“When we open our eyes today and look around America, we see America not through the eyes of someone who has enjoyed the fruits of Americanism. We see America through the eyes of someone who has been the victim of Americanism. We don’t see any American dream. We’ve experienced only the American nightmare. We haven’t benefited from America’s democracy. We’ve only suffered from America’s hypocrisy.”
― Malcolm X, The Ballot or the Bullet
Malcolm X wrote, “The Ballot or the Bullet” in 1964. This oft-misunderstood speech was a declaration of purpose. In it, he outlined a Black nationalist vision for Black liberation. That vision was borne out of the same frustration Stokley Carmichael would later feel as a Freedom Rider when confronted with the deep-seated fear and self-loathing of the Black southerners he sought to support and organize. It was the same heartbreaking exasperation that led Malcolm X to craft his vision for Black liberation. He grew up in a politically active family. His father was a Garveyite. Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican political activist whose particular brand of Pan-Africanism spawned an international movement. Malcolm X´s family home was burnt to the ground by the local KKK. His father took revenge and was subsequently murdered. That murder destroyed his family. His mother was sent to a mental institution, his brothers and sisters separated.
Malcolm X was a product of US racial violence. His vision for Black political engagement is borne out of that trauma. Contrary to popular belief “The Ballot or the Bullet” is not a declaration of war but of engagement. He is re-establishing the terms on which the Black community will engage with US society. While the initial terms of engagement were set by colonialism, he was unequivocal that the Black community refused to remain in their prescribed role as the oppressed. For Malcolm X redefining those terms meant Black people exercising their right to self-defense. It was clear to him that racial terror would not end until the Black community practiced self-defense as a whole. In doing so they would be joining a global movement where millions of Black and Brown communities had taken up arms to overthrow their colonial rulers. This would also help bring their case to international attention where, in a world court, they could seek the justice they would never find at home.
“America is as much a colonial power as England ever was. America is just as much a colonial power as France ever was. In fact, America is more so a colonial power than they, because she is a hypocritical colonial power…”
Malcolm X, “The Ballot or The Bullet”
In 1961 West Indian psychologist and philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote a book called, “The Wretched of the Earth”. In it he outlines the psychology of colonialism, it´s effect on the oppressed, and a path to liberation. His focus was on how these forces shaped the psyche of the oppressed. He was interested in creating a holistic liberation. A liberation that took into account their physical and psychological well being. A liberation that freed humanity from the eternal cycle of violence imperialism justified and colonialism practiced.
Like Malcolm X, Fanon is often inaccurately accused of being a champion of violence. However, a closer look at his work reveals a more nuanced understanding of the use of violence in the imperialist/colonial project. Violence is the tool of the oppressor. Violence is the defining feature of imperialism and colonialism. Violence is essential to enforce the racial caste system it establishes. As such violence is the context of colonialism. The dialogue between the oppressed and the oppressor is violence. For the oppressed resistance is a daily practice but the initial break from colonialism is by necessity violent.
While violence was a necessary step in self-definition for the oppressed, Fanon neither celebrated nor touted it as the ultimate solution. It was merely a way to re-assert a dehumanized self. It was never meant to be the primary means of liberation but an essential first step in the project of liberation. Also, violence in the colonial context was not just confined to armed conflict, it is characterized as any attempt by the oppressed to express their humanity. This could range from looking a white person in the eye to refusing to sit at the back of a bus. At the end of “The Wretched of the Earth”, Fanon alludes to the incompleteness of violent conflict. He understood that while it was the initial impulse towards liberation, in and of itself violence is not liberating. Violence begets violence. His greatest fear was for this conflict to devolve into an intractable eternal war.
“Just as it took nationalism to remove colonialism from Asia and Africa, it´ll take Black nationalism to remove colonialism from the backs and minds of 22 million Afro-Americans.”
Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet”
The philosophy of white supremacy and its ideological offshoot white nationalism is the foundation of imperialism and colonialism. As such it is an ideology that was created to justify imperialist expansion and colonial oppression. There is no Black nationalism without White nationalism. The latter is about holding power over someone, the former is about survival.
By the time a young Stokely Carmichael turned his attention to the question of power he was a veteran Civil Rights organizer who had been jailed 27 times and beaten more times than anyone would care to remember. But even that experience was not the breaking point. It seems that Carmichael was especially disheartened by the reaction of the Black Southerners he and fellow Black Freedom Riders had come to help liberate. Those Black Southerners so mired in their oppression-the fear and self-loathing it engenders could not recognize Black Freedom riders as their compatriots. They closed doors in their faces, they yelled at the young Black organizers to get out of town with that nonsense. Compatriots who risked life, limb, and sanity to journey to the bowels of hell to offer a hand in mutual salvation. My heart breaks as I think of that young man so disheartened by his fellow Black people-deeply frightened, near-hysterical rejection of his help. In contrast to the ease with which White Freedom Riders were able to convince Black southerners to participate. And so it is in that moment Carmichael turns his back on non-violence instinctively acting on what Fanon wrote. Violence may not be the liberating tool but it is a necessary first step in reclaiming one’s humanity.
His break did not come easily, it was after a night-long impassioned debate in a Jackson, MS jail cell with Bernard Lafayette, another prominent organizer and lifelong best friend of the late Rep. John Lewis. But even Lafayette recognized his frustration; he sympathized with Carmichael. Lafayette did not agree but he understood where he was coming from.
The non-violent path that Lafayette encouraged Carmichael to continue is the only alternative to the violence quagmire. However, I no longer see violent opposition and non-violence as two irreconcilable paths but as integral to a process of liberation. As defined by Fanon, any assertion of the oppressed self is violent. It is a sudden break with the colonial caste system, a rupture in the status quo. To live as a Black person, to live as a Native person is to be subjected to a constant state of violence. Violence that ranges from intrapersonal policing of behavior and boundary enforcement to state-sponsored murder. And so standing up in the face of that violence is a necessary rupture to that system. But there is a danger. The danger is getting sidetracked by that violence. Like racism, violence is a constructed distraction against the real enemy, a power-hungry elite. What Black Power and Black Nationalism got right was their discussion and critique of power. Along with their insistence on standing up to violence.
“We must, must understand the politics of our community and we must know what politics is supposed to produce. We must know what part politics play in our lives…. So the political philosophy of Black nationalism only means that we will have to carry on a program of reeducation — to open people’s eyes, make us more politically conscious, politically mature.”
Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet”
Trump is a bully who seeks to maintain his power. He will use whatever tool available to do that. The United States is an imperialist power. It is also a settler-colonial society established on Native genocide and African enslavement. As such its structures and institutions have codified a caste system that has placed Black and Brown people at the very bottom. Despite the great effort to end the violent racial oppression, it has yet to be stopped. What is untenable is a leader who uses inflammatory racist rhetoric to encourage it.
The current administration is circling the wagons. The White House is openly advocating White nationalism. Trump’s aim to ferment racial divisions is clear. He does this by encouraging white nationalists to hit the streets and take action against peaceful protests against state-sponsored violence. Thus spreading terror and confusion. What is his real aim? Power. While we must stand up against this violence we cannot get caught up in it. It is a distraction, meanwhile, Trump is working to maintain and further expand his power.
“A ballot is like a bullet. You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target….”
Malcolm X, “The Ballot or The Bullet”
Malcolm X delivered, “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech in a moment of heightened racial anxiety not unlike today. Just six months earlier the16th Street Church was bombed in Birmingham, AL killing four young girls. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed which caused an uptick in racial terror. And let us not forget the familiar stories of police brutality that culminated in racial uprisings across the United States. That year’s presidential election was seen as crucial. Its outcome determined whether or not the Civil Rights movement continued to make progress or was in danger of losing those hard-fought gains. Yet the difference between then and now is stark. We have a president hell-bent on maintaining his power, so determined that he is willing to start a race war to do so.
“The Ballot or the Bullet” is a masterful lesson in Black Nationalism and Black Power. They are liberation philosophies that take into account the trauma of oppression. As espoused by Malcolm X, simultaneously encouraging Black people to rise up and defend themselves and from that empowered position vote. Voting becomes a way to exercise power. Voting is an essential tool towards building the institutions Black people and others traumatized by racial oppression need for healing, growth, and economic empowerment. Now more than ever we need to stay clear and focused, steely in our determination.
We must decide to use the ballot like a bullet to unseat a bully.