New book on Malcolm X aims to fill gap between myth and legend

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zainab Cheema

Rajab 29, 1432 2011-07-01

Book Review

by Zainab Cheema (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 5, Rajab, 1432)

Considered already by many to be a definitive work, Professor Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York, 2011; 594 pages; hbk. $30.00) is reviewed for CI by staff writer Zainab Cheema.

If you are familiar with Malcolm X, the Muslim civil rights activist who was assassinated in February 1965, it is a safe bet that you know him through The Autobiography of Malcolm X authored by Alex Haley or the Spike Lee film. The starting premise of a new biography by Columbia professor Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, is that those two famous sources are compelling works of narration rather than fact. His densely researched biography hopes to occupy the gap between myth and legend, using newly available archives to flesh out the charismatic figure who still manages to arrest generations beyond the grave.

Before reviewing the biography itself, it should be noted that the irony of life imitating art proves true for Marable’s own life. Devoting a book on a man who famously raced against time to develop into a leader with transcontinental appeal, Manning himself succumbed to his long-standing lung condition three days before the April 4, 2011 book launch. Marable is one of the most prominent academics of African American and race studies, having written and edited 24 books. His colleague, Princeton University’s Cornel West, calls Marable a “grand radical democratic intellectual.” Like the Autobiography itself, Marable’s decade-long project is now poised to take on a posthumous life after the author’s passing. A Life of Reinvention has received mostly positive reviews, and is making a significant intervention in Malcolm X’s reception in public and scholarly circles.

While Haley’s Autobiography is a compelling text on many levels, Marable stresses that it is a work of representation emerging in collaboration between two very different men. Firstly, Malcolm condenses events from his past for narrative coherence, changes names to protect confidentiality—and hides a few skeletons. Haley’s own slant on the story must also be considered. Marable takes issue with Alex Haley’s efforts to show Malcolm X as becoming more “integrationist” with the US system towards the end of his life, a reflection of the writer’s own liberal Republican beliefs.

Haley held no sympathy with Malcolm’s political conviction that the system must be challenged, but was fascinated with him as an African-American “demagogue.” The friendship between the two men indeed generated a “powerful book,” as Haley calls it, but it is a fact that Haley retained significant editorial control over the work. Case in point, Malcolm X wasn’t allowed to revise his earlier chapters on Elijah Muhammad after the split because Haley believed it would mar the book’s “dramatic impact”.

Marable’s research benefits from additional archives available to him: newly released FBI documents revealing the extent to which they infiltrated the Nation of Islam (NOI) and other black organizations, and the scale of their surveillance against Malcolm; interviews from top-level members of the Nation, including current minister Louis Farrakhan that reveal the dynamics between Malcolm and the NOI before and after the split. Also to note is that as a radical black scholar, Marable places strong emphasis on the growth and development of Malcolm’s politics, and the role played by Islam within his political evolution. These elements were downplayed in the Autobiography, perhaps because Haley was not really interested in either.

When narrating his beginnings to Haley as the NOI’s star minister, Malcolm tends to overemphasize the lowly condition from which he emerged, in order to emphasize the transformative power of the Nation. Marable capably describes the formative impact of his childhood, particularly the influence of his parents and their Garveyist beliefs. Louise and Earl Little were a politically aware couple drawn together by a common interest in social justice. Both were devoted followers of Marcus Garvey, the early 20th-century Caribbean reformer who advocated that African Americans must uplift themselves through self-pride and the necessity for blacks to establish their own businesses and institutions. Malcolm’s desire to align himself with Asia and Africa during and after his tenure with the Nation of Islam, and his profound belief in black self-determination derived in great measure from Garvey’s belief that blacks should separate themselves from whites and return to their native lands where they could uplift themselves as “mighty race.”

The chapters on Malcolm’s childhood place strong emphasis on his relationship with his parents, and the repercussions they would have on his personal and political life. Malcolm would accompany his father to various Garveyite advocacy meetings, while his mother taught her children language skills by making him and his siblings read aloud Garvey newspapers. Louise, a beautiful Grenadan woman fluent in both French and English, even taught her children the French alphabet. According to Marable, Malcolm’s lifelong fascination with words can be traced back to his mother.

Louise’s nervous breakdown, following Earl Little’s murder and her attempts to hold together her family for years in an antagonistic white community, had a powerful impact on her precocious child. His shame at her mental illness, coupled with his relations with an Armenian white woman called Bea Cargulian (Sophia) with a fetish for black men, implanted a strong distrust of women after he became a NOI Minister. (In the Autobiography, he famously tells Alex Haley that “all women by their nature are fragile and weak” and that he only trusts his wife Betty 70%).

A Life of Reinvention is perhaps most engaging when describing the pre-NOI years, when Malcolm went from “Sandwich Red” who would play the buffoon — as whites would expect blacks to behave — on his railway job, to the “Detroit Red” making his mark as a hustler, gangster, and thief in the colorful black underworld of Boston and New York. Marable brings in contemporary African American scholarship on the idea of “performance” or self-invention to illustrate the underlying motif of the book: Malcolm remaking himself over the course of his life from the trickster in African American folktales to the speaker or truth-sayer, creatively integrating the narratives he was familiar with from the African American community with new ideas and beliefs encountered on the global stage.

Marable describes the impact of music in the jazz clubs frequented by Detroit Red on the transnational activist Malik El-Shabazz. Gifted with an excellent tenor voice, Malcolm “[came] into maturity during the big band era.” He picked up on the “cadence and percussive sounds of jazz music, and inevitably his evolved speaking style borrowed its cadences” (p. 91). The widely storied charisma that he unleashed in verbal delivery was first trained in Harlem’s jazz and entertainment clubs.

Marable also illustrates that Islam was part of the national landscape while he served as the NOI star minister, and that his exposure to Islam was a fundamental catalyst driving him from the Nation and toward political activism. The Ahmadis already had a large presence in the United States, and despite his own deviations, Elijah Muhammad also saw the Nation as part of the broader Muslim Ummah, calling African Americans “Asiatic blacks.”

In addition, the Nation, in the years following Malcolm’s national prominence, hosted diplomats visiting New York from a number of Muslim countries. A network of scholars, diplomats, and foreign students studying in the United States advised the NOI to move away from its racism to Islamic universalism. Elijah Muhammad was unwilling to abandon NOI mythology due to the status and wealth that his position as self-proclaimed “Messenger of Allah” brought him. Malcolm would not initially, out of personal loyalty, contradict the ideology (including the bizarre Yacub myth) of the man he credited as opening for him a new life.

Marable generally displays a solid grasp of Islamic ‘aqeedah in navigating the differences between NOI and Islam proper, thanks in large part to the input of Columbia graduate student Zaheer Ali. The Nation attracted a number of African Americans and Malcolm himself through its Garveyite call for blacks to separate from exploitative economic and social structures run by whites, and to lift themselves and their community by supporting Nation businesses. However, this soon translated into extortion for the sake of enriching Elijah Muhammad — Temple officers were told to pressure individual members of the Nation into selling as many as 150 copies of the Nation newspaper Muhammad Speaks, at the threat of excommunication or worse.

Marable illustrates how brutal the organizational machinery of the Nation grew over time. In order to maintain power, the Nation relied on keeping its members separated from the world. Malcolm, however, couldn’t separate himself from the real world predicament of blacks facing a racist society, which paved the way for the point of no return. The Fruit of Islam, the black militia formed to protect Nation members, began to harass, brutally beat up, and even kill members suspected of resisting Nation authority. The book describes the dynamics of Malcolm’s relationship with key NOI officials and captains, illustrating the networks from which he gained his most bitter enemies and devoted supporters following the NOI split. These include Joseph Gravitt, captain of the Fruit; Benjamin Goodman, his faithful supporter; and Louis Walcott (later Louis Farrakhan) who he mentored, only to see him occupy his position in the NOI. The final chapter looks at how US law enforcement agencies and antagonistic members of the NOI might have worked together in his assassination.

As A Life of Reinvention makes clear, Islam was a catalyst for Malcolm’s political beliefs, not just the endpoint. The insular strands of Malcolm’s Nation thinking would inevitably conflict with his growing savvy in mobilizing the black street, his increasing solidarity with Asian and African countries undergoing anti-colonial struggles, and his contact with both Islamic globalism and other colleagues in the civil rights movement. Elijah Muhammad had made Hajj and his son, Akbar Muhammad, had studied Islam at Al-Azhar, signposting the journeys that Malcolm himself would take in one of the most distressing periods of his life.

Islam and his deep-rooted Garveyism worked together in encouraging him to craft an internationalist platform for justice. And Marable shows that while Malcolm pilloried figures like A. Philip Randolph, the black labor leader, as integrationist Uncle Toms, he also worked closely with some of them. Randolph appointed Malcolm to his Working Committee for Unity in Action, while he was a Nation minister; and according to Marable, the two men shared a strong respect for one another.

The book also pays attention to his interactions with the media and analyzes his speeches, charting his rise as a national figure. As Malcolm increasingly engaged with the civil rights movement, he began to shape it — delivering speeches to black activists and college students, he began to electrify young activists, including members of the Black Panther Party and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), influencing them toward militant grassroots mobilization against unjust power rather than working with the system at the top. After embracing Islam and broadening his platform of activism to the Pan-African world, he became a magnet for young activists wanting to contribute to issues, especially bright women. These included the famous poet Maya Angelou, who helped organize his visits to Ghana and who moved to Harlem to work with his Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) the weekend before his assassination.

The book spends time sketching out his two trips to the Middle East and Africa before he was killed, illustrating the extensive network of contacts he built. Malcolm developed political connections with heads of state, like President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. He visited and gave lectures in Beirut, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Lagos, Egypt, Kuwait, Zanzibar, Tanzania and other locations, where he also wrote articles about US racism in newspapers and developed an international network of relationships with students, intellectuals, and leaders.

This meant that when Malcolm began to mobilize foreign governments to charge the US before the United Nations for violating African Americans’ human rights, he actually began to have the clout to pull it off. Marable also describes how he built a strong affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, first establishing contacts with their Beirut branches and then engaging with their Cairo center. Malcolm studied Arabic for several months in Cairo, and received religious instruction from the Brotherhood. He corresponded with Said Ramadan. His ties with Cairo and Saudi Arabia resulted in his being appointed the World Islamic League’s US representative, and being awarded 35 fellowships for students interested in studying Islam abroad.

But even as he developed spiritually and politically, he had yet to educate his fledging organizations, the Muslim Mosque Incorporated and OAAU to follow the new direction. “Malcolm’s great strength was his ability to speak on behalf of those whom society and state had denied a voice due to racial prejudice,” writes Marable,”[h]e could now see the possibility of a future without racism for his people, but what he cold not anticipate were the terrible dangers closest to him, in the form of both betrayal and death” (p. 520). Marable also speculates that as Malcolm learned more about Islam, he may have been inspired by the story of Imam Husayn (d), the Prophet’s grandson, in making “a conscious decision not to avoid or escape death” (p. 430). The final chapter attempts to engage in detective work surrounding his assassination, but it is perhaps not as successful — it tends to get bogged down in minutia and micro-details rather than laying out a comprehensive picture for the reader.

There are some decided flaws in the book. The first is that it is too heavy on facts without setting them within an analytical framework. At times, it reads like a chronology of events that the reader is obliged to slough through. There are illuminating revelations about Malcolm X, but the author makes a few speculations about his personal life that cannot be backed up by evidence. For instance, he uses a rather vague diary entry by Malcolm to suggest that extramarital relations with a woman called Fifi had taken place while he was touring Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Marable also portrays a strained and ultimately, unhappy relationship between Betty and Malcolm. Readers are given a look into the hardship and loneliness borne by Betty, who married a man living the life of an inveterate traveler and who was away for longer spans of time than he was present. These observations certainly have weight. However, Ilyasah Shabazz and other children have portrayed a different kind of relationship that may not register in a researcher’s field notes. Also, Marable’s interviews with protégé and later rival, Louis Farrakhan, while useful for sketching out Malcolm’s relationship with the NOI, should not be taken as an authority when describing his personal life and character.

Overall, A Life in Reinvention displays intensive research and admirably fills in the gaps that must be present in any autobiography. It skillfully sets up the social and political context for the events in Malcolm X’s life. The book places a much-needed emphasis on politics rather that just personal history, and shows the catalyzing influence of Islam on the extraordinary activist. Marable is sympathetic toward Malcolm and his causes of militant organization and Pan-Africanism, which benefits his scholarship. A Life in Reinvention redresses the slant of other biographies that tend to focus on scandal and sensationalism in order to denigrate a figure still viewed as controversial. Certainly, there are weaknesses in narrative power and dramatic intensity that the Autobiography captures so well. There are also a few interpretations that seem more speculation than fact. Marable’s swan song should be seen, not as a replacement for the Autobiography, but an important supplement that helps round out the life of a man who still seems compelled to speak beyond the grave.

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