Malcolm X | Critical Essay by Hank Flick and Larry Powell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of Malcolm X.
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Critical Essay by Hank Flick and Larry Powell

SOURCE: "Animal Imagery in the Rhetoric of Malcolm X," in Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, June, 1988, pp. 435-51.

In the following essay, Flick and Powell explore Malcolm X's use of animal imagery in his rhetoric as a means of changing the prevailing conceptions held by black Americans about white Americans.

The history of the black man in America emanates from the edifice of slavery and its subsequent effects on both white and black Americans. Over the years a number of rhetors have analyzed such a situation for the purpose of identifying those rhetorical devices that had been employed to regulate blacks to a lifelong position of servitude in America. Rhetors noted the different devices that were employed to maintain and then tighten the shackles of slavery to the limbs of blacks as they migrated from the plantations of the old South to the urban centers of America. One rhetor who analyzed such a situation was Malcolm X.

Malcolm X's rhetoric was designed to modify the image that many blacks had of white America. Such an image had white America seen as a people who were humane in their interests and treatment of other people. White America was perceived by blacks as being a moral people who had the courage to deal effectively with those injustices that had been perpetrated against blacks. In seeking to modify such an image, Malcolm faced a situation wherein he made use of several rhetorical devices. One such device was his use of animal imagery.

The rhetoric of Malcolm X was born of societal conflict. In fact, his rapid persuasive messages—dotted with short sentences and quick and cutting answers—were the means by which such conflict was perpetuated. Any examination of the rhetoric of Malcolm X might be seen as a logical result of crisis conditions that have been developing for more than a century in the black communities across America as blacks were forced to give form to their own set of experiences in the midst of a white culture.

In seeking to modify the image many blacks had of white America, Malcolm faced a situation where one culture acted in a supraculture. Black Americans operated within a system wherein most everything was defined, given form, and controlled by white America, Malcolm envisioned the history of the United States as a personal historical chronicle of white people, written by white people, and immortalized for white people. Against such a semantic backdrop, Malcolm's words must first be heard and then understood.

The purpose of this article is to study Malcolm's use of animal imagery in relation to his goal of freeing blacks from their image of white America. In regards to this purpose, this article has (1) identified the image that many blacks had of white America, (2) identified Malcolm's paradigm for the use of animal imagery, (3) discussed this paradigm in relation to how animal imagery was employed by Malcolm to modify an image, and (4) identified what can be learned from Malcolm's discourse in terms of facing future images that are in need of change.

The Image That Blacks Had of White America

A person's image of him- or herself, the world he or she lives in, and his or her place in that world is determined by a person's subjective knowledge. An image is nothing more than the sum total of a person's beliefs and perceptions of self and other. What a person thinks he or she is, what he or she sees others as being, what he or she thinks the world is like goes to form a person's image of the present and his or her expectations of the future. The image a person holds of him- or herself is not one-dimensional. It is a multidimensional "something" that serves to place people into a time-space relationship with other persons. This image serves to stimulate and guide people's behavior.

Over the years, white America has acquired a series of public images of their own. [K. E.] Boulding, [in The Image, 1956,] claims that such an image begins in the person's mind and then becomes public when it is transmitted and shared with others. One specific public image that has survived the passage of time was that white America was a humane and moral people. Within such an image whites were considered superior to others by reason of their sensitivity to the positions and needs of others.

The effect of such an image upon blacks was that many blacks came to view both black and white interests as being congruent in nature. Blacks felt that white America was concerned with their plight and were working to eradicate many of the impoverished conditions blacks faced. The trust that blacks had in white America supported and protected the image of white America. In terms of effect, by trusting in white America, blacks occupied a passive stance in terms of speaking to and dealing with their own problems.

Malcolm's rhetoric was characterized by his attempt to unify blacks. Through unification Malcolm hoped to bring blacks together so they could seek out and formulate solutions to their own problems. To accomplish this goal, Malcolm sought to modify the image blacks had of white America. For as long as the image of white America remained intact, blacks would look to others to solve their problems. So that blacks would occupy a more active stance in dealing with conditions endemic to blacks, Malcolm worked to modify the image that blacks had of white America. Malcolm sought to effect such a change through his use of animal imagery. To understand how Malcolm employed elements of animal imagery a three step paradigm is first presented and then analyzed in terms of its impact on image modification.

Malcolm X's Paradigm for the Use of Animal Imagery

Malcolm's use of animal imagery came into being as a response to conditions blacks faced. His discourse can be judged rhetorically significant by noting the situation it spoke to, the conditions it emerged from, the change it sought to effect, and the paradigm it promulgated to effect such a change. This paradigm can be seen as a model for facing future images in need of change and the steps a rhetor might follow to effect the needed image change.

The situational nature of Malcolm's rhetoric noted those controlling devices within a situation and prescribed a series of steps a rhetor could follow to alter an image. These steps were (1) identification (method/author), (2) depiction and arousal, and (3) action.

The Use of Animal Imagery and How It Was Employed by Malcolm X to Modify the Image of White America

Malcolm's paradigm for the use of animal imagery can be seen as proceeding through a series of rhetorical shifts designed to allow a rhetor's claim to maintain a balance between the familiar, reasoned analysis, vivid reductive imagery, and a call to action to effect the behavior of those people within that situation. Malcolm's use of animal imagery can be seen as a response to the situation and conditions blacks faced. It was designed to prepare blacks for future rhetorical action. Whether such action was to be immediate or delayed was not significant. What was salient was that, through this action, the future relationship between the races was to be effected to the point where black perceptions of white America were revised.

In his analysis of the conditions blacks faced, Malcolm reasoned that blacks needed to initiate specific corrective action in order that present conditions would not continue. While his use of discourse was directed toward identifying, sensitizing, and arousing blacks to the point where they would act on their own behalf, Malcolm's use of animal imagery was an attempt to invert the images that blacks had of white Americans. Malcolm's paradigm offered his auditors a design by which they could be abstracted to new positions of dignity and respect, while demoting whites to a position wherein they were recognized as active agents of evil.

identification (method/author)

Malcolm's paradigm initially focused upon the identification of the method used to define blacks and of identifying the author of such tactics. His accounts were analytical in nature by reason of their examination and discussion of how images were developed and then used to regulate the behavior of self and others. Time was devoted to labeling white America as the architect of such tactics and to discussing their use of verbal artifacts to control existing and future conditions. White America was seen as having the ability to control and define the images of self and others by reason of their ownership of the rights to define the world according to their own rhetorical purposes.

Time and precedent had always allowed groups to name themselves and in turn to be named by other groups. But blacks were never afforded such an opportunity. The job of coding and defining blacks was left entirely in the hands of white America. As a result, blacks came to form their identities on the basis of what white America prescribed. This process had the effect of conditioning blacks to react to what they viewed their images and positions to be.

The coding of blacks by white America had its genus in the white belief that blacks were animals and amoral beasts of the field. Blacks were recorded as playing the role of a domesticated animal of the field with a "violence to murder, [and] ravaging sexual impulses" [A. F. Poussaint, "The Negro American: His Self-image and Integration," The Black Power Revolt, 1968]. Word pictures of this kind defined blacks as being deficient in human qualities. The christening of blacks as animals abstracted blacks to a position above that of whites and sanctioned feelings of superiority in one race and inferiority in another. The fusion of idiom and imagery placed the races in polar positions. These positions served to endorse in the minds of whites their own version of apartheid and legitimized past and future perceptions of, and behavior toward, black Americans.

The importance of this process was captured by [A. L.] Smith [in Rhetoric of Black Revolution, 1969] when he commented that the "namer of names is always the father of things." Along with such a practice, [R. M.] Weaver maintained [in Language Is Sermonic, 1970] that to have the ability to define the world and the images located within, allowed one to exert his or her influence and control over that world. Weaver contended that people's ability to manipulate symbols was their own private instrument by which they could order the relationships between people. Weaver claimed that people's overlordship of their world "begins with the naming of the world."

White America's command of language had the effect of first coding blacks and then teaching them to respond and live out such labels as if they were true. Malcolm envisioned the short-term effects of such a practice when he stated, "When you let yourself be influenced by images created by others, you'll find that oftentimes the one who creates these images can use them to mislead you and misuse you" [The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard]. Smith summarized its long-term effects when he commented, "To be defined by whites is to remain a slave."

Malcolm identified the use of image-controlling devices as not existing in its own right, isolated and independent. To Malcolm, such a process was to be seen as only a part of a larger system by which control could be exerted. Image making was objectified as a unit itself within a larger system of white control and manipulation. It was identified as a device within a system to develop an awareness of the method to be used by which a situation may be defined. Therefore, the initial step of his paradigm was to understand the situation itself and the many devices that could be employed within that system. To become cognizant of the larger system meant to understand its overall purpose and the devices within that can be employed to define and control the situation in which a person lives.

Rhetoric does not exist independent of an individual. It is a person who engineers and employs it to support his or her own rhetorical purposes. An awareness of the system or method an individual has created does not in itself constitute a complete statement of that situation. A rhetor, to be rhetorically effective, must identify and record not only the method and the purpose for which it was employed, but also its architect and against whom it is to be used. To make known one group as the causal agent of the suffering of another creates an active opposition and oppressive element that can later be vilified. The process of making known both method and architect allowed Malcolm to understand the specific forces present and to then, with the assistance of discourse, seek to modify conditions that have resulted from such conditions.

depiction and arousal

Malcolm's initial step focused upon enlightening blacks as to what devices had been used to capture their presence and to imprint upon the minds of blacks who was responsible for such acts. Malcolm believed that the fusion of method and author could best be understood if it was followed by a presentation of the effects of such a merger in terms of life experiences. To Malcolm, a rhetor must develop and present his or her own "theater of the mind." Such an artifice was constructed with an appropriate and balanced blend of reasoned analysis followed by the presentation of affective imagery. A playhouse of this nature was erected for the purpose of allowing an audience the opportunity to see how such events truly applied to them. Past and present conditions under which blacks lived were vividly transported across time and set down in front of his black audience. Malcolm brought such conditions to the attention of his auditors for the purpose of awakening their feelings. The specific device he used to accomplish this task was his use of animal imagery.

Malcolm's use of animal imagery redefined both the situation in which the races lived and the images of the races. Conditions were not simply replayed for his audience but were translated into the life experiences of his auditors so that they could vicariously feel the depths of that situation. In redefining the situation and images of the races, Malcolm selectively downgraded the images of whites while he portrayed blacks as victims of a cruel and racist white society.

Malcolm's rhetoric located both races as occupying disparate positions within a jungle like atmosphere. This jungle atmosphere, Malcolm believed, had the effect of bringing out in an individual the lowest and most base parts of his or her character. Operating within such a jungle, wolves, snakes, and sheep roamed free. Survival was based upon the principle of the fiercest and strongest animals fleecing and living off the weaker animal [The Autobiography of Malcolm X]. Whites were coded as wolves, foxes, and snakes, while blacks were cast as sheep.

Within Malcolm's animal compound, whites were pictured as roaming free and brutalizing anything and everything that stood in their way (black Americans) [The Autobiography of Malcolm X]. Malcolm differentiated between the roles of whites when he stated:

Let me tell you the only difference. The white man in the South is a wolf. You know where he stands. When he opens his mouth and you can see his teeth, he looks vicious. Well, the only difference between the white man in the South and the white man in the North is that one is a wolf and this one is a fox. The fox will lynch you and you won't even know you have been lynched. The fox will Jim Crow you and don't even know you're Jim Crowed [The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches by Malcolm X].

While noting differences between whites, Malcolm claimed that both wolf and fox were of the same genus. Consequently, Malcolm identified both orders of canines by assigning them similar objectives. Malcolm explained, "The objective of the fox and the wolf is the same…. They want to exploit you, they want to take advantage of you" [The End of White World Supremacy]. Similarly, Malcolm claimed, "both are enemies of humanity … both humiliate and mutilate their victims" [J. Clarke, editor, Malcolm X: The Man and His Times, 1969].

Rhetoric of this nature served to debilitate whites to the point that they were no longer considered human. Having been reduced in size and power, whites were no longer considered superior to anything or anybody. In explaining the motive force behind such rhetoric, Malcolm asserted [in his Autobiography], "I [have] … participated in spreading the truths that had done so much to help the American black man rid himself of the mirage that the white race was made up of 'superior beings.'" In response to such a revelation, Malcolm requested blacks to revolutionize their own thinking so they could open their eyes and "never again look in the same fearful, worshiping way at the white man" [The Autobiography of Malcolm X].

Having demystified white America, Malcolm turned to arousing black anger and hatred of whites. To accomplish this task, Malcolm portrayed blacks as the victims of a cruel and ruthless white society. As sheep within an alien environment, blacks were portrayed as the constant victims of the ruthless attacks of more aggressive white wolves and foxes. Such acts of violence were labeled as criminal and cowardly in that they were perpetrated by a strong and fierce predator upon a more docile and domesticated prey. No longer did the wolf and the fox seek out prey of equal strength; instead, they gorged themselves upon the blood of the helpless. The end result of such acts of violence resulted in, claimed Malcolm, white America having its hands "dripping with blood … of the black man in this country" [A. L. Smith and S. Robb, editors, The Voice of Black Rhetoric, 1971].

The recounting of such acts, while symbolic in nature, sought to unify blacks in their hatred of white America. By his use of such vivid imagery, blacks were allowed to see themselves as victims rather than as the victimizer. This approach appeared to be effective. Smith noted [in Rhetoric of Black Revolution] that such statements needed no further support and documentation for blacks because such experiences had been regular segments of their daily lives within America.

In seeking to arouse his audience, Malcolm's discourse provided his auditors with a four-dimensional experience. In depicting life experiences, Malcolm sought to arouse his auditors by making use of the elements of (1) specification, (2) illumination, (3) confrontation, and (4) intensification.

Every situation contains an audience that was influenced and affected by that situation. A fixed audience had to be specified from the total corpus of hearers who merely happen to be present. To be rhetorically effective, Malcolm envisioned that this grouping must be shown how the present situation affects their lives and how such a context will continue to affect, define, and regulate future behavior if left unchecked. Real-life experiences were to be illuminated and vividly left in the minds of this audience through the use of vivid reductive imagery. Abstract situations and previously employed rhetorical devices and methods of control were to be translated through reasoned analysis and the medium of language into a series of concrete life experiences that were congruent with their own experiences.

Malcolm noted that every situation contained a series of constraints that worked within that situation to restrict the action needed to modify conditions and affect change. Malcolm identified these constraints as beliefs, attitudes, traditions, images, and self-interests. These constraints worked to perpetuate and support the status quo. When such constraints were operative, a rhetor's own call for action and change could be delayed or abated. To transcend such barriers and stimulate action, Malcolm foresaw the need for the introduction of animal imagery of a highly charged nature. In lieu of such a claim, Malcolm offered his auditors a vision of a face-to-face confrontation with those forces that sought to use and control them.

Malcolm's use of highly charged imagery was a tactic by which future adjustments to new situations could be brought about, and by which disparate positions could be identified, illustrated, examined, and made more intense. In accentuating the disparate images within a situation, Malcolm stylistically displayed elements of antithesis and hyperbole. Both rhetorical devices were employed to sensitize and awaken an audience by locating opposing images within a single frame. Conflicting styles of behavior were dramatized in order to contrast and distort the relations between and images of the races.

In Malcolm's paradigm, discourse was summoned into existence for the purpose of intensifying a vision of white manipulation of blacks in the minds of his audience. Reasoned analysis, emotional appeals, and stylistic devices were conspicuously displayed to promote understanding and to provoke a response. The idiom employed to intensify experience was pictured as one that an audience could identify with, that captured their treatment within such a situation, and that unified blacks in terms of future behavioral responses. The use of vivid reductive imagery, invective, aphorisms, and caustic verbiage was employed to allow an audience an opportunity for catharsis, to vilify an alien element, and to provide life to a situation that may have had little previous meaning. The use of such imagery served to unite blacks in their anger and hatred of whites, to demystify and dehumanize white America, while resurrecting the images of blacks.

The idiom employed by Malcolm was checked by the powers of the situation itself. Imagery of this nature was presented to blacks for the purpose of producing change. It served to prescribe and legitimize Malcolm's responses to such a situation. This response came in the form of discourse. Discourse was prescribed by Malcolm as the result of previous white control and manipulation of the image-making process. This discourse was in itself a response to that situation. It became a mode of action that specified future human behavior that could effect change within that situation.


Malcolm's words became his cues for behavior. His verbiage became his remedy, the prescribed antidote, and the answer to that situation. The labeling techniques that Malcolm employed were designed to divide the immediate world so that reality could be defined in a manner that was in line with the rhetor's own rhetorical purpose. Within this world, whites were coded as animals. Such a process, [K.] Burke claimed [in Attitudes Toward History, 1959], had the effect of controlling the behavior of man. Burke explained that in coding people according to your own purpose and perceptions "we form our characters, since the names embody attitudes; and implicit in the attitudes are the cues for behavior."

In the past, both blacks and whites reacted to blacks according to the language and imagery white America developed to represent blacks. Malcolm sought to use the same process to label whites according to their past deeds. This process was directed toward influencing future black responses toward the larger white community. In assigning whites the image of an animal, Malcolm lowered the white man to a base level of existence. In essence, by calling the white individual a wolf, Malcolm directed blacks to be on their guard when "the wolf" was in their presence.

Malcolm's discourse simplified reality. Alternatives were restricted that in turn directed and regulated black behavior. By calling whites animals, blacks were charged with reacting and responding to such a label. Blacks were energized to act in relation to the labels that whites were carrying. Such labels were fixed to whites by Malcolm's use of animal imagery. Burke explained this process when he said:

Names shape our relations with our fellows. They prepare us for some functions and against others, for or against the persons representing these functions. The names go further; they suggest how you shall be for or against. Call a man a villain, and you have the choice of either attacking or cringing. Call him mistaken, and you invite yourself to attempt setting him straight.

The imagery of past brutality in animalistic terms provided Malcolm with a vocabulary. This vocabulary was used to force his black auditors to feel the pain and view the scars they had encountered at the hands of white America. The continued repetition of experiences was recaptured and vividly presented so that no audience member could escape its grasp.

What Can Be Learned from Malcolm's Rhetoric in Terms of Facing Future Images That Are in Need of Change

Malcolm X's probe of black-white relations centered upon identifying and explaining the process of white image making and the effect it came to have on the identities, perceptions, and behavior of black Americans. Malcolm's rhetoric stressed that blacks could no longer retain an air of patience and allow themselves to be defined by extrinsic forces. Images that had been assigned to them had and would continue to condemn them to live and die trapped in an affective domain within the urban centers of America unless they would face the task of redefining the situation in which they lived and the personages located within that situation.

What can be learned from Malcolm's use of animal imagery? First, to be rhetorically effective one cannot allow another to code and define the situation in which you live. To do so is to allow rhetorical opponents the right to regulate one to positions that are advantageous to him or her. Second, the right to define oneself and the situation in which one lives is an elusive privilege. It is seldom given voluntarily by one group to another, or by exploiter to exploited. It was to be attained when a rhetor would create and present to an audience discourse of such a highly charged and vivid nature that the audience itself, in thought and action, could be so engaged in that discourse that its own experiences became the mediating agent of the needed change itself. Third, the power to act is based upon a rhetor's ability to awaken his or her auditors to the tragedies of their own lives. Action was seen as resting upon the rhetor's ability to awaken the feelings of his or her audience. Identification and depiction were identified as antecedents of action. While words were seen as static in nature, a rhetors use of those words must be active. The descriptions of the past deeds of others against another were to be objectified to the point whereby an audience could see itself in relation to these deeds. In transporting abstract life experiences across time and space, an auditor not only could identify those devices that have been employed to record his or her presence, but he or she was allowed to see the subsequent effects of such tactics. The use of animal imagery supplied an audience with a new perspective by which they could see themselves. While such imagery had the effect of awaking and rousing feelings within an audience, it also served to transform an audience from a passive to a more active state.

Aside from these four principles, Malcolm's use of imagery illuminated two other working principles that a rhetor need consider if a rhetor hopes to employ animal imagery effectively. Malcolm's rhetoric stressed a blending of reasoned analysis and vivid reductive imagery. Within his design, reason was pictured as not having the power by itself to modify an image or to move an audience to action. Reason and emotion are noted as needing to cooperate with each other while working to evoke understanding, feeling, and dedication from an audience. To Malcolm, reason was employed to develop and help maintain an image, but it was the use of emotion that gave that image meaning and life. Finally, to affect change in the image of another, the imagery that a rhetor employs must be given a contextual meaning that identifies an agent and his or her purposes for employing rhetorical devices. Words such as manipulation, cruelty, exploitation, violence, and humiliation have a denotative meaning in themselves, but unless they are rhetorically fused to a specific agent and a series of life experiences, they will drift free and lose their meaning. This agent and context will give the words an identity of their own while identifying how each factor defined the other.

In studying Malcolm's rhetoric, several questions surface. Can a rhetor through use of imagery lessen the hurt that others have inflicted upon him or her through the use and manipulation of language? Can a rhetor through use of highly charged imagery change or reorganize the perceptions of his or her auditors toward themselves, others, and the situation in which they both live? Can a rhetor through use of imagery guide the future relationships between groups of people? Before considering the answers to these questions, let us consider another point.

As children we are told to tell other children who call us names that "sticks and stones may break our bones but words can never hurt us." While such a statement seems harmless, it does serve to reveal an important principle. By purchasing a health insurance policy, individuals find a way to protect themselves from any injuries they may endure from future extrinsic forces. But how can individuals protect themselves from semantic damage?

In probing the effects of semantic damage upon blacks, it is important to note that one can never find a proper insurance policy that will protect him or her from the verbal "sticks and stones" thrown by others. Semantic wounds, like other wounds, take time to heal. But even if time is granted, words can and do leave scars. Malcolm's use of animal imagery sought to deal with the scars that the years of white image control had left on the minds of black Americans.

While Malcolm's words could not eradicate the pains that blacks had endured at the hands of white America, it did lessen the effects of such a condition by rhetorically allowing blacks to change semantic environments. Malcolm's words imposed a new order upon the black world. Within this world, blacks occupied a more active position in defining their own humanity and the inhumanity of white America. No longer were blacks to take the verbal record of the past for their description and prescriptions of the present. To effect change, blacks were exposed to rhetoric that inverted and reorganized previous images of white Americans while adding features to the image of black Americans.

Malcolm's rhetoric attests to the proposition that an individual's behavior is dependent on his or her image of self, other, and the world they both share. One's image, in large part, can be seen as being determined by his or her subjective knowledge. His or her feelings toward self and other, what he or she knows, what he or she feels, go to make up his or her image. This image directs individuals to act and think the way they do. To control the process of image making then is to have the ability to control and direct the behavior of others.

Images can and do change. While some images are resistant to change, others can and do readily change as incoming messages are received and processed. If such incoming messages support the possessor's original image, the perceptions of those images are strengthened. But if this information is inconsistent with previous images, a degree of change may be produced. So if a man has an image of his friend Bill as trustworthy and then hears Bill lying to his boss, his image of Bill might be revised. If blacks are given an image of whites as humane and are shown through the employment of vivid reductive imagery that whites are and have been cruel in their treatment of others, such a previous image might also undergo revision.

In Malcolm's scheme of things, for change to occur, incoming information needed to be vivid in nature. Images could be modified or changed only when such incoming messages were so vivid in nature that they served to cause an auditor to reformulate his or present image of things radically. In vividly capturing what he considered to be the essence of the black/white experience, Malcolm transported life experiences across time and space to affect change in the manner blacks perceived white Americans. To modify the image that blacks had of whites meant to cause future behavioral changes that would affect the future relations between and perceptions of the races.

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