Imagining Malcolm X

Manning Marable's biography of Malcolm X is a significant and poignant cultural event because of its subject, its purpose, and the recent tragic death of its author, the founder of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. Marable worked on this biography for more than two decades, struggling in recent years with a severe illness that in 2010 required a double lung transplant. Only days before the book's publication, Professor Marable passed away. His commitment to scholarship even in the face of sickness and death is inspiring.

Although Marable has bequeathed to us a deeply valuable work, it is also deeply flawed. Marable sought to create a realistic portrait of Malcolm X, but his depiction remains mired in the sentimental, reverential perspective that he attempted to transcend. He presents reams of evidence that should demote Malcolm X from the exalted standing he enjoys among many progressives of various stripes. Yet Marable was simply unwilling to go where his own narrative should have taken him.

Marable's subject is an iconic figure whose life unfolded in three stages. In the first, a black boy named Malcolm Little, born May, 19, 1925, suffered a traumatic childhood. When he was only 6, his father was run over by a street car. Perhaps the death was an accident. More likely, white supremacists murdered Earl Little, a stalwart supporter of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. Malcolm's mother, Louise Little, later broke down mentally and was institutionalized for the remainder of her life. Consigned to foster care and the loose management of older siblings, Malcolm failed to finish high school, dabbled in drugs, and eventually succumbed to felonious criminality. At 21 he was sentenced to a lengthy prison term for burglary and possessing an illegal firearm. He later believed that he was punished more severely than the offenses warranted because his gang was interracial and included a white woman with whom he was sexually intimate.

In the second stage of his life, Malcolm found religion in prison and dedicated himself to advancing the faith that gave him a sense of meaning and mission. The faith was the theology propounded by the Nation of Islam (NOI), a sect often referred to as the Black Muslims. Its head, Elijah Muhammad, "The Messenger," passed on to his followers teachings from the NOI's mysterious founder, Wallace D. Fard. At the core of this worldview was the proposition that blacks are the original people of the world and that whites are an inferior and malevolent offshoot created by an evil scientist. According to Elijah Muhammad, whites had temporarily succeeded in divesting blacks of everything of value, including their very names. Blacks' surnames, he asserted, were shameful "slave names." That is why he bestowed an "X" upon his followers until a real last name could be determined.

Malcolm X emerged as the most talented, driven, and resourceful of Elijah Muhammad's disciples. Upon release from prison, he worked ceaselessly to spread the teachings of The Messenger; he recruited converts, helped to establish temples, and gave countless speeches that entertainingly distinguished what he saw as the dignified separatism of the Black Muslims from the craven integrationism of "Uncle Toms" and other "so-called Negroes." It was through his speeches and his self-presentation--his erect, martial bearing, with a stern, chiseled face framed by distinctive black eyeglasses--that Malcolm snagged the attention of curious whites who were simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by his unrelenting anger. He constantly voiced contempt and disregard for "the white man." Yet it was precisely the fascination of certain white journalists and academics that enabled Malcolm X to propound the NOI's message on television and radio and at elite college campuses, gaining a prestige and prominence that far exceeded the notice accorded to anyone else in the Black Muslim leadership, including The Messenger himself.

Malcolm's notoriety became a major source of his undoing. Jealous and fearful of his protege, Elijah Muhammad first muzzled and then hounded him. In March 1964, Malcolm X announced his split from the NOI.

The third and briefest stage of Malcolm's life, a mere year, featured a man keenly aware that his days were numbered. He embraced orthodox Islam, traveled widely in Africa and the Middle East, renounced the NOI's anti-white theology, sought to create an organizational platform for his activities by founding the Muslim Mosque, Incorporated, (MMI) and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), and collaborated with Alex Haley in the creation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He also faced constant threats at the hands of vengeful Black Muslims who considered him to be a traitorous apostate. "Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death," proclaimed Louis X, now better known as Louis Farrakhan. Weeks later, on Feb. 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem by assailants affiliated with the NOI. He was only 39.

Marable writes that the primary purpose of his biography is to "go beyond the legend; to recount what actually occurred in Malcolm's life." He pursues that aim earnestly, probing the whole of Malcolm's story, personal and public, no matter how embarrassing the exploration. He recounts that Malcolm X met secretly with representatives of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia in 1961 to negotiate some mutually beneficial understanding, an act that Marable rightly assails as "despicable." He notes with disdain that at NOI rallies Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X actually hosted George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party. Marable delineates with sorrow how Elijah Muhammad directed Malcolm X to pay tribute to him as divinely omniscient, prohibited him from working with civil-rights activists, and even kept him from confronting police who had wantonly maimed and killed members of the NOI.

Marable shows that the inner circle of the NOI was an emotional wastelandsuffused with enmity, pettiness, and corruption. He describes NOI officials inflicting beatings on followers as a mode of discipline and demanding increased tithes to pay for expensive automobiles. He establishes that Malcolm X's marriage to Betty Shabazz was a loveless affair, marked by neglect (his) and infidelity (hers). He makes clear beyond any doubt that Elijah Muhammad, while married, seduced young followers, got them pregnant, and then abandoned them and their children, all the while preaching the virtue of chastity and patriarchal duty.

Marable notes how Elijah Muhammad cruelly manipulated those who viewed him as a prophet, insisting, for example, that his ministers desist from buying life insurance so that they would be all the more subject to him out of fear for their families in the event of their incapacitation or death. Marable sets forth in sobering detail the salience of betrayal and revenge in the lives of people who purportedly cherished racial loyalty and unity. Malcolm X served as Muhammad Ali's mentor. But he was summarily ostracized by "The Greatest" when he sought independence from the NOI. Malcolm X offered friendly advice and support to Louis X. But when Malcolm deigned to leave the NOI and publicly expose its leader's messy and multiple sexual dalliances, his former friend targeted him as a man "worthy of death."

Little of this information will be completely new to knowledgeable students of Malcolm X and related subjects. It is one thing, though, for these arresting facts to appear in specialized journals or books consulted by relatively few readers. It is another thing for them to be made widely accessible in a book written by one of the leading lights of the black activist-intellectual left. Marable undoubtedly faced pressure to prune his narrative of facts, speculations, and scuttlebutt having to do with sexual matters that some observers deride as mere salacious trash. He deserves praise for resisting such pressure.

Sex is important. It illuminates character, affects thought, conditions action. In this instance, sex was central to the rupture between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad as the disciple loathed the hypocrisy of his former master. The personal is often political.

The most serious deficiency in Marable's study is his failure to extricate himself from the pull of the Malcolm X legend. He assumes without argument that Malcolm X was as significant a force in the 1960s as is now claimed in retrospect by those who revere him. Perhaps he was, but there is room for doubt. In any event, his influence during his own lifetime is something that should be demonstrated and not merely asserted.

Marable insists that Malcolm X was a visionary radical who warrants emulation. The last sentence of the book declares that "Malcolm embodies a definitive yardstick by which all other Americans who aspire to a mantle of leadership should be measured." Yet Marable sets forth in piercing detail reasons to conclude that Malcolm X was actually a poor leader who constantly misjudged people and events. When he was in the NOI, Malcolm's aims and strategies--that is, the goals and tactics of the honorable Elijah Mohammed--were certainly clear. The problem is that they were gravely misguided. As Marable notes, the NOI's program constituted a sterile, conservative, escapist black nationalism. After Malcolm left the NOI, he shed obnoxious certainties but was unable to substitute for them anything other than the vaguest mishmash of militant-sounding generalities. He was a resilient man who bravely sought to overcome terrible circumstances. Nonetheless, for most of his adult life he subscribed to beliefs that expressly denigrated huge swaths of humanity. Lionized as a brilliant organizer, he created no organization that effectively outlasted him. Lauded as a realist, he repeatedly put his trust in people who betrayed him.

Malcolm X memorably articulated the aggrievement of blacks who felt little relief on account of the civil-rights revolution. "I see America through the eyes of the victim," he thundered. "I don't see any American dream--I see an American nightmare." But during black America's most rousing decade--the glorious boycott in Montgomery, the magnificent struggle in Birmingham, the epochal March on Washington, the miraculous resistance in Lowndes County, the breathtaking events in Selma--Malcolm X allowed himself to be largely confined to the sidelines by a domineering, oddball theocrat. While Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, Julian Bond, Robert Moses, Stokely Carmichael, and others were risking their lives continually in toe-to-toe encounters with white supremacists, Malcolm X was offering hollow rhetoric.

James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality highlighted the emptiness of Malcolm X's thinking during a debate in 1962. He turned to Malcolm and asked: "We know the disease, physician, what is your cure? What is your program and how do you hope to bring it into effect?" Having nothing to say, Malcolm lamely taunted Farmer for marrying a white woman.

Marable lays great stress on his hero's final year, when he renounced the NOI's anti-white theology and began to inch toward a more sophisticated, capacious, social democratic critique of American society. That turnabout was promising and showed an impressive capacity for growth. In the end, though, he still had little to say in response to Farmer's question.

Marable credits Malcolm X with positively shaping important subsequent events. "Malcolm's public personality," Marable writes, "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." Yet Marable offers little evidence in support of his claim. More tellingly, he omits entirely any consideration of whether Malcolm X's thought and conduct may have had any negative repercussions. He never investigates whether the Malcolm of fact or the Malcolm of legend may have had anything to do with the regrettable diminution and enfeeblement of the black left.

Professor Marable's biography is a notable achievement. But clearly there is much more work to be done to achieve a more complete reckoning with Malcolm X, the man and the image.

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