The Iconography of Malcolm X

Graeme Abernethy

From Detroit Red to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, the man best known as Malcolm X restlessly redefined himself throughout a controversial life. His transformations have appeared repeatedly in books, photographs, paintings, and films, while his murder set in motion a series of tugs-of-war among journalists, biographers, artists, and his ideological champions over the interpretation of his cultural meaning.

This book 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. Graeme 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.

“Makes a particularly important contribution to studies of Malcolm, in particular, and studies of civil rights leaders, more generally, because it provides a template for understanding the way in which black intellectual icons managed their images in a hostile climate operating upon denigrating and emasculating images of black masculinity.

—Southern Communication Journal

“Abernethy’s fascinating The Iconography of Malcolm X blurs the distinction between cultural history and intellectual history . . . the force of his argument benefits from his steady focus on an archive of visual representations of Malcolm and the diverse (and global) publics that consume them.

—American Studies
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Abernethy explores Malcolms visual prominence in the eras of civil rights, Black Power, and hip-hop. He analyzes this enigmatic figures representation across a variety of media from 1960s magazines to urban murals, tracking the evolution of Malcolms iconography from his autobiography and its radical milieu through the appearance of Spike Lees 1992 biopic and beyond. Its remarkable gallery of illustrations includes reproductions of iconic photographs by Richard Avedon, Eve Arnold, Gordon Parks, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and John Launois.

Abernethy reveals that Malcolm X himself was keenly aware of the power of imagery to redefine identity and worked tirelessly to shape how he was represented to the public. His theoretical grasp of what he termed the science of imagery enabled him both to analyze the role of representation in ideological control as well as to exploit his own image in the interests of black empowerment.

This provocative work marks a startling shift from the biographical focus that has dominated Malcolm X studies, providing an up-to-date—and comprehensively illustrated—account of Malcolms cultural afterlife, and addressing his iconography in relation to images of other major African American figures, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Kanye West, and Barack Obama. Analyzing the competing interpretations behind so many images, Abernethy reveals what our lasting obsession with Malcolm X says about American culture over the last five decades.

About the Author

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

Additional Titles in the CultureAmerica Series