In Black Minded: The Political Philosophy of Malcolm X, I meticulously avoided introducing, in any comprehensive fashion, the implications of Malcolm X’s assassination. This is not because I did not at the time think that his assassination was without philosophical implication. I did then and do now. It was largely because a guiding presupposition of the book was that the biography of Malcolm X had served to overwhelm the thinking that informed the trajectory of his life. This thought is perhaps even more true for the attention discussions of his Death and the way the analysis of that event can preoccupy our attention. One need look no further than the attention paid the Netflix series “Who Killed Malcolm X” that, at least according to the November 21, 2021 article by Lola Fadulu noted that “The Manhattan district attorney’s decision in February to review the convictions of two men for the assassination of Malcolm X coincided with the release of a six-part documentary on Netflix, “Who Killed Malcolm X?,” that made a strong case they were innocent.” Fadulo goes on to propose that this is not the first time that a popular documentary has served as the catalyst for “the authorities to re-examine their decisions”. This “re-examination” of course led to the exoneration of Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam, the two men convicted of the assassination of Malcolm X. It is all too easy to be distracted by the always too much too little too late justice served by structures of white supremacy that still can’t be bothered to dispense with the grotesque homage to just this corruption that is the J. Edgar Hoover headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Thinking that through is not a distraction but can serve to distract from thinking with and through Malcolm X.
Readers might note the manner in which I have employed, so far, the terms “assassination” and “Death” (with a capital “D”) to refer to a heretofore absent term “murder” of Malcolm X. This linguistic complexity speaks to at least one reason I did not linger on the philosophical import and impact of this Event. As we are well aware, the commonly referred to killing of a political figure for broadly defined political reasons is understood to be in excess of the criminal act of “murder” and may or may not encompass the hagiographic notion of “martyred”. Neither of these terms, in my estimation, address the event that we are in the process of grappling with on this day, what I will refer to from here on out as The Black Death of Malcolm X. In so doing it is my intention to load the words used to describe this event with as much as they can bear so that birth/death, life/death, death/death, murder, assassination, martyrdom, and life after death all get filed under the omnipresence of Black Death which is a thought and way of being in excess of Orlando Patterson’s Social Death and even the Notorious B.I.G.’s statement of the tragically obvious that “You’re nobody ‘till somebody kills you”. This overabundance that rotates and revolves around its own illogic moves from its initial horror to mourning to shame to volcanic anger to hate and back to horror only to begin this journey again and again. What documentaries, films, and other historical, and most especially journalistic research (and here I’m thinking primarily of Les and Tamara Payne’s The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X) of The Black Death of Malcolm X does for us is to open new realms of possibility for positively concerned individuals to process the totality of how this Event fits within the long line of Bodies sacrificed to Anti-Black racism. I have italicized “positively concerned” to mark that there are a variety of ways that The Black Death of Malcolm X can be employed many of them far from positive but the two that should be referenced are the employment by white supremacists to situate this tragedy as a victory for their system of power and a high profile warning to Black people who contemplate destabilizing the system and something that amounts to the fetishization of harm to Black bodies. When I did address The Black Death of Malcolm X in Black Minded it was to understand that the stress he placed on the structure of white supremacy would inevitably respond violently and in proportion to the perceived danger to the status quo. The notion of inevitability is the guiding term of the quote form page 120 of the book that reads: “I mean inevitable in the sense that his non-violent advocacy for the cessation of violence visited upon innocent African-Americans is understood by white supremacist logic as itself violent… It is not that non-violent protests are perceived as violent by white supremacists because of a pathological inability to witness the truth. It is that non-violent protests do violence to their system of knowing and are therefore necessarily understood as violent to their system of Being.”
Understanding this, the challenge fifty-seven years after the Event is to understand that with respect to the fact of Black Death as we have established the thickness of the concept here, there is no “after” it is Now. Now in the sense that the force visited upon the body of Malcolm X in the Audubon Ballroom continues to disform Black Life that is so busy trying to stay Alive that there is no time or space for Living. The same Force that created the atmosphere or perhaps better understood, the climate for The Black Death of Malcolm X did not expend the totality of its energy on taking the life force from the corporeal body of the Minister. It merely shifted the vector toward the sham investigation that put Aziz and Islam in prison for a crime they did not commit and continued unabated 1,000 miles or so south to the Lorraine Motel and has continued to weave its way through our world cutting down the next Breonna Taylor. And the beat goes on.
“Get your hand out of my pocket!” or words to that effect were the last thing that Malcolm X heard before the shotgun blasts. What served as the disturbance to distract what security there was left around the corporeal body of Malcolm X is exactly the point in some sense. What we need, collectively, is for the Anti-Blackness and white supremacy that preoccupied the life and caused The Black Death of Malcolm X to get its hands out of our physical and metaphysical pockets. So long as we are so burdened, there are no anniversaries of The Black Death of Malcolm X so much as there are echoes and reverberations of that event that repeat themselves in the tragedy that is structural physical and metaphysical violence against Black people.
Michael Sawyer is Associate Professor of African American Literature & Culture at the University of Pittsburgh, and the author of Black Minded: The Political Philosophy of Malcolm X and An Africana Philosophy of Temporality.