Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Review: "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention," by Manning Marable

Malcolm X

Manning Marable, 1951-2011.
Recently I finished reading Manning Marable’s 2011 biography of Malcolm X, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.” It’s a terrific book, one I would recommend to anyone interested in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. Marable does a great job of interpreting Malcolm X’s various incarnations throughout his short but eventful life. I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, last year, and Marable’s biography is a much needed companion. Marable successfully untangles the sometimes complicated web that Malcolm and Alex Haley wove. Any reading of Malcolm X’s Autobiography is complicated by the fact that Haley finished the book after Malcolm died, thus Malcolm obviously didn’t have a say on the final text of the book. Marable helps clear up what the Autobiography sometimes leaves unsaid. 

Marable does a great job of illustrating how the split between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam festered and developed for years before Malcolm’s official split with the Nation in 1964. The Nation of Islam under its leader Elijah Muhammad was strictly opposed to African-Americans voting or participating in any kind of civil rights demonstrations. The Nation of Islam was an odd combination of radicalism and conservatism, as it preached total separation of the races, but yet also didn’t want to involve itself at all in politics or civil rights. Marable shows how Malcolm was always interested in the mainstream civil rights movement, even when he was criticizing Martin Luther King as an “Uncle Tom.” Malcolm wanted to be more proactive in the civil rights movement, but he felt hamstrung by Elijah Muhammad’s refusal to get involved in the movement. Malcolm knew that for African-Americans to win the rights they deserved, they needed to engage in politics, to engage in protest and the political process. Once he realized this, his split with the Nation of Islam was destined to happen, unless he could somehow persuade Elijah Muhammad to change his views. 

Malcolm X rose very quickly in the Nation of Islam, as he went from prison convert to national minister in just a few years during the 1950’s. Malcolm’s rapid rise to the top of the Nation and his high profile in the national news media made him many powerful enemies within the Nation, and Marable shows how they conspired to lessen Malcolm’s influence. One of those enemies was John Ali, the national secretary of the Nation. Ali did all he could to hurt Malcolm, eventually orchestrating a total news blackout of Malcolm in the Nation’s newspaper “Muhammad Speaks.” 

Part of what doomed Malcolm X was his misreading of people. He never figured out who his enemies were in the Nation of Islam until much too late. It seems as though Malcolm didn’t realize that he had any enemies in the Nation. As smart and perceptive a man as he was, he seems to have been taken totally by surprise when he was kicked out. Was Malcolm aware of the way he was not mentioned in “Muhammad Speaks” for more than a year before he was kicked out? It’s not clear if he was, but that should have been a signal to him that all was not well in the Nation. 

Malcolm X had a very close relationship with Elijah Muhammad and he looked up to Muhammad as a kind of father figure. Did Malcolm X see himself as the rightful successor to Muhammad as the leader of the Nation of Islam? The short answer is that Marable doesn’t know. But others in the Nation feared that Malcolm would be named Muhammad’s successor or that he would somehow usurp the power from the rightful successor. Elijah Muhammad had several sons, all of whom were active in the Nation of Islam and who were the most likely successors to the leadership of the Nation. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Muhammad was going to make Malcolm his successor when he either retired or died. And while Muhammad was surely very pleased at Malcolm’s ability to gain followers for the Nation, he must have also felt threatened by the younger man. In many ways, Malcolm X was the opposite of Elijah Muhammad. Elijah was old, frail, short, and not a good speaker. Malcolm was young, handsome, charismatic, energetic, and a terrific public speaker. Muhammad must have seen Malcolm as a possible rival very early on. Surely the news blackout of Malcolm in “Muhammad Speaks” could not have lasted as long as it did without the tacit approval of Elijah Muhammad. 

There were many rumors that Elijah Muhammad had fathered numerous illegitimate children. Malcolm ignored these rumors for years, but finally he started investigating them for himself and at a meeting in the Spring of 1963 Muhammad confirmed the rumors during a private meeting with Malcolm. I think Malcolm was legitimately shocked and disappointed when he found out about Elijah’s affairs and illegitimate children. I think he really was deeply wounded by this, that the man he took to be Allah’s Messenger was as human and imperfect as anyone else. 

The differences between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad finally started to emerge in late 1963. After John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Malcolm said that Kennedy’s death was a sign of “the chickens coming home to roost.” Malcolm added, “Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” (Marable, p. 273.) This was widely interpreted as Malcolm taking glee in Kennedy’s death, and it gave the Nation of Islam the perfect excuse to punish him. Malcolm was suspended as national minister for 90 days, and was not supposed to talk to the press during his suspension. Despite this harsh punishment, Malcolm still thought that he would be reinstated when the 90 days were up. But his enemies saw this as their chance to expel Malcolm from the Nation. Which is exactly what happened in the Spring of 1964. Malcolm was unceremoniously relieved of his leadership positions within the Nation. 

After his expulsion from the Nation, Malcolm began to talk more openly about the failings of Elijah Muhammad, including Elijah’s illegitimate children. As the feud between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam grew more heated, there were calls within the Nation for Malcolm’s death. Malcolm made a pilgrimage to Mecca after leaving the Nation, and it was this trip that made him realize that people of different skin colors could get along in peace and harmony. His rhetoric began to change when he returned to the United States. He started two new organizations, Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, the OAAU. Muslim Mosque, Inc., was an attempt to take followers away from the Nation of Islam’s brand of Islam and to move towards more orthodox Sunni Islam. Malcolm’s trips to the Middle East and Africa during 1964 helped get Muslim Mosque, Inc. recognized by other countries and by more traditional Sunni Islam groups. And just as Muslim Mosque, Inc. represented a turn away from the Nation of Islam’s brand of Islam, so too the OAAU was a definite step away from the racial separation preached by the Nation of Islam. Malcolm now talked more and more about all African-Americans working together to gain their full civil rights. He realized that he could no longer keep criticizing the more moderate elements of the civil rights movement. But, on the other hand, he still wrote an article explaining why he was supporting Barry Goldwater rather than Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 Presidential race, despite the fact that LBJ was hugely instrumental in the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, while Goldwater opposed it. 

Malcolm journeyed again to the Middle East and Africa during mid-1964, and he ended up staying there for about four months. He was trying to build his fledgling organizations, and he was also keeping safe from the Nation of Islam. When he returned to the United States in late 1964, it was clear that he would have to be protected all the time from violent threats. Just a week before he died, his house was firebombed in the middle of the night. Malcolm, his wife Betty, and all their children were able to escape, but their home was badly burned. The home was also at the center of a dispute with the Nation, as the Nation tried to get Malcolm and his family evicted. The Nation claimed that they had bought the house for Malcolm, and that the Nation still owned it, not Malcolm. Malcolm fought this in court, but he lost and was forced to leave his house. 

On the afternoon of February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was about to speak to an OAAU audience in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. He stepped to the podium and just before he started talking a disturbance broke out in the crowd. Two men appeared to be having a disagreement and started shoving each other. However, this was just a planned distraction, and as Malcolm and the audience focused on the two men’s argument, three other men rushed towards the stage and shot Malcolm with a sawed-off shotgun and handguns. Malcolm was wounded 21 times and died at Columbia Presbyterian hospital. 

As Marable makes tragically clear, the investigation into Malcolm X’s assassination was botched badly from the very beginning. While one of the assassins was instantly apprehended, two other men went free as two innocent men took the fall. It was clear that Malcolm’s death had been ordered by the Nation of Islam. The police simply didn’t care about a fight between black radical groups and did not investigate Malcolm’s murder as carefully as they should have. They just wanted to find scapegoats, even if they didn’t find the real killers. 

As with so many other fallen leaders, the question remains, what would have happened to Malcolm X if he had lived longer? He was a great inspiration to the Black Power movement, yet if he had lived, the Black Power movement might have scorned him as being too integrationist. That’s assuming that Malcolm’s thinking would have kept going in the direction he was headed in the last year of his life. One of the most interesting tidbits in the book is Malcolm’s visit to Selma, Alabama, in February, 1965, just weeks before his death. Malcolm didn’t meet with Martin Luther King, who was in jail in Selma at the time, but he did meet with Coretta Scott King. “After the talk he met with Coretta Scott King, stating that in the future he would work in concert with her husband.” (Marable, p. 412.) Had Malcolm lived longer and really started a united front with Martin Luther King, the ramifications would have been enormous. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are so often seen as opposites, yet during the last years of their lives they were, for the most part, moving closing together, as Malcolm spoke more and more about tolerance and King got angrier with the status quo. That isn’t a perfect comparison, as Malcolm’s public statements were not very consistent, veering one way and then the other, making it difficult to say for sure what he really felt. But it’s clear that had he lived Malcolm X would have done a lot more work in support of African-American civil rights and in support of equality all over the world. 

Malcolm X was a very complicated man, a brilliant, restless soul who thought and cared deeply about the issues of his time. This essay can’t get to all parts and pieces of the man; I can’t dissect everything he said and thought. As a white man, it would be folly for me to say that I completely understand Malcolm X’s views on race in America. I can’t fully understand the racism that he saw and experienced throughout America during his life. But I’ve tried to understand more about Malcolm X’s remarkable life. He’s a very fascinating man, and I can respect him even when I might disagree with what he said. Manning Marable’s book presents a full, nuanced portrait of Malcolm X. It’s probably as close as we will get to the man himself. Sadly, Marable did not live to see his masterpiece published, passing away just weeks before the book was released. Marable was not able to soak up the glowing reviews, the healthy sales, and the Pulitzer Prize for History for 2011. All of those honors were well-earned by a truly remarkable book about a truly remarkable man.


Ahenig said...

Hi Mark,
My name is Adam Henig, the author of the soon-to-be published Alex Haley's Roots: An Author's Odyssey.

From reading your excellent review of the late Manning Marable's biography of Malcolm X, I am contacting you in hopes that you would consider reviewing my eBook for your blog.

If you're interested, contact me at info@adamhenig.com.

Mark said...

Hi Adam,
Thanks for the kind words. I would definitely be interested in reading your book. I'll send you an email.

Good luck with the book!