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Malcolm X, Human Rights, and A New World Picture

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In the year and a half before he was killed, Malcolm X was making extensive use of the language of human rights – a language that, he insisted, went beyond that of civil rights, both to describe the wrongs of white supremacy in America and to offer grounds for international appeal. Reading Malcolm X on human rights, many scholars read this as a “turn” toward internationalism, even a loose cosmopolitanism, coming after his break with the Nation of Islam; others describe his use of human rights language as largely instrumental, a way to gain standing for international appeal. But his theorization of the concept both began earlier and was more intellectually robust than the current literature suggests. For Malcolm X, I argue, the language of human rights served to tie together his criticism of American hypocrisy with a robust anticolonial politics, which included a critique of the application of American power abroad. While his use of human rights can be understood, I’ll argue, in the context of a longer-running criticism of the hypocrisy of America’s founding documents, he also rejected the politics of fulfilment, seeking instead to enact the re-founding of a political community and re-making of its promises, in order to change both the position of African Americans in the US and the role of the US in the world. In this sense, I argue, Malcolm X saw human rights as part of what he described as a “new world picture” that could merge humanitarian and egalitarian commitments with an affirmation of national political institutions and postcolonial sovereignty.

This talk is part of the International Relations & History Working Group series.

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