Al Qaeda's message and the myth of authentic blackness

As I awoke yesterday morning to the new Al Qaeda audiotape, I was shocked at the content in it. Now we all know that Al Qaeda is notorious for vitriolic messages, but there was something especially strong in this particular one. Al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman Al-Zawahiri issued a taped message insulting Americans, and Obama specifically. He referred to Obama, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell and their "likes" as "house slaves (negroes)." He furthermore said that Obama was not an authentic black leader like Malcolm X. Let me attack this from a series of angles.

1) It is very clear that Al-Zawahiri has been reading some of the books that Malcolm X wrote. Clearly as one runs around and ducks the American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, living in caves and the like, there must be considerable time to read. And in all likelihood the way that he became attuned to Malcolm X was through an American member of the Taliban, as some of his recent taped messages have Malcolm X references.

2) To say that Obama is not a leader of the caliber of Malcolm X grossly misinterprets the two kind of leaders. Malcolm X was a leader of a movement, while Obama is a politician. While it is clear that Obama ran a campaign very similar to that of a movement, in all likelihood studying the likes of Malcolm X, one can not equate the two in equal terms. I believe that by linking the two of them Al-Zawahiri missed a crucial difference that makes his comments look even more ridiculous.

3) Al-Zawahiri missed a main component of Malcolm X's leadership. After Malcolm X came back from his pilgrimage to Mecca, shortly before his death, his radicalism began to take a noticeably different slant. He saw Muslims of all races and creeds together at The Hajj and saw that people can come together regardless of race. He became more in tuned to the state of both foreign and domestic affairs as they related to people everywhere, not just blacks. It is often said that he became more like King in his latter years while King became much more outspoken, much in the way Malcolm X was. For Al-Zawahiri to refer to Obama and other leaders as inauthentic unlike Malcolm X, it does not take into account the full trajectory of Malcolm X's life and journey and ignores the transformative change that X went through after visiting Mecca. It also takes the cloak of black authenticity and narrows it into a box that simply is too small to define it.

Clearly Al-Zawahiri was attacking Obama and blacks as a whole. While I am sure that he did not understand the complexity of the argument that he was laying out, it is crucial to dissect the arguments that he made and not simply get upset that they were made at all. If I remember correctly blacks and minorities similarly defined Obama as inauthentic when he first declared his run for presidency. I find few who still hold that view. But the debate about the authenticity of blackness as it relates to the Obama presidency is one that can and will be debated in various circles for sometime. And I believe that that debate is very healthy, because it exposes others to the fact that "authentic blackness" is merely a myth.


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