A couple of weeks ago I was part of a group of men in discussion. The main theme around the table was how men can salvage their manhood in this day and age. One of the men, Mpendulo Mahlangu, looked at the book I had with me – The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He remarked, “Malcolm is too perfect, you have to make him relevant to us.” I was reminded of a comment made by Alex Haley, the writer who put Malcolm X’s narration in script, who said regarding Malcolm, “I still cannot believe that he is dead. It still feels to me as if he has just gone into some next chapter, to be written by historians.”

Alex Haley challenges those who are living today to revisit Brother Malcolm. But why should we study the life of a man who lived in the past century within a bygone society? Our own society is faced with issues such as the vanishing faun and flora, the increasing toxicity of the air, the rising acid-levels of the oceans, the widening gap between the rich and poor and the resurgence of race-based politics germinating from the mass influx of refugees to the Western countries. In the face of such looming and immediate catastrophes, elected officials stand powerless by their nationstate’s entrapment within debt peerage.

At the same time, the general populace’s attention is continually demanded by news agencies, whose chief concern is circling around what has happened in the last hour. This blurs our society’s outlook and makes it biased towards how it approaches the problems of its times. Delving into the past helps us to have a clearer, wider and a more sober approach to our problems. It also provides us with clarity on many of the problems of the world today which are not immediately visible.

Commentators of the life of Brother Malcolm have put forth the argument that his life resonates with marginalised peoples – those who live in the outskirts of Paris and Marseilles, the Roma in Slovakia, those in the favelas of Brazil, the workers in the slums of Mumbai and those who are in South African townships. This reflection is not false, it is correct, but it not correct enough as that perspective is a narrowing of the life of Brother Malcolm who, this series of articles will demonstrate, is significant in ways that go beyond race, class and time. 

Primarily we shall study the life of Brother Malcolm to diagnose the chief-toxin of our age – fear. The German writer Ernst Jünger wrote, “The fundamental question amid all this turbulence is whether we can free man from fear, a task far more important than arming him or supplying him with medicines. Power and health reside with the fearless.”

In the aftermath of Not In Our Name, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and the Fees Must Fall movements, we witness that some of these leaders end up imprisoned and others are offered prestigious jobs in an effort to compromise these resistance campaigns. The plan worked. In other words, all major protest action of the 21st century thus far has resulted in failure. Today those who are besieged by the pressures of the day have lost hope of resistance and see that the only option left to them is meeting corporate performance targets and conforming to the norm.

Now we must ask ourselves – is there any other road to take? There have always been highvelds, lowvelds, mountain passes that have been abandoned, where heroes that now reside in our literature once walked. Since that time, power has mutated and now demands a new pattern of freedom. This means that we must reassess even our most basic assumptions.

Although the garb of 20th century protest action have been adorned by this generation’s change agents, the collapse of activism in the face of comparatively mild state pressure has exposed their hollow nature. In many respects, today’s change-agent has yet to venture to the source of  true resistance.  To once again walk the path of the brave, of the strong, we must go back and study what it was that animated that breed of men.

Animating these series of articles is the ancient understanding of freedom . Pliny the Elder once said fortis fortuna adiuvat (fortune favours the brave) before he took his fleet to investigate the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, in the hope of helping his friend Pomponianus. The expedition cost Pliny the Elder his life.  Freedom, according to Nina Simone is “no fear”.  We study the life of Malcolm because he embodied this ancient understanding of freedom in full. He famously said “I have no fear whatsoever of anybody or anything.”

It is for the above mentioned reasons that this article is the preface to a quatert which will draw meanings within the different stages of his life. He lived as Malcolm the Mascot, Detroit Red, Minister Malcolm X and finally as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbazz. Let the journey begin.

This article is Part 1 of 4, the next installment will appear in the February issue of Hikaayat.