Malcolm X (S)peaks: The Myth of Politics and the Politics of Myth in the Wake of the Culture Wars

I recently finished reading Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X entitled, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Let me say from the outset, this is an outstanding book. Written over the course of two decades using previously unexamined and unavailable documents, Marable’s opus seeks to humanize Malcolm X– no easy task, given that the figure of Malcolm X and his place in history are so entrenched in the politics of race in the United States that his life and work can all too easily lend itself to caricature. In fact, the aftermath of this book’s publication has been accompanied by a number of critics who seem unwilling to loosen their grip on the symbolic power of Malcolm X’s life and politicization, particularly as it pertains to black liberation movements in the 1960s. Yet, in the debate (primarily) between Michael Eric Dyson and Amiri Baraka (found on Democracy Now!), disagreements over both the research and conclusions of Marable in Malcolm X raise specific questions about historical production and method, not the least of which is this: “where is the utility in ‘humanizing’ one of the most empowering historical figures in the twentieth century?”

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention reads almost like a corrective to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Through the research and details that Marable provides, A Life of Reinvention he is able to clearly show the ways in which The Autobiography of Malcolm X was less of a set of reflections on a life lived and more of a definitive political project, hence the exaggerations and misdirection littered throughout the narrative of The Autobiography were positioned– as Marable suggests (and most people who have read extensively on Malcolm know)– as a kind of didactic tool. Also, Marable’s work simply provides more detail– including many things that Malcolm himself could not have known, such as the level of surveillance by several law enforcement agencies– and clears up some of the vagueness of Malcolm’s early adulthood in Boston and Harlem.  Perhaps most illuminating (and controversial) in A Life of Reinvention were the charges of marital infidelity, of which Marable suggests both Betty and Malcolm were guilty, and a vaguely homosexual relationship that he had with an older white man while he was a young adult.

In the preface to the book, Marable discusses his initial reasons for taking on this project, noting that Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s discussion of the Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI) and The Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) left much to be desired, and he wanted to explore these in more depth. However, the final product did much more than cover the last two years of his life, filling in a number of gaps that were not discussed in The Autobiography, or perhaps might have been deemed unimportant by Malcolm or Alex Haley, the two authors of The Autobiography. He sheds new light on the assassination of Malcolm, but for me the most enlightening part of A Life of Reinvention is the chapter that gives an account of the two weeks before his assassination, which portray Malcolm as exhausted, harried, and almost resigned to his fate. Seriously, I got chills reading Marable’s expert prose in this chapter. In all, Marable is both sensitive and comprehensive in his discussion of Malcolm’s life, and at the end of the day, this work may even eclipse The Autobiography as the most important popular and even academic work on Malcolm X.

It was the comprehensiveness of Marable’s accounts of Malcolm’s life that has spurred some debate recently on Democracy Now! Here are a couple of excerpts from the rush transcript online:

Amiri Baraka:  Well, we should understand the impact that Malcolm had on the whole of American society. I think that the one problem I have with Marable’s book is Marable never understands that the black liberation movement had the most impact on American society—not the CP, not the DSA, not any of these social democratic groups, but the black liberation movement had. And it wasn’t—if it wasn’t for the black liberation movement and people like Malcolm, people like Martin Luther King, people like Rosa Parks, wouldn’t be an Obama. You know, that’s the fruit of that struggle. And to downplay—I mean, calling the Nation of Islam a sect, or saying that Malcolm loved history, but he wasn’t a historian, you know, these are the kind of things that show you that it’s a class bias that Marable had.
But the thing of trying to so-called humanize Malcolm, especially by adding these little unproven non-facts about him—see, because I’m not worried about the charges of, you know, homosexuality or that Betty, you know, had some kind of affair with this fool Kenyatta. There is no proof of that. That’s just speculation. Why put it in there? You understand?

And from Michael Eric Dyson, noted scholar at Georgetown University:

Michael Eric Dyson:Amiri Baraka is a genius. There’s no question about that. I would respectfully disagree with him on this point, however, because I think that Manning Marable’s consciousness is not what’s at stake here. What’s at stake here are the facts. What’s at stake here is the framework. And I think Mr. Baraka is absolutely right in terms of looking at the framework that informs and constructs the facts, that brings together this symphony of data, and trying to orchestrate it into an intelligible and a coherent treatise that gives us a sense of who Malcolm is.

Here is another short excerpt:

Michael Eric Dyson: Let me—let me finish. That the canon has an impact upon the construction of consciousness. But let me get to the point here. First of all, the deep and profound homophobia and the resistance of certain sectarian interests within African-American culture that refuse to acknowledge the full humanity 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. And it was exaggerated in the autobiography, with his amanuensis Alex Haley. Malcolm exaggerates his hustling itinerary to prove the redemptive power—

Amiri Baraka: You got that from Marable. You got that from Marable.

Michael Eric Dyson:—of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. None of that is being questioned. But when we talk about same-sex activity—and Manning Marable was talking about him as Malcolm Little, not as Malcolm X. He was speaking about what happened before the point of redemption from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.

Amiri Baraka: How does he know that? What is facts?

Ok, I’m going to stop it there. You should read the transcript in its entirety, because it was a humdinger of a discussion! Usually when I listen to these types of debates between renowned scholars, I find myself picking a side and rooting for one or the other. And although I found Dyson’s analysis much more convincing (not to mention, up to date in a purely academic sense), I think that Baraka’s analysis (and the debate/discussion itself) raises important questions about what is truly at stake in this “humanizing” biography, the most important being, “What is Malcolm’s legacy and the future of black (any) activism in the United States?”

Sure, I find Baraka’s analysis problematic in some ways. For instance, at another point in the interview, Baraka discusses his own research on Malcolm and his examination of Malcolm’s FBI files:

Amiri Baraka: …When my wife and I got 3,000 pages from the FBI, which they claim they didn’t have, I had to go to Allen Ginsberg’s lawyer to get that. They charged me 10 cents apiece for the pages. What she said, Amina said this, she said, “Well, look, the stuff they crossed out—we need to worry about the stuff they let you see, because it’s the stuff they let you see that’s going to twist what you think.” And then I just pushed it aside. And I think the same thing. Marable got those tidbits from where? FBI, CIA, New York Police, BOSS, and people that hated him.

Baraka is right, those people probably hated Malcolm, and any good historian should question that source. On the other hand, what makes the sources coming from the people who loved Malcolm– the people who were loyal to him through everything– any less questionable? Do they not also have a vested interest in seeing their leader, friend, or family member portrayed in a particular way? I read the book carefully, and I believe that Marable questioned all of his sources, and he was careful to note in his own narrative the moments where there were either inconsistencies or possible motivations from his sources.

But the questioning of sources in A Life of Reinvention is not about accuracy or “facts.” Instead, I think it is about whether or not portraying Malcolm X as a human being who was fallible undermines the utility of his legacy for African Americans today. Baraka is holding tightly to a legacy of a man who was larger than life, and provides inspiration for many activists even today– Black, White, Asian, Latino, LGBT– and by turning him into a “mere mortal,” we stop thinking about the larger picture of liberation, and instead focus on whether or not he cheated on his wife or had a same sex relationship at some point. I don’t buy it. I think that instead of undermining the understanding and the possibilities of liberation for all communities, the humanization of Malcolm X enhances them. Marable’s portrayal in A Life of Reinvention shows that Malcolm X was a man driven by his experience and the desire to see justice and freedom, and Malcolm’s humanity in the midst of all the tension and violence of the 1950s and 60s demonstrates that even someone as human as you and I can do it too.

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