Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
By Manning Marable
Viking, $30, 594 pp.
Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America
By Bruce Perry
Station Hill, $18.95, 542 pp.
When Navy SEAL Team 6 recently disposed of Osama bin Laden, the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan called Barack Obama an “assassin.” But according to a new biography of Farrakhan’s mentor, Malcolm X, that just may be the pot calling the kettle … well, you know.
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, one of the summer’s bestselling books, surprisingly is less of a hagiography than one might expect from the recently deceased Manning Marable – a veteran leftie whose website on Malcolm X promoted the idea that the authorities were complicit in his assassination.
Every account of the life of the black militant who became known as Malcolm X follows the same basic outline — a dirt-poor upbringing with parents dedicated to Marcus Garvey’s black separatist movement; a youthful life of foster homes, crime, drugs and general ne’er-do-well activities; a conversion in prison to the Black Muslim movement led by Elijah Muhammad; his rise to being the sect’s most prominent spokesman; a broadening of his message to a more inclusive and orthodox form of Islam after a trip to Africa; and his alienation from and eventual assassination by the NOI.
While Marable’s magnum opus makes a stab at being a “warts and all” objective biography, it doesn’t include all the warts. Still, however, it does examine many of its subject’s flaws.
Marable simply takes too much of the slain Black Muslim leader’s “reinventions” at face value, even though the evidence strongly suggests that the demagogue once known as Malcolm Little was actually reinventing his history.
“Even those who rejected his politics recognized his sincerity,” Marable states. Aside from the obvious point that this is too broad a statement and gives the writer credit for a certain omniscience, it’s also rather meaningless. Does this mean that people who viewed Malcolm X as a hateful, racist demagogue – who meant every word when he hailed a plane crash because it was filled with white people and said JFK’s assassination was white America’s “chickens coming home to roost” – would call him “sincere”?
But this contention typifies Marable’s approach of taking Malcolm X at face value. This would be more forgivable had not most of the contradictions of Malcolm’s life been authoritatively covered in Bruce Perry’s acclaimed 1991 biography, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America.
Perhaps the stark difference between the books can best be illustrated by how the authors treat the supposed firebombing of Malcolm X’s house just a few days before his assassination.
Marable takes Malcolm at his word that he and his family were sleeping when Molotov cocktails were thrown at the house in the middle of the night. The author creates a façade of objectivity by mentioning all the possibilities of who set the fire: enraged white racists (as Malcolm claimed), the NOI as many suspected, or Malcolm X himself, as the police and fire investigators mostly believed. Marable firmly points his finger at the NOI and ridicules those who thought Malcolm X staged the firebombing for effect simply “because an exploded bottle of gasoline was found in the baby’s room.”
But what Marable fails to mention is that the fire inspectors claimed said the bottle was standing upright on the baby’s dresser, without even a wick in it.
Perry, meanwhile, asks a question that apparently did not trouble Marable: “Could a gasoline filled bottle land unbroken and upright after penetrating a window, a storm window and drawn venetian blinds?”
More importantly, Perry also connects this incident to another in Malcolm’s early life. His father, Earl Little, once claimed the house he was about to be evicted from was burned down by the racists who were enforcing a color code in the property deed.
Like his father, Malcolm had also just lost a court fight to stay in the house, which was owned by the Nation of Islam. Both the parallel of the other house fire in his subject’s life and the question of why the NOI would burn down a house it was about to regain possession of (something that also troubled inspectors in Earl Little’s case) seem to have escaped Marable.
Although each book has its strengths and weaknesses, the value of Perry’s book is it spends nearly three times as much time as Marable on Little’s life before he became Malcolm X. This enables Perry — and the reader – to examine patterns in Malcolm’s life that show while the facade may have changed, the man may not have, or at least not as much as his promoters would have us believe.
While he makes some attempts to pierce the “masks” Little constructed for himself on his way to becoming Malcolm X — and the past he reconstructed for himself along the way — Marable takes a more postmodern approach to the character, admiring how the autobiographical narrative appealed to “black folk culture”— presumably, whether or not it was true.
According to Marable, the Malcolm X character was effective as “the embodiment of the two central figures of African-American folk culture, simultaneously the hustler/trickster and the preacher/minister.”
In the same passage, Marable writes that Malcolm exaggerated his criminal past as “Detroit Red” in order to present “an allegory documenting the destructive consequences of racism within the U.S. criminal justice and penal system. Self invention was an effective way for him to reach the most marginalized sectors of the black community, giving justification to their hopes.”
The problem with that lofty justification is that Malcolm Little exaggerated his criminal past while he was still openly a huckster in order to gain street cred in the lawless world he inhabited.
As Perry illustrates time and time again, Malcolm X’s stories about his past became whatever he needed them to be in order to further his present.
In his introduction to Malcolm, Perry states:
“One cannot adequately understand the adult, political Malcolm without thoroughly understanding the youthful Malcolm and the legacy that was bequeathed to him by the people who raised him. … Despite his efforts to attribute his unhappiness and his youthful delinquency solely to white ‘society,’ they originated largely in his conflict-ridden home.”
And that is the key difference between the two books. Marable gives credence to any charge of racism or racist actions against Malcolm or his family because it fits his world view. Perry holds each claim up to scrutiny and, more often than not, finds it wanting.
Thus, in the case of Earl Little’s death in Lansing, Michigan, Marable is willing to at least grant plausibility to the notion that Malcolm’s abusive and unfaithful father was killed by the Black Legion, an Ohio-based KKK-like group, because Malcolm and a few people in “oral histories” (a convenient term for rumors one wants to grant credibility) say it was so.
Marable thinks it’s a major counterpoint to the police theory of accidental death(and pretentiously calls it “forensic reconstruction” of the coroner’s narrative) merely to say that because Earl Little told the wife he was constantly cheating on that he was going one place and ended up dead in another, it raises sinister suspicions about the official story.
Perry thoroughly debunks these notions, showing it is far more likely that Earl Little was drunk and fell under the wheels of the streetcar he was trying to board. He also makes a strong case that the so-called Black Legion’s exploits in Michigan were largely, if not totally, mythical.
Unfortunately, the truth doesn’t always make for a compelling story of a lifetime of oppression and persecution by the white man, which is precisely the difference in the approach of the two books. Perry shows that Malcolm was his own worst enemy in both his public and private lives, while Marable is willing to present many of his subject’s contradictions but is heavily invested in the persecution narrative of American history, thus willing to grant credibility to some fairly unpersuasive stories.
Even when relating less-than-stellar moments in Malcolm’s life, Marable tends to shy away from details that might damage the iconic image. For instance, both authors tell the story about how Malcolm was part of a penny-ante burglary gang, and he was arrested because he arranged to have a stolen watch repaired in a shop where he had peddled stolen goods.
Only Perry, however, reports the telling detail that would have featured Malcolm in a Jay Leno “Stupid Criminals” segment: The thief filled out the redemption ticket for the watch under his own name.
This, however, does not mean that Marable’s book is without substantial merits. Marable was granted extraordinary access to Nation of Islam archives and even a lengthy interview with Farrakhan himself —and the NOI is decidedly not rewarded for its generosity. Readers, however, are.
Farrakhan was not on Perry’s radar, but Calypso Louis Walcott, aka Louis X and Louis Farrakhan, played a major role in the NOI as an up-and-coming leader under Malcolm X, and he is a critical part of Marable’s narrative — particularly that of Malcolm’s assassination.
Still, the notion that Farrakhan was at least culpable of guilt by encouragement is hardly news. Over the years, depending on his mood, he has both bragged about and repented for that fact in several public statements.
While Perry leaves no doubt that Malcolm was a lousy husband, his wife, Betty Shabazz, is a far more vivid character in Marable’s book. Marable also establishes Malcolm’s pattern of finding a reason to take a long trip immediately after the birth of each of his children. He also relates the previously unreported tidbit that Malcolm confessed to Elijah Muhammad that he was unable to satisfy his wife sexually.
However, Perry spends a lot more time with Malcolm’s troubled history with women, including his dabbling with homosexual prostitution. While Marable accepts Malcolm’s bragging that he was a hound dog and ladies man in his youth as fact, Perry paints a picture of a sexually confused young man, which makes his unsatisfactory performance as a husband unsurprising, to say the least.
Somewhat oddly, Marable blames the factual distortions that appeared in The Autobiography of Malcolm X on co-author Alex Haley, to whom he constantly refers as “an integrationist Republican” as though that were indictment enough. Marable, however, mostly accepts Autobiography‘s real errors in fact — at least the ones that support his political point of view – even though they had been refuted by Perry.
Marable’s primary interest in his subject as a political figure pays dividends in his detailing of Malcolm’s infighting within the NOI and his embrace of Pan-Africanism. Marable appears to be correct to claim Malcolm X for the Left, not primarily because of the Black Power movement but because of his Pan-Africanism involvement.
Both books stand in contrast to Spike Lee’s movie Malcolm X, which paints his famed pilgrimage to Mecca as the epiphanal moment that caused him to re-evaluate his separatist and racialist views.
In truth, Malcolm had recognized the limitations of that appeal long before any of his trips abroad. He had made public statements moving in that direction, although he continued to make inflammatory rhetorical flourishes among the faithful to keep them fired up long after his return from his pilgrimage.
Even Marable, who vaunts Malcolm’s supposed “sincerity,” admits that much.
Marable’s account of Malcolm X’s assassination is told with a little more storytelling flourish, as Perry is a little more Joe Friday with his just-the-facts approach. It’s after the assassination where the two books really part ways.
Perry, as usual, sticks with established facts and the public record. One of the selling points of Marable’s book is supposedly breaking new ground on analyzing the murder and its prosecution. But while Marable’s (mostly couched) conclusions may be sensational, his bases for them are thin gruel, indeed.
For instance, Marable implies that the police were complicit in or at least indifferent about the assassination, using as “proof” that undercover officers had been placed within the NOI and around Malcolm X. But police and federal agencies are notorious for never risking their undercover assets to the point of rendering them useless to their purported task.
Marable’s explanation of the alleged police indifference is typical of the innuendo that permeates the book whenever he wants the reader to believe something for which evidence is sketchy:
“The deep skepticism about the NYPD’s unprofessional behavior was not without merit. Most street cops were contemptuous of Malcolm, whom they considered a dangerous racist demagogue. Many believed that Malcolm had firebombed his own house in some kind of publicity stunt. Besides, they thought, given Malcolm’s incendiary rhetoric, it was inevitable that the black leader would be struck down by the very violence he had promoted. Most police officers generally treated this murder case not as a significant political assassination, but as a neighborhood shooting in the dark ghetto, a casualty from two rival black gangs feuding against each other.” [emphasis added]
Gee, what would make the cops think that? Evidence? Observation?
Both authors strain to try to tell readers why Malcolm X matters. The fact is, when he died, Malcolm X may have been the most famous Black Muslim in the United States, but after he split from the NOI, his coterie of followers wasn’t exactly growing by leaps and bounds.
Perry compares Malcolm to Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated in 1961 weeks after becoming prime minister, but in 1991, when Perry’s book came out, that probably had more readers scratching their heads and asking “Who?” Current readers are even less likely to remember a slain Pan-African leader who was killed 50 years ago.
Marable’s comparison of Malcolm to Che Guevara is probably more apt, but not for the reasons he puts forward:
“At that moment, Guevara was perhaps Malcolm’s closest analogue on the world stage, a relentless supporter of the struggles of oppressed people and a committed revolutionary. Like Malcolm he was deeply concerned about ongoing and recent events in Africa. …”
While Malcolm was not directly responsible for thousands of deaths or relegating millions of those he supposedly was trying to help to brutal oppression, he does have one thing in common with the Cuban revolutionary. Their similarity? Che and Malcolm today are more T-shirt icons than historical figures whose lives and legacies are portrayed with any attempt at accuracy in the popular culture.
Neither author buys into the fallacy that Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr. were moving in one another’s direction and would have presented a united front that would have defeated racism for all time had they only lived longer.
As Hampton Sides vividly relates in Hellhound on his Trail, King, having accomplished his goals of tearing down government barriers to integration, was moving past race as his primary focus and pursuing a broader agenda of a vaguely European-style socialist movement for all of America’s poor. In fact, when he was shot, King was in Memphis not over a racial issue but to support a garbage workers’ union strike.
While Malcolm may have softened his rhetoric somewhat, race was still his primary focus; he was just trying to move to an international stage.
Marable is convinced this is an important and lasting legacy:
“Malcolm also changed the discourse and politics of race internationally. During a period when many African-American leaders were preoccupied with efforts to change federal and state policies about race relations, Malcolm saw that for the domestic struggle for civil rights to succeed, it had to be expanded into an international campaign for human rights. The United Nations, not the U.S. Congress or the White House, had to be the central forum.”
To call this argument a stretch is to overrate its connection to reality. Marable, of course, gives no examples of how the U.N. has affected race relations in the United States because none exists.
But Marable is not done with overstatement:
“Finally, and most important, Malcolm X represents the most important bridge between the American people and more than one billion Muslims throughout the world.”
His evidence of this? Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a postage stamp in featuring Malcolm X in 1984 to commemorate “the Universal Day of Struggle Against Race Discrimination.” No, I am not kidding.
Marable gives no indication that he sees any irony there despite a long discussion earlier in the book condemning Malcolm’s efforts to reach out to another anti-Semitic group, the Klu Klux Klan. (Like boxer Muhammad Ali, Malcolm admired their stance on race mixing and intermarriage.)
But, as they say in infomercials, wait – there’s more! Did you know that American Talibanist John Walker Lindh’s “spiritual advisor Shakeel Syed is convinced Lindh could ‘become the new Malcolm X’”? Or how about al Qaeda videos that have proclaimed Barack Obama a “`race traitor’ and ‘hypocrite’ when compared to Malcolm X’”?
For sheer invention, though, it’s hard to beat Marable’s assertion that the man who left the Nation of Islam to pursue a Pan-African version of traditional Islam really was moving toward the “politics of radical humanism,” based on the recounting of one conversation with author James Baldwin. Marable writes:
“(Malcolm’s) gentle humanism and antiracism could have become a platform for a new kind of radical global ethnic politics. Instead of the fiery symbol of ethnic violence and religious hatred, as al-Qaeda might project him, Malcolm X should become a representative for hope and human dignity. At least for the African-American people, he has already come to embody those loftier aspirations.” [emphasis added]
Ultimately, the only thing more fictional than Malcolm X’s own accounts of his past are the attempts made by the agenda-driven—like Manning Marable– to fashion an important and positive legacy for him in the present.