Ron Briley reviews Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (New York: Viking, 2011).
Based upon the extensive Malcolm X project conducted under the auspices of the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, a deconstruction of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, oral histories and personal interviews, archival research, and an extensive investigation of FBI records and other government documents made available under the Freedom of Information Act, Manning Marable, the M. Moran Weston and Black Alumni Council Professor of African American Studies at Columbia University, has produced what should long stand as the definitive biography of Malcolm X. Marable celebrates Malcolm as a “truly historical figure in the sense that more than any of his contemporaries, he embodied the spirit, vitality, and political mood of an entire population—black, urban mid-twentieth century America” (13). Embodying the two central figures of African-American folk culture, the hustler/trickster and the preacher/minister, Malcolm displayed an amazing talent for reinvention that allowed him to reach the most marginalized sectors of the black community.
The theme of reinvention is, of course, crucial to Malcolm’s Autobiography, but Marable argues that the structure of the book may better reflect collaborator Alex Haley’s perspective than that of Malcolm. Haley originally envisioned focusing the book around Malcolm’s criminal career as “Detroit Red,” leading to his salvation by Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (NOI). According to Marable, the integrationist Haley viewed Malcolm’s life as a cautionary tale; for if the United States did not address its history and polices of racial discrimination then the result would be increased frustration and growing extremism within the black community. This approach, insists Marable, encouraged Malcolm to depict himself as a far more hardened criminal than was really the case. The split between Malcolm and the NOI, however, challenged this structure of the Autobiography. Malcolm was assassinated before he could adequately review the material dealing with the break from Elijah Muhammad. The Autobiography, accordingly, centers primarily upon Malcolm’s early life, criminal activity as “Detroit Red,” prison conversion to the NOI, and his career as a minister spreading the message of Elijah Muhammad.
In an effort to provide a more complete portrayal of Malcolm’s life, Marable devotes considerable attention to Malcolm’s break from the NOI. The conventional wisdom is that Elijah Muhammad and his family were becoming increasingly jealous and threatened by Malcolm’s popularity as well as the minister’s exposure of Elijah Muhammad’s sexual infidelities. While acknowledging these issues, Marable sees the conflict as more inevitable as Malcolm began to chafe under the ideological constraints of NOI orthodoxy. Thus, the silencing of Malcolm following his statement on the assassination of John F. Kennedy that “the chickens were coming home to roost” for white Americans was the culmination of Malcolm’s growing intellectual and political discontent with the NOI. The silencing was not simply a test which Malcolm failed to pass but a fundamental shift in perspective.
Malcolm believed that the NOI eschewing of the ballot and failure to make common cause with the Civil Rights Movement made the Nation increasingly isolated from the black masses. Marable writes, Malcolm’s “evangelism had expanded the NOI’s membership, giving it greater impact, but was also forcing him to address the problem of non-Muslim black Americans in new ways. Eventually, he would have to choose whether to remain loyal to Elijah Muhammad, or to be ‘on the side of my people’” (129).
In addition, Malcolm was increasingly aware of mainstream Islam’s critique of Elijah Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet as well as the racism perpetuated by the NOI. Labeling the NOI as a sect, Marable observes that Muslim scholars ridiculed the Nation’s claim that Wallace D. Fard was divine and that the white race was the creation of the evil Dr. Yacub. Following his pilgrimage to Mecca in the spring of 1964 and awareness of blue-eyed believers, Malcolm could no longer accept the belief that all whites were devils. This epiphany encouraged many observers to believe that Malcolm was moving in the direction of nonviolence and integration as endorsed by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Marable asserts that this reading of Malcolm’s final reinvention is too simplistic, and that Malcolm’s thinking was still in flux. Following his final separation from the NOI, Malcolm formed two organizations to spread his message. The Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI), comprised of followers who left the NOI with Malcolm, sought to encourage the growth of orthodox Islam within the black community, while the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) was Malcolm’s new political body. Drawing upon his father’s background as an organizer for Marcus Garvey, as well as his own travels in Africa, Malcolm was drawn to the philosophy of Pan-Africanism. Racism would have to be addressed on a global level, and there was a connection between the legacies of colonialism in South Africa and Alabama as well as the inner cities of the North in the United States. Accordingly, the OAAU sought to place the racial practices of the United States on the docket of the United Nations. Unfortunately, both the OAAU and the MMI were top down organizations which failed to survive Malcolm’s death.
And there remains a great deal of controversy surrounding Malcolm’s assassination. Marable concludes that the NOI was involved, but it is impossible to ascertain whether the murder was directly ordered by Elijah Muhammad. Police and FBI records suggest that Malcolm’s organization was infiltrated and that informants may have been involved with the assassination. Marable persuasively argues that Normal Butler and Thomas Jackson were not accomplices of Talmadge Hayer in Malcolm’s murder, and the authorities failed to investigate the role of the Newark Mosque in the assassination. Marable believes that while Louis Farrakhan was not directly involved in Malcolm’s murder, his ambition and denunciation of Malcolm contributed to a climate which justified violence. And the eventual opening of all police records will finally answer all of these questions.
Although Marable admires the life and contributions of Malcolm, the black leader is not presented as the saint he is often portrayed to be in Spike Lee’s 1992 biographical film. Instead, Marable finds Malcolm to be a complex individual with human frailties. For example, the Autobiography has little to say about the negotiations of Malcolm and the NOI with organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. Marable also speculates that Malcolm was involved sexually with Boston socialite William Paul Lennon during the early 1940s. In addition, the marriage between Malcolm and Betty Shabazz was often troubled. Malcolm usually left on long trips shortly about the birth of his children, and there is evidence that both partners may have been involved in extramarital relationships. In fact, Louis Farrakhan asserts that the main motivation for Malcolm’s split with the NOI was that Elijah Muhammad impregnated Malcolm’s former girlfriend Evelyn Williams.
While some of Malcolm’s family and supporters are angry with Marable for raising these personal issues, they should not distract from Malcolm’s legacy. Marable insists that Malcolm consistently preached black pride and self-respect. “At a time when Americans society stigmatized or excluded people of African descent,” Marable writes, “Malcolm’s militant advocacy was stunning. He gave millions of younger African Americans newfound confidence. These expressions were at the foundation of what in 1966 became Black Power and Malcolm was at its fountainhead” (480). Expressing contempt for the black bourgeoisie, Malcolm perceived himself always first as a black man rather than an American. This contributed to a major difference between King and Malcolm, who advocated a fundamental restructuring of wealth and power in the United States. Eschewing “color blindness,” Malcolm did, nevertheless, believe that racial hierarchies could be dismantled nationally and globally. While he advocated self-determination for oppressed groups, change did not have to come through violence. And as a bridge between the American people and more than one billion Muslims in the world, Marable argues that Malcolm would have denounced the violent image of al-Qaeda as anathematic to the ideas of Islam. Marable concludes, “A deep respect for, and a belief in, black humanity was at the heart of the revolutionary visionary’s faith. And as his racial vision expanded to include people of divergent nationalities and racial identities, his gentle humanism and antiracism could have become a platform for a new kind of racial, global ethnic politics” (487).
And we continue to need Malcolm’s legacy. Barack Obama’s election does not prove that we live in a post racial society as the legitimacy of the black President is challenged by the birther movement and outrage of those citizens (predominantly white) who assert that the country must be taken back. Marable’s biography of Malcolm is an important contribution to the nation’s racial dialogue, but the length of this detailed volume and the amount of attention required by readers to keep up with the names of individuals asserting new identities within and outside the NOI may mean that Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention does not receive the wider readership that it deserves.
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