Malcolmania: a Celebration of Rhetoric


Washington -- Spike Lee has a penchant for calling any white person who criticizes him a "racist," and any black who challenges him "an Uncle Tom." So I am not surprised that so many people are tiptoeing around the fundamental questions raised by his acclaimed motion picture about Malcolm X.

Raves about an "epic" achievement in cinematography intimidate people -- even those who see disturbing social fallout.

The drama and magic of the screen blind people temporarily to a fundamental truth: There is the rhetoric of black manhood, and there are the deeds of black manhood. Someone has to have the guts to tell young blacks what is being celebrated in Mr. Lee's virtual deification of Malcolm X. It is Malcolm's rhetoric.

I say that the greatest strides toward black freedom and manhood in the last half century were, not necessarily in this order:

* The winning through lawsuits, and the deaths of brave black men, of the right of African-Americans to vote. That long, often bloody, struggle has produced some 8,000 blacks who hold seats as governor, senator, congressmen, mayors, sheriffs, police chiefs, school officials. Malcolm X played no role whatsoever in this black political triumph.

* The removal of the white man's badge of "black inferiority" by wiping out laws that forced blacks into Jim Crow sections of buses and trains, and denied them access to theaters, restaurants, hotels. This triumph was produced by black and white people fighting together in the courts and in the Congress -- with no involvement by Malcolm X -- not in Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham or anyplace else.

* Removal of the stigma of state-imposed Jim Crow of black school children, and the opening up of law, medical, dental, journalism and other professional schools in universities of the FTC South. This produced a meaningful black middle class. The NAACP, with great white support, did that -- with no help from Malcolm X.

With the background of these facts, it is easy to understand that Mr. Lee and Hollywood are making Malcolm a towering black hero, not for his deeds, but because of an attitude born of anger, even rage, over I would never ask young blacks to abandon anger. But I ask, do not let your rage become self-destructive.

three centuries of white people brutalizing black people in America. I acknowledge that attitude can be more powerful than a thousand realities.

The question is how will "the Malcolm attitude" be reflected in the lives of real people? What will a generation of young blacks draw out of this movie?

I read of a black 18-year-old at the predominantly white University of North Carolina who says "the refusal of the African-American students on campus to assimilate" reflects her message from Malcolm X. I hear a thousand black voices saying, "Don't rely on whites for anything." "Don't trust blacks who work for the white media." "Only blacks can rescue black people." I see speakers going onto hundreds of campuses, under the "X" halo, denouncing "white devils" and "crackers," and insulting Jews. The "attitude" is to respond to white racism with other forms of bigotry. Will the message of human redemption in Mr. Lee's movie change this lurch into polarization?

The rhetoric of black self-sufficiency, of economic and cultural separatism, sounds great to wounded black people. But they ought to note that when Mr. Lee wanted $28 million to make the Malcolm X movie, he went to white people. When he ran out of money he went to rich black people -- Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan -- black people who have gotten fabulously rich in deals with white people. Why celebrate rhetoric that misleads black kids about the real world?

I would never ask young blacks to abandon anger. I have said, do not let your rage become self-destructive to the point where you construe learning and eloquence with "acting white." I do say that it is folly for a black student to enroll in a predominantly white university just to devote four years to saying "I will not assimilate."

The partly mythical glorification of Malcolm X is not a clear, total blessing for young blacks. I will continue to write about the fallout from the incredible hype and hustle of Malcolmania, no matter how much outrageous, self-serving blather I get from Spike Lee.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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