Saturday, April 9, 2011
Malcolm X: What He Might Have Become
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. By Manning Marable. Viking Adult; 592 pages; $30. Allen Lane; £30. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
MALCOLM LITTLE had several names before his life ended in assassination in a New York theatre in 1965. As a youthful hustler, petty thief and drug-dealer he was “Detroit Red”. As a pious Sunni Muslim he became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. But in most memories he remains Malcolm X, the charismatic public face of the Nation of Islam, which preached that whites were devils and that black separatism was the answer to America’s problems of race.
Whatever the name, Malcolm’s short life (he was slain at 39) makes a fascinating story and is told well by Manning Marable, director of Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies, who sadly died a few days before his book was published this week. The fascination lies in the evolution of Malcolm’s beliefs: from the black nationalism and pan-Africanism of Marcus Garvey through the black separatism of the Nation of Islam to the colour-blind embrace of orthodox Islam. The tale includes the burning down of Malcolm’s childhood home, the ruthless brutality of Nation of Islam thugs, the sexual philandering of the Nation’s spiritual leader, Elijah Muhammad, and the enthusiasm with which political and religious elites embraced Malcolm on his trips to Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
* African-American issues
* Race relations
* Social issues
Some of this detail comes from “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, related by Malcolm to Alex Haley (later to become famous as the author of “Roots”) and published just after Malcolm’s death. But Mr Marable argues that the autobiography was more of a memoir—hence the exaggeration of the young Malcolm’s involvement in hard-core crime—than a solid exercise in objective fact. Rather than rely on the autobiography, Mr Marable has scoured contemporary press clippings in America, Europe and Africa. He has benefited, too, from the recent release to the public of hundreds of Malcolm’s letters, photographs and texts of speeches.
Malcolm was only one of the prominent black figures in America’s turbulent racial politics of the early 1960s. John Lewis, now a member of the House of Representatives, was organising the Freedom Riders in an attempt to register black voters in the American South; Martin Luther King was preaching non-violence in the black quest for civil rights; and Stokely Carmichael, one of the Freedom Riders but soon to join the Black Panther Party, was becoming impatient with non-violence and coining the slogan “black power”.
It was Malcolm, however, who appealed most to poor blacks, rural and urban alike: “Impoverished African Americans could admire Dr King, but Malcolm not only spoke their language, he had lived their experiences—in foster homes, in prisons, in unemployment lines,” writes Mr Marable. The question was how Malcolm would use this appeal.
He was originally Elijah Muhammad’s favoured disciple, but his attraction to politics did not fit with the Nation’s refusal to be involved in the civil-rights movement. By early 1964 Malcolm had formally left the Nation. The estrangement was both personal, thanks to the jealousy Malcolm had provoked at the Nation’s headquarters, and ideological: his conversion to orthodox Islam was at odds with the heresies of the Nation (not only did Elijah Muhammad claim to be a new prophet but the Nation’s founder, Wallace Fard, had claimed to be the personification of Allah).
Was the Nation responsible for Malcolm’s murder? Its leaders denied any link, but Louis Farrakhan, later to become the Nation’s leader on the death of Elijah Muhammad, had declared in December 1964 that: “Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death.” As Mr Marable notes: “This code phrase was a call to arms within the sect.” The conviction of three men from the Nation failed to silence sceptics who suspected police and FBI complicity.
Mr Marable avoids judgment on the assassination. Instead he examines Malcolm’s legacy. Whereas King appeared on an American stamp and has a national holiday in his honour, Malcolm appeared on an Iranian stamp and has been lauded by al-Qaeda. Mr Marable speculates on what might have been if Malcolm had lived: “As his social vision expanded to include people of divergent nationalities and racial identities, his gentle humanism and antiracism could have become a platform for a new kind of radical, global ethnic politics.” Maybe. Yet some may feel that this conclusion rests more on the author’s wishful thinking than on the reality of the life he describes so well.
from the print edition | Books and Arts
Marable, The Economist