Malcolm X biography marred by political confusion

by Clay Wadena
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” by Manning Marable. New York, Viking Press. $30.
As a student of Malcolm X’s life and powerful ideas, I eagerly waited for Manning Marable’s new biography “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.” Here, I thought, would be an exhaustive presentation of Malcolm by an academic heavyweight out of Columbia (Marable died April 1, just days before the publication of this book), which would hopefully reveal new insights into the mind of a man who touched millions of lives.
In the prologue Marable tells us that he wrote this book because he felt that the famed “Autobiography of Malcolm X” (which he had used to teach college courses) was inadequate in some areas and inaccurate in others. Marable writes that he aims to go “beyond the legend:  to recount what actually occurred in Malcolm’s life.” And for those who are becoming newly acquainted with Malcolm X’s life and work—who may be hungry for more details regarding Malcolm’s life and assassination—the book may prove to be a useful companion to the “Autobiography.”
But sadly, Marable’s strength—bringing together an astounding amount of details regarding Malcolm’s life—turns into a liability, as it leaves little room for consistent in-depth analysis of Malcolm’s ideas, and makes the book far less engaging than the gripping pages of the “Autobiography.”
Furthermore, especially for those that have long studied Malcolm, the book will likely be disappointing (particularly in the epilogue) due to a politically weak and disjointed analysis on Malcolm’s changing ideas.
The book’s strengths are on display as soon as it begins; Marable weaves the tale of Malcolm’s birth and very early years into the context of the rising movement of Marcus Garvey, for which Malcolm’s father (Earl Little) was a dedicated activist. Marable notes that it was “one of the largest mass movements in black history,” and for readers unfamiliar with the Garvey movement, this will be an excellent introduction. We find out that the Little children were “constantly drilled in the principles of Garveyism, to such an extent they expressed their black nationalist values at school” (p. 29).
Marable gives a similar historical treatment to the Nation of Islam as the book progresses, showing how Malcolm’s siblings urged him to join the NOI in letters and visits while Malcolm was incarcerated. Marable adeptly makes links with the past, writing, “The black nationalist message of racial pride, a rejection of integration, and self-sufficiency rekindled strong connections with the driving faith of his parents” (p. 78).
Here too (while Malcolm was locked up), we see the beginning of Malcolm’s skills as an activist and teacher develop. Marable writes that in prison Malcolm had “committed himself to a rigorous course of study. In doing so, he consciously remade himself into Gramsci’s now famous “organic intellectual,” creating habits that, years later, would become legendary” (p. 90).
Upon Malcolm’s release from prison, Marable describes his meteoric rise within the Nation of Islam due to his amazing ability to organize and recruit. After a few months of work in the Detroit NOI mosque where Malcolm was first active, membership had tripled. Soon Malcolm was an assistant minister and then a minister, and was responsible—in a relatively short time—for establishing four new temples and successfully reviving those in Philadelphia and New York.
Malcolm’s record of tireless work, which Marable documents throughout the book, is an amazing testament of love for his people, and should inspire all activists.
Marable does a skillful job of detailing Malcolm’s growth away from the NOI’s abstentionist politics. Marable repeatedly brings up the instances—such as Malcolm’s response to the police brutality toward Johnson X Hinton and others, which was depicted in Spike Lee’s movie “Malcolm X”—that “set in motion the forces culminating in Malcolm’s inevitable rupture with the Nation of Islam. …
Malcolm knew that the Nation’s future growth depended on its being immersed in the black community’s struggles of daily existence. His evangelism had expanded the NOI’s membership, giving it greater impact, but it was also forcing him to address the problems of non-Muslim black Americans in new ways. Eventually he would have to choose: whether to remain loyal to Elijah Muhammad, or to be ‘on the side of my people’” (p. 129).
This became painfully apparent when Los Angeles police brutally shot down seven NOI members, paralyzing one for life and killing another. Malcolm was livid, and according to Marable, began to assemble a NOI hit squad to retaliate against the LAPD. Elijah Muhammad wouldn’t give his approval to any such move—but even more important, stopped Malcolm from “organizing a black united front against the police in Southern California…” (p. 208).
“Malcolm himself was humiliated by the NOI’s failure to defend its own members. Everything that he had experienced over the previous years—from mobilizing thousands in the streets around Hinton’s beating in 1957 to working with Phillip Randolph to build a local Black united front in 1961-1962—told him that the Nation could protect its members only through joint action with civil rights organizations and other religious groups. … He had become convinced that Elijah Muhammad’s passive position could not be justified. … Political agitation and public protests, along the lines of CORE and SNCC, were essential to challenging institutional racism…” (p. 209).
While discussing Malcolm’s own struggles with tactics and strategies, Marable also details the contours of the debates taking place in the civil rights movement. But the weakness of Marable’s political analysis becomes apparent as he sets up Malcolm’s break from the Nation of Islam.
At this point, Marable guesses at Malcolm’s thought process as the latter examines the NOI’s racial views: “Were Yacub’s History [an important part of the NOI ideology]… false, then people of European descent were not devils to be fought against, but individuals who could oppose racism … a new religious mapping of the world based on orthodox Islam would not necessarily stigmatize or isolate the United States because of its history of slavery and racial discrimination. Instead of a bloody jihad, a holy Armageddon, perhaps America could experience a nonviolent, bloodless revolution. At some point, Malcolm must have pondered the unthinkable:  it was possible to be black, a Muslim, and an American” (p. 285, emphasis in original).
How does an embracing of orthodox Islam, and rejection of Yacub’s History, equate to a lack of stigmatization directed at America for its racial record, or to a nonviolent, bloodless revolution, or to Malcolm perceiving himself as an American? The jumps in logic are confusing.
Marable is similarly confusing in his attempts to explain Malcolm’s views on race. At one point Marable tells us that Malcolm “made his race-neutral views clear” (p. 333), but later he writes, “[Malcolm] did not embrace ‘color blindness’” (p. 484). The reality of Malcolm’s views on these questions is more nuanced than Marable takes the time to explain. It is true that Malcolm had moved beyond Yacub’s history, and the belief that all whites were totally unredeemable, but this didn’t give all white people a free pass in his eyes.
In religious terms this meant that white people could, in fact, become practitioners of Islam. In political terms, Marable quoted Malcolm as pointing to a litmus test as well. Malcolm believed that the white people who had a strong personal commitment to racial inequality were usually “socialists” (p. 336).
Later he quotes Malcolm revealingly: “I firmly believe in my heart,” [Malcolm] declared, that when the black man acts “to use any means necessary to bring about his freedom or put halt to that injustice, I don’t think he’ll be by himself. … I for one will join in with anyone, I don’t care what color you are, as long as you want to change this miserable condition” (p. 391). The understanding implicit in this statement is that the whites who join with Malcolm would also have to adhere to his credo of “by any means necessary.” It is worth noting additionally that Malcolm “characterized U.S. racism as being an inseparable part of the entire political and social system” (p. 412).
Marable implies later that Malcolm was in the process of breaking from Black nationalism. He writes, “By the final months of his life he resisted identification as a “black nationalist,” seeking ideological shelter under the race-neutral concepts of Pan-Africanism and Third World revolutionaries” (p. 485). But this allegation is undermined by Marable’s own work, which cites Malcolm—after being asked by the son-in-law of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood why he failed to see that Islam confirms the oneness and equality of all races—as responding, “As a black American, I do feel that my first responsibility is to my twenty-two million fellow black Americans”  (p. 368).
Marable himself writes, “Despite his newfound reluctance at being described as a black nationalist, Malcolm still perceived political action in distinctly racial categories, which may further explain why he made no moves to integrate his groups” (p. 407). And “Malcolm [in ‘striking contrast’ to MLK] perceived himself first and foremost as a black man. … [He] perceived black Americans as an oppressed nation-within-a-nation, with its own culture, social institutions, and group psychology. … he always thought first and foremost about blacks’ interests” (p. 482).
For some reason, Marable feels the need to separate Malcolm’s politics into an American point of view on one hand and a third world point of view on the other: “Despite his radical rhetoric … the mature Malcolm believed that African Americans could use the electoral system and voting rights to achieve meaningful change. … But outside of the United States … he did not see electoral politics and gradual social change as a viable approach for transforming postcolonial societies. He endorsed revolutionary violence against the apartheid regime in South Africa, and guerrilla warfare against the neocolonial regime in Congo and in the Portuguese colonies of Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique…” (p. 484).
But was Malcolm only a revolutionary when it came to Africa, and then a reformist when it came to America? Marable further confuses us when he writes, “What Malcolm sought was a fundamental restructuring of wealth and power in the United States—not violent social revolution, but radical and meaningful change nevertheless” (p. 483).
Here Marable admits that Malcolm sought fundamental restructuring of wealth and power, but then he states that this excludes violent revolution. Malcolm’s famous credo is “by any means necessary”! What part of “by any means necessary” would lead anyone to believe that Malcolm was ruling any strategy out—either elections or revolution—when it came to his goals?
Had Malcolm been making statements in favor of registering voters and urging voting? Yes. But Marable notes that there was something else among these statements, something that troubled him: “There was a glaring inconsistency in [Malcolm’s] logic. Malcolm was encouraging African Americans to vote … yet simultaneously he accused both major parties of racism. … The African American who habitually voted for the Democrats ‘is not only a chump but a traitor to his race’” (p. 307). And again Marable notes that “[Malcolm] sincerely believed that blacks and other oppressed Americans had to break from the existing two-party system” (p. 405).
The only way that readers might believe there is inconsistency in Malcolm’s logic is if they are bound to one of the major capitalist parties; here Marable doesn’t leave open the possibility that Malcolm was preparing those who looked to him for political guidance to register to vote, but to withhold that vote until they got a candidate that truly represented their interests (or until putting forth a candidate themselves).
In the epilogue to the book Marable turns to the present: “Given the election of Barack Obama, it now raises the question of whether blacks have a separate political destiny from their white fellow citizens. … Malcolm’s vision today would have to radically redefine self-determination and the meaning of black power in a political environment that to many appeared to be “post-racial” (p. 486).
Marable speaks of a “post-racial” society even though impoverished Black communities, prisons overflowing with Blacks, and instances of police brutality are as widespread—if not more so—than during Malcolm’s life.
Marable offers us his view of what Malcolm “certainly” would have said about 9/11, but he doesn’t even wonder what Malcolm would have said, for instance, about hurricane Katrina; the fact that there are more Black men incarcerated, or on parole or probation, than were enslaved in 1850; or that only one in four young Black men in New York City are employed.
If readers are looking for a true representation of Malcolm’s political legacy, they are advised to attend the International Day of Action on Aug. 20, called by the Black is Back Coalition (and endorsed by the United National Antiwar Committee), “where Africans and all others will mobilize in opposition of war on Africa on the continent and African people everywhere else.”
And if readers are hungry for political depth in studying the thought of Malcolm X, they are advised to turn to his own words and George Breitman’s excellent book, “Malcolm X: Evolution of a Revolutionary.”
Marable’s book makes a contribution to our understanding of Malcolm’s political development, but it is marred by the author’s own biases and confusion—especially in regard to the last period of Malcolm’s life, when he “reinvented” himself one last time by striking off in a fully independent direction.
> This article was originally published in the May 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.