A Note on Cone on Malcolm X

I’m posting a footnote from the book I’m doing on conversion, as I think it (the note) might be of interest for discussion:

One of the more interesting instances of such a progressive narrative is presented by James H. Cone, in Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Orbis, 1992): “As one seeks to understand Malcolm, it is important to keep in mind that his perspective was undergoing a radical process of change and development during the last year of his life. He gradually discarded his Black Muslim beliefs about race and religion and moved toward a universal perspective on humanity that was centered on his commitment to the black liberation struggle in America” (211). I find Cone’s account particularly interesting because, even as he gives way to a narrative of secularization (moving from religion, i.e. “Black Muslim beliefs,” toward a broadenened political orientation), he elsewhere insists on the importance of religion in any attempt to understand Malcolm X. For instance, he calls attention to that fact that even “sympathetic interpreters often miss the central role of religion Malcolm’s thinking,” and that this is because “religion is commonly separated from struggles for justice” (164). Cone here indicates that such separation is unfortunate, that against such separation we should attend to the link between religion and the political. But if this is the case, then why is he apparently so content to present Malcolm X’s life in terms of an overcoming of religion’s narrowness in favor of the “universal perspective on humanity” that a secular, or at least developmentally secularizing, tendency offers?

A blunt answer is that Cone, speaking as he does from a Christian orientation, is already comfortable with conversion narratives, particularly conversion narratives that—following the exemplar of Paul with regard to Jewish particularity—frame themselves as overcoming the divergence of racial difference in favor of universalization. To say the same thing, though from a slightly altered vantage, we could answer that the Christian and the secular, whatever their disagreements, share the logic of conversion. This means that a Christian is going to be more comfortable with the secular—given their common conversion narrative—than with Islam. Indeed, whatever the differences may be between the Christian and the secular, the historical record confirms that they agree in their opposition to Islam.

To make this answer a little less blunt, or to insert some nuances that serve as premises for this blunt answer, we can note a few assumptions that frame Cone’s account of Malcolm X. First, let us note that Cone, when he observes that too many readers “do not see Malcolm’s religious statements as an important exploration into the meaning and purpose of human existence,” and calls instead for us to appreciate the importance of religion to Malcolm X’s thought, still defines him as “a deeply religious person” (152). What is of interest here is that religion is already figured as a property of the “person,” which is to imply agreement with the secular understanding of religion as a private matter, one that primarily concerns the intellectual, and the political and collective only derivatively. (Note, along these lines, that Cone speaks of Malcolm X’s relation to the Nation of Islam not as a matter of constituting a political, collective body but as a matter of adherence to “Black Muslim beliefs.”) Thus, even when the import of Malcolm X’s religion is foregrounded, it is already translated into secular terms. Furthermore, Cone seems to tip his hand a bit when he notes that readers who fail to recognize the import of religion for Malcolm X may do so because “they find it narrowly sectarian and thus alien to their religious and cultural sensibilities” (152). The implication is that the resistance to the role of religion in Malcolm X’s thought may have to do not with religion as such, but with the fact that his religion is narrow, i.e. not universal enough. In short, then, the strange way in which Cone is able to affirm the role of religion and politics while narrating Malcolm X in secularizing terms becomes a lot less strange when we attend to three points: the analogy between Christianity and the secular regarding the value of universalizing conversion; the secular understanding of religion as private; and the assumption—shared by both Christianity and the secular—that Islam is too narrow.

Along the same lines, we should note that Cone maintains two of the dualisms that Malcolm X refused: race and religion; mind and body. Ironically, while Malcolm X refused Christianity precisely because of its dualistic divisiveness, Cone defuses Malcolm X’s antagonism by interpreting him through the lens of this dualism. Take, for instance, the division between mind and body, here understood as the division between theory and practice. Cone seems to understand that Malcolm X refused to divide these, that his opposition to Christianity had to do with his refusal to separate an ideal Christianity of theory from the material, historical Christianity of practice. “Malcolm’s oppostion to Christianity,” he tells us, “was not based upon his examination of its creeds and doctrines or the scholarly writings of its theologians. Rather, it was defined by the practices of people who called themselves Christians” (167). Yet Cone delimits the force of this opposition by making it merely practical, and by turning Malcolm X into an activist concerned with the material world rather than a proper theologian or philosopher concerned with ideas. Cone thus affirms “the central insight of his race critique of Christianity,” but delimits it as a race critique, with the implication that it is not a theological critique (168). This implication becomes more explicit when he reminds us that “Malcolm did not speak as an academic theologian but rather as a grass-roots activist” (169).

We can see here how the divide between mind and body—as the divide between theory and practice, or theologian and activist—enables the divide between race and religion. On Cone’s reading, Malcolm X, because he is concerned with the material rather than the theoretical aspect of Christianity, can extend opposition only at the level of race but not at the level of religion. In other words, Christianity remains intact as religion, as theory, in the same moment that race, as material, gets divided from religion. Christianity is thus wrong on race, but this wrongness is more the application than the essence of Christianity. Now, as I have argued throughout this chapter, much of the value of Islam, for Malcolm X, was its refusal of dualism, meaning that it refused to divide what Christianity divided. This is to say, once again, that for Malcolm X the problem with Christianity was not just its material racism, but also its dualistic theoretical orientation. This is also to say that what made Islam different from Christianity was not just its material practice but also its theory, which was not divided from practice. Therefore Islam is different from Christianity not because it is another religion, but because it is asymmetrical to Christianity, where this asymmetry stems from the refusal to divide religion and politics, or religion as race, in the manner of Christianity.

This asymmetry is precisely what Cone fails to see. When Cone speaks of Malcolm X’s religion, he is speaking of religion in the universal, or—to say the same thing—religion as standardized via Christianity and the secular. As a result, the religiously articulated opposition of Malcolm X (between Christianity and Islam), which is simultaneously a political opposition, cannot be glimpsed. If religion, for MX, is what articulates political antagonism, it is, on Cone’s reading, that which deflates and delimits this antagonism. It is no surprise, then, that Cone is able to say that what brings together King and Malcolm X is more important that what divides them. After all, they are both religious, which is to say similar, and hence they use religion to speak in different yet ultimately resonant ways about race: “Martin’s and Malcolm’s movement toward each other is a clue that neither one can be fully understood or appreciated without serious attention to the other. They complemented and corrected each other; each spoke a truth about America that cannot be fully comprehended without the insights of the other. Indeed, if Americans of all races intend to create a just and peaceful future, then they must listen to both Martin and Malcolm” (246). The religious antagonism of Malcolm X is thus set aside in favor of a commonality articulated in terms of race. Yet this articulation requires the separation of race and religion, which is what Malcolm X refused, and what he accused Christianity of performing. In fact, he opposed America as politically determinate terrain because it performs the same division, and shift toward human rights, which Cone incorrectly reads in terms of secularization, was motivated by this refusal of America. Yet Cone ends us claiming that Malcolm X, like King, should be framed in terms of the concerns of “Americans.” He can do so only because he does not attend to the religious difference of Christianity and Islam.

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7 Responses to “A Note on Cone on Malcolm X”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Very interesting — it also clarifies, at least for me, the relationship between your previous work and your new focus on conversion.

  2. bzfgt Says:

    The usual story is that he was turned on to mainline Islam when he went on his Hajj and that’s why he jettisoned some of the Black Muslim stuff, which he came to see as an aberration.

  3. danbarber Says:

    Yeah, i’m developing a number of things i put out there previously, and trying to bring them into relation to colonialism, race, and Islam. This also allows me to get more explicit about the political vision. In short, though, i suppose the idea is that what makes diaspora unthinkable is the logic of conversion.

  4. danbarber Says:

    bzfgt, yeah, that is the common narrative. Which connects to one of the things i’m getting at, which is the idea of secular-religion divide as needing to be managed in a certain way. So, for instance, it makes common sense to narrate Malcolm X as converting toward “proper” Islam, at the same time that it makes common sense to see him as converting toward a more secular, political position (as is the claim of the Marable biography). In other words, the issue is not simply religion vs. politics, so much as the management of the divide, where religion has to be “proper” (i.e. in the image of Christianity — universal, and spiritual rather than political). One argument i am making in this chapter is that this is a misreading of Malcolm X, i.e. that his move to mainline Islam was simultaneously a political move, that they cannot be divided. (And in fact that the attraction of Islam, for him, was that Islam did not divide religion and politics as the Christian/secular divides them.)

  5. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    So this is a random thought that I haven’t developed and may be incorrect on. But, one of the interesting things for me about Islam is there are no “Church Councils”. Immediately after the death of the Prophet Muhammad it fractures and various legal and theological schools develop. This means we don’t get anything like the codification of what “proper” Islam is in the way we do in Christianity with the creeds. In this way Islam may be a new kind of universalism, perhaps bending the technical meaning of that to the point of breaking. Taking the particularity of Judaism, a particularity that allows in a minor way (in the Deleuzo-Guattarian sense) for what we could call a kind of proliferation of forms of life or even a diasporic conception of identity (both diasporic and actually containing an identity), but abstracting it from the idea of “a people” (thinking here of Surin’s remarks in the Theology and the Political volume, but well aware of the danger here, just not sure how to navigate it). The lack of creeds seems very important to me here, because it is a lack of ability for that belief to enter into a cycle of exchange (here I’m thinking of what Goodchild has written on the creeds in Capitalism and Religion, though I’m not sure he’d agree with my conclusions). It is the problem of exchange and the seeming rejection of it at the level of “belief” that marks out Islam’s form of “universalism”. It also explains why Sunni Muslims publicly supported Malcolm and the Nation as authentic Muslims, even if they disagreed with aspects.

    Where Malcolm goes after the Hajj is not, then, this kind of Christian universalism, but rather an acceptance of Islam’s abstraction from “a people”. It opens up to an idea of a human being that is generic, not universal, and so not at all in the image of the white man. It’s pretty good news for white people, I think. (I have been playing around with this Laruelle/Malcolm X connection for my introduction to Laruelle as I think X’s work makes a lot of sense out of some of Laruelle’s “humanism”.)

  6. danbarber Says:

    I’m sympathetic to where you’re going. One of the things that’s striking to me about what you’re saying w/r/t creedal belief is that, when you have a creed, you can have incarnationalism — politics becomes the incarnation of an object of belief. Also, i like how what you’re doing positions an alliance of Judaism and Islam. (Perhaps of interest on universalism, particularity, and Islam is a lecture — thanks to Basit for the reference — http://cambridgekhutbasetc.blogspot.ca/2012/11/universality-and-particularity.html)

    What i would emphasize, for sure, is your phrasing about universalism, “bending the technical meaning of that to the point of breaking.” This is something i’m trying to figure out how to approach in the work i’m doing. Specifically, i don’t want to get into anything like an analogy to universalism, as the standard (i.e. not broken) account of universalism is, precisely, analogical. The other thing is also something you flag, which is the question of connecting Islam to Judaism by abstracting from the notion of a people … I’m trying to think about how this abstraction would or wouldn’t be able to address the sort of historically determinate asymmetries (or if you prefer interpellations) of peoples. This is something that Malcolm X’s understanding of Islam is trying to address, and so the abstraction you mention is always getting linked to this asymmetry (which for me is a productive tension). Off the top of my head, i’m not sure this tension is there in Laruelle’s generic.

  7. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Well, I think I have to make that argument for Laruelle for sure. I do think it is there, even if the fullness of it isn’t expressed in Laruelle’s own works, the framework is there for it to be done. My biggest problem has been with the way Laruelle has to focus on Christ, but the docetic nature of his Christ opens him up to a far less incarnationalist philosophy than I think you give him credit for. Still, I see the reason to be suspicious.


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