By Kyle T. Mays
To celebrate Malcolm X’s birthday, we thought we’d take a closer look at one of the key tenets of the radical civil rights icon’s advocacy for Black liberation in these passages from Kyle T. Mays’s An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States. Land ownership. It’s important to see how Indigenous peoples’ conception of land fit—or didn’t—in his grand scheme of Black people laying claim to land.
I have read The Autobiography of Malcolm X every summer since I was sixteen; it is my favorite book. During a particularly difficult time in my life, my Advanced Placement US history teacher, Mr. K., gave me a copy of the book after trying to get me to talk to him about my situation. For reasons I don’t remember, I did not want to hear from this white man! He pulled out of his bag an original copy of The Autobiography. As he handed it to me, he said, “I’m white, and I know you’ve completely tuned me out. But I’m going to give you this old copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I hope it helps.” I went home that day and read it all within a few days. I could not put the book down. How Malcolm, without apology, described racism and its source helped me see clearly for the first time in my life why I was often very angry. Racism had impacted my life in ways I had never really thought about, and Malcolm gave me the language to understand it. The book changed my life.
During this past summer, while doing my annual re-reading, I was struck by how Malcolm discussed Indigenous people and histories. Malcolm described to Alex Haley how he would go “fishing” for potential new converts, tell them about the history of the “white man’s crimes” and why Islam was the religion for the Black man. He made a brief reference to Manhattan: “Go right on down to the tip of Manhattan Island that this devilish white man stole from the trusting Indians for twenty-four dollars!” There are two points here. First, where did Malcolm learn this? Second, it suggests he was at least vaguely familiar with Indigenous histories of New York City, though he mistakenly framed Native people as trusting, docile, and without agency.
In another part of the book, the local hustlers taught him how to live a life of crime; they also explained to him histories of Harlem’s demographic change over time. Hustlers explained that Harlem was first a Dutch settlement; then came the Germans, then the Irish and Italians, and then Jews. “Today, all these immigrants’ descendants are running as hard as they can to escape the descendants of Negroes who helped to unload the immigrant ships.” Malcolm continued, “I was staggered when old-timer Harlemites told me that while this immigrant musical chairs game had been going on, Negroes had been in New York City since 1683, before any of them came.”
In Malcolm’s framing, these European immigrants came to the US, importantly, as settlers who displaced Black Americans who, in his estimation, have a more legitimate, even indigenous connection to New York. By mentioning that Black folks were there first, he was, in essence, asserting Black claims to New York’s origins. This historical rendition tells us about Black relationship to land, but it also suggests a form of ownership, or that Black people were the original people. Malcolm said nothing of the Indigenous inhabitants, who would have been the Munsee Delaware. “Manhattan” is an Indigenous word that means, “the place where timber is procured for bows and arrows.” It is one of the few names found on early colonial maps in New York that has never been removed.
Malcolm used a variety of discourses concerning Black peoples’ relationship to the United States, which seemed revolutionary and contradictory. At times, they centered on Black peoples’ relationship to place. At other times, he connected to the diaspora. And then at others, he offered direct critiques of US colonization and empire. Ultimately, he was concerned with the condition of blackness and belonging in the US.
MALCOLM X’S BLACK BELONGING
Malcolm’s style, frankness, and ability to “make it plain” for his audience made him one of the more well-known, if not beloved, Black activists of the 1960s. As a result, he remains, among a wide range of activists, from Black nationalists to communists, an icon long after his death. Although he did not invent the Nation of Islam or its rhetoric of Black supremacy, his efforts made that discourse open to both the Black and white public spheres, with mixed results. Yet, as powerful a rhetorician as he was, Malcolm X was, on the one hand, a powerful voice of the Black oppressed, and, on the other hand, an uncritical participant in settler-colonial discourse, at least early on in his political development. In other words, he accepted the European American belief that Native people had disappeared. Malcolm based his belief that the US government owed Black people land on two conclusions: one, because Native people were “invisible” as a result of being duped out of their land, the US government had land that it could entrust to Black people; and two, Black folks had earned a right to land through their labor during slavery.
Malcolm believed that Black separation from whites was essential for Black freedom. That is, white Americans were not going to truly accept Black people into their society; therefore, they should have land of their own. While civil rights activists sought to reform US society so that it would become integrated, Malcolm reminded Black people that they weren’t anything more than second-class citizens, and would never be full citizens because, unlike white people, Black people “didn’t come here on the Mayflower.” Instead, he reminded them, they were brought here by the architects of US democracy.
He also argued that Black people were owed land because of their exploited labor and the blood they had shed in wars. Black people had indeed fought in every war since the American Revolution, for the ability to be a citizen of the US. Black people had made a “greater sacrifice than anybody” and had “collected less” than any other group. For this reason, Malcolm believed no one deserved land more than Black people. Malcolm’s argument exists in certain Black nationalist discourses today, including that of the American Descendants of Slavery, or ADOS. Let’s sit back and think about the implications of Malcolm’s argument. If Black people deserve land, what about the Native people who were forcibly removed from those southern states? It is a question that Black nationalists have rarely, if ever, truly engaged with. In other words, we can’t uncritically assert Black land ownership without understanding the possibilities of continuing the ongoing genocide and land theft against Native people.
Malcolm’s belief in a separate land for Black people made a lot of sense. If a nation-state that purports to uphold democracy, equality, and freedom does not actually do so in practice, and if Black folks are barred from voting and participating in civic life, why wouldn’t you advocate for separation? However, Malcolm’s erasure of Indigenous histories and rights would have benefited his case greatly.
Perhaps Malcolm best articulated the importance of Black land as an integral part of Black liberation in a speech delivered in Detroit. That speech, titled “Message to the Grassroots” and given on November 10, 1963, remains perhaps one of his most eloquent public speeches on the necessity of a Black revolution. In this speech, he spends significant time outlining his historical understanding of revolution, including the American, French, and Russian Revolutions. While many read this speech as an outline of Malcolm’s belief in the need for revolutionary violence—juxtaposing it against the use of nonviolence—I understand this speech to be a call for Black land ownership in the US, different from the vision of Elijah Muhammad. While Muhammad wanted a separate land in order to build a Black nation, it was solely so it could be left alone. Through his reading of historical revolutions, Malcolm, on the other hand, believed the only way to get land was through revolution. For Malcolm, land was a necessary condition of Black liberation in the United States.
Malcolm began “Message to the Grassroots” by stating, “I would like to make a few comments about the difference between the Black Revolution and the Negro Revolution.” To make this argument, he defined the term “revolution” by offering historical examples. Malcolm explained, “When you study the historic nature of revolutions, and the methods used in a revolution, you may change your goal and you may change your mind.” He continued, and here I quote at length:
Look at the American Revolution, in 1776. That revolution was for what? For land. Why did they want land? Independence. How was it carried out? Bloodshed. Number one it was based on land—the basis of independence. And the only way they could get it, was bloodshed. The French Revolution, what was it based on? The landless against the landlord. What was it for? Land. How did they get it? Bloodshed. Was no love lost, was no compromise, was no negotiation. I’m telling you, you don’t know what a revolution is, cause when you find out what it is, you’ll get back in the alley, you’ll get out of the way. The Russian Revolution, what was it based on? Land. The landless against the landlord. How did they bring it about? Bloodshed. You haven’t got a revolution that doesn’t involve bloodshed.
While he is simplifying the goals of these revolutions for his particular audience, his point should not be understated. Malcolm was very adept at discussing political revolutions on the African continent and throughout the underdeveloped world. His discussion of land poses a difficult question that he, and those that tried to follow his logical conclusion after his assassination struggled with: How can you compare the decolonization efforts occurring on the African continent with what should happen in the US, given that the US was not Black land? Decolonization efforts on the African continent happened on Africans’ land, marking a fundamentally different situation than what Black people faced. Indigenous people in the US settler society did not even register in these analyses except as they related to the white-constructed idea that white people had simply wiped out all of the Indians. While attempting to place the Black American struggle within worldwide efforts for liberation, Malcolm and others participated in discourses of omission.
Malcolm’s discourse of Black belonging as it related to land unfortunately perpetuated racial projects in the US—one that was based upon a Black and white racial binary, as well as a very masculine, settler idea of how land should be utilized. Though going global in his analyses and pointing toward a connection with the Global South and peoples’ attempts to rid themselves of colonialism, he failed to clearly understand the actual social and political conditions in a land they called home. Malcolm’s reference to the American Revolution presents another point of contention. In one sense, yes, that revolution was about land. But once the revolution was won, they needed to remove Native people to secure that land. Furthermore, Native peoples participated in that fight with their own agendas of maintaining land, on both the American and British sides. Though unable to develop fully his ideas for Black liberation, Malcolm did develop an elementary rubric for placing Black Americans within the global struggle for human rights.
In the last two years of his life, especially after his split from the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X exemplified a greater analysis of the Black American condition within the larger international struggle against colonialism. He discussed the North Vietnamese’s fight for freedom and traveled extensively throughout the African continent. Speaking with dignitaries like Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah, he saw firsthand how they challenged European colonialism. As a result, he framed his own thinking about the Black American condition within colonial terms. Yet, this framing and analysis begs the question: How can you discuss Black Americans as primary settler-colonial subjects when the US is (1) a settler-colonial state and (2) Indigenous people still lived on this land? Yes, everyone is impacted by settler colonialism, but the experiences of people vary, especially if this is not one’s land. While we cannot have expected Malcolm to be all-encompassing in his understanding of colonialism, his thinking was responsible for a generation after him who continued to frame the Black American condition in colonial terms, even while they acknowledged that those terms were imperfect.
About the Author
Kyle T. Mays is an Afro-Indigenous (Saginaw Chippewa) writer and scholar of US history, urban studies, race relations, and contemporary popular culture. He is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies, American Indian Studies, and History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Hip Hop Beats, Indigenous Rhymes: Modernity and Hip Hop in Indigenous North America and An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States. Connect with him online at kyle-mays.com, on Twitter (@mays_kyle), and Instagram (@mayskyle).