Yes, I understand that in Malcolm’s time, rage among black people was deeply rooted for fully understandable reasons. Yes, I know that near the end of his life he was preaching a more inclusive message. Still, the way he comes down to us in shorthand is as the one who taught black people to channel their inner Angry Motherfucker. Articulately sothe speeches still work. But the problem is what that does for us now.
There is a tacit sense that the kind of anger Malcolm became famous for, with the upheld fist and the menacing “By Any Means Necessary,” is portentous, the start of something. But in real life, what Starts Things now is not going to be black America rising up in anger. The community isn’t cohesive enough, and the problems today aren’t simple enough.
I don’t wish Malcolm X had never existed, but I wish he hadn’t become famous. He was quirky enough that it’s possible that no one with equivalent star power to his would have emerged otherwise, and the mood he represented, long on oomph and so short on result, would be represented by no iconic historical figure today. The Black Panthers were so over-the-top that we marvel at them rather than wanting to be them, and Spike Lee wouldn’t have made a movie about Stokely Carmichael. The Malcolm T-shirts and the sense of reading his autobiography as a smart black persons’ rite of passage are distractions from the actions, as opposed to the moods and gestures, that really help black people.