Diran Adebayo: A hero who gave black people an enduring legacy

('The Independent') Friday 8 March 2002

Auction of Malcolm X journals causes fury

White people's black heroes and black people's black heroes are rarely the same thing.

The tunes that you'll see punters lapping up at a black house party or at a club in a black neighbourhood are different to the chart-denting hip-hop or R 'n B you'll hear in some multi-racial spot in the West End.

This has so often proved to be the case that any new black hero being championed by the mainstream – the singer Macy Gray, say, a couple of years ago, or the novelist James Baldwin, whose 1964 book, Another Country, was covered by an entire special issue in The New Yorker magazine – will usually be greeted with a large dose of scepticism by most blacks.

"Well, if he is really saying something, something that would strike a chord for us," runs the thinking, "then why do they like him so much?"

It was with such an attitude that I approached the perennial MalcomX/Martin Luther King question, on first hearing of them as a teenager. Like the Blur-Oasis debate, which so exercised many whites in the mid-Nineties, any student of the "civil rights" era in 1960s America feels that they have to be for one or the other.

That Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize was all I needed to know to be instinctively pro-Malcolm.

I read him with some fear, though; the fear you have that your putative hero will turn out to have feet of clay. In his case, my worry was that he might be one of those cheerleader types; the type that panders to his audience with easy fighting talk and braggadocio, rather than the rigour and the serious analysis you need to lead a people forward.

My fears, happily, were unfounded. He remains a favourite of the those with the cheerleader tendency – the swiftest way to get the crowd with you at any black-Brit political gathering is still to reference Malcolm in your speech – but the reasons for the endurance of his status as an icon go beyond that.

Malcolm X and his allies wrested control of black American politics – and therefore of black politics throughout the Western diaspora – away from those who espoused the Christian-dominated, softly-softly approach that had dominated from post-slavery times.

He established the legitimacy of a more robust response to the racial injustices of his country. In so doing, he helped to lay a template that was then built on by the Black Panthers in America and continued with the urban disturbances in areas such as Brixton and Handsworth in the Eighties or in Oldham last year.

Malcolm X was, arguably, more internationalist and more modern in his thinking than Luther King, developing a politics that could bring in the latest American interventions in the Congo and Vietnam as grist to his mill.

In the last years of his life – and this is why the news of these private papers is so exciting – he moved to an understanding that the lack of respect shown to blacks in America was part of a wider disrespect to people of colour throughout the world.

As he said in a speech to students in 1964: "You can't separate the African revolution from the mood of the black man in America." A British Muslim going out to fight for the Taliban is likely to tell you the same thing.

Diran Adebayo is a novelist. He published his first novel, 'Some Kind of Black', in 1996.
 


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