A review of Dr. Manning Marable´s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
By Herb Boyd
A tragic irony binds Malcolm X and Dr. Manning Marable: neither lived to enjoy the fruit of their endeavors. Malcolm was assassinated only months before his autobiography was published and Dr. Marable died a few days before his biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking, 2011), was released.
Dr. Marable´s prodigious tome-nearly 600 pages with more than 100 pages of endnotes, bibliography and index-is the culmination of a score of years of research and a testament to his diligence and determination, particularly given the medical problems he endured. For more than a quarter of century he suffered from sarcoidosis, a lung ailment, and in the summer before his death had a double lung transplant. During the last month of his life he was hospitalized with pneumonia.
The physical obstacles Dr. Marable surmounted to complete his book are tantamount to the social and political issues Malcolm encountered, and none more troubling for the freedom fighter than the last two years of his furious passage.
Both Malcolm and Manning were restless spirits with one´s ceaseless search, peripatetic roaming matched by the other´s gypsy-like flights from one academic roost to another.
There are shelves of books on Malcolm X, including his own compelling but flawed account, but Dr. Marable goes the extra mile, hears one more interview, and scours one more document in his pursuit of a man who he claims was continually reinventing himself-from hoodlum, to hedonist, to hustler, to hero, to martyrdom. Each one of these incarnations, Dr. Marable contends, is marked by a name emblematic of that plateau-Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, Satan, Malcolm X, and El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, to list but the most prominent.
But it was as Malcolm X, an avatar of Elijah Muhammad, that Malcolm Little became best known, and who remains for many an unimpeachable icon of the struggle for human rights, despite the humanistic gloss applied to his odyssey by Dr. Marable. Because of his popular autobiography and that so much of his latter years are part of the public record, many readers will be familiar with the terrain Dr. Marable nimbly traverses. Nonetheless, even the most informed Malcolm X scholar will be amazed by the accumulation of new material he has assembled and the fresh analysis he applies. An equal number will be disturbed by his focus and conclusions.
After a general assessment of Malcolm´s early years, Dr. Marable practically proceeds in a chronological, day-by-day approach, unearthing facts that properly situate Malcolm within the context of African American social and political thought. However, rather than reinvention-which has a deliberate implication of a shedding of skin or changing one mask for another-there is every indication that Malcolm´s life was a steady, and often intrepid, intellectual and political evolution, the latter concept Dr. Marable only mentions once in passing.
Not to quibble, because whether reinvention (with an insinuation of agency that Dr. Marable intuits throughout) or evolution, Malcolm X was a phenomenal American, and like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he was symbolic of a singular philosophical and ideological perspective. And several scholars have proposed that Malcolm and Dr. King´s political trajectories were gradually merging, and though Dr. Marable doesn´t expend too much capital on this possibility, he does a remarkable job explaining the growing, and at last fatal hostility between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam.
If there is a narrative thread in the book, it is Malcolm´s relationship to the Nation of Islam. He is drawn to the NOI by members of his family and later warmly embraced by its leader, Elijah Muhammad. In effect, Muhammad becomes the father figure of which Malcolm was violently robbed of as a child coming of age in Michigan. The letters between Malcolm and Muhammad helped rescue the neophyte Muslim from the doldrums of prison life, here was the guidance and counseling he needed to enhance an already boundless curiosity. Malcolm´s powers of dedication and self-discipline, Dr. Marable writes, “were extraordinary, and directly opposite to the wayward drifting of his earlier years. The trickster disappeared, the clowning side of disobedience, leaving the willful challenger of authority.”
All the pent-up energy of nearly seven years behind bars was unleashed and unbridled once Malcolm was a full-fledged member of the Nation and his ascent was as mercurial as it was productive. In rapid succession he expanded the organization´s membership, established more mosques, became the NOI´s national spokesperson, and launched Muhammad Speaks newspaper. In Malcolm, the NOI had no better example of its redemptive powers, its ability to make the crooked straight. By 1959, with the television broadcast of Mike Wallace´s “The Hate That Hate Produced,” Malcolm had zoomed from notoriety to celebrity without consultation, according to his detractors. As Dr. Marable notes, quoting one of Malcolm´s loyal followers, Herman Ferguson, on Malcolm: “He was developing too fast.”
Much too fast for the Chicago Sanhedrin, who after noting Malcolm´s Icarus-like flight, sought ways to bring him down to earth. It is simply amazing that within a decade, Malcolm was among the country´s most notable African American public intellectuals and political leaders, a perch augmented by his relentless attack on Dr. King and other civil rights advocates.
But things began to unravel, Dr. Marable observes, with the assassination of President Kennedy. Advised by Muhammad not to say anything about the assassination Malcolm asserted to the press that it was an instance of the “chickens coming home to roost.” For Dr. Marable this was merely a matter of American violence coming full circle. “So it was not a surprise that the president had become a victim,” he adds.
This bold statement, along with Malcolm´s growing concern via rumors of Muhammad´s having impregnated his secretaries, including one of Malcolm´s former lovers and possible fiancée, alienated him from the NOI, and that gap was all his enemies in Chicago needed. Here, according to Dr. Marable, was the opportunity for the Chicago clique-Raymond Sharrieff, John Ali, Elijah Muhammad, Jr., Herbert Muhammad and others “to freeze Malcolm out. His inflammatory statement had given them a wedge by which he might be forced from the Nation of Islam.”
From this bitter conjunction, things only worsened for Malcolm as he battled with enemies near and far, struggling to hold on to his home and his marriage, his sanity.
Among several leitmotivs in the book is Dr. Marable´s discussion of the relationship between Malcolm and his wife, Betty. He assembles enough commentary, letters, and diary entries to suggest that there was far more turbulence than romance between them. And apparently, both were guilty of infidelity, and again from Dr. Marable´s perspective there is no convincing evidence on this matter. If anything, Betty´s behavior was inappropriate for a married Muslim woman. Most of the evidence of these charges is circumstantial, much like the claim that Malcolm had a homosexual affair. While he raises this issue, and to some degree corroborates the allegations made by Rodnell Collins, Bruce Perry, and Malcolm Jarvis, Dr. Marable quickly dismisses it. “There is no evidence from his prison record in Massachusetts or from his personal life after 1952 that he was actively homosexual,” he concludes.
Even so, the mere charge amounts to conviction for many readers, and among the first denunciation from Malcolm´s daughters are based on his alleged homosexuality and infidelities. While there is sure to be those discounting the book because of the homosexual allegation (a minute discussion amid massive research), but does that reduce or diminish Malcolm´s value in the fight for total liberation? If so, then how do we assess the contributions of James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, and the gay troubadours of the Harlem Renaissance?
In his Epilogue, Dr. Marable anticipates many of the questions from readers as well as itemizing the powerful benefits we have inherited from Malcolm´s stay among us. For example, so much of what he speculates about the role of the FBI, undercover cops, and other law enforcement agencies played in Malcolm´s assassination he admits cannot be known until that information is no longer suppressed by the agencies. “At times these multiple roadblocks were so difficult to navigate around that it seemed no serious life history could be written,” he laments.
Nor does Dr. Marable venture to provide much psychological insight into Malcolm´s motivations, choosing to avoid what some other scholars have done, including Eugene Victor Wolfenstein´s unrewarding mental survey and probe of Malcolm´s mind.
Malcolm scholars and aficionados are certain to voice a variety of complaints, wondering why Dr. Marable didn´t do this and didn´t do that, but it´s good to see the detailed analysis he gave to Malcolm´s last exhilarating months in Africa, which Spike Lee in his biopic chose to represent with a montage of photos. More could have been said about Milton Henry who was with Malcolm in Egypt during his last sojourn and interviewed him following Malcolm´s memorandum to the OAU summit and his attempt to bring charges of racism and genocide against the United States, and who with his brothers recorded several of Malcolm´s most famous speeches.
And there is sure to be ongoing discussion about Malcolm´s assassins and Dr. Marable provides very little new information that other lawyers and writers haven´t chewed extensively, though he does corroborate the findings of several authors who have asserted that the primary assassin has never been charged and is currently living somewhere in New Jersey. They may suspend their brief if they carefully ingest his thoughtful and thoroughgoing dissection of the two organizations Malcolm founded upon his departure from the NOI: Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of African American Unity (OAAU), especially the insight he provides on their critical distinction and differences.
Dr. Marable´s book-which is by no means flawless and marred by a number of errors a good fact checker would have caught-won´t be the final assessment of Malcolm´s life. Esteemed journalist Les Payne has been working diligently on his biography and Herman Ferguson has completed his memoir that will certainly shed additional light on Malcolm and the OAAU. Already attorney Gregory Reed in Detroit is meticulously combing the original manuscript that Malcolm and Alex Haley worked on, which Dr. Marable suggests is more Haley than Malcolm. And Reed, in his annotation of Malcolm´s autobiography, plans to go much further than Dr. Marable did in pointing out the miscues and discrepancies.
Moreover, Reed possesses the three missing chapters that Dr. Marable alludes to, offering only the titles without any substantial content. It should be noted that Dr. Marable was only provided a glimpse of the chapters. And Reed has access to the trove of documents related to W.D. Fard found in the attic of one of his followers, and now belongs to their children. Dr. Marable would have certainly benefited from these papers in his summation of the early years of the Nation of Islam, a history in which a black woman played a pivotal role in organizing.
Again, it´s in the Epilogue that Dr. Marable posits his most cogent and vital summaries, noting Malcolm´s revolutionary vision, his international campaign for human rights, his unwavering anti-imperialism, his modernization of Pan-African thought and Black Nationalism, and, perhaps most significantly, his representation as “an important bridge between the American people and more than one billion Muslims throughout the world.”
No, Malcolm and Dr. Marable did not live long enough to defend or to enjoy their books, but they are here for us the living to absorb, contest, and ultimately to see how our lives are expanded by their legacies.