A Life of Reinvention
By Manning Marable
Viking, 608 pages
It was the great good fortune of the modern civil rights movement that its leadership was equal to its mission and principles. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. liked to play the naughty boulevardier, but the Harlem congressman was a shrewd politician and essential pragmatist. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sonorous voice and pious manner did little to endear him to Middle America, but his moral integrity and commitment to nonviolence were self-evident. Walter White, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, and Bayard Rustin were all classic behind-the-scenes types: privately uninspiring, publicly astute. Setting them beside their successors in the movement—Jesse Jackson, Joseph Lowery, Benjamin Chavis, Rev. Al Sharpton—only heightens the difference between the golden age of civil rights (1955–65) and its long twilight.
Somewhere off to the side of the firmament stands Malcolm X. Resolutely uninterested in the struggle for civil rights, he deserves no credit for the dismantling of segregation and died before he had clarified any vision for post–Jim Crow America. Apart from his ongoing quest to practice Islam in some form, there is no civic or philosophical doctrine associated with his name. At a moment when Americans struggled to reconcile the black and white races after a long and tortured history on the continent, he preached racial estrangement. Even his much-admired testament, the posthumous Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), was ghostwritten by Alex Haley, who may or may not have been faithful to its name-sake’s intent.
And yet, to paraphrase another famous orator, who now speaks of A. Philip Randolph? Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a federal holiday, and his reputation is as publicly unassailable as it is awkwardly embraced in the national canon. But one suspects that Malcolm X would laugh at such historical taxidermy, for he did not seek approbation or respectability. Rather, he reveled in his unconventional, outsider status. He wore the uniform of a buttoned-down Negro of his day—rimless spectacles, skinny tie, snap-brim fedora—but preached from the pulpit of a marginal religious cult. Today Dr. King is referred to in deferential terms, and elementary schoolchildren are instructed in his “dream.” But Malcolm seems a far more dynamic presence in black culture, and he still speaks to a certain sensibility. How did this come to pass?
Part of the answer, of course, is that Malcolm X was murdered at a crossroads in his life, the balance of which is open to conjecture. If the angry, by-any-means-necessary Malcolm appeals to your vision of American life, there is plentiful evidence to fortify the view of him as a passionate truth-teller, a fearless challenger to white and black piety. If, however, life is a journey toward enlightenment, Malcolm offers the rewarding tale of a ruffian who found salvation behind bars, gained power preaching discord to the dispossessed, and then, in exile from that power, embraced a vision of racial peace and universal harmony. Which was the real Malcolm?
The late Manning Marable, professor of African-American studies at Columbia, was correct to subtitle his exhaustive biography “a life of reinvention,” as the various incarnations of Malcolm X in his 39 years are equally instructive in their way. But the very detail in which Marable chronicles that life yields a deeply forested mausoleum: no incident is too trivial to be thoroughly explored, no personality too marginal to be examined. Moreover, Marable is an enthusiast and ideologue. The importance of his subject is self-evident, in his view, and bears no explanation. The weaknesses are minor adjuncts to the strengths. The strengths render the weaknesses irrelevant.
The perspective on Malcolm X is one-dimensional. Add to this Marable’s topical references (“Dan Quayle declared that he had acquired important insights into the reasons for [the 1992 Los Angeles race riots] by reading Malcolm’s autobiography—an epiphany most African Americans viewed as absurd”) and historical asides (“In June 1950, the United States initiated military actions in Korea, under the auspices of the United Nations, to suppress Communist insurgency”), and the 608 pages of Malcolm X do not pass smoothly.
Which is too bad, for the life of Malcolm X is both interesting—even entertaining, in a perverse way—and representative of his time. Malcolm Little was the son of an itinerant organizer for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association who was killed in a streetcar accident in Lansing, Michigan, when his son was six years old. His mother, widowed and impoverished with numerous children, descended by stages into mental illness. Malcolm was highly intelligent—no one who watches him on YouTube today can fail to discern his brains and wit—but, caught between family dysfunction in Detroit and Boston, and the lamentable circumstances of black America, his formal education ended prematurely and he drifted incrementally into a marginal criminal existence.
The legend of young Malcolm as the hard-bitten “Detroit Red” is neatly dispatched here. He was, at various times, a grifter, pimp, petty thief, and drug dealer; he was also a homosexual prostitute and considerably less formidable than mythology would suggest. Sentenced in 1946 to a long imprisonment in Massachusetts for robbery, Malcolm was introduced by a sibling to the Nation of Islam; on his release in 1952, the newly minted Malcolm X consecrated himself to the Black Muslims.
It is not difficult to discern the initial appeal of the Nation of Islam to Earl Little’s son. Just as Marcus Garvey had preached black separatism and self-sufficiency in his mock admiral’s finery, Elijah Poole’s curious blend of self-help, Islamic ritual, pan-African dogma, and rigid discipline gave Malcolm X direction and incentive. The trouble is that, despite Marable’s industrious efforts to lend weight to the Nation of Islam, it all seems slightly comic in retrospect. The Black Muslims were numbered in the thousands, not millions, in their heyday—it was probably as much a dubious business enterprise as religious movement—and it is difficult not to laugh when someone as self-evidently shrewd and discerning as Malcolm X pays lavish tribute to the wisdom and achievement of the semiliterate “Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” surrounded as he was by the uniformed Fruit of Islam and agreeable young women.
Within a decade, Malcolm X had become the second most famous black man in America, a charismatic racial rabblerouser and studio debater for the television age. Which, inevitably, led to conflict. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad at his Chicago headquarters grew jealous of his Harlem-based disciple’s notoriety. Malcolm X awakened to the limitations of black nationalism in America—and was formally expelled from the Nation of Islam in 1964. In due course he made his pilgrimage to Mecca, embraced Sunni Islam, and returned to Harlem as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. In February 1965, he was shot to death in full view of his family at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem by gunmen of the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm X was, manifestly, a smart, talented man, shaped and distorted by ignorance and powers beyond his control, who might have translated his experience into something like wisdom on behalf of black Americans. It is difficult to say whether, in the fullness of time, his political sense and rhetorical skills will have anything to say to future sensibilities, or will live, as seems more likely, in the annals of forlorn causes and celebrity. His fame endures, but on a wobbly platform.