Beyond the legend of Malcolm X

May 24, 2011

Brian Jones reviews a riveting--and controversial--biography of one of the most important revolutionaries of the 20th century.

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY professor Manning Marable has written the most detailed account to date of the life of a legendary African American. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is the product of at least two decades of research. Tragically, this work is Marable's last--he died of lung disease just days before its publication.

"The great temptation for the biographer of an iconic figure," Marable wrote in the book's introduction "is to portray him or her as a virtual saint, without the normal contradictions and blemishes that all human beings have...My primary purpose in this book is to go beyond the legend: to recount what actually occurred in Malcolm's life."

Marable's telling of Malcolm's biography makes for a fascinating read. Following his theme of "reinvention," Marable takes us through Malcolm's various incarnations--including, but not limited to, Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, Malcolm X and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

Marable weaves together what he learned from extensive interviews, personal testimonies, police and FBI records, the public record of Malcolm's speeches and writings, and some new documentation that was unavailable to previous researchers. Based on this evidence, Marable also presents his own theory of Malcolm's assassination.

Malcolm X
Malcolm X

WHAT MOST people know of Malcolm, they learned from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the book he "told to" Alex Haley--or from the Spike Lee film based on the book. But Marable sets out to show that this text was itself another "reinvention." Marable argues that the Autobiography's omissions, exaggerations and politics are the product of Haley's attempt to package Malcolm for a liberal integrationist audience, and of Malcolm's attempt to shape his posthumous image. The extent of his criminal activity, for example, Marable claims, is greatly exaggerated to amplify the narrative power of his conversion to the Nation of Islam.

Furthermore, Marable asserts "[b]ased on circumstantial but strong evidence" that Malcolm also made money from sexual encounters with an older white man. This claim takes up no more than two pages out of nearly 600, but has become a prominent feature of the controversy surrounding the book.

Malcolm's grandson Malcolm Shabazz disputes many of the book's claims, arguing that Marable's purpose was primarily to "make money." But Shabazz is particularly angered by the claim that his grandfather had same-sex relations. "They want to promote homosexuality at the end of the day," he told the Amsterdam News. "When I was at school, people were not openly gay; today, people are saying they are gay in the first grade. It's really acceptable today. They want to promote that today to our people with one of our greatest leaders. But there is no proof, there's no basis, no facts."

In a discussion on Democracy Now! with two critics of the book, author Michael Eric Dyson put his finger on the real meaning of this "controversy"--homophobia:

[There is] the deep and profound homophobia and the resistance of certain sectarian interests within African-American culture that refuses to acknowledge the full humanity--[that] wants to talk about black unity, but always wants to exclude...You don't have a problem with Malcolm being a hustler...You haven't asked for evidence of that...None of that is being questioned.

In prison, Malcolm became a Muslim and joined the Nation of Islam, a small but growing religious separatist movement of African Americans. Marable traces the history of Islam in general, and of the NOI in particular. According to the NOI's theology, Black Americans were the earth's Original People, and whites were "devils" created by an evil scientist. They considered Americanized surnames to be "slave names," and so, they often took "X" as a last name to stand in for their unknown African name. As Marable writes:

The demonizing of the white race, the glorification of blacks and the bombastic blend of orthodox Islam, Moorish science and numerology were a seductive message to unemployed and disillusioned African Americans casting about for a new rallying cause after the disintegration of Garveyism and the inadequacies of the Moorish Science Temple.

Contrary to the opinions of the FBI, the NOI was not a radical group, but a profoundly conservative one. While civil rights campaigns against segregation were growing in the Southern states, the NOI built up a following in the North that advised Blacks against any civic engagement at all.

NOI members--under the leadership first of the mysterious Wallace D. Fard, and later Elijah Muhammad--built up a world within a world. They attempted to open and patronize their own businesses, establish their own schools and live according to their own rules. Members followed a strict code of diet, dress and behavior. The NOI preached that men and women had to occupy very specific gender roles. "The true nature of man is to be strong," Malcolm said, "and a woman's true nature is to be weak...[a man] must control her if he expects to get her respect."

Featured at Socialism

Hear Brian Jones at Socialism 2011 in Chicago, speaking on "Malcolm X: A life of reinvention." Check out the Socialism 2011 website for more details.

Malcolm quickly rose within the NOI, due not only to his legendary intelligence and wit as a public speaker, but his acumen for organization. The newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, was largely Malcolm's creation, and it was his idea that it could be an organizing tool.

But it was not proper for such a prominent minister to remain unmarried. Marable thus presents Malcolm's marriage to Betty Sanders as more a matter of convenience than of love.

Two of Malcolm's daughters have publicly complained about Marable's portrait of their parents' marriage as strained, and about his claim that they were unfaithful to each other.

BUT THE most important element of controversy surrounding the book has to do with Malcolm's political trajectory.

Although he usually prefaced his remarks with "the Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us," the thrust of Malcolm's appeal was less ecclesiastical and more political. Marable shows the profound continuity between the Black nationalist principles Malcolm imbibed from his parents, his development of them within the framework of the NOI, and later through his break with the NOI and his attempts to form a Pan-Africanist movement based in the U.S.

Early on, Malcolm began incorporating references to the anti-colonial struggles of the so-called Third World into his sermons. "The 'black man' are united all over the world" he told members of one mosque, "to fight the 'devils.'"

Marable takes the reader through a series of remarkable debates Malcolm conducted with leading civil rights activists, including Bayard Rustin and James Farmer. In one such event, Marable explains how Malcolm's militant opposition to any possibility of reconciliation with mainstream society connected with Black students:

Malcolm praised Elijah Muhammad's method of isolating "ourselves from the white man long enough to analyze this great hypocrisy and begin to think black, and now we speak black." He urged students not to seek the white man's "love," but rather to "demand his respect."

The NOI's denunciation of white people became, in Malcolm's hands, an opportunity to develop a thorough critique of American society--not just of racism, but also of imperialism, and of the Democratic and Republican Parties. Importantly, he rejected nonviolence and exposed American hypocrisy on the question:

As long as the white man sent you to Korea, you bled. He sent you to Germany, you bled. He sent you to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese, you bled. You bleed for white people, but when it comes time to seeing your own churches being bombed, and little black girls murdered, you haven't got no blood.

Marable shows how Malcolm was drawn to the civil rights movement, even as he mocked its leaders as "sellouts" and "uncle Toms." He agreed, for example, to participate in a Harlem coalition initiated by the labor leader A. Philip Randolph.

And although Malcolm famously called the 1963 March on Washington a "Farce on Washington," Marable shows another side of Malcolm's attitude towards it. While NOI members were forbidden to attend the march, Malcolm organized some to sell copies of Muhammad Speaks to people getting on the bus early that morning. Furthermore, despite the ban, Malcolm himself attended the march and engaged in discussions with civil rights leaders there.

As Malcolm increasingly became a national--and later, international--figure, tensions within the Nation of Islam rose. Malcolm gained a tremendous audience as a militant, and his calls for armed self-defense struck a chord, especially with urban Blacks who saw little possibility of change through nonviolent civil disobedience. But as much as Malcolm came to be perceived as someone calling for an escalation of the struggle, the program of the NOI was, in practice, a retreat from any struggle at all.

While the Autobiography portrays Malcolm's break from the NOI as primarily a result of the revelations that Elijah Muhammad was a serial adulterer, an internal power struggle within the NOI, and, later, a religious conversion, the result of his hajj (trip to Mecca), Marable explores the political dimension of the process.

Marable makes use of Malcolm's diaries (which were unavailable to previous researchers) to explore his longest sojourn abroad--19 weeks. He paints those trips in great detail and provides insight into Malcolm's state of mind throughout.

As Marable tells it, the purpose of these later trips was to make good on the escalation he had been calling for--by raising the Black struggle from the national plane to the international one.

Malcolm set up two organizations: Muslim Mosque Incorporated (MMI) and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). While abroad, he tried to establish formal connections between the MMI and Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand and the Saudi royal family on the other. He also met with the newly minted heads of state in several liberated African countries, aspiring to make links between their revolutions and the struggle of U.S. Blacks.

Marable shows how, freed from the NOI, Malcolm's ideas--about racism and even sexism--evolved rapidly. He rejected the idea that all white people were "devils" and appointed a young woman to head the OAAU.

These shifts were, at times, too jarring for Malcolm's supporters. At one point while Malcolm was abroad, an MMI organizer received a letter from him but was "scared to open the envelope, knowing that the revelations contained in Malcolm's communication could pose major problems with the MMI rank and file."

SEVERAL LEFT-wing writers have developed a critique of Marable's approach to Malcolm in general and to these shifts in particular. Basically, they argue that Marable waters down Malcolm X's politics in order to make him palatable to a broader audience. Marable, they maintain, turns Malcolm from a nationalist into an "anti-racist," and from a revolutionary into a reformist.

At Black Agenda Report, for example, Kamau Franklin argued that "Marable's unsubstantiated claims are actually meant to create controversy in order to sell books, but more importantly as a way to undermine Malcolm's standing in the Black Nationalist community." Likewise, Jared Ball said on Black Agenda Radio, "The overall tone of the book is simply foreplay to his repackaging of Malcolm's political trajectory into marketable liberal politics of the post-9/11 book publishing world."

It's true that Marable at times makes unsupported claims about Malcolm's state of mind or his political conclusions. It's also true that in the final chapter, Marable tries to draw a line of political continuity from Malcolm's fight for Black liberation to the rise of liberal Black politicians, and especially of Barack Obama:

[Malcolm] became an icon of black encouragement, who fearlessly challenged racism wherever he found it and inspired black youth to take pride in their history and culture. These aspects of Malcolm's public personality were indelibly stamped into the Black power movement; they were present in the cry "It's our turn!" by black proponents of Harold Washington in the Democrat's successful 1983 mayoral race in Chicago. It was partially expressed in the unprecedented voter turnouts in black neighborhoods in Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988 and in the successful electoral bid of Barack Obama in 2008.

Given that the rise of these politicians has coincided with the defeat of the Black power movement, and with the rise of mass incarceration of African-Americans, the resegregation of American schools and the continuation of the Black housing crisis, it seems more likely that Malcolm would have questioned such linkages.

These weaknesses, while important, shouldn't lead anyone to dismiss Marable's book as a cynical attempt to "sell books." Marable's work is a serious, decades-long attempt to understand one of the most important figures in American history. The wealth of detail and information Marable has assembled will be a valuable resource for students of history for a long time to come, including for those who would challenge a few or many of Marable's conclusions.

In the meantime, Marable's book has performed a more immediate service. "It rescues Malcolm X from the pedestal," the Afro-British writer Gary Younge said of the book, "and puts him back where he belongs, which is among us."

Pennsylvania death-row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal agrees. "[B]y painting Malcolm thusly," he said, "he makes him more human, more like us all."

Further Reading

From the archives