Monday, April 25, 2011

Book Review: Manning Marable's 'Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention'

The greatest compliment anyone can pay me is to say I'm irresponsible, because by responsible they mean Negroes who are responsible to white authorities.
There is a lingering fallacy among white people that there has to be a single African-American who can speak for all blacks. Were that true, Dr. Martin Luther King and W.E.B. Du Bois would qualify as the black spokespersons for the latter and earlier part of the 20th century, Booker T. Washington for the latter part of the 19th century and Frederick Douglass for ante-bellum blacks.

But it is not true, of course, because there certainly is no Caucasian who can speak for all whites as well and it is doubtful any blacks feel that way. So there.

Then there is the African-American who took the name Malcolm X, a man whom many whites feared spoke for too many blacks at the height of Black Power proselytizing in the mid-1960s before he was assassinated in 1965 at age 39. In a way they are correct because Dr. King was never identified with ghetto blacks, and a disproportionate number of blacks then (and now) live in large cities, if not ghettos, which were the crucibles in which Malcolm X forged his identify.

That identity to most whites was the angry black militant who became a figure not unlike Dr. King, a metamorphosis captured with great flourish in the pages of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a runaway 1965 bestseller written by Alex Haley, later of Roots fame, based on interviews with Malcolm X that quickly became a must-read for white college students and remains part of the curricula of many college reading programs.

There are, however, problems with Haley's Autobiography, not the least of which is that his subject was murdered before the book was completed and he had no opportunity to make revisions, let alone protest (as he probably would have) the fact that the preface was written by a reporter for The New York Times, an establishment newspaper that Malcolm X openly loathed.

But the larger problem with Autobiography is that Haley had an agenda. He was a liberal black Republican (talk about an oxymoron in today's political world) who held racial and religious extremism in contempt and wanted to write a testament about a man who overcame his vices and frailties to embrace the mainstream civil rights movement.

So successful was Haley in rebranding his subject that barely 10 years after Malcolm's death his widow was invited to a re-election gala for President Nixon and he was honored on a Postal Service stamp in 1999. An accompanying press release asserted that in the years prior to his assassination, Malcolm X had become an advocate of "a more integrationist solution to racial problems."

Manning Marable, an eminent Columbia University professor and prolific author of books on race and racism who died earlier this month a mere three days before publication of his Malcolm X: A Life Of Reinvention, also had an agenda.

That was to write a long overdue corrective to Haley's Autobiography, which he says is rife with factual errors and inaccuracies, as well as accounts of Malcolm X's life based less on the historic record than what Malcolm wanted people to believe about him. And many white people were more than willing to believe because the mainstream view fit their definition of a bad black man who redeemed himself.

As Marable shows with scholarly insight, that leitmotif is not necessarily incorrect, but it is just one part of who Malcolm was, although his capacity at reinvention was rather amazing. (He was born Malcolm Little but at various points in his life called himself
Homeboy, Jack Carlton, Detroit Red, Big Red, Satan, Malachi Shabazz, Malik Shabazz, and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz before rebranding himself Malcolm X.)

The other parts of who Malcolm was included his masterful ability as a rhetorician who could recount tales about his life that were only partially correct. This was especially true of his criminal record, which he wildly embellished in Haley's Autobiography and speeches.

Malcolm also was an ethnographer who was able to craft his speeches, delivered in a fine tenor voice, to fit the cultural contexts of his diverse audiences when he traveled to Mecca and across Africa during a period of anticolonial revolution, and he had a gifted ability to method act that after his death did much to turn his life into a legend.

"What made him truly original," Marable writes, "was that he presented himself as the embodiment of the two central figures of African-American folk culture, simultaneously the hustler/trickster and the preacher minister. Janus-faced, the trickster is unpredictable, capable of outrageous transgressions; the minister saves souls, redeems shattered lives, and promises a new world. . . . He presented himself as an uncompromising man wholly dedicated to the empowerment of black people, without regard to his own personal safety. Even those who rejected his politics recognized his sincerity."

* * * * *

It is insights like these that make Malcolm X such an achievement. Marable not only rolls out substantial new information about Malcolm's life, in part because of the unprecedented access he had to previously closed Nation of Islam archives, but he underpins his account of that life with a brilliantly told story of race and class in American while avoiding the kind of armchair psychoanalysis that has characterized other recent Malcolm X bios.

The life included a childhood which began with the love and guidance of activist parents in Lansing, Michigan who were adherents of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, but ended in tragedy when his father was (probably) murdered for his activism and his mother went insane. He moved to Boston and then to Harlem. There followed scrapes with the law, numbers running, dodging the World War II draft, occasional gigs as an entertainer, alcohol addiction and heavy cocaine use, sporadic homosexual encounters, sexual indiscretions that highlighted a lifetime of misogyny, and finally embracing black Islam and then black nationalism.

His times behind bars were mostly fleeting, but in 1945 he was arrested for masterminding a series of burglaries in Boston and its suburbs and was sentenced to three concurrent six-to-eight-year sentences at Charlestown State Prison. He attributed the length to the fact that he was hanging out with a white woman.

Two things happened while Malcolm was in prison that were to change his life and determine his future course.

He met a former burglar named John Elton Bembry, an autodidact who ignited his intellectual curiosity and gave him a sense of discipline, and he became a Muslim and joined the Nation of Islam, an all-black church that rejected racial integration but enabled him to find the self respect and dignity that had eluded him. The church also had self-help programs similar to Garvey's, but as Marable puts it, "with a kind of divinely based apocalyptic fury."

Upon his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm met NOI founder Elijah Muhammad, changed his name to Malcolm X and quickly rose through the ranks, promoting its teachings at temples in Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia and finally Harlem. He preached to ever wider audiences that
black people were the original people of the world and that white people were a race of devils, and alarmed whites with comments like his take on the assassination of President Kennedy: It was a case of "chickens coming home to roost."

Put off by NOI's rigid teachings, Elizah Muhammad's extra-marital flings with young women and efforts to muzzle him, Malcolm left the church in 1964. He found his own religious organization, Muslim Mosque Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, a secular group that advocated Pan-Africanism. He converted to Sunni Islam and make his hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca and made halting efforts to meet with mainstream civil rights leaders.

Malcolm X does not reject Haley's view of Malcom entering the civil rights mainstream so much as make the case that his travels and experiences led him to the embrace a humanism that helped prompt his break with NOI as he realized that "blacks indeed could achieve representation and even power under America’s constitutional system."

* * * * *

Finally, Marable offers perhaps the first truly accurate account of Malcolm X's assassination on February 21, 1965 in the Grand Ballroom of the Audubon in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan.

It has long been known that Malcolm topped the Nation of Islam hit list, but Marable reveals that the assassination was not only something of an inside job but was carried out with the advance knowledge of the FBI and New York Police Department, while it not coincidentally most benefited Louis Farrakhan,
who was to emerge as the leader of the Nation of Islam and matches Malcolm in fiery style although not in humanity, intellectual curiosity and substance.

For me, a sixtysomething white guy, Malcolm X's greatest legacy is that he believed whites would eventually "see the handwriting on the wall," as he himself put it, and turn away from "the disaster of racism." While I believe that racism remains a deeply entrenched aspect of our society, enormous strides have been made, not least the fact that an African-American is our president because he was elected by whites.

I have one passing disagreement with Malcolm X.

That is where Marable rationalizes his subject's violent rhetoric in his Nation of Islam days, writing that "[M]any of Malcolm’s most outrageous statements about the necessity of extremism in the achievement of political freedom and liberty were not unlike the views expressed by the 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who declared that 'extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.' "

These were not even different pews in the same church. We're talking altogether different churches.

* * * * *
Malcolm X has been rediscovered by succeeding generations of young people, and the publication of Marable's masterpiece should occasion another revival, as well as knock Haley's Autobiography from its lofty perch.

The last big revival was in the early 1990s. That was when Spike Lee released the autobiographical film X, (which like Haley's Autobiography has its share of inaccuracies) and the emerging hip-hop nation worshiped Malcolm in song and video.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles race riots, Vice President Dan Quayle declared that he had acquired important insights reading Haley's Autobiography. The epiphany was mocked by Lee, who quipped, "Every time Malcolm X talked about 'blue-eyed devils' Quayle should think he's talking about him."

How true.


Anonymous said...

"among white people"

Please quantify. It's some or many but not all. All is implied here.

Shaun Mullen said...

Certainly not all, but most.