Author Topic: MALCOLM X: A LIFE OF REINVENTION  (Read 1999 times)

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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« on: April 07, 2011, 09:04:33 am »

Published: April 7, 2011
He was a master of reinvention who had as many names as he did identities: Malcolm Little, Homeboy, Jack Carlton, Detroit Red, Big Red, Satan, Malachi Shabazz, Malik Shabazz, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and, most famously, Malcolm X. A country bumpkin who became a zoot-suited entertainer who became a petty criminal who became a self-taught intellectual who became a white-hating black nationalist who became a follower of orthodox Islam who became an international figure championing “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people.”


A Life of Reinvention

By Manning Marable

Illustrated. 594 pages. Viking. $30.

In his revealing and prodigiously researched new biography, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” Manning Marable — a professor at Columbia University and the director of its Center for Contemporary Black History, who died just last week — vividly chronicles these many incarnations of his subject, describing the “multiple masks” he donned over the years, while charting the complex and contradiction-filled evolution of his political and religious beliefs. The book draws from diaries, letters, F.B.I. files, Web resources and interviews with members of Malcolm X’s inner circle.

This volume does not provide much psychological insight into why Malcolm X became such a protean figure (or why he needed to distance “his inner self from the outside world”), and it lacks the urgency and fierce eloquence of Malcolm X’s own “Autobiography.” Still, Mr. Marable artfully strips away the layers and layers of myth that have been lacquered onto his subject’s life — first by Malcolm himself in that famous memoir, and later by both supporters and opponents after his assassination in 1965 at the age of 39.

Mr. Marable argues that Malcolm X was a gifted performer, adept at presenting himself to black audiences “as the embodiment of the two central figures of African-American folk culture, simultaneously the hustler/trickster and the preacher/minister.” He also suggests that Malcolm exaggerated his criminal youth in his “Autobiography” to create “an allegory documenting the destructive consequences of racism within the U.S. criminal justice and penal system,” and to underscore the transformative power that the Nation of Islam brought to his own life while in prison.

As Mr. Marable sees it, the “Autobiography,” which was written with Alex Haley (later of “Roots” fame), was in some respects “more Haley’s than its author’s.” Because Malcolm X died in February 1965, Mr. Marable writes, “he had no opportunity to revise major elements of what would become known as his political testament.” Haley, “a liberal Republican,” in Mr. Marable’s words, made the finished book read like a work in “the tradition of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography” rather than “a manifesto for black insurrection” — which perhaps explains its widespread popularity and prominent place in high school and college curriculums.

One of the many achievements of this biography is that Mr. Marable manages to situate Malcolm X within the context of 20th-century racial politics in America without losing focus on his central character, as Taylor Branch sometimes did in his monumental, three-volume chronicle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. At the same time Mr. Marable provides a compelling account of Malcolm X’s split with the Nation of Islam as he moved away from that sect’s black nationalism and radical separatist politics, and as personal tensions between him and the Nation leader Elijah Muhammad escalated further after Muhammad impregnated a woman who had had a longtime romantic relationship with Malcolm X.

Along the way Mr. Marable lays out a harrowing picture of Nation members’ determination to do away with the charismatic Malcolm X, who after being exiled from the sect had struck out on his own, forming a new group and alliances with orthodox Islamic groups abroad. When surveillance records become fully available, Mr. Marable asserts, “it would not be entirely surprising if an F.B.I. transcript surfaced documenting a telephone call from Elijah Muhammad to a subordinate, authorizing Malcolm’s murder,” but he does not come up with a smoking gun on that count in these pages.

It is Mr. Marable’s contention that while two of the three men convicted of the murder had alibis, the man who actually fired “the kill shot, the blow that executed Malcolm X” went free, only to serve prison time later for other crimes. He says this man is one Willie Bradley, who was later inducted into the Newark Athletic Hall of Fame for his high school baseball achievements and briefly appeared in a campaign video, promoting the re-election of Newark’s mayor, Cory A. Booker. (The Star-Ledger of Newark published an article about a man it says is Mr. Bradley, but his family denies any connection to the shooting.)

Mr. Marable speculates that Mr. Bradley “and possibly other Newark mosque members may have actively collaborated on the shooting with local law enforcement and/or the F.B.I.,” but fails to provide any hard evidence concerning this allegation either. In addition he argues that law enforcement agencies did not actively investigate threats on Malcolm X’s life, but instead “stood back, almost waiting for a crime to happen.”

In the course of this volume Mr. Marable corrects some popular assumptions: for instance, Malcolm X was introduced to the Nation of Islam not by a fellow prisoner — as depicted in Spike Lee’s 1992 movie “Malcolm X” — but by family members. Somewhat more enigmatic and sharper-elbowed than the man in the movie, Mr. Marable’s Malcolm is a passionate, conflicted and guarded man, filled with contradictions — charming and charismatic with audiences and the press but detached, even chilly with his wife, Betty, whom he frequently treated with misogynistic disdain. Some people quoted in this volume depict Malcolm X as being fatalistic in the last days of his life, telling one former associate that “the males in his family didn’t die a natural death.”

As a young man in prison Malcolm steeped himself not just in black history, Mr. Marable writes, but in “Herodotus, Kant, Nietzsche, and other historians and philosophers of Western civilization.” His hungry intellect and gift for oratory would make him a magnetic proselytizer for the Nation of Islam, and later, after his split from the Nation, for his own more pluralistic vision, which would align him more closely with the civil rights movement and Dr. King, whom he had once denounced as an Uncle Tom.

There is one ill-considered effort in these pages to rationalize Malcolm X’s violent rhetoric in his Nation of Islam days. “In retrospect,” Mr. Marable writes, “many of Malcolm’s most outrageous statements about the necessity of extremism in the achievement of political freedom and liberty were not unlike the views expressed by the 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who declared that ‘extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.’ ”

This hardly seems an apt comparison given Malcolm X’s description of a 1962 airplane crash, killing more than a hundred well-to-do white residents of Atlanta, as “a very beautiful thing,” proof that God answers prayers. Or his description of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as an instance of “the chickens coming home to roost” — to which he added that “being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.”

For the most part in this book, however, Mr. Marable takes a methodical approach to deconstructing Malcolm X’s complex legacy: his articulation of the “frustrations of the black poor and working class” and his message of “black pride, self-respect, and an awareness of one’s heritage.” As for the incendiary actions Malcolm X sometimes took as a member of the Nation of Islam, these are duly chronicled here as well.

After a 1962 police raid on a Nation of Islam mosque in Los Angeles (in which more than a half-dozen Muslims were shot), Mr. Marable asserts, Malcolm X began to recruit members for an assassination team to target officers from the Los Angeles Police Department. The year before, Mr. Marable says, Malcolm and another Nation leader met with representatives of the Ku Klux Klan, assuring those white racists, according to F.B.I. surveillance, that “his people wanted complete segregation from the white race.”

Spiritual and political growth was the one constant in Malcolm X’s restless and peripatetic life. During a 1964 trip to Mecca he was treated with kindness by white Muslims and was moved by the sight of thousands of people of different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds praying in unison to the same God. This would lead to his embrace of a kind of internationalist humanism, separating himself not just from Nation of Islam’s leadership but from its angry, separatist theology too. After Mecca, Malcolm began reaching out to the civil rights establishment and came to recognize, in Mr. Marable’s words, that “blacks indeed could achieve representation and even power under America’s constitutional system.”

Toward the end of his “Autobiography” Malcolm X wrote: “The American Negro never can be blamed for his racial animosities — he is only reacting to 400 years of the conscious racism of the American whites. But as racism leads America up the suicide path, I do believe, from the experiences that I have had with them, that the whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, will see the handwriting on the wall and many of them will turn to the spiritual path of truth — the only way left to America to ward off the disaster that racism inevitably must lead to.”

Offline Curtis Metcalf

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Manning Marable, Historian and Social Critic, Dies at 60
« Reply #1 on: April 07, 2011, 09:23:07 am »
April 1, 2011
Manning Marable, Historian and Social Critic, Dies at 60

Manning Marable, a leading scholar of black history and a leftist critic of American social institutions and race relations, whose long-awaited biography of Malcolm X, more than a decade in the writing, is scheduled to be published on Monday, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 60.

His wife, Leith Mullings, said that the cause was not known but that Mr. Marable, who lived in Manhattan, had entered the hospital with pneumonia in early March. In July 2010, he had undergone a double lung transplant.

Mr. Marable, a prolific writer and impassioned polemicist, addressed issues of race and economic injustice in numerous works that established him as one of the most forceful and outspoken scholars of African-American history and race relations in the United States.

He explored this territory in books like “How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America” (1983), “Black Liberation in Conservative America” (1997) and “The Great Wells of Democracy” (2003), and in a political column, “Along the Color Line,” which was syndicated in more than 100 newspapers.

At nearly 600 pages, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” to be published by Viking, presents a hefty counterweight to the well-known account “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

The autobiography, long considered a classic of the 1960s civil rights struggle, was an “as told to” book written with Alex Haley and published in 1965.

Mr. Marable, drawing on new sources, archival material and government documents unavailable to Mr. Haley, developed a fuller account of Malcolm X’s politics, religious beliefs and personal life, as well as his role in the civil rights movement and the circumstances of his assassination.

He also offers a revisionist portrait of Malcolm X at odds with Mr. Haley’s presentation of him as an evolving integrationist.

“We need to look at the organic evolution of his mind and how he struggled to find different ways to empower people of African descent by any means necessary,” Mr. Marable said in a 2007 interview with Amy Goodman on the radio program “Democracy Now.”

Mr. Marable’s political philosophy was often described as transformationist, as opposed to integrationist or separatist. That is, he urged black Americans to transform existing social structures and bring about a more egalitarian society by making common cause with other minorities and change-minded groups like environmentalists.

“By dismantling the narrow politics of racial identity and selective self-interest, by going beyond ‘black’ and ‘white,’ we may construct new values, new institutions and new visions of an America beyond traditional racial categories and racial oppression,” he wrote in the essay collection “Beyond Black and White: Transforming African-American Politics” (1995).

In a telephone interview on Friday, the scholar and author Cornel West called Mr. Marable “our grand radical democratic intellectual,” adding, “He kept alive the democratic socialist tradition in the black freedom movement, and I had great love and respect for him.”

William Manning Marable was born on May 13, 1950, in Dayton, Ohio. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., and a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin before receiving his doctorate from the University of Maryland in 1976.

He directed ethnic studies programs at a number of colleges, notably the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University and the Africana and Latin American Studies program at Colgate University.

He was the chairman of the black studies department at Ohio State University in the late 1980s and also taught ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

At Columbia University, where he became a professor of public affairs, political science, history and African-American studies in 1993, he was the founding director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies and the Center for the Study of Contemporary Black History.

In addition to his wife, who teaches anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and who co-edited several of his books, Mr. Marable is survived by three children, Joshua Manning Marable of Boulder; Malaika Marable Serrano of Silver Spring, Md.; and Sojourner Marable Grimmett of Atlanta; two stepchildren, Alia Tyner of Manhattan and Michael Tyner of Brooklyn; a sister, Madonna Marable of Dayton; and three grandchildren.

His other books included “Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1982” (1984) and “The Great Wells of Democracy : The Meaning of Race in American Life” ( 2002), as well as two biographies published in 2005, “W. E. B. DuBois: Black Radical Democrat” and “The Autobiography of Medgar Evers,” which he edited with Myrlie Evers-Williams, Evers’s widow.

He was the general editor of “Freedom on My Mind: The Columbia Documentary History of the African American Experience” (2003).

In 1992 he published “On Malcolm X: His Message and Meaning,” a work that prefigured the consuming project of his later years. “Beyond Boundaries: The Manning Marable Reader,” a selection of his writings, was published in January by Paradigm.
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