Off the Shelf: The Iconography of Malcolm X

fullsizerenderPublished in 2003, Graeme Abernethy’s The Iconography of Malcolm X marks the first systematic examination of the images generated by this iconic cultural figure—images readily found on everything from T-shirts and hip-hop album covers to coffee mugs. Abernethy captures both the multiplicity and global import of a person who has been framed as both villain and hero, cast by mainstream media during his lifetime as the most feared man in American history, and elevated at his death as a heroic emblem of African American identity. As Abernethy shows, the resulting iconography of Malcolm X has shifted as profoundly as the American racial landscape itself.

Currently in Lagos, Nigeria, Abernethy answered questions about the book and how the iconography of Malcolm X continues to evolve.


What was the major draw to researching/writing about Malcolm X?

4c72f33fmalcolmxmalcolmx“It was Spike Lee’s Malcolm X that first made me aware of Malcolm X. The marketing for the film bled into popular culture when I was still very young. And I would say that as an even smaller child, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the NBA, the Jordan versus Bird video game, and baseball cards were my initial orientation in African American popular iconography. I grew up in suburban Canada, but I was a student of American popular culture, as most people are through sheer capitalist force. I later read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. It’s a special book — politically urgent and deeply personal. It contains so many elements: crime, jazz culture, mass media, religion, the civil rights movement, travel, the tragedy of his death. And what became most interesting to me when I found a copy of a first edition was the inclusion of photographs from Malcolm’s personal collection. I began studying them more deeply as a graduate student.”

How did your idea of Malcolm X change through the process of writing your book?

“While writing the book I did become wary of the Autobiography as a ‘pure’ or transparent document of Malcolm’s life. Alex Haley’s (and Malcolm’s own) interventions in the text — commercial, religious, political — became very apparent to me. I also became aware of how extensively Malcolm articulated a philosophy of visual self-representation and how knowingly he collaborated with various photographers at home and abroad. I think he was well ahead of his time. He was more than a celebrity or religious or political leader. His death elevated him to unique status. ‘Icon’ is the only word that describes him for me. I do think the word ‘icon’ is often misused in popular culture these days.”

What was the process through which Malcolm X became aware of the “power of imagery.” Has that idea manifested in modern politics?

“As a child, Malcolm X came to know the power of images to inspire and enthrall by seeing and sharing pictures of Marcus Garvey and Joe Louis. He illustrated his personal and political evolution during his ‘Detroit Red’ years by sending photographs of himself in his new zoot suits to his family and friends. He studied a picture of Elijah Muhammad while in prison, becoming aware of photography’s transfigurative associations. And the Nation of Islam taught its adherents about ‘tricknology,’ the pattern of deceptive and racially degrading images and ideas circulated during the Jim Crow years. Malcolm sought very actively to counter this through what he called the ‘science of imagery.”

How has America’s perception of Malcolm X changed in the last decade? Do you think it will adjust again under the current administration?

paozofv6ow809c8ssytiMalcolm’s voice clearly resonates in the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ movements — as do those of the Black Panthers, who were themselves inspired by Malcolm. I do anticipate Malcolm X resurfacing again and again in the coming years. His travel journals were recently published. But more than in old modes, I see him (and the culture generally) moving into newer expressions: social media, holograms, video games.”

What was your greatest challenge while writing the book?

“The Iconography of Malcolm X was a joy to write and working with the University Press of Kansas was a pleasure. The real challenges were those of time and discipline. I wanted the book to be faithful to the history of Malcolm’s life and cultural afterlife. His life and views were extremely complex.”

What has been your biggest satisfaction associated with the book?

“The book has been well received, which is satisfying. It has also led me in Malcolm’s footsteps to Nigeria, which he visited in 1964. I have been lecturing in Lagos for the past 4 years, learning much more about what Malcolm X celebrated: the cultural links between Africa and the Americas.”


Graeme Abernethy is a writer, researcher, and educator based in Vancouver, British Columbia.