Readers should not take the title of Stephen Tuck’s new book too literally. The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union is not a microhistory of the evening of 3 December 1964, when Malcolm X graced the British institution to debate the notion, “Extremism in defence of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of vice is no virtue.” Nor is it a Rashomon-like tale that compares different recollections of the debate that X and the Scottish nationalist Hugh MacDiarmid lost to the liberal Conservative MP Humphry Berkeley and the Labour peer Lord Stoneham by 228 votes to 137. It is more similar in tone and content to articles in the (neo)liberal media that have marked the anniversary of X’s speech and assassination by asking pundits and historians to provide pithy accounts of race relations in Britain and the United States during the past fifty years. As a result, the book serves as an instructive tale for anyone who wishes to translate historical articles to a broader public, communicate radical campaigns for human rights in the 1960s to contemporary audiences consumed by social media activism and the clichés of journalists and public relations agencies, and speak to audiences in the US and UK that are not only divided by a common language [End Page 268] but different understandings of race and racialization.
Although it draws on some of the Malcolm X Papers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Chapter 1 is primarily concerned with synthesizing secondary material about Malcolm X’s life of travel and discovery between 1925 and 1964. It may not be “breathless and sensational.” (21) However, its descriptive asides about Marcus Garvey (a “charismatic Jamaican”), and X’s sensitivity to the “marketing game” and “propaganda” (13, 39, 42) bear as much resemblance to the series of prints and paintings of X developed by Glen Ligon in 2000 (which drew on Afrocentric colouring books of the 1970s and the erratic styles and un-worried markings of school children), as Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prizewinning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (London: Penguin, 2011).
After providing a CliffsNotes companion to X’s biography in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 paints a picture of Oxford, Britain, and race that moves between 1870 and 1964. This means a certain imbalance to the book, since it does not provide an equivalent emphasis on 19th century antecedents to X’s visit to Oxford, such as the UK tours of Frederick Douglass and Ida Wells-Barnett, which were critical components of crusades against slavery, lynching, and anti-Black racism. In addition, the chapter discusses anti-Black riots in British ports in the early 20th century with phrases such as “Tensions rose. Violence followed.” (57) It does not analyse the rhetoric about the protection of white jobs and women in relation to transdisciplinary work about the fears of miscegenation. Nor does it connect such phobias about mixture and mixing to X’s diatribes against so-called “mongrel-complexioned children” created by American slavery. Historians of labour who scratch the surface of this historical narrative will no doubt uncover other moments in which the language and style of Tuck’s tale marks a significant departure from historical accounts that do not eschew social and cultural theory. Two examples, however, deserve particular attention. In the first, Tuck describes white British students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds as “lower class” rather than connect them to a long history of working-class radicalism. (63) In the second, Tuck repeatedly notes that Malcolm “may well have” read a particular newspaper article that the historian has found illustrative. (73, 83) Such passages suggest that the historian may not have found archival material relating to X’s interpretation of written documents. They may also be used to note the book’s (over)reliance on journalistic articles, and concomitant lack of engagement with music, art, and film that influenced the politics and poetics of the African American icon.
Chapter 3 marks a dramatic shift in focus...