if “the original ceases to have meaning” but how Lee’s story, or the stories told by rappers, change the meaning and reception of Malcolm X (Sturken, 40). After all, both Lee and rappers tell stories about Malcolm to allow their audiences to connect to the historical figure. I agree with Sturken on that we should not limit our study of the past to the consumption of cultural products manufactured by the entertainment industry. However, we have to set popular products like docudramas in context to more serious products like documentaries, history textbooks, etc. to get a broader understanding of our past and present culture.

3.1.3 Spike Lee’s Audience

Today, Malcolm’s Autobiography and Spike Lee’s film are consumed by an international audience of all races. During his lifetime, Malcolm spoke in front of black and white audiences, but always identified with the poor black masses. His suspicion toward white people never left him, not even after his trip to Mecca. Malcolm’s radical demand for equality by separating blacks and whites, as well as his urge to use “any means necessary” to achieve this goal, implied the right to self-defense and the use of physical force: “I’m non-violent only with those who are non-violent with me” (qtd. in Breitman 1990, 35). His apparent willingness to lead millions of dissatisfied blacks to a violent social, political, and economic revolution scared most white Americans to death:

I mean the Malcolm who was liberal America’s second worst nightmare – a powerful black orator who preached hate and made sense – and who became liberal America’s worst nightmare, because when he stopped preaching hate he didn’t start preaching love, he just started making more sense, to more people. (Bradley, 25)

Any potential white follower was excluded by Malcolm’s vision of a separated society. When making the film about Malcolm more than two decades later, Spike Lee had to decide for whom it was made. He had to ask himself the same question every black artist has to ask: “If I do choose to cross over, will I alienate my black audience?” (Lee, 189). In this instance “cross over” means trying to attract a white audience, which implies the danger of leaving behind one’s black audience. Lee argues that his general educational intention in film-making makes it possible to master this balancing act:

I’ve always found it interesting to view my films as having two different audiences, one black and one white. [...] The film’s about America, and all Americans can learn from it. (Lee, 185)

At best, Lee’s film has made his audience curious about the historical figure Malcolm X. By learning more about Malcolm, consumers would both gain a better understanding of the black struggle for equality and would decrease racial stereotyping; similar to the effects the Autobiography still has on its readers. Therefore, Spike Lee’s promotion of the Black Nationalist Malcolm X ironically includes an integrational aspect, in which Malcolm talks to and educates both black and white members of the audience. On the other hand, blacks wear “X” T-shirts showing the words: “It’s a Black Thing. You wouldn’t understand” (Wood, 8). The African-American writer Joe Wood felt “real” black when wearing such a T-shirt, intending to identify with “angry pro-Black African Americans.” Nevertheless, he realized that:

His icon is transferable, the spirit blends with other spirits: enraged people who are not pro-Black, for example, can wear the Malcolm mask and feel identified with their enraged communities. (Wood, 9)

This blending is a result of the repeated iconization in the Autobiography. The first mask, or icon, glorifies violence and crime later revealed as destructive racial self-hate. Malcolm is then transformed into a second mask, which embodies the anti-white Black Nationalism that Malcolm rejected before the book was finished. The third mask represents the final phase in Malcolm’s ideological development. It portrays a drastic moderation of the radical masks he had previously worn. This third mask, however, did not last long enough to firmly establish its character, and therefore remains mostly empty and available, leaving it open to several interpretations (Wood, 13). Thus, “Readers are left with two choices: Raise up the ideologically dead icons, or make of the third Malcolm what you will” (Wood, 13).

As it is probable that blacks and whites will choose different masks of Malcolm, the previously noted integrational aspects of the movie and the Autobiography lose credibility. Most Afro-Americans still identify with a pre-Mecca “strong Black face to counter the Whites,” because there is still a need for a fixed concept of the enemy due to everyday socio-economic discrimination (Wood, 13). However, Malcolm’s emphasis on education speaks through both his second and his third mask, and remains an approach toward integration. According to Joe Wood, an optimistic outlook toward a more integrational meaning of Malcolm’s legacy is justified:

[Black] People interested in a more tolerant society will have little use for Malcolm’s narrow nationalism [...] The second mask simply needs to be changed. The third Malcolm [...] will speak for our new community. [...] The old mask [...] flakes from our faces like dead skin. (Wood, 16)

In contrast to Wood’s assertions, most rap artists identify with Malcolm’s “second mask,” using him as a powerful symbol for rhetorical resistance and defiant blackness. In the following chapter, I will thus analyze Malcolm’s reception in hip hop culture.

3.2 Malcolm in Music

In the beginning of the 1990s, when rap music pervaded popular domains worldwide and the “Malcolm X craze was at its peak, virtually every rap performer recalled Malcolm’s name or alluded to his speeches” (Zarzycka, 172). While the connection between the historical figure Malcolm X and Spike Lee’s movie was obvious, it takes more to explain Malcolm’s relation to rap music and hip hop culture. In the following I will first bring together Malcolm’s rhetoric and rap by positioning both in the context of African-American oral traditions. Both Malcolm and rappers have used rhetorical strategies like signifying to express and resist racial oppression. Second, I will explain Malcolm’s appeal to rappers by juxtaposing Malcolm’s legacy and rap’s development since the 1970s. Third, I want to analyze Malcolm’s reception and meaning in rap.

3.2.1 Afro-American Oral Traditions in Malcolm’s Rhetoric & Rap

As I have argued in the introduction, slave songs, political speech, and rap music are forms of alternative communication used by African-Americans to assert their identity in a society dominated by a white mainstream culture (Campbell, 74). By raising their voices in stories and slave songs, enslaved Africans preserved their indigenous oral culture and started developing distinctive musical forms and traditions. As Lawrence Levine put it:

Black secular song, along with other forms of oral tradition, allowed them to express themselves communally and individually, to derive pleasure, to perpetuate traditions, to keep values from eroding, and to begin to create new expressive modes […] which continued a rich internal life. (Levine, 297)

For slaves, language was not only a means of communicating their sorrows, hopes, and cruel experiences, but also a means for rhetorical resistance. By rhetorically resisting the dehumanizing treatment of their masters, slaves resisted definition, spoke for themselves, and thus preserved their humanity by collectively constructing their identity (Campbell, 75). Expressing a similar argument, black writer bell hooks emphasized the vital importance of speech for a subjugated people:

Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side, a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life, and new growth possible. It is the act of speech, of ‘talking back’ that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of moving from object to subject, that is the liberated voice. (qtd. in Mariani, 340)

With “moving from object to subject,” hooks means the “transformation of the self from the object of someone else’s control and authority, to the possibility of self-definition and being one’s own subject” (Campbell, 82). I have mentioned earlier that self-definition and self-determination were also two of Malcolm’s major concerns. Drawing on W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of double-consciousness,[22] Malcolm understood that blacks had internalized racial stereotypes to the point that they saw themselves through the eyes of white racists. To replace the resulting self-hatred by instilling racial pride and to construct a black self-assertive identity was Malcolm’s foremost goal.

In order to effectively connect to his black audience, Malcolm used rhetorical strategies like talking back or signifying, which have a long tradition in African-American oral culture. Talking back refers both to the tradition of affirming one’s identity by talking back against the silence imposed by the slave master or dominant culture, and to the call and response tradition made popular by black preachers. Malcolm and Martin Luther King, Jr. were masters in weaving emotions, gestures, and words to arouse and connect to their audiences. Call and response thus describes the vibrant discourse between a calling black preacher, political activist, or artist and his responding audience. Drawing on the unifying power of call and response techniques, rappers interact with their fans in concerts to bring their “subversive cultural didacticism aimed at addressing racism, classism, social neglect and urban pain” home to their listeners (Dyson 1993, 5).

Rap artists have also internalized the rhetorical tradition of signifying. In fact, listeners hardly have a chance to understand a rapper’s message when they do not know the mechanics of signifying. Signifying is a way of encoding a message in both a language and a style that allows only insiders to decode it. African-American slaves developed signifying as an extension of their African oral culture in order to protect their communication against the master. They turned around words of the English language and gave them new meanings; they changed the pronunciation of some words and invented others; they made use of allegories and double meanings to make sure that the master might catch the literal meaning, but only the slaves would understand the intended figurative, indirect, and hidden meaning of a message. Black English has thus developed into a complex sociolect[23] that excludes whites and often middle-class blacks.

In his book The Signifying Monkey, literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. traced the origins of signifying to the African tale of the Signifying Monkey. The Signifying Monkey is a trickster that is perhaps the most popular figure in African-American folklore, as it reflects the way African-Americans see their position in American society. The monkey tale usually features three stock characters: the monkey, the lion, and the elephant. In contrast to his counterparts, the monkey is too weak to survive in the society of the jungle on his physical strength alone, and thus has to rely solely upon his wit and tricks for survival. In the tale, he beats the lion by pitting him out against the elephant. Once he has convinced the lion that the elephant has insulted the lion’s peers, the lion attacks the elephant and is trashed by the latter. Of course, it was the lion's terrible mistake that he took the monkey literally and failed to recognize that he was signifying (Gates 1988, 55).

The monkey tale proposes that subjected cultures develop their own way of using the master language in order to gain some independence or voices of their own. Signifying is a way people in weaker positions play with language to trick other people in more powerful positions who do not understand the language play. In search for a comprehensive definition of signifying, Gates refers to Roger D. Abraham’s take on the issue. Abraham claims that signifying can mean talking with great innuendo, lying, talking around a subject without coming to the point, and making fun of a person or situation. He concludes that it is signifying to stir up a fight between neighbors by telling stories; it is signifying to make fun of a policeman by parodying his motions behind his back; it is signifying to ask for a piece of cake by saying, ‘my brother needs a piece of cake.’ (qtd. in Gates 1987, 238-239)

Much of Malcolm’s and gangsta rappers’ problems with negative mainstream media coverage have to do with signifying. As most whites are culturally blind to African-American oral traditions, they share the lion’s fate and often misinterpret the output of black political activists and artists. As this study lacks the space for a more detailed treatment of the social stir caused by signifying, I recommend Werner Zips and Heinz Kämpfer’s book Nation X, which features an analysis of the nationwide scandal caused by rapper Ice T’s song Cop Killer (1992). Before turning to the historical development of rap, I will briefly sketch its musical precursors.

In the twentieth century, African-American musical forms like blues, jazz, R&B, and soul became the ambassadors of an innovative but oppressed people. Despite the growing popularity of black music, it happened all too often that white musicians imitated black musical forms, reaped the glamour, the publicity, and the financial benefit, since the white racist music industry rejected to boost black performers. In the 1950s, for example, white Southern working class musicians transformed blues into rock and roll. By separating blues from its location in the African-American experience of slavery, socio-economic, and political discrimination, “black expression was incorporated into the existential shell of white, urban romanticism” (Chambers, 161). Due to this so-called blaxploitation, the majority of African-American artists remained unknown, but nevertheless continued to play and develop their traditional music. Cultural Studies critic Ian Chambers argued that music has become one of the most important forms of oral expression for African-Americans:

From plantation to ghetto, black culture, and especially black music, has provided one of the strongest means of survival – a secret language of solidarity, a way of articulating oppression, a means of cultural existence, a cry of hope. (Chambers, 161)

One reason for the significance of music for African-Americans is that most black musicians have not compromised their success for turning away from blackness: “In the history of black expression in the U.S.A. it is music, above all, which has retained its roots in the black experience” (Chambers, 158). This is different in sports and entertainment. Apart from notable exceptions like Muhammad Ali, most popular black athletes and actors have either played down their blackness in order to succeed in a racist white world, or were rather perceived as celebrity than as African-American.[24] In contrast, most black musicians have always drawn major themes and styles from the conflicts and contradictions of black life, and thus provided their people with a means for identification.

3.2.2 Development of Rap Linked to Malcolm X

Much as rhythm and blues before, black artists have developed rap in an urban ghetto environment. Originated in the Bronx in the mid 1970s, rap remained an underground movement until it hit the charts and public notice in the late 1970s. Despite the prediction of music critics in the 1980s, rap became visible and massively popular in the United States, and reached a worldwide audience in the 1990s (Kellner, 185). In contrast to previous commercially successful black musical forms, rap has retained its blackness, despised all but a handful of white performers, and endowed black artists with the publicity and financial success that had been refused to most jazz, blues, and soul artists. Rap music’s success also flowed back to poor urban blacks as it provided those who were not skilled to become sports stars with an alternative to escape the destructive forces of the ghetto.

Rap culture’s development was heavily influenced by the socio-economic and political conditions of the 1980s, when conservative administrations neglected the concerns of poor blacks and accelerated a decline in living conditions with growing crime, drug abuse, gangs, and urban violence (Kellner, 176). With many blacks facing the deterioration of their living conditions in inner-city ghettos, young urban blacks developed new forms of clothing, dancing, singing, and visual arts. The umbrella term hip hop embraces fashion, break-dancing, rapping, and graffiti, providing Afro-American urban youths with powerful vehicles for the expression of their experiences, concerns, and politics – their dissatisfaction with the United States.

According to Cultural Studies critic Douglas Kellner’s definition, “RAP is a form of talking or rapping music with the R signifying rhyme and rhythm and the P poetry – and in some cases politics” (Kellner, 176). Rap crews usually consist of at least two artists: While one or more rappers deliver a discourse of distinctive, aggressive voices, the DJ adds a collage of noisy urban sounds, combining samples from popular records, speeches, and other familiar sounds. The rapper usually conveys a message to his audience, supported by a choral background similar to minister and chorus in black churches (Kellner, 176-177). Thus, the function of preaching in black churches is comparable to rap’s meaning for the so-called Hip Hop Nation. Public intellectual and ordained Minister Michael Eric Dyson argues that it is not only a “hunger for linguistic excellence” that connects rapping to preaching but also the use of rhetoric as a means of self-expression, social critique, and moral suasion (Dyson 2003, 296). In a rare mix, rap brings together the potential of black preaching and black music. Although Minister Malcolm X was no musician, his powerful use of language and rhetoric strikes a common chord with present-day rappers:

Rap is hip voices talking, singing, profiling, and styling to the accompaniment of a strong musical beat. What characterizes rap’s rhetoric then, is its attachment to the beat and spoken word. The same fondness of words marked the rhetoric of Malcolm X [...]. No wonder that Malcolm’s speeches have sounded to rap artists as ready-made musical material. (Zarzycka, 168)

In the rather short history of rap, three major strands or subcultures have emerged: conscious, gangsta, and pop. Although the lines between these strands are blurred as there have been rappers merging characteristics from several strands, most rappers fit into one of these three categories. Since each category of rappers interprets Malcolm in another way, I will briefly sketch the differences between conscious, gangsta, and pop rappers.

Conscious rappers like Chuck D. from Public Enemy are fierce social critics of the ghetto ills who disseminate political messages designed to both express the pain of the black community, and its need for education. Chuck D. calls rap the CNN of Afro-Americans spreading news, feelings, and outlooks (Kellner, 180). By filling the community’s blank memory with black historical knowledge, by calling for Black Nationalist strategies to achieve black unity, and by condemning drugs and violence, political rappers combine education with entertainment. Rapper KRS-One calls this positive blending edutainment. Due to its wide popularity with black (and white) youths, political rap has become a powerful tool to express and spread black rage and critical thoughts. In the late 1990s, political rapper Lauryn Hill rose to international fame and admonished gangsta rappers to “use art to fuel the psychic and aesthetic liberation of black people” (Dyson 2003, 295).

Gangsta or “reality” rap, as Ice Cube put it, celebrates and glorifies sexual excess, drugs, obscenity, consumerism, and violence, which are all part of daily ghetto life (Cube, 180). Gangsta rappers are “obsessed with material goods, the prizes of wealth, and huge disposable income” (Dyson 2003, 293). In contrast to political rap, gangsta rap mirrors and often exaggerates the hardships of ghetto reality without providing critical insight that offers listeners an escape from the vicious circle of racism, violence, and crime (Kellner, 190). Many critics claim that gangsta rap encourages ghetto youngsters to make quick money by indulging in a life of bloodshed and transgression. Although gangsta rappers such as the early Ice Cube provide valuable social stir by rapping about existing sexism and homophobia, their morally neutral position promotes the discrimination of homosexuals and associates manhood with sexual domination and verbal abuse. Despite its rather negative pedagogical impact on urban youths, most radio stations and TV channels prefer to air flashy gangsta rap to politically critical rap:

The rappers who are highlighted in mainstream culture – those who get the fattest paychecks and the biggest video budgets that help procure the latest cars and hottest girls to flaunt their ornamental eroticism – are those who brag about sexual prowess, cultural prominence, and deep pockets. (Dyson 2003, 293-294)

One of the later and shallower trends in rap music is the development of pop rap. Rappers like M.C. Hammer opened up rap’s populist dimension by exploring common territory between races and classes without causing much social or political stir (Dyson 1993, 8). In contrast to gangsta and political rappers, pop rappers compromise their solidarity with the ghetto for mere entertainment and commercial gain. Due to its unoffending and harmless mainstream appeal, an increasing number of conservative radio stations in the United States prefer pop rap to its conscious and gangsta counterparts. In 1993, public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson rightly predicted that pop rap’s mainstream dilution may lead to a “sanitizing of rap’s expression of urban realities, resulting in sterile hip-hop that, devoid of its original fire, will offend no one” (Dyson 1993, 8). Eleven years later, political rap is virtually silenced, and rap music faces the danger of becoming an easily packaged, distributed, and consumed commodity that loses its significance once its authenticity has vanished. Thus, it is rap’s major challenge to “maintain its aesthetic, cultural, and political proximity to its site of origin: the ghetto poor” (Dyson 1993, 10).

Malcolm would have probably condemned pop rappers for selling out and watering down an authentic oral form of African-American culture. For these and other reasons, the late 1980s saw political rappers like Chuck D. and KRS-One revitalizing Malcolm through their lyrics (Lee, 183). As it took only a few years to make Malcolm “the rap revolution’s rhetorician of choice,” there has to be more than Malcolm’s fondness for words and his detestation of sell-outs that connects him to rap (Dyson 1995, 85). Malcolm’s emphasis on the virtues of manhood, his criminal origins in black ghetto culture, his identification with the ghetto poor, and his ability to use the language of the ghetto to express its rage made him a natural icon for political and gangsta rap culture, “his words forming the ideological framework for authentic black consciousness” (Dyson 1995, 85). Like Malcolm,

rappers channel black rage and defiant black rhetoric at the conditions that make life hell for urban residents. At its best, rap entails a refusal of silent complicity in the social and political destruction of black life by offering sometimes rude rebukes to the white and black powers-that-be. (Dyson 1995, 158)

Given their dissatisfaction with the white administration and the continuing racial discrimination, it is not surprising that from the outset, hip hop culture was affiliated with militant Black Nationalism (Zips, 308). In turning away from integration as political strategy, the Hip Hop Nation and other blacks embraced the Black Nationalism Malcolm had helped to promote in the 1960s.

Given the crisis of black bourgeois leadership and a greater crisis of black liberal social imagination about the roots of black suffering, black nationalist politics becomes for many blacks the logical means of remedy and resistance. (Dyson 1995, 114)

As NOI spokesperson, Malcolm preached a racist Black Nationalism as well as a sparsely disguised sexism. In accordance with the sexist ideology of the Nation of Islam, which promoted the inferior position of black women because they were supposed to be a “lethal source of deception and seduction from within,” Malcolm proclaimed black liberation by male leadership and supremacy (Dyson 1995, 10). Especially this sexist aspect has been adopted by contemporary gangsta rappers and black urban youths. When black scholar and political activist Angela Y. Davis interviewed gangsta rapper Ice Cube, she voiced concerns about the derogatory language he uses to transmit his messages. Cube answered as follows:

The language of the streets is the only language I can use to communicate with the streets. [...] You have to get under them and lift them. You know all of this pulling from on top ain’t working. (Cube, 179)

Similar to Cube, Malcolm X used “the language of the streets” to communicate with the ghetto poor. However, after his time in prison, he resented offensive language when referring to blacks, and advocated good manners. Based on his black puritan moral perspective, “Malcolm X most likely would have disdained rap’s materialistic impulses to get paid, spurned its hedonistic joie de vivre, its celebration of vulgar verbal expression” (Dyson 1995, xxi). Malcolm would have been particularly appalled by rappers’ frequent use of the “vulgar verbal expression” nigger, which had already been deemed to be a racist and derogatory term during Malcolm’s lifetime.

When we think of Peter Goldman’s argument that it was Malcolm who really began the difficult passage from Negro to African-American, it seems like Malcolm’s reception as a symbol for self-pride and self-respect underwent a radical shift in the 1990s, when rappers sampled Malcolm’s voice in context with talk about niggers (Goldman, 397). However, rappers use this derogatory term to describe themselves and their crews in an attempt to take a term of racial insult and to transform it into a badge of racial pride (Kellner, 179). Since Malcolm X was most famous for the repeated remarks in his speeches that urged blacks to fight for liberation “by any means necessary,” the semiotic shifting of the term nigger from a repressive to an empowering connotation does not necessarily contradict his legacy’s effect on the society of the 1960s. The semiotic shift rather extends Malcolm’s legacy of radical rhetorical resistance aiming at uplifting the oppressed black masses by awakening a proud black consciousness.

Since I am interested in how rappers see, portray, and influence Malcolm’s reception and meaning, I will take a closer look at the following political and gangsta rappers: Snoop Dogg (gangsta), Ice Cube (gangsta / political), Swayzack (political), Queen Latifah (political) and Public Enemy (political). My research will suggest that gangsta rappers rather exploit Malcolm’s legacy for their individual needs than political rappers, and that both groups interpret Malcolm’s legacy relative to their affiliation with the Nation of Islam. Ice Cube is a special case as he started out as a gangsta and transformed into a politically conscious NOI-affiliated rhetorician. In this respect, he is often compared to Malcolm X (Zarzycka, 170).

3.2.3 Malcolm’s Meaning in Rap

There are a number of similarities between Malcolm X and Ice Cube. In terms of biography, both grew up in a violent urban ghetto environment, identified with the urban black masses, and became spokespersons of the Nation of Islam. In contrast to Malcolm, Cube had already lent his voice to the needs of the ghetto poor before he converted to the Nation. Identifying with gangsta culture, Cube had glorified violence against blacks and whites, had attacked black sell-outs, and had bragged about sexual excesses in his early songs. Once he had converted to the Black Muslim faith, he fused the NOI’s claim for black superiority with ghetto reality. Similar to Malcolm, Cube now advocated black business power, warned against the consumption of the white man’s drugs, and emphasized the importance of education to overcome oppression. Consistent with NOI dogma,[25] Cube celebrated Malcolm as a hero, but considered his split from the Black Muslims a failure. Consequently, he ignored Malcolm’s impact as an independent leader. Not surprisingly, the following excerpt of Cube’s teachings very much resembles Malcolm’s racist Black Muslim doctrines:

It’s all about teaching our kids about the slave master. Teaching them about his nature, and how he is always beating you [...] no matter how much you try and educate him. [...] We’ve got to understand that everything has natural enemies. There’s the chicken and the chicken hawk. [...] That’s what we got to instil in our kids. (Cube, 189)

Although Cube substituted “slave master” for “devil,” he reached the same general conclusion as Malcolm X in the early 1960s. By equating the white man or the white race with uneducatable slave masters, Cube creates a natural, evil enemy of blacks who oppresses and discriminates against all blacks by his very nature, and therefore must be oppressed. Cube’s teachings sharply contradict Malcolm’s late racial tolerant statements about the importance of education:

If the entire American population were properly educated – by properly educated, I mean given a true picture of the history and contributions of the black man – I think many whites would be less racist in their feelings. Also, the feeling of inferiority that the black man has would be replaced by a balanced knowledge of himself. He’d feel more like a human being, in a society of human beings. So it takes education to eliminate it. (qtd. in Breitman 1990, 196)

Cube justifies his narrow interpretation of Malcolm by denying Malcolm’s maturity as an independent leader: “Malcolm’s a student. You don’t know about Malcolm until you go to Malcolm’s teacher” (Cube, 184). Malcolm’s teacher in the Nation was Elijah Muhammad, who died in 1975 and whose teachings are today conveyed by Minister Louis Farrakhan. By ignoring Malcolm post-Mecca in their songs and interviews, Cube and other NOI-affiliated gangsta and political rappers not only comply with NOI dogma, but also serve the needs of black urban youths yearning for an exclusively black icon that expresses their pain and anger. While political NOI-affiliated rappers like Cube limit Malcolm’s meaning by educating their audiences only about his first and second stage, gangsta rappers like Snoop Dogg, who are not affiliated with NOI dogma, flagrantly exploit and distort Malcolm’s legacy.

In his song Serial Killa (1993), Snoop Dogg describes how he would shoot any “niggaz” who dare to question his and his crew’s authority. At the end of the song, he also threatens to kill any “nigga” who does not respect “X,” referring to Malcolm X:

Now everybody scream nuff respect to the X

Nuff respect given

Disrespect and you will not be livin. (“Snoop Dogg”)

It is surprising that Snoop Dogg threatens to kill particularly black people for not respecting Malcolm, as many black people cherished Malcolm in the 1960s for his demand to unify and to stop blacks from killing black brothers and sisters. Although Snoop Dogg claims superficially to protect Malcolm’s legacy, he contradicts one of the central aspects of Malcolm’s meaning for black people. Snoop Dogg selfishly invoked Malcolm’s spirit in order to profit from Malcolm’s authority in the black community. Although he and other popular gangstas like Tupac Shakur continue Malcolm’s important truth-teller function by expressing the anger of the voiceless ghetto poor, gangsta rappers tend to oversimplify and to distort Malcolm’s meaning. This superficial and uncritical treatment of Malcolm’s legacy spurs the flowering of Malcolm myths which reinforce the iconization of the historical figure and fail to convey Malcolm’s complex meaning to the young audience.

Political rappers like Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, Michael Franti, or Swaycack have a more comprehensive understanding of Malcolm X. The Philadelphia-based rapper Swaycack, for example, considers all developmental stages of Malcolm to be important and criticizes Ice Cube’s and other people’s selective understanding of Malcolm to be ignorant. Swaycack believes that most X-hat-wearing youths do not know much about Malcolm: “They look to Malcolm X as a hero but stifle themselves by not knowing the truth of the man. They wear Malcolm X hats but carry 9-millimeters and shoot other brothers” (qtd. in Rule, 23).

Rapper Michael Franti from Oakland, California shares Swaycack’s understanding of Malcolm as a complex historical figure. Franti distances himself from associating Malcolm’s meaning with advocating violence and reflects on Malcolm’s self-criticism:

The things I gained from him is not his symbol as a militant but his ongoing examination of his life and how he was able to think critically about himself. That’s where I think we can gain strength. Through constantly conquering our shortcomings and questioning our beliefs. (qtd. in “Tribute,” 15)

Public Enemy would surely agree with Franti’s argument. Public Enemy initiated Malcolm’s cultural rebirth in the late 1980s because they thought Malcolm’s lessons of critical thinking, black unity, and black pride bore a valuable message for contemporary black youths. In their rap video Night of the Living Baseheads (1988), Public Enemy supported a social project in Harlem and portrayed their vision as extension of Malcolm’s legacy (Rose, 122). The video shows Public Enemy protesting against the demolition of the run-down Audubon Ballroom, the site where Malcolm was assassinated, and arguing for its restoration as a community center and Malcolm X Memorial. According to rap critic Tricia Rose, the video is a media-savvy, socially grounded, and relevant collage that not only offers biting criticism and commentary on contemporary American class and race relations but also does it to swirling and mesmerizing beats and rhymes. (Rose, 122)

By setting Malcolm in context with a Harlem community project and by portraying the social dangers of a neglected ghetto youth, Public Enemy extended Malcolm’s meaning to the 1990s and made his teachings relevant for the solution of black youth’s contemporary problems. Public Enemy’s treatment of Malcolm X thus raises historical consciousness and offers a critical reflection on present-day social problems. While Public Enemy’s interpretation of Malcolm stayed close to his meaning in the 1960s, female rapper Queen Latifah goes one step further when she adapts Malcolm’s legacy to a black feminist context.

Queen Latifah’s rap video Ladies First (1989) is a landmark example for a strong African-American voice calling for black female unity, independence, and power. By combining her feminist demands with her support of the anti-colonial movement in South Africa, Latifah’s video becomes a “powerful rewriting of the contribution of black women in the history of black struggles [that] […] calls into question the historically cozy relationship between nationalism and patriarchy” (Rose, 164-165). In her video, Latifah combines the sampling of Malcolm’s legendary phrase: “There are going to be some changes made here” with camera pans to popular black female rappers and in a later scene, to South African protest marchers. By associating Malcolm’s voice with the South African struggle for independence, Latifah alludes to Malcolm’s late pan-Africanism and makes his legacy relevant for contemporary politics. When Latifah recontextualizes Malcolm as a supporter of the changes regarding the degraded status of black women rappers, she both affirms and revises Malcolm’s attitude toward women. She revises Malcolm’s sexist legacy stemming from his days as a Black Muslim that is often invoked by gangsta rappers, and affirms his late turn toward sexual equality.

In conclusion, my research has shown that gangsta rappers like Snoop Dogg rather exploit than explain Malcolm’s meaning and thus reduce the historical figure to a decontextualized frozen icon. Compared to gangsta rappers, political rappers like Ice Cube, who are affiliated with the Nation of Islam, showed a more complex treatment of Malcolm’s legacy but limited their understanding of Malcolm to his allegedly sinful first and redemptive second stage. The most comprehensive, tolerant, and fruitful interpretation of Malcolm’s meaning in the 1990s came from political rappers like Public Enemy and Queen Latifah. By recontextualizing Malcolm in socially critical songs and video clips that last only a couple of minutes, these Black Nationalist artists provided African-American youths with a Malcolm who is relevant to their present-day problems.

Despite political rap’s healthy impact on community coherence, black consciousness, and African-American urban youths’ literacy, its influence and success in hip hop culture waned over the past years. While observing the political rap scene in 1994, Ice Cube felt the game changing subtly:

At that time, nobody wanted to hear that kind of rap. The whole conscious era had peaked with the release of the Malcolm X Movie. The G-funk[26] era was coming in. It was a whole different tone in the music. People didn’t want to take rap that serious any more. (“Ice Cube Biography”)

People seemed to be tired, not only of the ubiquitous Malcolm X, but tired of the teacher-like rap artists as well. The power within the fan community shifted from the serious students to those who wanted simply to be entertained by gangsta or pop lyrics backed by an easy-going beat. In her essay Malcolm X in the Pop Culture of the 1990s, published in 2001, Bianka Zarzycka remarks a similar shift:

Paradoxically, contemporary rap music is often said to be more economically than politically oriented, and the latest rap releases avoid quibbling over politics and ideologies in order to sell excess and riches, women and violence. Thus in recent years, the name of Malcolm X rarely appears in the same context as earlier. (Zarzycka, 173)

In the mid 1990s, political rappers were pushed to the background, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X had left the movies, and the omnipresent X-hats and shirts had vanished from the streets. Malcolmania was over. However, Malcolm has continued to be popular. Many black and white kids have Malcolm standing in their DVD collection and if Gates was right – even on their book shelves (Gates 1993, 11). English teachers still marvel about Malcolmania’s effect on their students’ reading habits (Wilkerson, A1). In many black schools, the Autobiography has become the number one on the reading lists. In 1999, Time magazine selected the Autobiography as one of the top ten non-fiction works of the twentieth century. Two years later, about one decade after Malcolmania, Werner Zips and Heinz Kämpfer note that Malcolm is still at least as popular as during his lifetime (Zips, 310).

4 Conclusion

In chapter 2, I have explained why Malcolm’s legacy particularly appealed to black youths in the 1990s. For all his adult life, Malcolm identified with the poor black masses. Starting out in a life of violence and crime, he worked his way up to become a self-conscious, proud, and strong black man. Particularly young urban black males who grow up with bloodshed and transgression see in Malcolm a model for a no-sell-out successful black man. As the socio-economic conditions for the black urban masses have not improved since Malcolm’s lifetime, Malcolm’s fierce rhetoric still addresses contemporary black problems. Since Malcolm disseminated vastly different messages during his development from pimp to preacher, his legacy gained mass appeal in the 1990s because people were able to pick the Malcolm that matched their personal beliefs. Although the absence of the Civil Rights Movement and the fall of liberal integrationist ideology mark a significant difference to the political situation of the 1960s, the 1990s saw a rising Black Nationalism. Since black political leaders like Jesse Jackson failed to either provide blacks with a vision, or to improve their miserable socio-economic situation, black people embraced the cultural rebirth of Malcolm X.

4.1 What Malcolmania Did to Malcolm’s Legacy

Particularly the fashion industry confirmed Amiri Baraka’s fears of a cooling down of Malcolm’s radical legacy when it turned the formerly exclusive black hero into a mass marketing label. With the separation of Malcolm’s surname X from his political legacy, X-paraphernalia became decontextualized icons that were labelled “uncool” and vanished once the underground trend had reached the mainstream. The fashion industry’s influence on Malcolm’s popularity has thus been short-lived. However, its effect on Malcolm’s reception and meaning may turn out to last longer as the label of being outdated and uncool will stick to both the symbol and the historical figure Malcolm X. The fashion industry’s commercialization of Malcolm thus led to a negative reception of Malcolm’s legacy that may keep black youths from gaining a deeper understanding of the historical figure Malcolm X.

Malcolm’s reception by rap artists has been heterogeneous. While gangsta rappers tend to distort Malcolm’s meaning by focusing entirely on his first stage, NOI-affiliated rappers reduce Malcolm’s complex development by rejecting his third stage. Only a few political rappers respect Malcolm’s personal and political development and succeed in setting him in context with issues of the 1990s without contradicting his legacy from the 1960s. Only those rappers who dare to interpret Malcolm’s complex legacy critically may save him from transforming into a frozen icon devoid of any deeper meaning (Zips, 311). One rare example is Queen Latifah, who criticizes Malcolm’s sexism while using his authority in the black community to boost her feminist message. If the decrease of political rap’s popularity in the rap community continues, Adolph Reed, Jr.’s prediction that Malcolmania will trivialize Malcolm’s complex legacy may become true. Malcolm’s meaning in rap would be likely to boil down “either to tag phrases and slogans or to allegorically driven platitudes [...] that are useless for making sense of social life inside real history” (Reed, 202).

Similar to political rappers, Spike Lee succeeded in connecting Malcolm’s meaning to issues contemporary blacks care about. By entertaining and educating a mass audience, it was him who really brought the historical figure Malcolm X back to black youths. Lee’s dramatic treatment of Malcolm’s development generated enough curiosity about the historical figure Malcolm X to boost the sale of the Autobiography. Although the movie may have been more critical on Malcolm’s shortcomings, for example, by taking up his sexism, his failure to write a political program, or his inability to build a political organization, it is the most comprehensive treatment of Malcolm’s legacy in popular culture. Lee’s movie fortified Malcolm’s meaning as a strong black man who suffered from systematic discrimination but overcame racism by transforming his self-hatred into a proud black consciousness.

Of course, Malcolmania is just one example for the entertainment industry’s systematic commercialization of former rebels. Bianka Zarzycka notes that Malcolm’s “assimilation by commercial culture is a perfect example of the [fashion, film, and music industry’s] politics of periodical renewal[27] by embracing individual rebellions and oppositional stances” (Zarzycka, 173).

4.2 Integrational and Separational Aspects of Malcolmania

In theory, Spike Lee targeted a black and white audience, educated both racial groups about Malcolm’s lifelong struggle to uplift blacks in the face of white racism, and thus helped to draw blacks and whites closer together. While black watchers realized that not all whites are racists, and that blacks can empower themselves, white watchers realized that blacks are not naturally violent and criminal, but are crippled by a discriminatory system. At best, Lee’s movie thus reduces racism by making whites better understand black people’s problems and encourages blacks to follow Malcolm’s example to master these problems.

In reality, however, white kids hesitate to watch Malcolm X in the movies because they fear black kids’ anger about having to share their black hero (Wilkerson, B7). Even with a mixed race audience, blacks and whites will favor different meanings of Malcolm. Similar to the selective reading of the Autobiography, white watchers will emphasize Malcolm’s late turn toward humanism, while blacks will be drawn both to Malcolm’s dive into black ghetto culture in his youth, and his racially strong and exclusive appearance during most of his adulthood.

As rap politics are traditionally Black Nationalist, rap songs featuring Malcolm X rather deal with the problems, politics, and empowering of the black community than with an integration into the dominant white society. Nevertheless, millions of white kids consume rap, respect black artists, and thus decrease stereotyping and racial prejudices. However, rap’s integrational effect rather stems from its general appeal to white kids than from the references to Malcolm.

4.3 The Gains and Losses of Malcolmania for the Black Community

The majority of the financial benefit generated by Malcolmania did not flow back into the black community but into the pockets of white music bosses, rap artists, Warner Brothers, and Spike Lee. Although black shop owners have profited from selling X-paraphernalia, Malcolmania’s direct impact on the improvement of black business power remains marginally. If the black community gained from Malcolmania, it was not financially but politically and ideologically.

Due to deteriorating political and economical conditions in the late 1980s and early 1990s, urban blacks became frustrated with their self-acclaimed leaders, above all, Jesse Jackson (Reed, 215). Malcolmania not only served the need of dispirited blacks to identify with a strong black leader but also allowed them to evade current problems by romanticizing the 1960s. While my study has shown that Spike Lee’s and several rappers’ treatment of Malcolm made his legacy relevant for black youths in the 1990s, cultural critics argue about whether Malcolmania furthered or hampered black political activism. Adolph Reed, Jr. asserts that neither Malcolmania nor any knowledge about the historical figure Malcolm X helps blacks to solve their current complex political problems. Rather Malcolmania “substitutes for analysis and critique of an obviously objectionable political situation; it is an evasion” (Reed 218). In contrast to Reed’s wholesale rejection of Malcolm’s value for contemporary politics, Werner Zips and Heinz Kämpfer claim that by featuring Malcolm X, contemporary rappers heavily contributed to a revival of political activism in the black community (Zips, 309). While Public Enemy’s and Queen Latifah’s exceptional treatment of Malcolm may have contributed to a rising political activism, the influence of political rappers currently decreases as the power in the rap community shifts to pop and gangsta rap. Given the interesting aspects of Malcolmania’s potential influence on black political activism, it is surprising that Reed’s analysis in Stirrings in the Jug appears to be the only detailed scholarly treatment of the issue. Further research has to be done to clarify Malcolm’s meaning for the 1990s.

While the results of this study paint a clearer picture of Malcolmania’s effect on Malcolm’s reception and meaning, there are several limitations that deserve attention. The assumptions made about the fashion industry’s negative impact on Malcolm’s meaning are based on statements made by cultural critics and my own reasoning. Also, Malcolm’s meaning for black youth in the 21st century cannot be described adequately by his continuing popularity alone. Future research would benefit from collecting statistically relevant data by interviewing contemporary black youths and thus building a larger sample that would allow for a more systematic exploration of the current understanding of Malcolm X.

5 Selected Bibliography

Abrahams, Roger D. Singing the Master: The Emergence of African American Culture in the Plantation of the South. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.

Allen, Robert L. A Guide to Black Power in America: An Historical Analysis. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1970.

Boyd, Todd. Am I Black Enough For You? Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1997.

Bradley, David. “Malcolm’s Mythmaking.” Transition 56 (1992): 20-46.

Breitman, George. By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews and a Letter by Malcolm X. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970.

---. Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements. New York: Groove Press, 1990.

Campbell, Neil, and Alasdair Kean. American Cultural Studies: An Introduction to American Culture. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Canby, Vincent. “Malcolm X, as Complex as Its Subject.” The New York Times 18 Nov. 1992: C19+.

Chambers, Ian. “A Strategy for Living: Black Music and White Subcultures.” Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain. Eds. Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson. London: Cambridge UP, 1991. 157-66.

Clegg, Claude Andrew. An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Cone, James H. Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare? New York: Orbis Books, 1991.

Corliss, Richard. “The Elevation of Malcolm X.” Time 23 Nov. 1992: 58-59.

Cube, Ice. “Nappy Happy.” Transition 58 (1992): 174-92.

Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Greenwich: Fawcett, 1961.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

---. Making Malcolm. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.

---. “Martin and Malcolm.” Transition 56 (1992): 48-59.

---. Open Mike: Reflections on Philosophy, Race, Sex and Religion. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003.

---. Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1993.

Ensslen, Klaus. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Schwarzes Bewußtsein in Amerika. Munich, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1983.

Fairclough, Adam. Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890 – 2000. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.

Fox, Robert Elliot. “Afrocentrism and the X-Factor.” Transition 57 (1992): 17-25.

Fremont-Smith, Eliot. “An Eloquent Testament.” The New York Times 5 Nov. 1965: 35.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

---. “Malcolm, the Aardvark and Me.” New York Times Book Review 21 Feb. 1993: 11.

---. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and Cornel West. The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country. New York: The Free Press, 2000.

Gilroy, Paul. “Spiking the Argument.” Sight and Sound 1.7 (1991): 29-30.

---. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

Goldman, Peter. The Death and Life of Malcolm X. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Goodman, Benjamin. The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches by Malcolm X. New York: Merlin House, 1971.

Haley, Alex. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965.

Hartley, John. A Short History of Cultural Studies. London: Sage Publications, 2003.

Ice Cube Biography. 17 Mar. 2004. Rap Basement Networks: Hip Hop and Alternative Music Network 1 Jan. 2004 <>.

Jones, Jacquie. “Spike Lee Presents Malcolm X: The New Black Nationalism.” Cineaste: America’s Leading Magazine on the Art and Politics of the Cinema 19.4 (1993): 9-11.

Klarer, Mario. An Introduction To Literary Studies. London: Routledge, 1999.

Kellner, Douglas. Media Culture. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Lee, Spike. “Generation X.” Transition 56 (1992): 176-190.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Locke, John. “Adapting the Autobiography: The Transformation of Malcolm X.” Cineaste: America’s Leading Magazine on the Art and Politics of the Cinema 19.4 (1993): 5-7.

Lomax, Louis E. To Kill a Black Man: The Shocking Parallel in the Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Los Angeles: Holloway House, 1968.

Lowenthal, David. The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.

Malcolm X Project. 1 Jan. 2004. Columbia University: The Institute for Research in African-American Studies 14 Mar. 2004 < malcolm.htm>.

Mariani, Philomena, ed. Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing (Discussions in Contemporary Culture , No 7). Seattle: Bay Press 1991.

Nash, Bruce. The Numbers: Box Office Data. 7 Mar. 2004. 14 Mar. 2004 <>.

Perry, Bruce. Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America. New York: Station Hill Press, 1991.

Reed, Adolph, Jr. Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1994.

Rule, Sheila. “Malcolm X: The Facts, the Fictions, the Film.” The New York Times 15 Nov. 1992: C19+.

Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. Essex: Prentice Hall, 2001.

---. Inventing Popular Culture: From Folklore to Globalization. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Sturken, Marita. “Personal Stories and National Meanings: Memory, Reenactment, and the Image.” The Seductions of Biography. Ed. David Suchoff. New York: Routledge, 1996. 33-41.

Thwaites, Tony Lloyd Davis, and Warwick Mules. Tools for Cultural Studies: An Introduction. Melbourne: Macmillan, 1994.

“Tribute to Malcolm X” [special issue]. Black Beat Magazine 1992.

Turvey, Malcolm. “Black Film Making in the USA: The Case of Malcolm X.” Wasafari 18.3 (1993): 53-56.

Wallace, Michele. Black Popular Culture. New York: The New York Press, 1998.

Wilkerson, Isabel. “Young Believe Malcolm X Is Still Speaking to Them.” The New York Times 18 Nov. 1992: A1+.

Wood, Joe. “Malcolm X And The New Blackness.” Malcolm X In Our Own Image. Ed. Joe Wood. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. 1-17.

Zarzycka, Bianka. “Roaring Loud, Standing Proud: Malcolm X In The Pop Culture Of The 1990s.” The Civil Rights Movement Revisited. Ed. Patrick B. Miller. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. 165-74.

Zips, Werner. Nation X: Schwarzer Nationalismus, Black Exodus & Hip Hop. Vienna: Promedia, 2001.

6 Discography

Public Enemy. “Night of the Living Baseheads.” It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Def Jam, 1988.

Queen Latifah. “Ladies First.” All Hail the Queen. Tommy Boy, 1989.

Snoop Dogg, “Serial Killa.” Doggystyle. Priority, 1993.

7 Filmography

Do the Right Thing, Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, and Spike Lee. Universal Pictures, 1989.

Malcolm X. Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Al Freeman, Jr., Denzel Washington, and Spike Lee. Warner Brothers, 1992.

“The Hate That Hate Produced.” CBS News. Prod. Mike Wallace. CBS. New York. 13-17 July 1959.


[1] The Autobiography of Malcolm X was written in 1965 with the assistance of Afro-American journalist Alex Haley. It was finished shortly before Malcolm’s assassination and remains the most important document on Malcolm’s life.

[2] Malcolmania is a neologism blending the terms Malcolm, referring to Malcolm X, and mania, expressing an extreme desire or enthusiasm for something. The term Malcolmania is usually used to describe the peak of the Malcolm X craze in the early 1990s.

[3] The basis for Semiotics is the linguistic model of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). “The Swiss linguist starts from the assumption that language functions through representation, in which a mental image is verbally manifested or represented. […] Building on this notion, Saussure distinguishes between […] the pre-linguistic concept […] as the signified and its verbal manifestation […] as the signifier” (Klarer, 87).

[4] In his semiotics of fashion, the French literary critic Roland Barthes regarded “clothes or garments as systems of signs whose elements could be ‘read’ just like the literary signs in texts” (Klarer, 89).

[5] Before the 1950s, literary critics regarded products of high culture, the best thought and written, with eternal values and authority, as the only products of cultural value.

[6] The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was an integrationist movement founded in 1909. Its main objective was to bring about equality for African-Americans by fighting racist laws in the courts.

[7] Jim Crow laws discriminated blacks on the basis of race. Plessy vs. Ferguson actually legalized Jim Crow laws in the South as it confined blacks to separate facilities of far lower standards than those of whites.

[8] The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was an integrationist movement founded in 1957 by mostly black Southern ministers. In contrast to the NAACP, the SCLC used non-violent tactics of civil disobedience on the streets to fight for African-American social, political, and economic equality.

[9] The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in 1960 by black Southern students. Similar to the SCLC, the SNCC used non-violent tactics on the streets to protest for civil rights. In 1965, the movement turned to a more radical approach close to Black Nationalism.

[10] The term zoot means something worn or performed in an extravagant style. A zoot suit is an extravagant dress worn by African-American and Mexican-American youths in the 1940s. In an attempt to resist cultural assimilation into the dominant white society, zoot suiters created a visible identity by style. In the mid-1940s, the zoot suit became known as the uniform of young rioters.

[11] The Nation of Islam (NOI) was founded in Detroit in 1934 by Wallace D. Fard. Its theological doctrine explains black weakness, the black claim for superiority, and the white evil race with a primitive tale. Blacks are taught to discipline themselves by strict belief in Allah and the rejection of drugs, adultery, and pork. Although the sexes are rigidly separated and Arabic is studied intermittently, the NOI does not conform to standard Islam as practiced in the Middle-East. In his book An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad, Claude Andrew Clegg, a scholar for Arabic studies, describes the NOI as a folk religion with little in common with standard Islam.

[12] The term pan-Africanism refers to the idea that black people world-wide have suffered from three common problems: slavery, colonization, and racism. Pan-Africanists believe that all black people should work together to gain freedom and equality in their respective countries.

[13] Malcolm argued that the term Negro was a semantic prison separating blacks from their African heritage and thus deliberately distorting black history and black consciousness (Fairclough, 397).

[14] In 1963, King delivered his famous I have a Dream speech right before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. His speech marked the climax of the March on Washington, up to then the greatest civil rights demonstration in the United States. In his speech, King dreamed of a color-blind America where blacks and whites lived together as equals.

[15] The slogan Black Power was coined by SNCC member Stokely Carmichael. In 1966, the SNCC elected Carmichael as chairman and changed their political program from non-violent integrationalism to militant Black Nationalism. The SNCC and later Black Power organizations like the Black Panther Party stressed, very much like Malcolm X, the need of black unity, racial pride, and black business power. Black Power organizations were more influential in the Northern than in the Southern United States but dissolved in the late 1960s due to FBI infiltration and lacking support of the black community.

[16] Louis Farrakhan entered the NOI in 1955 (Malcolm X had entered in 1948) and became Elijah Muhammad’s most powerful advisor after Malcolm’s break-away. After Muhammad’s death in 1975, Farrakhan won the power struggle against Muhammad's much more liberal son, Warith Denn Mohammed. In 1978, Farrakhan became the successor to Elijah Muhammad and is one of today’s most influential people within the black community.

[17] Amiri Baraka, a well-known Afro-American poet, writer, political activist, and teacher, criticized Lee’s project before he had seen the script, fearing that the film would contribute “to make middle-class Negroes sleep easier (Rule, 2).”

[18] In the movies, Malcolm X grossed more than $48 million in the US alone (Nash, 1). Assuming that one ticket costs approximately $10.-, I conclude that about 4.8 million Americans have seen the movie. In contrast, only about three million copies of the Autobiography have been sold worldwide (“Malcolm X Project”). Of course, this calculation is only a rough guess. For the lack of sufficient data, I have ignored that some Americans may have seen the movie more than once, that the movie was also seen by millions of people outside the United States, and that one book may be read by more than one person.

[19] After the release of the Malcolm X movie, The Autobiography of Malcolm X appeared on the New York Times paperback best-seller list for seventeen weeks, and for ten of those weeks it was No. 1. (Gates 1993, 11).

[20] Lee devotes more than half of the movie’s runtime to Malcolm’s street hustler life. Werner Zips and Heinz Kämpfer interpret this focus as an accommodation to the hip hop community’s favoring of the cool gangsta image of Malcolm (Zips, 298).

[21] Forum for European Contributions to African American Studies.

[22] In his influential book The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois coined the term double-consciousness to describe the psychological tensions in a black person’s mind: “The Negro is […] born with a veil […] in this American world, -- a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets himself see himself through the eyes of others. It is a peculiar sensation this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others […] One forever feels his two-ness, -- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Du Bois, 2).

[23] Sociolinguists consider Black English Vernacular to be a sociolect as it is a language spoken by a particular social group that differs in its social variables (e.g. ethnicity, religion, economic status, level of education, etc.) from other social groups.

[24] Perhaps Spike Lee had it right in Do the Right Thing, when he had his Italian-American character say to Mookie: “But Prince, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan – they aren’t black!” Michael Jordan’s agent, David Falk, echoed this sentiment and explained that white Americans tend to see Jordan as different because he is a celebrity, not because he is black (Gates 2000, 354).

[25] After having doomed Malcolm X publicly for his split with the NOI in the mid 1960s, the NOI changed its strategy due to Malcolm’s continuing popularity. Malcolm X was proclaimed to be the NOI-hero, withholding the existence of a post-Mecca Malcolm.

[26] G(angsta)-funk was brought up by Dr. Dre in 1992 combining bass keyboard and synthesizer funk with anti-moral gangsta lyrics.

[27] As Bianka Zarzycka explains in her article Roaring Loud, Standing Proud: Malcolm X In The Pop Culture Of The 1990s: “Entertainment and cultural industries are in the business of staying established and getting new consumers for their products. To do so they must adopt avant-gardes and other critical or oppositional cultural products and repackage them for new markets. Of course these industries can then market their image as being open-minded and flexible, and previously unknown or feared countercultural heroes find new audiences. The process, however, involves resignification of every rebel icon: on the one hand, the rebel yet becomes another commodity devoid of its original ideas and impact; on the other, the rebel is recontextualized and a ‘new’ message leaks out to a new generation” (Zarzycka, 173).

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Malcolmania: The Cultural Rebirth Of Malcolm X As Pop Icon
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Matthias Dachtler (Author), 2004, Malcolmania: The Cultural Rebirth Of Malcolm X As Pop Icon, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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