Literary Hub

Falling in Love with Malcolm X—and His Mastery of Metaphor

The video clip, slightly pixelated and shot in black and white, shows two men in the throes of laughter. One, white, leans closer, holding a microphone near his companion’s mouth. The other, Black, who was laughing with his head turned away, exposing a handsome set of teeth, composes himself, facing his interviewer, yet he is unable to hide his boyish smile.

“Do you feel, however,” the interviewer says, “that we’re making progress in this coun–”

“No, no,” the Black man interjects, his smile giving way to a straight face as he shakes his head. “I will never say,” he continues, “that progress is being made. If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even begun to pull the knife out, much less,” he says, his smile returning, “heal the wound.” When the interviewer attempts to ask another question, the Black man declares, “they won’t even admit the knife is there.”

This video was shot in March 1964. The Black man whose smoke-like smile frequently takes new shape is Malcolm X. And, at 13 years old, as I watched this video and countless others, I fell in love. To me, he was the most beautiful man to have walked the earth.

But my infatuation wasn’t romantic, and it wasn’t his looks that drew me to him. Nor was it his voice; a voice that, like his smile, could transform into a sonorous boom and, a split-second later, take on a mouse-like whisper. No, what mesmerized me about Brother Malcolm was his masterful use of something that, like the sun’s radiation, is easily unnoticeable but undoubtedly penetrating: the metaphor.

It was one of my older brothers, a member of the Five-Percent Nation, who encouraged me to first look into Malcolm X. I remember him entering my room and handing me a frame of one of Malcolm’s most iconic photos: his eyes gazing from behind a pair of browline glasses; his left index finger pointing upwards, touching his temple; a ring bearing the Nation of Islam’s symbol, a thin crescent with a star next to it. He was, to me, the Platonic form of a Black intellectual. From the photo, I went to YouTube, which, at the time, was only three years old. It was there that I first encountered Malcolm X in 2-D. And it was there I received a translation of the plight of Blacks in America in ways I had never experienced before.

The magic of his words, transposing a piece of reality onto another to make something new like a kaleidoscope, made me a believer in the power of the metaphor as well as in the power of the man himself.

Malcolm said, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us.” Malcolm said, “You can’t hate the roots of the tree without ending up hating the tree.” Malcolm said, “The Negro here in America has been treated like a child.” Malcolm said a lot, and I ate up every last crumb of his words,  hungering for more. But what sustained me most was his ability to turn struggles into symbols that struck my soul more than any remastered, repetitive, and rephrased depiction of the fight for equal rights could. The magic of his words, transposing one piece of reality onto another to make something new, like a kaleidoscope, made me a believer in the power of the metaphor as well as in the power of the man himself.

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A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2016 and led by Dr. Adam Fetterman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso, addresses the degree to which metaphors not only influence our thinking, but also the ways we behave. The study supported the idea that those who think more metaphorically than concretely are predisposed to what’s known as the “metaphor transfer effect,” meaning that metaphors have an observable change on their feelings and actions. One of Fetterman’s experiments built on previous research, conducted by Brian P. Meier, Michael D. Robinson, and Gerald L. Clore and published in 2004, which supported a tendency by those who were more inclined to metaphorical thinking to associate neutral words written in a white, or “light,” font with “good,” than neutral words written in a black font, which presents a world of questions regarding racism, stereotypes, and xenophobia, but that’s for another essay.

Another of Fetterman’s studies found that the “metaphorical thinkers” who ate sweet food acted more “agreeable,” or sweeter, compared to the concrete thinkers. Another showed that, when 50 people were asked to write out their negative emotions for five minutes a day for a week, those who wrote about their feelings using metaphor experienced a drop in depression symptoms and negative feelings.

And an older study, published by PLoS ONE in 2011 and conducted by Lera Boroditsky and Paul Thibodeau, looked at the metaphor’s ability to impact our reasoning and, therefore, the actions we take. In the experiment, participants read about a city full of crime. Half of the respondents read about the crime through the lens of an animal metaphor—e.g. a “wild beast preying on a city”—and the other half were given a disease metaphor, e.g. a “virus infecting the city.” When asked for solutions to solve the city’s crime problem, those who received the animal metaphor suggested, “catching and jailing criminals and enacting harsher enforcement laws.” Conversely, those who received the disease metaphor recommended, “investigating the root causes and treating the problem by enacting social reform to inoculate the community, with emphasis on eradicating poverty and improving education.” Two years later, further research by Boroditsky and Thibodeau supported that many people weren’t aware of metaphors playing a role in their decision making and that, even if they were, they would still be affected by them.

Some research also suggests that metaphors can be weaponized for more nefarious purposes, which Donald Trump no doubt exploited in his 2016 presidential run and continues to make use of today.

As Carmine Gallo writes in, “The Metaphors That Played A Role In Trump’s Victory,” Trump’s popular use of:

“Drain the swamp…” a visceral metaphor which has been used by politicians to signal that it’s time to clean up government corruption… turned into a rallying cry for the millions of disaffected voters who feel as though the established political leaders and institutions have failed them. Trump frequently used metaphors to argue that “the system is rigged,” imploring voters to “take our country back” or to “shake off the rust.”

Even Trump himself didn’t anticipate the power of “Drain the swamp,” because, as he explained, he initially didn’t like the expression, but said it and, “the place went crazy. I said, ‘you know what? I’m starting to like that expression.’ And now it’s like trending all over the world. ‘Drain the swamp in Washington.’ So we like, we like that expression.” From Georgetown University Linguist Jennifer Sclafani’s point of view, Trump’s metaphors, “Give the impression that he is having an intimate conversation with individual voters rather than giving a prepared speech to a mass audience.”

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Trump is not Malcolm X, but his ability to sway millions with the metaphor—whether used as a machete, machine-gun, or missile—is where the two meet.

And it is with this in mind that, for me, the metaphor stretches far beyond a literary device. It is now, and forever will be, an opportunity for innovation, conversation, and, perhaps most importantly, translation of what the eyes fail to see, the ears fail to hear, the nose fails to smell, the hands fail to touch, and the mouth fails to taste. The metaphor reveals a world behind the world of things that those who choose to shoulder the responsibility unveil, in direct relation to their intentions. And though there is a thick darkness spreading from under the seat of he who sits in the highest seat of government, I opt to end with words of hope from Malcolm, who said, “We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity.”

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