Confronting Michael Eric Dyson’s Misinformation about Malcolm X
Michael Eric Dyson is one of the people who came to Jay-Z’s defense once news of Jay-Z’s deal with the NFL surfaced. Dyson has long been an admirer of Jay-Z, so this was no surprise to me. What was a bit surprising is that Dyson would use his defense of Jay-Z as an opportunity to launch more criticisms of Malcolm. Whereas Dyson admires Jay-Z, he also seems to have a personal dislike for Malcolm X.
In the video below Dyson states that Malcolm X called Martin Luther King a “sellout,” which is a simplification of what Malcolm’s actual criticisms of King were. Dyson then states that Malcolm was himself called a sellout for criticizing Elijah Muhammad, which again is a simplification of the dispute between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam. Dyson concludes this by saying “and then he was murdered.” So he jumps from Malcolm called King a sellout, to Malcolm was called a sellout, and then Malcolm was murdered. The impression Dyson tries to give is this “sellout” rhetoric is why Malcolm was murdered, and not the fact that at the time the FBI was targeting leaders like Malcolm.
Dyson completely misrepresents Malcolm’s situation and he does so in a way that creates a negative impression of Malcolm. But Dyson continues. Later in this same interview, Dyson mentions Malcolm’s encounter with a white woman in which he told that woman there is nothing she could do to help Black people. Dyson completely strips this exchange of the context in which it took place and he ignores why it was that Malcolm told this woman that there was nothing she could do. Dyson says Malcolm’s answer was wrong, but says nothing about why Malcolm even gave that answer. He also ignores the fact that Malcolm himself admitted that his answer to that white woman was a mistake and this was something that Malcolm himself regretted.
What is especially interesting to me is that in the interview above, Dyson quotes one of Jay-Z’s song lyrics. So when Dyson wants to present Jay-Z in a favorable light he quotes Jay-Z’s own words, but pay attention to the fact that Dyson rarely ever quotes or paraphrases Malcolm’s own words. Dyson does so because it makes misrepresenting Malcolm much easier.
Dyson’s treatment of Malcolm caught my attention because earlier this year he was on the Breakfast Club, where Dyson was again disingenuously discussing Malcolm X:
Dyson accused Malcolm of trying to “cancel” Martin Luther King. When did Malcolm ever do that? Certainly Malcolm disagreed with King — whom Malcolm called a “religious Uncle Tom” — but in 1963, Malcolm invited King to attend a unity rally in Harlem, but King never responded. If Malcolm was trying to “cancel” King then why bother invite him to a unity rally? Malcolm was actually more willing to work with King than the other way around.
King avoided associating with Malcolm because of the Nation of Islam’s separatist views, but this changed after Malcolm was assassinated. When King took a position against the War in Vietnam, he found himself being denounced by the American media. Even some of his allies in the civil rights struggle refused to support King, but King found support for his position on the war from the Nation of Islam. King had decried Muhammad Ali as being a champion of segregation for joining the Nation of Islam, but the two men united in their opposition to the Vietnam War.
And when Malcolm was assassinated, King publicly criticized Malcolm for lacking solutions to the problem of racism in America, despite the fact that Malcolm spoke often about what he felt the solution for the problem was. I mention all of this because Dyson gives the impression that Malcolm was the one trying to “cancel” King and ignores the fact that the disagreements between both men went both ways. The difference is that Malcolm was more vocal about his criticisms of King, but Malcolm was also more vocal about his willingness to support King as well. King publicly avoided associating with Malcolm, but after Malcolm was assassinated King began to work more closely with the Nation of Islam.
At the 37 minute mark of the interview above, Dyson mentions Malcolm’s criticisms of King again. In this portion of the interview, Dyson tries to give in the impression that Malcolm was criticizing King without being on the “field.” Dyson uses a football analogy, but that doesn’t work here. King and Malcolm had different approaches to the problem, so they handled things different. Political struggle is not a game of football where you are either on the field or you are not. The Nation of Islam was not out in the streets marching because they were in the community building and organizing. That was the work that Malcolm was engaged in, so it is disrespectful to imply that Malcolm was on the sideline because he was not fighting the issue in the way manner that King was.
I first noticed Dyson’s disingenuous treatment of Malcolm in I May Not Get There With You. Dyson writes that Malcolm later acknowledged “that King and the integrationists were more militant then had believed.” Dyson does not quote where Malcolm said so because he is trying to project his views on Malcolm. The reality is that Malcolm continued to refer to King as “Uncle Martin.” Likewise, Roy Wilkins was “Uncle Roy.” Malcolm made the decision to work with the integrationists, but he never viewed them as being militant in the sense that Malcolm understood that word.
Dyson continues by suggesting: “Perhaps Malcolm realized the hypocrisy of calling King a chump while he hid in the bosom of black Harlem as King confronted police dogs and water hoses in acidly racist Birmingham.” Dyson uses the word “perhaps” because he has no real argument to support his position about Malcolm’s “hypocrisy.” Moreover, “hid” is extremely misleading in this context. Malcolm was not in Harlem because he was hiding. Malcolm lived there.
Dyson continue: “After all, what was to prevent Malcolm from taking a few busload of the Fruit of Islam, the military arm of the Nation of Islam, to Alabama and giving Bull Connor three hundred things to think about?” Dyson acknowledges that Elijah Muhammad would have forbade such action, but Dyson adds anyway that Malcolm “would disobey Muhammad on other matters.” What were these matters? Dyson doesn’t say. Moreover, Dyson completely ignores the fact that one of the events that led to the split between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad was the death of Roland Stokes. Malcolm was ready to confront the LAPD for killing Stokes, but he was ordered to stand down by Elijah Muhammad. In the past Malcolm had led members of the Nation of Islam in direct confrontation with the police after Hinton Johnson was beaten and refused medical treatment, so it is not as though Malcolm was hiding from confronting police terror against African Americans, but this is the impression Dyson tries to give.
Dyson also writes that “for all of his bravado, Malcolm may have realized that he and his men would have been manhandled by the dispatched if they dared to draw weapons on Connor’s brigade of racist goons.” First of all, what weapons? Surely Dyson was aware of the fact that members of the Nation of Islam are forbidden from carrying weapons. Secondly, notice how in these quotes Dyson uses words like “may” and “perhaps” to draw inferences about what Malcolm thought or believed, rather than using concrete examples or even using Malcolm’s own words to prove his point.
Dyson claims that he loves Malcolm X and he even wrote a book about Malcolm, but the fact is that given Dyson’s status as one of the more recognized and well-known Black scholars in America, his flippant treatment of Malcolm is disrespectful, especially since someone of Dyson’s intelligence either knows better or should know better than to misrepresent Malcolm in the way that Dyson has continuously done.
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.