“Discussions about the alleged breakdown of the black family and the need for strong African American male role models serve as an important backdrop to the resurgence interest in and celebration of Malcolm X. Spike Lee’s X, which has, unfortunately, become the final word on Malcolm X for millions of Americans, is but an expensive Hollywood ending to a much longer period of reconstructing his memory. One of the many distortions has been the conspicuous inattention to gender politics. Malcolm’s own view of women, as well as the implications of a largely masculinized version of the black freedom movement, is uncritically accepted by many who invoke his memory.
In this revisionist reconstruction of the past, and especially in Lee’s film, Malcolm has been amputated from the larger social and political context of the 1960s to stand on his own as representative of an entire movement and era…What we are also left with is an erasure of the grassroots component of the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, especially the role of grassroots women organizers, who were the very backbone of groups like SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), MFDP (Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party) and, in a different way, the Black Panther Party. Organizers like Fannie Lou Hammer and Ella Baker have been literally “X’d” out of the popular—and unfortunately, most academic—histories, African American youth and others are left with the disempowering misperception that only larger-than-life great men can make or change history, and that this process of an individual rather than a collective venture. The struggle for black liberation is thus equated solely with the struggle to redeem black manhood, and with individual triumph over adversities and indignities.”
“What has been created in popular culture, according to historian Robert D.G. Kelley, is a “Malcolm safe for democracy.” While most portrayals of Malcolm, even twenty-second sound bites, display his incisive critique of racism, they systematically exclude any reference to his positions on other crucial issues such as imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and, of course, gender…In most accounts, Malcolm’s patriarchal and sexist ideas, which regrettably remained static through most of his life, are either ignored, downplayed, or reinforced. For example, in the movie X, Betty Shabazz is portrayed uncritically as “the strong woman behind the great man.” No mention is made of the fact that she left Malcolm after the birth of each of their five children, or of her subordinate status within the context of their male-headed family. Furthermore, no mention is made of Malcolm’s own effort to grapple with and challenge the sexism that characterized most of his adult life. In a correspondance to his cousin-in-law, Hakim Jamal, in January 1965, Malcolm himself confronts this issue:
I taught brothers not only to deal unintelligently with the devil or the white woman, but I also taught brothers to spit acid at the sisters. They were kept in their places—you probably didn’t notice this in action, but it is a fact. I taught the brothers to spit acid at the sisters. If the sisters decided a thing was wrong, they had to suffer it out. If the sister wanted to have her husband at home with her for the evening, I taught the brothers that the sisters were standing in their way; in the way of the Messenger, in the way of progress, in the way of God Himself. I did these things, brother. I must undo them.
…The hero worship of Malcolm as a great black father and the uncritical acceptance of his retrograde views on gender, a weakness that he himself recognized, is quite consistent with the new culture of poverty theorists, who blame African American people—women, in particular—for perpetuating our own oppression, and who propose strong male-dominated families as the solution.”
—From the essay ‘Black Popular Culture and the Transcendence of Patriarchal Illusions,’ by Barbara Ransby and Tracye Matthews, anthologized in Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought.