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Epilogue: Off to Ghana—the Encounter of Norbert Elias and Malcolm X

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A chance encounter towards the end of Elias’s two years in Africa is intriguing. One day in 1964—probably Sunday 10 May—he was waiting at Lagos airport, Nigeria, for his flight to Accra, Ghana, when he bumped into Malcolm X, who was also on his way to Ghana’s capital.

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  1. 1.

    Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little, 1925–65), was an African-American civil rights activist who became a Muslim and became prominent as spokesman for the Nation of Islam, advocating the separation of the races. After his journey to Africa, he embraced the mainstream civil rights movement and renounced the Nation of Islam, a breach that led to his assassination in New York in February 1965.

  2. 2.

    Hubert Smeets 1984. ‘Pas integratie als Turk of Surinamer in de Kamer zit,’ NRC Handelsblad, 27, January (1984). For Elias’s contribution to a conference on racism and discrimination in Amsterdam in 1984, See Post 2016. ‘The Prinsenhof Lecture: Transcript of …’, Human Figurations, 5: 1 (2016). Here I gratefully make use of the interview notes the journalist Hubert Smeets so kindly handed over to me after all these years.

  3. 3.

    Norbert Elias, ‘Problems of involvement and detachment’, British Journal of Sociology, 7: 3 (1956), pp. 226–52.

  4. 4.

    Norbert Elias and John L. Scotson, The Established and the Outsiders (Dublin: UCD Press, 2008 [1965] [Collected Works, vol. 4]).

  5. 5.

    Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning, Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilising Process (Dublin: UCD Press, 2013 [Collected Works, vol. 7]).

  6. 6.

    John Goodwin and Henrietta O’Connor, Norbert Elias’s Lost Research: Revisiting the Young Worker Project (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).

  7. 7.

    Elias, Interviews and Autobiographical Reflections (Dublin: UCD Press, 2013a [1984] [Collected Works, vol. 17]), p. 131.

  8. 8.

    Elias, Interviews, p. 132.

  9. 9.

    Elias, letter of 1 November 1962 to René König, quoted by Hermann Korte, ‘Der ethnologische Blick bei Norbert Elias’, Biographische Skizzen zu Norbert Elias (Wiesbaden: Springer, 2013), p. 60.

  10. 10.

    See Norbert Elias, ‘Towards a theory of communities’, in Essays II, pp. 119–54. See also Crow and Laidlaw, ‘Norbert Elias’s extended theory of community: From established/outsider relations to the gendered we-I balance’, Sociological Review 6: 3 (2019), pp. 568–84; and Ulrich van Loyen, Strände der Vernunft: Norbert Elias im inneren Afrika (Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2012), p. 19.

  11. 11.

    See Katie Liston and Stephen Mennell, ‘Ill Met in Ghana: Jack Goody and Norbert Elias on Process and Progress in Africa’, Theory, Culture & Society, 26: 7–8 (2009), pp. 1–19; Mennell and Liston, ‘Introduction: Elias, Freud and Lévy-Bruhl’, Supplements and Index to the Collected Works (Dublin: UCD Press, 2014 [Collected Works, vol. 18]), pp. 1–12; and Van Loyen, Strände der Vernunft, pp. 23 ff. It has been contended by several authors—see Mennell and Liston, Introduction, p. 9; Korte, Der ethnologische Blick …, pp. 55–66; and Jack Goody, ‘The “Civilizing Process” in Ghana’, European Journal of Sociology, 44; 1 (2003), pp. 61–73—that Elias advocated closing down the Anthropology department, in favour of a Sociology based on the methods he had developed in Leicester. This soon led to a conflict with students, who saw themselves deprived of a necessary means to ‘understand their own history’, as Korte states; soon thereafter Elias changed the curriculum and introduced case studies. George Steinmetz, ‘Child of the Empire: British sociology and colonialism, 1940s–1960s’, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 49: 4 (2013), pp. 11–12, has a different reading: based on a letter to Jack Goody, who would soon become his long-term critic, Elias did not intend to close down Anthropology but to cooperate with it as much as with Goody himself. This corresponds to the increasing demand in late colonial Africa for a kind of social science that studied ‘civilised societies’ instead of an anthropology which acted as ‘the handmaiden of colonialism’. This whole incident, as Liston and Mennell, Ill Met in Ghana …, pp. 5–6 stress, is highly indicative of fundamental disagreements about theories of long-term social development.

  12. 12.

    For his ‘radicalisation’, see Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (London: Penguin Books, 2011). See especially where he refers to the ‘pairing’ and ‘mutual assistance’ between the American Nazi Party and the Nation of Islam (pp. 199–201, 267). Earlier the black American sociologist Patterson pointed to the interchangeability of the words ‘white’ and ‘black’, and the similarity between white supremacism and black nationalism; see: Orlando Patterson, The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s ‘Racial’ Crisis, (Washington DC: Civitas/Counterpoint, 1998); p. 102. At the same time Marable, Malcolm X, p. 487, emphasises Malcolm’s ‘radical humanism’; he would certainly have condemned the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001 as the negation of Islam’s core tenets.

  13. 13.

    I have drawn upon the excellent and comprehensive biography by Marable, Malcolm X, pp. 313–20. In Nigeria, for example, he was handed a membership card depicting the name Omowale, which in Yoruba language means ‘the son who has returned’. See also Les Payne and Tamara Payne, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X (New York: W. W. Norton, 2020).

  14. 14.

    Marable, Malcolm X, p. 312 ff; Payne and Payne, The Dead Are Arising, p. 445.

  15. 15.

    In the interview Elias says, ‘I knew who I was with’ (my translation), implying Malcolm did not.

  16. 16.

    ‘Elias recognised his use of the term “civilisation” provoked opposition, as indeed did the use of several other related terms […]’ (Liston and Mennell, Ill Met in Ghana, p. 2).

  17. 17.

    Nathalie Heinich, ‘Sublimating resentment: Following Elias along five paths toward another sociology’, Human Figurations 2: 3 (2013).

  18. 18.

    Malcolm X ‘Malcolm X at University of Ghana (May 13, 1964)’, (1964).

  19. 19.

    Ibid. In Payne and Payne’s account of probably the same speech, Malcolm continues this more or less ‘historical materialistic’ argument: ‘You don’t like Africans but you do like the minerals Africa has under her soil.’ Again, we might hear an echo of Elias’s anticolonial views here; see Payne and Payne, The Dead Are Arising, p 445.

  20. 20.

    Still, why would Malcolm refer to him as just a white man and not his host? For one thing, because that would have thwarted his narrative of being ‘at home’ among his fellow ‘blacks’; for another because he, in front of his mixed audience, was accusing white people of hypocrisy, murder and subversion. Payne and Payne also refers to this disparity between Malcolm’s public ‘fieriness’ and private ‘relaxation’ and ‘openness’; Payne and Payne, The Dead Are Arising, p 445.

  21. 21.

    U.S. News & World Report, ‘Now it’s a negro drive for segregation’, (2008 [1964]).

  22. 22.

    Elias, ‘Further aspects of established-outsider relations: the Maycomb model’, in Elias and Scotson The Established and the Outsiders, pp. 207–231. In many places in his work Elias reflects on colonialism, racism and Eurocentrism; not only in On the Process of Civilisation (2012 [1939]), but also for example in Elias, Studies on the Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, (Dublin: UCD Press, 2013b [1989] [Collected Works, vol. 11], pp. 83–4.

  23. 23.

    See Marable, Malcolm X, p. 485.

  24. 24.

    Elias, Involvement and Detachment (Dublin: UCD Press, 2007a [1956] [Collected Works, vol. 8], pp. 48–52.

  25. 25.

    Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1987 [1964]); Marable, Malcolm X, p. 7 ff.

  26. 26.

    Marable, Malcolm X, p. 1–11, p. 15, p. 486.

  27. 27.

    Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, New York: Random House, 2020.

  28. 28.

    Elias and Scotson, The Established and the Outsiders; Elias, An Essay on Time (Dublin: UCD Press, 2007b [1984] [Collected Works, vol. 9], p. 112. See also Eric Dunning, ‘Dynamics of racial stratification: some preliminary observations’, Race, 13: 4 (1972), pp. 415–34; Dunning, ‘Some comments on Jack Goody’s “Elias and the anthropological tradition”’, Anthropology Today 2: 4 (2002), pp. 413–20: Patterson, The Ordeal of Integration; Post, The Prinsenhof Lecture.

  29. 29.

    My italics. Marable’s biography is a lengthy testimony to this notion; when Malcolm X encountered Egyptians they had a similar observation as Elias; Marable, Malcolm X, p. 313. See for a similar reasoning, Clifford Geertz, Islam Observed (Chicago: Aldine, 1968). See also Diawara 1994, 221.

  30. 30.

    As the notes say, ‘When will Americans have their first black president?’ (my translation).

  31. 31.

    Wilkerson, Cast.

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Post, A. (2022). Epilogue: Off to Ghana—the Encounter of Norbert Elias and Malcolm X. In: Reicher, D., Jitschin, A., Post, A., Alikhani, B. (eds) Norbert Elias’s African Processes of Civilisation. Springer VS, Wiesbaden.

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