The Riddle of the Zoot - Essay

The Riddle of the Zoot - Essay

The Riddle of the Zoot Suits
Malcolm Little and Black Cultural Politics During World War II

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Summary
1. Preface
2. “I am at the center of a swirl of events”
3. The Zoot Suit of Life
4. “But there is rhythm here”
5. “War and Death”
6. “I think life a commodity bargained for”
7. “In a blue haze of inspiration, I reach the totality of being”
3. Comment


In his essay “The Riddle of the Zoot – Malcolm Little and Black Cultural Politics during World War II”, Robin D.G. Kelley analyses how Malcolm X’s youth as a hustler in New York influenced his later political commitment. The riddle mentioned in the title is a reference to black writer Ralph Ellison, who, in 1943, wrote:

“Much in Negro life remains a mystery: Perhaps the zoot suit conceals profound political meaning: perhaps the symmetrical frenzy of the Lindy Hop conceals clues to great potential power – if only Negro leaders would solve this riddle.”

What Robin D.G. Kelley focuses on, is the way Malcolm Little, who eventually became Malcolm X, deals with this chapter of his life in his autobiography, published in 1963. Unlike the author himself, Kelley analyses the meaning of the Zoot Suit and other Black cultural phenomena, not as Malcolm X viewed it retrospectively from the 1960s, but in contrast to the political, economic and social environment of the 1940s, thus revealing a far more accurate picture of that time, hypothesizing that the Zoot Suit was much more than a “fashionable ghetto adornment”. Kelley eventually concludes by juxtaposing Malcolm X and the Zoot Suit culture with modern Hip Hop culture as it is found in Black ghettos, stating that “…we might discover a lot more Malcolm X’s […] hiding beneath hoods and baggy pants, Dolphin earrings and heavy lipstick, Raider’s caps and biker shorts, than we might have ever imagined.”



Kelley starts with a quote taken from Malcolm X’s...

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