Why Malcolm X rifle image still strikes a chord

OPINION - Nicki Minaj’s latest outrage is a wake-up call. But the all-important question is will we heed it?...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Two nights ago, all was going swell for Nicki Minaj.

“Real hip-hop lovers,” some pioneering writers from hip-hop’s golden ‘90s, were praise-tweeting her flow on her new single “Lookin’ A** Ni**a.” Likened to a rap version of TLC’s “No Scrubs,” the single was redemption in many folks’ eyes, a return, if you will, to her roots as a true rapper and not more commercial exploits that include her not-so-distant stint as an American Idol judge.

Kory Grow’s February 12 Rollingstone.com post, “Nicki Minaj pulls out the big guns for ‘Lookin Ass N—a’ clip,”  celebrated her “machine-gun verses” as well as pointed out her firing on an unwanted male admirer with two guns in the accompanying video on WorldStarHipHop. She was returning to her gritty roots, some raved. With her song appearing on Young Money’s forthcoming compilation Rise of an Empire along with Lil Wayne and Drake, she was on fire but was in need of no water.

What a difference a day makes. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, even The Wall Street Journal exploded when album art for the single was revealed featuring the iconic photo of Malcolm X holding a gun as he peeped beyond the curtains of his window for any sign of trouble.

Just like that, all the air that shot her sky high had dissipated. How could she not know that the n-word slapped on this piece of history, along with a video where she is scantily-clad, did not scream “I am Malcolm X!?”

But what of the iconic photo itself? When did it creep into our consciousness? Where did it come from? Most point to articles in Life and Ebony magazines.

Life’s March 20, 1964 article “The Ominous Malcolm X Exits from the Muslims” does not include that particular image, however. In the September 1964 issue of Ebony, a similar photo accompanies Hans J. Massaquoi’s “Mystery of Malcom X: Fired Black Muslim denounces cult, vows to take part in rights revolution” story but it is not the photo.

“It was the hardest photo to track down in any official capacity,” says Professor Zaheer Ali, who served as project manager of The Malcolm X Project at Columbia University under esteemed scholar Manning Marable, who also wrote the controversial 2011 book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, released a week after his death. More than likely, Ali concludes, the photo comes from the Ebony shoot.

If that is true, how it got into circulation is a mystery. And who shot it is not easily answered either. But like many leaders, including President Abraham Lincoln and Marcus Garvey, Malcolm knew the importance of his image. “Malcolm was very conscious of how he was photographed, and even staged photographs [to be] very purposeful in his visual representation,” Ali notes.

This is confirmed by Eve Arnold, whom Life assigned to photograph the one-time Nation of Islam leader. According to Arnold, whose 1961 photos can be seen on a site for Life, Malcolm was very aware of his image. “I am always delighted by the manipulation that goes on between a subject and photographer when the subject knows about the camera and how it can best be used to his advantage,” she is quoted. “Malcolm was brilliant in this silent collaboration.” She even recalls him arranging shots himself and finding her subjects to photograph.