Myth and Malcolm

Malcolm X:

A Life of Reinvention

HE WAS born Malcolm Little, and died El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, but the world remembers him as Malcolm X. In a new book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, author and Columbia University professor Manning Marable presents the most detailed account to date of the life of this legendary thinker and activist. Tragically, lung disease claimed Marable’s own life just days before publication.

“The great temptation for the biographer of an iconic figure,” Marable writes 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 recounting makes for a fascinating read. Marable weaves together what he learned from extensive interviews, personal testimonies, police and FBI records, the public record of Malcolm’s speeches and writings, as well as some new documentation that was unavailable to previous researchers.

Malcolm Little was born into a family of activists. Marable describes the dedication of Malcolm’s parents to Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League and the racist violence they encountered because of it. Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, was murdered by white supremacists after the family moved to Lansing, Michigan.

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”—this time of Malcolm’s past. Marable contends 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 argues, 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 2 pages in Marable’s book (out of nearly 600), but has been a prominent feature of the controversy surrounding it. 

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

First of all, the [there is] deep and profound homophobia and the resistance of certain sectarian interests within African-American culture that refuse to acknowledge the [Malcolm X’s] full humanity [and] wants to talk about Black unity, but always wants to exclude—oh, my god. You don’t have a problem with Malcolm being a hustler, don’t have a problem…. You haven’t asked no evidence of that , or the pimp…. 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 the 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 start 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.”

Marable shows sensitivity to the real-world motivations of NOI recruits. He asks: “What attracted so many intelligent, independent African-American women to such a patriarchal sect?”

The sexist and racist world of the 1940s and 1950s provides part of the answer. Many African-American women in the paid labor force were private household workers and routinely experienced sexual harassment by their white employers. The NOI, by contrast, offered them the protections of private patriarchy.… Malcolm’s emphasis on the sanctity of the black home made an explicit promise “that families won’t be abandoned, that women will be cherished and protected, [and] that there will be economic stability.”

Malcolm quickly rose within the NOI, due not only to his legendary intelligence and wit as a public speaker but also 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 from the Garveyist principles Malcolm imbibed from his parents, his development of them within the framework of the NOI, and later through his break with that group and attempts to form a Pan-Africanist movement based in the United States.

Early on, Malcolm began incorporating references to the anticolonial 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 radicalizing Black students who were increasingly frustrated with white liberalism:

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, of liberals, and of the Democratic Party. 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 “sell-outs” and “uncle Toms.” He agreed, for example, to participate in a Harlem coalition initiated by the labor leader A. Philip Randolph. Although Malcolm famously called the 1963 March on Washington a “Farce on Washington,” Marable shows another side of Malcolm’s attitude to it. While NOI members were forbidden to attend the march, Malcolm organized some to get up early in the morning and sell copies of Muhammad Speaks to people getting on the bus. 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 with those who were frustrated with Martin Luther King Jr.’s brand of non-violent 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—nineteen 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 government of Saudi Arabia 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 Blacks in America.

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.

It’s true that Marable, at times, makes unsupported claims about Malcolm’s state of mind or his political conclusions. For example, when Malcolm takes a stand against Israeli Zionism as a “new form of colonialism,” Marable writes:

Malcolm’s newfound hostility toward Israel can be explained not only by his obligations to Nasser but also by the shifting currents of one particular African state [Ghana]… Malcolm’s anti-Israeli thesis reflected the political interests of both these allies.

Rather than understanding anti-Zionism as the logical development of Malcolm’s anti-imperialism, or of his attempt to build solidarity with struggles for national liberation, Marable presents it as purely a matter of expediency.

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 ascendance 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 coincided with the defeat of the Black Power movement, and with the 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.

Still, the fact remains that Malcolm’s life was cut short at a moment when his ideas were in flux. He was assassinated less than a year after leaving the NOI. Thus, any attempt to define Malcolm’s politics presents certain challenges. He is probably the most important icon of Black nationalism, for example, yet at the end of his life, he clearly felt the need to rethink the concept. When he met African revolutionaries who were, by appearances, “white,” Malcolm began to feel that Black nationalism was “alienating people who were true revolutionaries.”

So I had to do a lot of thinking and reappraising of my definition of Black nationalism. Can we sum up the solution to the problems confronting our people as Black nationalism? And if you notice, I haven’t been using the expression for several months. But I still would be hard pressed to give a specific definition of the overall philosophy which I think is necessary for the liberation of the Black people in this country....

Once Malcolm abandoned the NOI’s project of racial separation, what would “liberation” exactly mean? While some of Marable’s conclusions seem stretched (such as his assertion that Malcolm was moving toward more “race-neutral” politics) he has plenty of evidence that Malcolm’s strategic orientation increasingly approached that of the mainstream civil rights movement—i.e., fighting for “liberation” within the existing structures of American society. Marable quotes, for example, the OAAU’s founding statement: “[We are p]ersuaded that the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights are the principles in which we believe and that these documents if put into practice represent the essence of mankind’s hopes and good intentions.”

Malcolm continued, however, to use the word “revolution” to describe his perspectives. He attempted to make direct, organizational links between the anticolonial revolutions and the Black revolt in the United States. Just weeks before he was assassinated, Malcolm said:

You and I are living at a time when there’s a revolution going on. A worldwide revolution. It goes beyond Mississippi. It goes beyond Alabama. It goes beyond Harlem. There’s a worldwide revolution going on…. Now, the man was shook up enough when Africa was in revolt and when Asia was in revolt. All of this revolt was actually taking place on the outside of his house, on the outside of his base, or on the outside of his headquarters. But now he’s faced with something new.… [T]hose brothers in Africa and Asia…also have some brothers on the inside of the house.

The weaknesses of Marable’s work, while important, shouldn’t lead anyone to dismiss it. Malcolm X 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 Marable’s conclusions.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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