Why did Malcolm X frequently use Portugal as a specific example of a Racist Society?
August 4, 2008 3:20 PM   Subscribe

Why did Malcolm X single out Portugal as an example of a particularly racist society in several speeches?

...I'm speaking as a Black man from America, which is a racist society. No matter how much you hear it talk about democracy, it's as racist as South Africa or as racist as Portugal, or as racist as any other racialist society on this earth. - Malcolm X, May 13, 1964
I've been listening to several (6+ hours) of Malcolm X speeches** for a project. In 3 or 4 different speeches he calls Portugal out, and goes so far as to pair it with South Africa in a manner similar to the quote above.

Now... I know about Portugal's inordinately large role in the African slave trade, but his language would make it seem that he's referencing contemporary [1960s] Portugal. I know about Portugese colonialism in Africa, but A.) racist policies abroad could be attacked individually, and not as being a part of a "racist society" -- which, while true, would be a confusing way to structure the argument, and B.) I've not ever heard of Portuguese colonialism [again, contemporary/1960s] as being notably more extreme than other European country's meddlings in Africa...

So, what gives? Why is Malcolm X singling Portugal out as being more racist than any other European culture of the time? Elevating it to/pairing it with South Africa seems pretty bold and therefore "intentional." I'd like to know more about what that intention was.

For background, I'm from the U.S., born in the 1970s, and I apologize in advance if I'm overlooking something that is (or should be) obvious. Thanks for your help, and please feel free to correct me if you feel that any of the assumptions I have made thus far are off-base.

** [Here's a handful of Malcolm X speeches courtesy of archive.org if you're interested... Def. worth a look if you like that sort of thing -- they've got other fantastic "great speeches" resources, as well].
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Another speech from a month earlier mentions Angola specifically.
When the government of Portugal began to trample upon the -- the rights of our brothers and sisters in Angola, it was taken before the U.N.
posted by smackfu at 3:33 PM on August 4, 2008

Oh... and another link I consulted was the Wikipedia "Racism in Portugal" article... (seemed like a good place to start...). There were no huge "so that's what he was referencing" type red-flags there (but I could also detect some [possibly affirmation-bias-ed] signs of a possible whitewashing of sorts in the article...]
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 3:33 PM on August 4, 2008

When he was talking about portugal, that country was a fascist dictatorship fielding civil wars in both Angola and Mozambique and using both Portuguese regulars and mercenaries to fight the guerrillas in those colonies. It was natural at the time to portray colonialism as evil and Portugal was evil for being against African self-determination.
posted by parmanparman at 3:42 PM on August 4, 2008

My first post to MeFi, so I hope I'm doing this right:

As I understand it, even though Portugual abolished slavery by the mid-1800s, it effectively stayed in place in Angola under the guise of forced labor (which wasn't abolished there until the '60s). This resulted in a plantation-style economy not unlike that of the pre-Civil War American South. Eventually Angola's plantation economy was replaced by a mining-based (copper) economy, also reliant on slavery.

Combine this with a tough dictatorship. Then add a huge influx of Portuguse immigrants after WWII--the Portuguese gov't offered it to make up for big unemployment after the war, and the white population went from something like 50K to 175K between 1940 and 1960. Being white, they did the usual White-Man-In-Africa stuff: took the best farmland with no compensation for the owners, conscripted natives to harvest crops for a salary of pennies a month, build railroads to the copper mines, etc.

A huge number of natives (several hundred thousand) fled Angola, which had the sad effect of causing more slaves to be needed, so old men and women, little kids, and the sick were conscripted to labor. The colonial gov't knew this, of course; some poor bureaucrat did a study and concluded that "the only ones not conscripted are corpses" (paraphrased) and that because the gov't replaced slaves without charging the slave owner, the usual incentive to take care of slaves wasn't present, so something like a quarter of the slave population died. I say "poor bureaucrat" because he was arrested for accurately assessing the situation and suggesting that slavery wasn't the asset to Angola's economy everyone thought it was (tough dictatorship, like I said).

Anyway, the end result is that in Bro. Malcolm's day, racial tensions in Angola made Watts in August of '65 look like Disneyland.

That's what I remember from school, at any rate. Someone else may have more info.
posted by magstheaxe at 3:57 PM on August 4, 2008 [11 favorites]

In my early education in a Communist state, Portugal was singled out for its brutal colonialist behavior . . . we all learned about the Portuguese Colonial War and the general outline of its history was known to most educated people. It doesn't seem to have made a dent in the consciousness of people in North America. Why that is, I can't say, but I couldn't find much information about it.

This is what we were taught (overtly obvious Communist bias removed):

1) France and Britain, economically devastated after WWII, began to realize the cost of maintaining their colonies, just as independence movements started heating up. Within two decades of the end of the war, the vast majority of these colonies had become independent.

2) Portugal chose to hold on to their colonies (which were fewer than Britain's and France's, but proportionately more important to the relatively small and more impoverished Portugal. Portugal was also much less democratic than France or the UK, and was run by a fairly despotic right-wing regime. The war had also affected Portugal much less - Portugal was neutral during the war. But in 19449r, the country's leaders had Portugal join NATO - a quasi-official declaration of the "side" they were taking in the Cold War.

3) The Soviet Union and other Communist nations fostered independence movements in many of Portugal's colonies. The USA followed suit. As Portugal's right-wing government did not wish to relinquish sovereignty over the colonies, many of the independence movements tilted to the left.

4) Portugal did not let these countries go willingly. It wasn't until after Portugal's dictatorship was overthrown in the "Carnation Revolution" of 1974 that most of the colonies became independent states . . . much later than most of the French and British colonies had received their independence. And this war between Portugal and its colonies was pretty thoroughly brutal.

5) When Malcolm X was giving these speeches, the Portuguese Colonial War was a fairly big story - a big, hot battleground between right-wing and left-wing ideologies, between the US and the USSR in the Cold War, between the colonies and the colonizer. In other words, ripe for rhetorically reference on just about anyone's part.

6) I'm a reggae fan, and I'm always surprised at the numbers of songs from the early 1970s which make reference to Angola or Mozambique and the factions there - and "MPLA" (also referenced in the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy In The UK") by the Revolutionaries is a red-hot rhythm. Che Guevara also understood the ideological symbolism of the struggle in these countries and offered assistance to (I think) Mozambique's left-wing forces - who turned him down.

In Malcolm X's day, Portugal's somewhat pointless desire to hold on to its colonies could be (and was) read as a racist endeavor . . . and many informed people saw the events as a metaphor for the events in America.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:37 PM on August 4, 2008 [5 favorites]

When exactly and over what period of time is the reference made? Weeks, months, years? The answer could be useful to your project. (I'd be curious to know myself, if you have a quick answer.)

But to your question- all people who speechify a lot tend to repeat details, anecdotes, observations, hobby horses from audience to audience. Check the date of his earliest relevant speech, then do a NYTimes search for Angola or some such from, say, twelve months before to the time of. You'll probably find something along the lines of what magstheaxe said. Just the thing for your project, I imagine. And had Mr X been active a few years earlier, his cite might have been the Belgians. (Mind you, given how the Belgians were encouraged to leave the Congo, it might not have been that good an example....)

(On preview - Interesting what DEA Extrovert has to say. Esp the first line. Could be righter than what I suggest - try to find what he was reading at the time.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:40 PM on August 4, 2008

"Dee Xtrovert", my apologies.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:41 PM on August 4, 2008

For a searing glimpse at Angola right as the transition to independence was beginning, look at Ryszard Kapuscinski's Another Day of Life.
posted by mdonley at 12:12 AM on August 5, 2008

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