“Malcolm X – A Life of Reinvention,” by Manning Marable, 2011
Manning Marable’s last book corrects some of the inadequacies of the “Autobiography of Malcolm X,” by republican Alex Haley, and also indirectly Spike Lee’s movie, “Malcolm X” - which used the Autobiography as its guide. Lee ate ‘whole’ the work of a black Republican. Which is like trusting a segregationist southern conservative like Robert Penn Warren to write a fully honest book about Huey Long, a southern radical populist. (See review of "All the Kings Men,' below.) Both Malcolm and Long were assassinated in reality, and later, in print.
Overall, this book sheds new light on Malcolm – shorting the criminal experience, unlike Haley or Lee, and going into great depth into Malcolm’s last year, when he traveled to Africa and the Middle East. Marable had access to Malcolm’s diary, and this obviously gives the book a wider dimension during this period and earlier. Marable delves more deeply into the political changes wracking Malcolm, and its corrosive effect on the two small groups he started after leaving the Nation of Islam – the political OAUU and the Islamic MMI. He describes the conflicts between the two, and the middle-class character of the OAUU at its outset. Marable focuses on Malcolm’s strategy of bringing the U.S. before the U.N. on charges of racism, which was obviously of great concern to the U.S. government. He is also not shy in mentioning Malcolm’s ties with the Socialist Workers Party and George Breitman. Marable points out that much of Malcolm's travels were paid for by conservative Saudi religious organizations, which was a revelation to me. And from a personal point of view, Marable paints the wedded relationship between Malcolm and Betty as awful. Betty basically raised 6 children mostly alone.
The 'headlines' on this book refer to its description of Malcolm's supposed homosexual and out-of-wedlock encounters, all of which are thinly sourced and for the most part irrelevant. But that is all the Right can talk about.
Figures like Amiri Baraka and others find both factual and interpretive errors in this book. (25 factual errors according to Herb Boyd.) Baraka is the most vociferous in claiming Marable, a social democrat, tries to make Malcolm into a less revolutionary figure, and more like a social-democrat. Of course, Malcolm is one of those people who act like a mirror to the beholder. Baraka also questions the inclusion of interviews with Nation of Islam members, who hated Malcolm. Marable does say at one point that Malcolm had moved away from defensive ‘violence,’ towards a more traditional position of supporting voting rights only, which was obviously untrue. Nor does Marable dwell on the social or economic consequences of following “Pan-African” socialism in the United States. This was the philosophy that Malcolm adopted after revolutionary black nationalism seemed somewhat limited to him. Nor does Marable dig deeper into government ties with Malcolm’s assassins. Marable does point out that Malcolm believed Black people needed their own political party, and could not work through either the Democrats or the Republicans. Which would be hard for a social-democrat to swallow, of course, so this reflects an honest portrayal.
What strikes one most strongly in this book is Malcolm's class character. Malcolm X / Malcolm Little was a proponent of the ‘field negro.’ And what this means is that he eventually came into conflict with both the petit-bourgeois leaders of the traditional civil-rights movement, AND also with the petit-bourgeois leadership of the Nation of Islam (NOI/Nation). The NOI was really a partial continuation of the Marcus Garvey movement, and in the 50s and early 60s a repository, in its odd way, of black nationalism. But it was a conservative movement, mired in religion (mirroring the Christianity it was born out of) and really focused on starting small black businesses. The petit-bourgeoisie has two wings, and the Nation was the wing of the proprietor, not of the academic / preacher / non-profit operator. The black masses, who were neither owners nor had a sinecure at a church or university, had a spokesman in Malcolm, who owned nothing and never graduated from high school. In a basic sense, Malcolm was a proponent of the black proletariat.
Marable exposes the real character of the NOI in the book. They were culturally odd – for instance only allowing members to eat once a day; regressive when it came to the issue of women; their leaders were secretly addicted to money; they were outside the normal Islamic theology, and most prominently, they were violent towards their own members. Two sons of Elijah Muhammad rejected the NOI’s weird theology for a more traditional Islamic interpretation, as did Malcolm. Members caught smoking weed or tobacco, or committing other petty infractions – like eating more than once a day – were beaten by the Fruit of Islam (FOI). The Fruit was the internal security apparatus of the Nation. However, it seems to rarely have been consciously used against anyone but NOI or former NOI members to keep them in line. Some of the assassins of Malcolm were from the Newark FOI. Sometimes the NOI/FOI instinctively defended themselves from police attacks. But the Fruit was not used consciously or pro-actively against the police (which Malcolm wanted to do in Los Angeles after Nation members were killed by police, but was forbidden by Elijah Muhammad) nor against white racists, or other reactionaries.
Malcolm was converted to the NOI in prison not by an Nation member there, but by his own family, which had joined in Detroit, and who later denounced him after he left the Nation. The man he met in prison was a non-Muslim, an atheist, who encouraged him to read about black issues. The biggest point of conjecture over Malcolm is what would have happened if he’d come to politics in some other way than the through the Nation, which was both an energizing and crippling form of political birth.
Lastly, the assassination. Marable goes into greater detail on the assassination. Every group should study it, for it is a textbook of mistakes and methods. Everyone in the MMI/OAAU thought that audience members coming to the event at the Audubon needed to be frisked. Only Malcolm disagreed, and here was the essentially anti-democratic and personalist nature of the organizations, because he overruled his supporters. Malcolm’s inexperienced security detail was instead scattered about, not in front of the stage. When a diversion happened in the back rows, they moved towards it. This left Malcolm alone on stage, with no bullet-proof vest and no protected podium. The shooter just had to stand up, step forward, and shoot, with no one in front of him.
Police infiltrators in Malcolm’s group had found out that there would be no check for weapons at this meeting, and this information was obviously transmitted to the Nation somehow. The police escort that was usually present disappeared from the front of the building, and the officers in the building were in another ballroom. The ‘official’ ambulance took a half-hour to arrive, even though there is a hospital across the street, and Malcolm’s men eventually had to get a gurney themselves. Police allowed a dance to occur that night only 4 hours after the shooting, and effectively destroyed much crime scene evidence in doing this. Only one of the real shooters was captured, and two other men not connected to the crime were convicted with no evidence. In other words, most of the real assassins were not pursued, much like the other political murders in the US in the 60s. The police work was a transparent joke.
Marable does not delve deeply into government/FBI/CIA involvement in the assassination, other than showing they provided information to the NOI and possibly shielded the real assassins. The government in this case evidently did not need their own assassins, but knew they could count on Nation members being enraged over Malcolm’s focus on Elijah Muhammad's sex scandals. I understand the FBI had an agent in the New Jersey mosque which committed the hit, and that agent could have quietly guided the NOI men involved. Any further information on this topic would be appreciated
Altogether a must read to further your understanding of Malcolm Little and the black revolutionary movement of the 60s and today.
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, May 21, 2011