A Man for Many Seasons
by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
by Manning Marable
Viking Adult, 2001, 608 pp.
Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention hit the book stands last spring with considerable buzz, given the allure that accompanied Malcolm X’s life story, as well as the drama of Marable’s personal tragedy. Marable died of complications resulting from pneumonia at age sixty a few days before the publication of his magnum opus. His sudden demise heightened the impression that his Malcolm—the product of ten years of work— would be definitive.
The man euphemistically known as “the Brother X” has become iconic. He has been the subject of a major Hollywood biopic. But his legacy remains contested. Critics and admirers alike pick and choose from among the images of Malcolm X. There is the majestic freedom fighter, admired by Spike Lee and Barack Obama. There is the Brother X associated with parochial-minded anti- Americanism; the race-baiting Malcolm X recently denounced by Stanley Crouch as “a maskmaker from his days as a hustler to the moment at which he was shot to death”; Malcolm the global humanitarian, the symbol of world brotherhood; Malcolm the sectarian, the divisive influence. There is the religious Malcolm, potentially the new face of Black Islamic America.
But there is another Malcolm, the male chauvinist, who bragged in his autobiography of never having trusted a woman, and whose image reified ugly strains of Islamic sexism, as well as its capacity for radical violence. Marable notes, “An al-Qaeda video released following the election of Barack Obama described the president as a ‘race traitor’ and ‘hypocrite’ when compared to Malcolm X.”
Martin Luther King’s career fits easily into the mold of a martyred civil rights hero. He promoted social integrationism and was murdered by a white racist. For most of his public life, Malcolm X belittled social integrationism and was murdered by other blacks in a sectarian feud. Malcolm X’s break with the Nation of Islam defined the final period of his career. But after he put aside the NOI’s half-baked philosophy of “white devils” he still extolled the power behind a collective racial identity. He ultimately “changed,” but to what? There is not a clear version of what the final Malcolm X represented.
Malcolm’s legacy has been interpreted to be culturally black nationalist or capitalist (in the Marcus Garvey tradition of black entrepreneurship) or socialist. His last phase coincided with the period of anticolonialist socialist revolutions in Africa. He identified strongly with Pan-Africanism. But Pan-Africanism has come and gone; where does this leave Malcolm X in history?
A Life of Reinvention is heavy on particulars, or minutiae—a narrative retelling by a zealous researcher. Isn’t this a biographer’s task? Yes, and yet for all that Marable accomplishes, a certain disappointment haunts the reader. A Life of Reinvention may fill in certain blanks and provide salacious details (a normative practice in this day and age of tell-all biographies); it may “humanize” Malcolm X, if you will, but its struggle with the Brother X’s political legacy is perfunctory, while it could have been Olympian.
The primary source behind the multiple constructions of Malcolm X’s legacy is The Autobiography of Malcolm X, compiled over a two-year period from interviews conducted with journalist Alex Haley. The Autobiography has sold millions, its popularity driven by the charismatic power of Malcolm X’s story of sin and redemption, and his conversion from a life of crime to one of political and religious commitment. Haley’s narrative has made Malcolm X hip, threatening, or cool, and promulgated many of the alternative Malcolms. Marable clearly has a bone to pick with The Autobiography, averring that “Malcolm X had no opportunity to revise major elements of what would become known as his political testament.” Furthermore, “A deeper reading [of The Autobiography of Malcolm X] also reveals numerous inconsistencies in names, dates, and facts. [After years of teaching the Autobiography] I was fascinated. How much it true, and how much hasn’t been told?” ponders Marable. But both books relate basically the same story.
Malcolm Little, born in 1925, was disillusioned by life in racist America, and turned in his late teens to a life of petty crime, operating under the pseudonym “Detroit Red.” He served several years in prison. While in prison, he converted to a pseudo-Islamic sect, the Nation of Islam, which promoted strict dietary and moral codes and a racialized version of the Islamic faith. Politically, the Nation of Islam is sectarian and campaigns for the creation of a completely separate and independent black state. He breaks with the NOI after discovering that its leader, Elijah Muhammad, has been unfaithful to the tenets by fathering many illegitimate children. Malcolm X subsequently journeys to Mecca, and rethinks his sectarian worldview.
During his twelve years of subservience to the NOI, Malcolm X’s eloquence and vehemence on contemporary affairs make him viewed less as a religious than as a political figure, particularly noted for his ability to invoke the frustrations simmering in the black ghettoes. He is often viewed with fear that he is—and he encourages the point of view—the “dark side” of Martin Luther King’s benevolent movement, the violence that will break loose after the traditional integrationist civil rights leaders have lost their gambit. But in response to his journey to Mecca, Malcolm converts to Sunni Islam. He accepts that many of his Muslim brothers are “white” and adopts a less militant stance on race relations and social integration, although he still flirts with the notion that it might be necessary for black Americans to construct an independent state. He proceeds to head two organizations, one religious and one secular (Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity) but both influenced by his refined agenda.
Malcolm X now expresses his willingness to work alongside white activists and black integrationist civil rights leaders, albeit for the time being his own organizations will remain black. He is assassinated in a hail of gunfire by Elijah Muhammad’s followers in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan on Februar 21, 1965.
A Life of Reinvention is a monument to dogged research, primarily inspired by Marable’s reaction against Haley’s book. Let’s enumerate Marable’s amendments to the record, its glosses, and the “smoking gun” of its assassination theory.
According to Marable, Malcolm X exaggerated the depth of his criminal career as well as his skill at numbers running and underworld activities. He describes Malcolm X’s criminal activities as “amateurish” and “clumsy.” Marable writes, “Malcolm deliberately exaggerated his gangster exploits—the number of burglaries, the amount of marijuana he sold musicians and the like—to illustrate how depraved he had become. Malcolm told Haley stories about himself that were largely true, but frequently presented himself as being more illiterate and backwards than he actually was.”
“Detroit Red” was not only a second rate mobster, he may have been a “trick baby” (to use 1950s street lingo). We learn that a character in Haley’s Autobiography, described as an occasional homosexual hustler willing to perform minor sexual acts for pay from a wealthy white man, was in fact Malcolm X. His career as a minor “pimp” included prostituting himself. We are informed that the marriage of Malcolm X and Betty Shabbazz suffered considerable disharmony. Perhaps Betty Shabbazz engaged in an extramarital relationship. Malcolm’s final rupture with the Nation of Islam in 1963 was not solely the consequence of Malcolm’s learning that Elijah Muhammad was a profligate. It was not Elijah Muhammad’s unrestrained promiscuity with his younger, female followers in general that destroyed Malcolm X’ s loyalty and cemented the end, but Malcolm X’s receipt of information that Elijah Muhammad had impregnated a woman whom Malcolm X had dated in his pre-prison years, and whom he was responsible for bringing into the Nation of Islam. The strains of private guilt and self reproach ran deeper than portrayed in the more proper public account.
The biggest revelation in A Life of Reinvention is that Marable exposes the names of Malcolm X’s supposed “real killers”; the five NOI members who plotted and committed the assassination. Regarding the three men convicted of the assassination in 1966, by Marable’s account, all were NOI zealots who had been involved in harassing Malcolm since his departure from the organization, but two of the men may not have been involved in the actual assassination.
The research and detail collected in A Life of Reinvention is impressive. But something is missing. The book provides a great deal, but what is needed today is more than the particulars, and more than assassination intrigue. Rather, the reader needs an interpretation of the historical significance of Malcolm X.
None of the autobiographical glosses in A Life of Reinvention will reinvent the wheel for readers sophisticated enough to read between the lines. There are obvious reasons why, in a book composed in the early 1960s, Malcolm X—whose image was always linked to his patriarchal pride and masculinity—would conceal his alleged brief acquaintance with the feminine role of a prostitute (while being comfortable casting himself in the masculine role of a pimp) and why he would hedge on other personal details. It cannot be insignificant if the New York Police Department corralled and the state prosecuted the wrong men in his assassination, but pertaining to Malcolm X’s legacy, his assassins were still zealots under the influence of the Nation of Islam (possibly acting under the expressed orders of Elijah Muhammad), and the assassination remains the result of a sectarian feud. The arc of the story stays the same.
Marable reserves his thoughts on Malcolm X’s political legacy for a nine-page afterword, “Reflections on a Revolutionary Vision.” It is a dutiful cataloguing of the various legacies: Malcolm X the preacher, the Muslim, the forefather of late 1960s Black Power, the elegant emblem of manhood in a time when black people were subservient, the Pan-Africanist. Yet the question remains: What is the significance of Malcolm X’s legacy today?
All the constructions of Malcolm X reflect the critique of a political outsider. “I’m a field Negro,” he famously said, and a field Negro is three steps away from the master’s house. The position of an urban, black, criminal outsider was thrust on him by the circumstance of his life—later enhanced by his turn to the Islamic faith. But in an act of jujitsu, Malcolm X drew strength and rhetorical resonance from this position.
Malcolm X’s legacy is forever linked in history books to Martin Luther King’s. A glance at their speeches reveals a distinction more glaring than that between their arguments— a stark disjuncture that is still clear when they speak to matters on which they agree, such as, say, the evils of southern law enforcement or the ills of poverty and disenfranchisement. King’s words (“I have a dream…” most famously) speak to what we call the better angels of human nature. They read like sermons because they seem to have been tailored to fit within a decorum or convention that supports such appeals. Their weakness on the other hand may be that when removed from the trappings of decorum—when discussed after the audience leaves the church or the senate building—they begin to seem high-minded, pompous, or out of touch.
Malcolm X stood at a distance from the halls of decorum, and from that distance he was able to issue salvos such as, “What I want to know is how the white man, with the blood dripping off his fingers, can have the audacity to ask black people why they hat him?” or, even after his return from Mecca and his softening on issues of race relations, to state plainly, “I never really trust the kinds of white people who are always anxious to hang around Negroes, or Negro communities.” The words of an outsider may seem uncouth, unjust, hatemongering, or unhelpful, but they speak—in a way that King’s expressions of decorum cannot—to his period’s visceral tensions of blacks in opposition to whites, and vice versa. The speech of the outsider is privileged to flirt with extremism (anti-Americanism) and shrug “C’est la vie” in the wake of a national tragedy, as Malcolm X did in his “chickens have come home to roost” quip after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Hence the divisions that roughly characterize latter-day criticisms of his legacy: admiration for his daring, condemnation or defensiveness over his philosophy of armed self-protection, and concern over his most extreme pronouncements.
Malcolm X initially belittled social integrationism as too little, too late, specifically in its lack of ameliorative value for the black underclass, but his greater humanitarianism and the lack of progressive solutions available to one who maintains a completely sectarian position compelled him toward some form of amelioration and participation in the body republic. This is the beginning of the splintering of versions of Malcolm X’s legacy. But it is the beginning of the deepening in his resonances that led to his iconic status.
The outsider who begins to find a way into a civic dialogue is not simply making concessions. He has higher ambitions. The willingness to participate is dependent upon a give and take. It is his hope that this approach can bring his position and his insights into the public dialogue. Malcolm X sought alliances with international Pan-African movements, but with the understanding that his organizations would be based in the United States and hope that his international alliances could influence the dialogue within the United States. Or rather, that his organizations might advance radical objectives by democratic argument and persuasion. This is seen by his choice in his last year to divide his energies into two organizations—one secular and the other religious. Particularly given his past, participation in the American democratic process would be assisted by making a traditional demarcation between “church and state” his religious and his political principles.
There is no doubt that Malcolm X’s footing in participatory democracy was tenuous and provisional. He maintained considerable skepticism toward the body republic and could easily have lost faith and returned at some point to a sectarian position. At the time of his death, Malcolm X was working his way through strains of Pan-Africanism, black nationalism, socialism—and his past as an emblem of sectarian threat—toward a participatory outsider politics that would have been a greater challenge to the body politic than one dependent upon menace. It is a sectarian threat to intimidate, or hint at breaking away from the body republic, but it can also be a threat (in the sense of challenging the democratic process, not the electorate itself) to legitimize perspectives that the body republic has stereotyped. In the late 1960s, the Black Panthers were inspired by Malcolm X’s example, but resorted to emphasizing the militancy that he was moving away from in the interests of democratic persuasion.
Haley’s Autobiography captured Malcolm X’s mythic dimensions, but his myth is dated— and Marable does not quite succeed in updating it. “Why Malcolm X today?” Pan- Africanism is over with, and black separatism (or any other ethnic group’s separatism) is clearly impractical. It may be that the Brother X’s greatest legacy today is that he represented the possibility of a participatory politics of the underclass. The Brother X’s identity was always tied to his reputation as a receptacle and conduit of “street wisdom.” And more so than any major figure since his death he articulated a politics not for, but of the underclass, a politics that promoted the perspective of the underclass as being as legitimate as that of the middle class or the wealthy, and that refused to treat poverty as a badge of shame (something like what the gangsta rappers who routinely call out Malcolm X’s name struggle to cultivate). The arc of this journey from the outer borders of society to the conceptualization of provisional participation is the story arc Malcolm X bequeathed us, and is a better answer to the question, “Why Malcolm today?” than any of the biographical trivia or assassination intrigue underscored in Marable’s A Life of Reinvention.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a writer living in Santa Fe,New Mexico.