Book Review: Terrill's Malcolm X Inventing Radical Judgment

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Book Review: Terrill’s Malcolm X Inventing Radical Judgment

Terrill, Robert. Malcolm X: inventing radical judgment. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004. Print.

When saying the name Malcolm X many things come to mind extremist, violence, racists, but usually not motivational speaker. Catalytic is defined as increasing a reaction rate, Terrill uses this term to describe Malcolm X ‘s rhetoric style that left him a highly noted public figure. So why was he important? Why is Malcolm X a must read for high school and college students? In his book Malcolm X: Inventing Radical Judgment Robert E. Terrill makes the argument through out his book that though Malcolm X did not leave anything, or change laws, and his speeches were never documented correctly, but that it was his way of using rhetoric to his advantage he began to help people think critically and form their own opinion. Terrill’s term “catalytic rhetoric” refers to how Malcolm X would present a speech in a way that would make people think and come to the conclusion and interoperate what was being said and then the audience would take action as they saw necessary to fix the problems mostly about race in their communities. His speeches were not only intended for African Americans, but also Whites who were equally important to persuade for a change even if it meant going against the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X’s public speaking, according to Terrill, is a model of radical criticism, and we can see his speeches not simply as the means to liberate, anti-racist end but as a “theory of rhetorical action” (p.17). Terrill mostly discusses the progressively more critical voice that Malcolm X launched against the Nation of Islam’s principle in his last year. During this period, Malcolm X asked African Americans to hold tight to both the ballot and the bullet, employing each strategically and not becoming ideologically reliant upon either one. At the same time, Terrill maintains that this rhetoric forged a sense of shared identity and purpose among his African-American listeners that allowed them to translate their critical questions into modes of action. Most know that joining the Nation of Islam Malcolm X turned away from a life of crime and spent more time and energy on the teachings of Muhammad, this is where he formed his platform on most racial issues and his desire to empower African Americans to better themselves and their futures. However, Terrill makes the argument that the Nation of Islam prevented him from speaking out, and to more diverse people which is what Malcolm wanted, calling Elijah Muhammad’s teaching “rambling apocalyptic visions” (p. 105). While Terrill’s primary argument centers on Malcolm X in his last year of life without the Nation of Islam, he places this material in context by comparing it to Malcolm X’s rhetoric within the Nation of Islam and other speeches. This I found to be one of the more interesting parts of the book looking at well-known African American authors and comparing their work with Malcolm X’s style.

Terrill uses the approach of looking at African American “prophetic” speakers from the past to examine the way they influenced Malcolm’s speeches. He looks at four speakers that use prophetic protest Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” W. E. B. Du Bois’s “the Conservation of Races, David Walker’s “Appeal”, and “The Confessions of Nat Turner (p. 62). He compares Douglas with Malcolm by showing how they both talked to the white community and understood the importance in changing the way that they thought, since they were the majority and the most effective way of change is having more people on your side (p. 62). This collection of speeches Terrill calls the prophetic speech a key method of African-American protest rhetoric. Through a breakdown of prophetic texts by Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, David Walker and Nat Turner, Terrill distinguishes between the jeremiad (a long...