Camilo José Vergara is a photographer and the author of numerous books, most recently, Detroit Is No Dry Bones: The Eternal City of the Industrial Age (University of Michigan Press, 2016). His most recent writing on Detroit can be found at PublicBooks.org. More of his work can be found at camilojosevergara.com.
Thirty years ago, his likeness could be found in many poor, minority communities. Today, these images are disappearing as the buildings they were painted on have either collapsed or have been demolished.
Minister and civil rights icon Malcolm X would have turned 93 years old this weekend. The version of him I know best is the one portrayed in the ‘hood.
Thirty years ago, the likeness of three great black leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela, were popular in poor, minority communities. Later, it was just King and Obama. Now, only MLK leads the black pantheon.
Earlier this month at Harlem’s Showman’s Club, I got in a conversation about Malcolm X. As I showed some of the patrons the murals I had photographed with my Nikon 800 and stored in my phone, I argued that he was portrayed as righteous and angry. A woman corrected me, saying he looked serious. She attributed his waning popularity to his Muslim faith and his militant attitude. She then explained that there aren’t many Muslims in the U.S., while King was a Baptist—America’s largest Protestant denomination. A former New York City policeman deflected the conversation to Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination and his bodyguard—also a former policeman whom this man knew. My efforts to get them to speak about his present relevance failed.
In the 1980s, Malcolm X’s likeness was depicted in murals on the walls of urban drug rehabilitation centers where a strong motivational presence was needed. One of these was the now abandoned Operation Get Down in a former bank on Gratiot Avenue in Detroit. During this same period, muralists working in drug corners in Chicago had to listen to the suggestions of the gangs that favored Malcolm X over MLK, lest their murals be defaced.
Malcolm X was portrayed with Rosa Parks in Chicago, with Cambodian divinities and Pancho Villa in Oakland, and with longtime mayor Coleman Young in Detroit. In Los Angeles and Oakland, Latino sign painters depict his likeness with Latino features. Most of these images have disappeared as the buildings they were painted on have either collapsed or have been demolished. As the remaining portraits fade, Malcolm X’s skin color turns lighter and grayer with time.
Every once in a while, Malcolm X will still appear in a new mural. Earlier this year in Detroit, I photographed his face as seen on a recently painted mural titled “Be A Man.” In it, he’s placed next to a pyramid and a figure riding a camel. A mosque can be seen in the background. One side of the eyeglasses on his face shows the KKK, the other raised fists and black faces yelling.