The United States Postal Service describes response to a new Malcolm X stamp as overwhelmingly positive. And in one sign of approval, the slain leader’s eldest daughter, Attallah Shabazz, is appearing in Detroit next week for a ceremony at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
But a number of researchers, former Malcolm X associates, and admirers of his legacy in Detroit and elsewhere disapprove of the stamp and are making their concerns heard.
Paul Lee, a Detroit-area Malcolm X scholar, criticizes the stamp in a lengthy essay, "Their Malcolm X And Ours," published in the Michigan Citizen and elsewhere.
Lee criticizes the Postal Service for selecting a photograph taken when the activist was "extremely harried and exhausted," as opposed to an image of Malcolm X smiling or appearing "human."
Dim lighting in the lobby where the picture was taken in 1964, an unflattering retouching by the Postal Service, and text which misidentifies the date and location compound the problematic photo choice, Lee argues.
"The result is an image of a dark, dangerous-looking Malcolm X, reminiscent of Time magazine’s infamous 1994 electronically manipulated ‘photo illustration’ of then-accused murderer O.J. Simpson," the essay contends.
More alarming to critics is the text accompanying the stamp which asserts that Malcolm X "supported a more integrationist solution to racial problems" after his break with the Nation of Islam, for which he served as national spokesman.
Malcolm X did renounce the Nation of Islam doctrine that whites are inherently evil and took the orthodox Muslim name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz in 1964. But much of Malcolm X’s appeal, before and since his 1965 assassination, derived from his unwavering focus on black self-empowerment and self-pride. Lee cites quotes from Malcolm X up to the time of his death distinguishing himself from integrationists.
Postal Service publicist Monica Hand says response to the Malcolm X stamp has been "overwhelmingly positive," and she downplays criticism of the stamp’s image and historical errors in the text.
One hundred million stamps were printed after the historians, artists, educators and other professionals on the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee recommended the black revolutionary as a featured subject.
A national ceremony introducing the stamp last month featured members of Malcolm X’s family, Randall Robinson of the Transafrica Forum and actors Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. The Detroit ceremony is set for Feb. 24.
"The basic reason why we do the Black Heritage Series is to have people learn more about the subjects who are featured, and to recognize them for the contributions they have made to American history," Hand adds.
Hand downplays criticism about the stamp’s image and historical errors.
New Yorker Yuri Kochiyama, who first met Malcolm X following a Brooklyn demonstration in 1963, says the significance of accurate portrayals extends far beyond the stamp.
"Too many people are trying to change him, trying to make him acceptable," she explains. "Many people around the world were uncomfortable with him because he was not afraid to tell the truth, and they were afraid of the truth."
She adds, "I don’t think he would be too keen on having his face on a stamp. He always said, ‘I am not an American, I am a victim of America.’"
Louis DeCaro, a New Jersey pastor and author of On The Side of My People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X and Malcolm and the Cross: The Nation of Islam, Christianity, and Malcolm X, shares Kochiyama’s sentiment.
"We’re concerned because this is another opportunity for the status quo to clip and trim and reshape until what is left is sort of a sterile icon," DeCaro says.
America has a "thought style" which dictates that "anytime a black man rises up, who probes too deeply into the minds of white people and takes the spotlight off of black people, and defies passivity, that becomes a dangerous man, in fact, an unforgiven man," DeCaro adds.