The Geography of Malcolm X: Black Radicalism and the Remaking of American Space

So, I’m a geographer. And what I love reading about are intersections of black studies, geography, and food politics. I read The Geography of Malcolm X: Black Radicalism and the Remaking of American Space by Dr. James Tyner. It’s a really good book and helps the reader think about how the socio-spatial influences and shapes one’s concepts of activism. In reading this book, I wondered how I could apply Tyner’s socio-spatial analysis of Malcolm X’s activism and consciousness to food politics, race, and Black experiences in the USA.

When I finished reading the book, these are some of the questions that I had:

  1. How has being born and raised in Lebanon, my predominantly white rural New England town, shaped my relationship to and with food? To my sense of identity?
  2. How did living in Lebanon and being raised in a yard that my father landscaped into an “Edible yard” (orchard, garden, etc) shape my understanding of food activism?
  3. Is it possible to write a similar book that traces how geography and space have shaped black people’s activism around food– particularly those black identified Americans that are practicing plant-based diets (vegetarianism, veganism, raw foodism)?

Below is a long review of the book.

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Difference, Power, and Identity in the The Geography of Malcolm X: Black Radicalism and the Remaking of American Space by Dr. James Tyner

In 2006, Dr. James Tyner wrote a book that took an innovative approach to critically analyzing the ideas of Malcolm X. Trained in the discipline of geography, Tyner re-casted the life and radical praxis of the charismatic leader through a framework of critical geography. In the introduction of Tyner’s book, The Geography of Malcolm X: Black Radicalism and the Remaking of American Space, he states that this book “is an attempt to place the political thought of Malcolm X within a broader context of fundamental concepts of Geography, including segregation, territoriality, representation of place, scalar politics, and representations of self-hood” (Tyner 2006, 1). It was the wording of this introduction and the placement of a geographical framework that captivated me, a geographer rooted in critical race theory and black liberation politics, to read the book in its entirety.
Tyner’s deconstruction of Malcolm X reveals themes of “difference”, “power”, “identity”, “self-determination”, and most importantly “space and place”. Malcolm X’s rhetoric of black liberation can be understood within the large context of largely black male-dominated USA African-American social movements of the first half of the twentieth century. One of the core focuses of this movement was the push to reorganize and contest the [white male] power-holders within a capitalistic moral global economy (Tyner 2006). For activists like X, Tyner notes that the USA was a place of extreme contradiction in which the ideology of democracy was constantly trumped by the spatialization of institutionalized racism. Du Bois is most noted for calling such spaces of inequality as the “problem of the colorline.” “The spaces of America was Janus-face, with the decaying black urban ghetto contrasting starkly with the idyllic suburban oasis of white America” (Tyner 2006, 4). The ghetto, in comparison to white America, was a space that represented “powerlessness”. For Malcolm X, he clearly saw that it was the power of systemic whiteness and racism that created difference and false identities between “black” and “white” peoples (Tyner 2006). However, Malcolm X did not have a more complex understanding of racism, racialization, place, space, and power until later in his activism.
Malcolm X’s initial understanding of power and black identity was very much rooted in his social and physical place as a young black man, growing up in Mason, MI, marginalized within a K-12 publish school system. As a youth, he noticed how he never learned anything “good” about his ancestral home of Africa. His curriculum taught him that Africa and its people were “animals” and “savages” (Tyner 2006). When he was an older adult, he was later able to more concretely understand that the roots of power and domination of the USA reflected a global system of white supremacy and capitalism that had the power to constantly construct Africa and people of the African Diaspora in a negative image (Tyner 2006). Like most people, the young Malcolm X was an intellectual product of his immediate surroundings and local upbringing. This is what makes Tyner work so profound and unique: he tries to understand how Malcolm X’s physical location led to his elevation in consciousness about the construction of a geopolitics of black radical liberation. He notes: “my interest lies in Malcolm X’s own understanding of geographic concepts- place-representation, territoriality, separatism, nationalism- as they relate to a broader program of social justice” (Tyner 2006, 17). Tyner does a stellar job of such an agenda.
Tyner starts with the geographies of Malcolm X’s youth, depicting the USA educational system as a site of unequal power between white teachers and black students. He writes how Malcolm X recalls that his white male teacher, Mr. Williams,

was a great one for ‘nigger’ jokes…Later…we came to the textbook section of Negro history. It was exactly one paragraph long. Mr. Williams laughed through it practically in a single breath, reading aloud how the Negroes had been slaves and then were freed, and how they were usually lazy and dumb and shiftless. (Tyner 2006, 21)

Such an epistemological site of oppression taught Malcolm X that the American Dream’s edict of meritocracy, was clouded by the White America’s obsession with subjugating black Americans into their “proper place”. Despite being number 3 in his high school class rank, Malcolm X’s dream of becoming a lawyer was put into its “proper place”, after one teacher told him that “niggers” don’t become lawyers (Tyner 2006).

After the death of Malcolm’s father, his mother tried desperately to raise his siblings on her own. However, she eventually had a nervous breakdown, and the children were separated from each other and placed into foster homes or placed with other family members. Malcolm X moved from his black low-income neighborhood of Mason, Michigan, to live with is older sister in a black middle class community of Boston, Massachusetts. “They physical displacement of Malcolm was transformative in its effect…According to Natambu, the experience in Boston induced a radical change in Malcolm’s perspective and behavior in that he saw a different side- indeed, different spaces- of black America” (Tyner 2006, 23).Suddenly, Malcolm X was exposed to Black Americans living in middle class lifestyle. This was radically different from his perception of all black people as being of low-come in the USA. He was also able to realize that the collective ethic of the Boston area black middle class population was more invested in “assimilation” into whiteness, than “achieving authentic black liberation” (Tyner 2006, 23).

Within a few months, Malcolm X dropped out of the all-boys high school that his sister had enrolled him in. Feeling “out of place” in his new black middle class environment, he made a pilgrimage to Harlem, New York. While living in Harlem, and at the young age of twenty-one, he was arrested and sentenced to prison for ten years for robbery. However, X later reflects that his prison sentence was not about the robbery, as much as it was about him being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people; X and his black male friend had attempted a robbery with two young white sisters. X’s lawyer told him that he should have not been with those two white women (Tyner 2006). It was this event that reiterated for Malcolm X that he was being punished for being out of his social place and crossing the color line by “influencing” two white sisters to commit a crime.
It was the site of his prison cell that Malcolm X’s consciousness transitioned from a one-dimensional perception of the “color-line”, to a more complex understanding, rooted in the knowledge learned from intensely reading everything he could get his hands on. While in prison, Malcolm X was exposed to, and embraced, the Black Muslim faith. After his release, he because involved with the USA Nation of Islam. This opportunity gave him the chance to be taught under the honorable Elijah Muhammad, and to travel throughout the world. It was travel that truly helped Malcolm X shift his paradigm of black radical thought. Seeing how all people of color were treated within a white supremacist global society, Malcolm was able to see that the suffering of black Americans was not local, but in fact global and experienced by multiple groups of people of color who were under the colonial system (Tyner 2006).
Because of his travels, Malcolm X was able to reassess USA’s racist ideologies within the context of global capitalism and colonialism. More strikingly, he questioned who had the historical power to define/label human beings of African descent as “Negroes”, place them in “ghettos”, and punish them for their “insurgency” against their suffering. His concept of self-determination was multi-faceted: he focused on the decolonization of Black Americans by first contesting the identification imposed on them by white supremacist society. He heavily critiqued the term “Negro,” and felt that this term was a recent construction with the colonial empire’s imagination.
Malcolm X argued against the classification of races; he vociferously contested the {still] taken-for-granted racial hierarchies prevalent in the social sciences [and believed that] “‘Negroes’ do not exist outside of America’s geographical imaginations, for they are a construct of American racial ideologies.” (Tyner 2006, 37)

During the time period of Malcolm X, it became increasingly clear for him that “the ‘body’ and the ‘mind’ of African Americans became issues of contestation… [and he] addressed the physical and psychological segregation that resulted from assimilating into the oppressor’s system” (Tyner 2006, 52). Dr. Tyner believes that X’s geographical knowledge, “buttressed [Malcolm X’s] arguments for separation as opposed to integration” (Tyner 2006, 53). Hence, for Malcolm X, black radicalism was about the remaking of spaces and the decolonization of the “scientifically constructed Negro” by the discursive practices of the Western academy (Tyner 2006). Integration, for Malcolm X, simply meant that the Black American would still be placed in a socio-economically unequal position, while laboring as a “slave” to maintain a capitalistic moral economy. However, “separatism”, for him, truly meant that black Americans would have the power to identify themselves through a non-white supremacist ideology, create their own self- sufficient communities and economies, and ultimately be self-determined with full agency and not dependent on white supremacist capitalism (Tyner 2006). Unlike the Nation of Islam, in which Malcolm X eventually separated from, he felt that Black separatism was crucial, but only temporary necessity; Elijah Muhammad and his Nation of Islam strongly pushed for permanent separatism between Black people and White people. X contested this “permanent” solution, and proclaimed that only until Black Americans could fully become autonomous, through a decolonial transition through temporary separatism, could they then un-separate themselves and start to interact with White communities, businesses, peoples, again.
X’s break from the Nation of Islam, Tyner theorizes, was significantly influenced by his global travels, meeting all different types of people, and realizing the “interconnectedness of oppression” of all people. He also altered his feelings about his hostility towards white people, and embraced those who were willing to be allies in the struggle of decolonization (Tyner 2006). His geopolitical view transformed from, the “problem of the ‘color-line’ as a ‘Black USA’ issue”, to it being a “global issue of worldwide domination of all people of color and the poor.” He also re-evaluated his perception of the the place of females, after visiting communities in African nations in which the females were “as strong as the males” and fought in the war for liberation alongside their African brothers (Tyner 2006). Hence, Malcolm X’s imagined community of a new black space/community re-positioned the role of the black female as having “agency” and as being “equal to men” (Tyner 2006). It become clear to X that a community can never advance if half of their population (the women) are subjugated and power is only given to the males.

In conclusion, Tyner’s book reveals that Malcolm X’s consciousness expanded as he moved from one geographical location, to another. His concept of “power”, “self-determination”, “black radicalism”, “space”, and “difference”, shifted from a very one-dimensional understanding, to a multi-level approach that revealed to him the necessity to understand the local struggle as a global struggle, in order to resist the domination of white supremacist colonial ideologies and capitalistic economies. I truly wonder how Malcolm X would have progressed, had he only stayed in Mason, MI, had never traveled globally, or had never spent time incarcerated with access to a plethora of books. What would have is approach to understanding power, self-determination, difference, and identity been like? And what can one learn about their own concept of these terms, while reflecting on their own geopolitical position in the world?

Works Cited

Tyner, James A. The Geography of Malcolm X : Black Radicalism and the Remaking of American Space. New York: Routledge, 2006.

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