Black-Indigenous Histories Beyond the Norm: Malcolm X and the Erasure of Indigeneity

Kyle T. Mays

Before every February, I get numerous requests to participate in programming for Black History Month. And I say no to none of them because I love doing them. I’ll pause here to share a brief piece of knowledge in case you didn’t know. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of Black History,” created “Negro History Week” in order to acknowledge and celebrate the accomplishments of black folks, who were not that far removed from enslavement.

Moving past Woodson, I think the assumption is that I can speak to a certain type of black-indigenous history¾centered on dispossession and enslavement from the 17th to the 19th centuries, and those that take place in the Northeastern and Southeastern United States, and in Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). Or there’s an assumption that the black-indigenous histories that exist today center on the Cherokee Freedmen (still a very important issue). However, black-indigenous histories are not bound by familiar historical events, tribal communities, geographies, and time periods. Nor are these histories romantic.

For example, we can discuss other interesting connections in the 20th century like Malcolm X, one of my favorite black heroes. Malcolm X was a staunch black activist, the epitome of mid-twentieth century black defiance and masculinity. He was, as the late actor Ossie Davis described, “Our own shining black prince.” As I reflect on his life on the eve of his assassination, I can’t help but think about a passage I recently read after doing my annual re-reading of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Malcolm’s comment, at the level of discourse, both acknowledged that settler colonialism and simultaneously erased indigeneity.

Malcolm commented on the predicament of Indigenous people in the United States, correctly stating, “Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race.”

He said, “We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it. Our children are still taught to respect the violence which reduced a red-skinned people of an earlier culture into a few fragmented groups herded into impoverished reservations.”

Malcolm’s initial history is correct: the United States was born in settler colonialism and remains so. He was also spot on about the United States making the genocide of indigenous people part of a noble crusade, especially within the American cultural imagination. Hell, Malcolm couldn’t have known that we’d still be fighting against that Washington team. The key point, though, is analyzing how Malcolm understood the development of U.S. settler colonial history.

His conception seems to be one in which indigenous people put up little resistance and were finally defeated, placed on impoverished reservations. The next question is to understand why. Speaking mostly—although not exclusively—to a black audience, I think Malcolm’s point of emphasis was that if black people didn’t stand up against “the white man,” then they would be wiped out. (They had already killed the Indians, don’t think we can’t suffer a similar fate.) In other words, Malcolm uses indigenous history as a prop, a teaching tool for how not to end up. This passage erases indigeneity, to the point where I continue to hear black folks use such language to describe indigenous people. In fact, I heard a talk not long ago where a black scholar erroneously stated that all indigenous people were placed on reservations. I wonder where he heard that?

I used this brief example, not to deride Minister Malcolm X or black folks in general, but to make the point that there are many more episodes of black-indigenous history that have gone under examined. On a practical level, we (black and indigenous folks) should carefully analyze how we discuss each other—both past and present—in hopes of creating a political situation in which both #BlackLivesMatter and #NativeLivesMatter—equally.

Until then, we’ll continue to be haunted by the words of Carter G. Woodson, “One of the longest unwritten chapters in the history of the United States is that treating of the relations of the Negroes and the Indians.” I think it’s now time to change the game.

Kyle Mays is a Black/Saginaw Chippewa transdisciplinary scholar of urban history, Indigenous Studies, and Indigenous popular culture. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History and American Indian and Indigenous Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His dissertation, titled “Indigenous Detroit: Indigeneity, Modernity, and Gender and Racial Formation in a Modern American City, 1871-2000,” examines the role of Indigenous people and indigeneity in the development of modern Detroit. You can follow him on Twitter @mays_kyle.

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derrico's picture
Important point! FYI – on the topic of ‘settler colonialism,’ see the work of Carroll Kakel, especially his book, “The American West and the Nazi East,” and “The Holocaust as Colonial Genocide.” He doesn’t deal with Black history, but his research shows another example of efforts to destroy whole peoples.
hesutu's picture
Hi Kyle, good article. Small clarification, the quote is sometimes attributed to Malcolm X and does indeed appear in his 1965 Autobiography (on pg 368 of the original edition), but if you look closely you see he is quoting “the very man whose name symbolizes non-violence here today has stated”. He was referring by this phrase to Dr. King. Indeed the quote originates in Dr. King’s 1963 book “Why We Can’t Wait”.