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Malcolm X Reconsidered

Ferruccio Gambino provides another way of thinking about the emergence and importance of a figure like Malcolm X.

The man then called Malcom Little entered the place then called the Norfolk Prison Colony in 1948.

The transgression of a laborer:  Malcolm X in the wilderness of America

by Ferruccio Gambino

What led a group of young black convicts in the late 1940s and early 1950s and particularly one of them, Malcolm X, to see the U.S. as an imperial power? In a time of lonely crowds, retreat into domesticity, and feverish patriotism, the emergence of a group of young blacks debating in the corner of a Massachusetts penitentiary courtyard the issue of a world out of joint must have appeared to authorities as a curious aberration. In retrospect, it was the birth of a movement that would shift from a chiliastic condemnation of the white world to a more pointed withdrawal from specific aspects of European and American civilizations.

How the generation of African Americans who came of age in the 1940s shaped its cultural identity is now beginning to become a subject of inquiry. (1) This essay looks at some events in the development of one young man– Malcolm X-who shaped that identity as much as any single individual. It suggests how Malcolm X came to occupy the double political space of “the immigrant” transgressively and how that self-location in relation to the American state violated the written and unwritten codes of legitimate political behavior. It also suggests how Malcolm X’s transgression increasingly became a source of radicalization from the early 1950s on.

By “double political space” I mean the creation of a new allegiance to the country in which immigrants have settled, in conjunction with the often more tenuous devotion to the links with the country of origin. In general, the modern state tolerates immigrants’ attempts to keep their double political space, its attitude being one of cautious patience, swinging towards intolerance during periods of international tension or war. The maintenance of immigrants’ links to both their country of origin and country of resettlement has provided the state with informal means of influencing the political course of both. But sometimes the state demands a more exclusive allegiance and reduces the immigrant’s choice to leaving or breaking ties to a “foreign” symbolic and material universe.

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