Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Malcolm X

Manning Marable. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (New York: Viking, 2011).
Burling 1st floor  BP223.Z8 L57636 2011
Reviewed by T. Hatch

Manning Marable argued that Malcolm X was the most important black leader of the twentieth century.  On its face this is a bold assertion; Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention stands as a forceful testament to the veracity of Marable’s audacious claim. This long awaited book (twenty years in the making) makes Malcolm a human being with a wealth of foibles and strengths.  It is certain to inspire further discussion and will just as certainly anger more than a few readers.

The description of this book as simply a biography does not do it justice.  The background to the founding ideology of the Nation of Islam and the astute political commentary throughout the work belie the notion that this is merely biography.  Thus, there are numerous ways to conceptualize this magnificent book.   I have chosen to divide it into three major parts i.e. corrections to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the break with the Nation of Islam, and finally the assassination and legacy of Malcolm X.

Between 1965 and 1977 The Autobiography of Malcolm X sold over six million copies worldwide (I first read the book circa 1972 in a paperback edition).  Besides being read by millions it served as the basis of Spike Lee’s 2000 film. It was co-authored by Alex Haley (later of Roots fame) for whom Marable has a constrained contempt that smolders periodically throughout his writing.

It was because of Haley that the "Autobiography does not read like a manifesto for black insurrection, but more in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.” (p. 505) More importantly it was the decision to eliminate the Autobiography’s “missing chapters," that in Marable’s estimation was undertaken by Haley alone.  These chapters which are now privately owned, and remain in a safe in Detroit, were available to Marable for a total of fifteen minutes in a meeting with the documents’ current owner in a restaurant. The three chapters that were to appear in the Autobiography were essentially Malcolm’s political blueprint.  They were entitled “The Negro,” “The End of Christianity,” and “Twenty Million Black Muslims.” One may speculate as to the reasons why Haley, a retired career U.S. Coast Guard officer, may have suppressed these chapters.  To drastically understate the case, it is clear that he did not share Malcolm’s revolutionary vision.

Another failing of the Autobiography is the misleading and selective testimony provided by Malcolm himself. This of course is the common flaw of memoires in general and the salient reason that Mark Twain insisted that his autobiography be published a century after his death.  Malcolm’s motivation for agreeing to Haley’s proposal in the first instance was to exalt the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.  By exaggerating his criminal exploits he was only enhancing the redemptive powers of his then spiritual leader.  The reason that certain events were left unmentioned, e.g., Malcolm’s robbery of a black man in 1945, a financially inspired homosexual relationship, or that his wife was sexually unfulfilled, was undoubtedly embarrassment.

The rupture and separation from the Nation of Islam was a protracted process.  Malcolm X was a phenomenal organizer and recruiter but jealousies, especially among Elijah Muhammad’s children who feared that he would usurp the messenger’s role, were a factor in his alienation from the Chicago secretariat of the NOI.  Another fundamental problem was that to remain true to Elijah Muhammad meant remaining out of the political arena because of the messenger’s teaching that Muslims should abstain from politics. The proverbial last straw was the then growing body of evidence that Elijah Muhammad had fathered numerous children out of wedlock with NOI secretaries including the woman with whom Malcolm had once had a relationship. The break with the NOI occurred on March 8, 1964; Malcolm was killed on February 21, 1965. In that period of less than a year that he was to live he became an orthodox Sunni Muslim, intensely engaged in political activity, and a man stalked for assassination.

After the split with the NOI Malcolm founded two different organizations.  Moslem Mosque Inc. was comprised largely of former Nation members who had followed Malcolm out of the NOI for reasons of personal loyalty and the Organization of Afro-American Unity was a secular political organization, which reflected Malcolm’s growing emphasis on Pan-Africanism and Third World revolutionary struggle.  It was during this time (he spent five months of the last year of his life traveling to Africa and the Middle East) that he promoted bringing an indictment of the United States for racist crimes to the forum of the United Nations. 

Marable spends a great deal of time documenting the machinations of the assassination plots against Malcolm X.  He asserts that “The existing evidence raises the question of whether the murder of Malcolm X was not the initiative of the Nation of Islam alone” (p.515). The FBI began its surveillance of Malcolm in 1954 and the NYPD followed suit in 1957.  At a bare minimum it is clear that law enforcement knew of the imminent and specific nature of the assassination threat to Malcolm X.  Marable suggests that they may have actually played a more active role but because both the FBI and NYPD  have thousands of pages of documents relating to the assassination, that are still classified, it may be many more years before the entire truth of those events is known.

Then there is the most contentious part of any discussion of Malcolm X, his legacy. Marable argues persuasively that revisionist attempts to make Malcolm into a liberal desegregationist reformer are simply wrong.  Marable did not live to see Tu-Nehisi Coates’ piece in the May 2011 Atlantic (replete with a photo image of the President as Malcolm) “The Legacy of Malcolm X: Why His Vision Lives On in Barack Obama.”  If he had he might have pointed out that black liberation “by whatever means necessary,” the endorsement of revolutionary violence, and Malcolm’s position that blacks that voted dutifully for Democrats were “not only chumps but a traitor[s] to [their] race” are generally not positions associated with the current President.  Malcolm’s life was in the tradition of Stagger Lee, Robert Johnson, and Tupac Shakur.  He was a dissident fighting the existing social hierarchy.  There was not a before and after Malcolm or “two Malcolm X’s” as Marable put it.  Malcolm was no more a liberal than Frantz Fanon or Che Guevara.  His legacy is that of a revolutionary.

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