Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Penguin Books, 2011, 608 pp., $18.00 (soft cover)
There are very few whites today who publicly express a healthy racial consciousness and speak in the name of white interests. Some white advocates are therefore tempted to look to black nationalists for lessons in how to promote a racial cause. Blacks who promote racial identity and self-sufficiency both legitimize white racial advocacy and offer an alternative to the conventional goal of integration with whites.
Figures such as Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington are some of the most well-known examples, but no black nationalist is more important or open to interpretation than Malcolm X. Some white racial advocates are tempted to see him as the anti-Martin Luther King, perhaps even as a model. However, by the end of his career, if he was a model for anything, it was for the Al Sharpton brand of shake-down politics.
Indeed, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention from progressive historian and activist Manning Marable inadvertently shows us that Malcolm X is less important, less intelligent, and less interesting than we thought. Of course, the popular image of Malcolm X was created by Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X and Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X.
Here are the main themes: Malcolm Little, a former pimp, two-bit criminal, and druggie with conked hair chases thrills and white women. A racist system sends him to prison where he is redeemed by the Nation of Islam (NOI). Rechristened Malcolm X, he becomes a stern, soldierly figure faithfully adhering to a Spartan creed of black revolution and NOI’s idiosyncratic brand of Islam. Unlike other black leaders, the mythical Malcolm is a family man and a faithful husband, prompting an FBI agent in Mr. Lee’s film to quip, “Compared to King, this guy is a monk.” Preaching that all whites are “devils,” Malcolm X baits “Uncle Tom Negro leaders,” scorns integration, and praises violence.
Malcolm is shattered when he learns that NOI’s leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, has been seducing vulnerable young women who joined his cult. After breaking with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X makes a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he discovers orthodox Islam and renounces his former racial separatism. With his faithful wife Betty by his side, he prepares to build a new movement. However, his break with the Nation makes powerful enemies, and he is murdered by Black Muslims (NOI members) in a crowded theater, a martyr to black nationalist ideas cut down in his prime.
Just as Haley’s Roots was later discovered to be a comical mix of plagiarism and imagination masquerading as historical scholarship, Marable, who died last year, shows that the accepted narrative of Malcolm X based on Haley’s Autobiography is more complex.
For example, the man whom activist Ossie Davis famously eulogized as “our living black manhood” was unable to satisfy his wife sexually and wrote pleading letters to Elijah Muhammad about the problem. After the break with the Nation, his enemies read these letters aloud and even quoted them in NOI newspapers. Although Malcolm supposedly broke with the Nation of Islam in disgust over Elijah Muhammad’s sexual exploitation, Marable believes Malcolm himself carried on an extended affair with one of his female subordinates, and most likely had other lovers.
Marable contends further that Malcolm worked as a homosexual prostitute during his street-hustler days when he was known as “Red.” Even after he went to prison and converted to the Nation of Islam he reportedly stayed in contact with a white male lover in hope of getting money from him. Marable writes that Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X unsurprisingly had a troubled marriage. Malcolm was often exasperated by his wife and she cuckolded him with at least one of his subordinates. Spike Lee’s film portrays her as an expert dietitian, but Marable informs us that Betty did not know how to cook.
Even Malcolm’s criminal past has been distorted. He portrayed himself as the mastermind behind a burglary ring, but his efforts as an outlaw were laughably crude. He stole from his half sister, and tried to rob a fellow criminal. When he was caught, he instantly sold out all of his associates in the hope of gaining leniency.
A political message
Needless to say, these sensational personal revelations got a lot of attention for Marable’s book, but his ultimate goal was political. As an activist with the Movement for Democratic Change (the “adult” wing of Students for a Democratic Society), Marable can hardly be accused of trying to discredit what Malcolm stood for. Instead, he was attempting something similar to Michael Eric Dyson’s effort in his biography I May Not Get There with You: the True Martin Luther King Jr. In other words, Marable admits the flawed and philandering man behind the heroic image, but he glorifies the radical vision and tries to force the reader to accept the politics that go with that vision. The politics are presented so admirably that the defects of the man make no difference.
Malcolm X was raised by a father who was proud of his race, but who was not the solid family man portrayed in the movie. He started one family but abandoned it before meeting Malcolm’s mother and starting a new one. Earl Little worked for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which preached a philosophy of “back to Africa” black nationalism. With the motto “Up you mighty race, you can do what you will,” Garvey’s UNIA tried to create an independent black nation, complete with a flag and national anthem. Malcolm’s father may have been murdered by the Black Legion, a Ku Klux Klan-type group popular in the Midwest, although there is no proof.
In any case, Malcolm’s adoption of the Nation of Islam and militant black nationalism was almost a return to his roots. Contrary to the fable in Spike Lee’s film, he was not introduced to the Nation by a charismatic prisoner, but by members of his own family.
The Nation of Islam preached vitriolic anti-white beliefs that considered whites to be literally demonic, and wanted to liberate blacks from any form of American identity. It also divided the entire world into (evil) whites and (virtuous) non-whites. Decolonization took on religious as well as political significance, a sign of divine retribution against inherently racist and evil whites. Like many anti-American blacks during World War II, Malcolm admired the Japanese as an example of non-whites capable of defeating Western armies.
The Nation’s purpose was to function as a proto-black nation. It held negotiations with the Ku Klux Klan on dividing up land in the South, and hosted an address by the American National Socialist leader George Lincoln Rockwell. However, it did nothing revolutionary. The leadership concentrated on building revenue, ordering temples to sell more newspapers and raise money rather than become involved in politics. It was socially conservative and pro-capitalist, and although it strongly condemned the “white man’s” political system, it was careful to remain within the law.
Marable argues that there was an irresolvable tension between the separatist, disengaged ideology of the Nation and Malcolm’s more political and practical goals. Malcolm increasingly wanted to seize the white man’s wealth rather than build black wealth through separate institutions. Unlike the Nation’s conviction that race was a permanent dividing line, he sometimes spoke as if racial differences could—at least theoretically—be overcome. In a 1962 speech in Rochester, New York, before he broke with the Nation, Malcolm X proclaimed that there “would be no race problem” if the Negro could speak as an American. In other words, if non-racist whites genuinely allowed blacks full participation, the race problem would go away.
Malcolm also praised violence in a way that ran counter to the Nation’s image. He made veiled threats about Muslims “preparing to throw a punch” and called race relations a “powder keg.” When more than 100 whites died in an airplane crash in 1962 he famously called it “a very beautiful thing” and proof that Allah answers prayers.
That same year, Los Angeles police shot and killed a Nation member following a confrontation near a NOI temple. Malcolm X immediately wanted to use the Nation’s paramilitary “Fruit of Islam” to kill police officers in retaliation. The national headquarters overruled him and forced the “Fruit” to stand down.
The Nation’s disdain for politics—it didn’t even support black voter registration—and the fact that its political base was the black urban proletariat of the Northern cities meant that Malcolm was largely a passive observer of the desegregation struggle in the South. He condemned Martin Luther King, Jr. and other “Uncle Tom Negro leaders,” but in debates with civil rights activists such as James Farmer and Baynard Rustin, Malcolm found himself easily bested, since he didn’t have a concrete program beyond inflammatory rhetoric.
As Farmer pointed out, it was all very well to talk of the need for an independent black homeland, but did this mean separate statelets in major cities? Did it mean blacks should stay out of white areas altogether? Did it mean that all political action other than violent revolution—which the Nation wasn’t doing anyway—was useless? Malcolm X had no answers.
The result was that as Malcolm’s fiery oratory made him an increasingly popular leader for the religious, political, and ethnic aspirations of blacks, he was no longer satisfied with the Nation’s strictly separatist goals. In Marable’s view, this contributed more to the split than Malcolm’s alleged outrage over Elijah Muhammad’s affairs.
In the film, Betty Shabazz pushed Malcolm X to leave the Nation, but she had no part in the decision. Nor was it a clean break. For some time afterwards, he claimed he was still part of the Nation because it owned his house and he had nowhere else to go.
What was Malcolm X’s political orientation after the break? It was not always consistent but it was colorful. In his speech “God’s Judgment of White America,” he thundered that “revolutions are never peaceful, never loving, never nonviolent. Nor are they compromising. Revolutions are destructive and bloody.” This was not just a change of tactics from the NOI days; it was a rejection of the ethnostate ideal. Malcolm X wanted to seize white resources in order to achieve equality within the same state. In his “Message to the Grassroots” speech, Malcolm X condemned the “Negro” revolution of Martin Luther King, and praised the revolutions in China and Algeria as models for a genuine “black” revolution. Real revolutions used violence to take from the rich and give to the poor. At this point, the only difference between Malcolm and the “Uncle Toms” was that he was willing to use any means necessary.
Sometimes his tactics were confused. In his famous speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” he condemned both major political parties, suggesting that black frustration naturally led to violence rather than voting—and yet he told blacks not to let whites take their political support for granted. As even Marable admits, “Who were [blacks] supposed to vote for if no one on the ballot could bring real relief?”
The “new” Malcolm
After Malcolm X’s celebrated pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, he is commonly said to have renounced racism and cooled his anti-white rhetoric. However, as Marable notes, Malcolm X continued to travel in Arab and African countries, spending time with the Muslim Brotherhood and the autocratic regime of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. He gave a speech to African university students that covered all the old ground: Martin Luther King had accomplished nothing, blacks had made no progress, and there would be violence. He condemned foreign leaders who accepted US support during the Cold War, and called for a global anti-white alliance—to end segregation. This was a dramatic retreat from calls for blacks to build their own country.
After he returned to the United States, Malcolm renewed his activism as the leader of two groups. The first was Muslim Mosque Inc. (MMI), a poorly organized splinter group that followed Malcolm out of the NOI and favored a more orthodox Islam. One of its goals was to discredit NOI in the eyes of the Muslim world and divert funding to Malcolm’s group. MMI was to be a political and religious organization that would link black Americans to Africa and Asia. Unfortunately for the organization’s own credibility, Malcolm was ignorant of real Islam. He had to get special intervention from Saudi officials even to be allowed into Mecca, and didn’t know Arabic prayers or the correct way to worship.
Malcolm’s second group was the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Remarkably, its founding statement praised the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: “[T[hese documents if put into practice represent the essence of mankind's hopes and good intentions." Rather than building a black homeland, Malcolm X focused on the "fight for human rights and dignity" as defined by liberal egalitarianism.
The major goal of the OAAU was to take the plight of African Americans before the United Nations. Malcolm argued that the United States "is violating the UN charter by violating our basic human rights" and predicted that by 1964 America "will see a bloodbath." The goal of approaching the UN, which hardly seems relevant to the interests of American blacks, was to weaken African and Asian support for the American side in the Cold War.
Malcolm’s increasingly leftist rhetoric did not reflect any serious thinking about economics. Communists attracted him because they railed furiously against the United States and claimed to champion American blacks and the Third World. Malcolm simply adopted the language of people who wanted to dispossess rich whites and enrich poor non-whites. After the break with the Nation, he associated with Trotskyite movements such as the Socialist Workers Party.
Malcolm X consistently defended his revolutionary posturing by arguing that whites would never voluntarily give up power. He claimed that America was irredeemably racist regardless of who holds office, and refused to see any difference between Lyndon Johnson and George Wallace. Even though 1964 saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Malcolm X thought the greatest event of the year was Maoist China’s explosion of an atomic bomb: a great victory for “oppressed” people. He called Washington, DC, the “citadel of imperialism,” and repeatedly tried to draw parallels between black activism in the United States and Third World “liberation” struggles.
In Malcolm’s view, every Western institution and every imbalance of power in the world could be explained by racism. Sometimes this perspective made him sound astonishingly callous. When he met Japanese survivors of the American atomic bomb, Malcolm said, “We have also been scarred. The bomb that hit us was racism.”
What Malcolm X was now advocating was not affirmative action or even more representation, but “a fundamental restructuring for wealth and power in the United States.” (483) Be it through violence, the political system, or a revolution itself, Malcolm X wanted more resources for his people on an international scale. He never accepted American institutions, except insofar as they could be used to bring wealth to blacks.
By the end, Malcolm had completely turned his back on the old distinctions he used to make between useless “Negro” whining and true “black” revolution. They both wanted to enrich blacks; the only difference, he now admitted, was one of tactics.
Malcolm even began to leave a place open for whites who wanted to join the black struggle—but they had to know their place. In November 1964, he shared the stage with the standard bearer of the Socialist Workers Party. A white person wrote that a friend publicly apologized to Malcolm “not just for herself and for her particular ancestors, but for me and mine too, while Malcolm X nodded and smiled.” Malcolm even went so far as to support the possibility of interracial marriage, though he noted that in a multicultural future it might be that “the black culture will be the dominant culture.”
The white woman who apologized to Malcolm spoke for far more whites than Malcolm ever realized. Malcolm predicted that anti-white racial preferences (affirmative action) would lead to violence and bloodshed—yet President Richard Nixon introduced them without incident. Malcolm completely underestimated the willingness of powerful whites to sacrifice the interests of middle- and working-class whites. Blacks were getting everything they were asking for, and Malcolm’s violent rhetoric was increasingly meaningless.
The Nation killed Malcolm X in 1965—Marable alleges the New York Police Department was complicit—but the career of Louis Farrakhan illustrates one possible outcome if Malcolm X had lived. Mr. Farrakhan eventually tried to build his own united front of black organizations, culminating in the Million Man March, attended by, among others, Barack Obama. Mr. Farrakhan enthusiastically promoted Third World anti-Western leaders such as Muammar Gaddafi, even standing by him to the end as many former leftist supporters abandoned him. It’s easy to imagine Malcolm X doing the same. Mr. Farrakhan’s criticism of Israel and Jewish power is similar to that of Malcolm X, who also thought Jews controlled the media. “When there’s something worth owning,” Malcolm once said, “the Jew’s got it.”
That said, Mr. Farrakhan has never abandoned the Nation’s unique theology nor the goal of building a black nation. Critically, Malcolm X made that break. What, then, would the finally liberated Malcolm X—the “good” anti-racist Malcolm X students learn about in the Autobiography and in Spike Lee’s film—have become? Not Louis Farrakhan or the New Black Panther Party but an average campus radical.
He would have been the perfect mouthpiece for militant demands for “equity” backed up by threats of violence. Historically, this is precisely how black studies departments were established in universities and set-aside programs were started: by occupying campus buildings and by community organizers “mau-mauing” city officials. It is easy to imagine Malcolm X playing the role of the “revolutionary” alternative that makes merely “radical” demands seem reasonable.
Ossie Davis called Malcolm X a “prince,” slain before he could become a king of his people in exile. The truth is that by the end of his career, his strategy depended on white concessions, white resources, white media coverage, and ultimately, white guilt. Once outside the Nation of Islam, he failed to build any real organization; both the MMI and the OAAU collapsed after he was killed. Instead, Malcolm was a media-driven personality who could lead only impermanent and shifting coalitions of angry Northern blacks, white left-wing activists, and international riffraff opposed to the United States.
The “system” that now rules White America ultimately shared much of Malcolm’s agenda, aside from his foreign policy views. Preferences for non-whites, racial pride for non-whites, and government-sponsored redistribution of wealth are all official policy.
Malcolm X therefore enjoyed the advantage, even in his lifetime, of elite support for many of his ends. Breaking white racial solidarity in politics was just as much a policy of the American establishment as the Communist Party. Funneling jobs and money to blacks today is just as much a policy of the Fortune 500 as of the New Black Panthers.
Malcolm X was not a proto-prince of a would-be black ethnostate. He was a proto-Al Sharpton, using militant rhetoric to win concessions from institutions his people could not build themselves. While the public image of black power was the upraised fist, it quickly became the outstretched hand. Religion was part of Malcolm’s approach, but was secondary to politics. His legacy is therefore not some Nation of Islam mosque in Chicago or a desegregated school. It is the black student union at the typical college, full of students admitted with lower standards, living on money from anti-white school administrators, taking phony classes to give them good grades and self-esteem, and complaining about institutional racism.
Malcolm X survived as a political leader because he constantly reinvented itself, from hustler, to preacher, to political soldier. The movement he represented evolved as well, from a drive towards a separate nation, to equality, and finally to handouts and excuses. It is sad, if not surprising, that even black America’s most famous militant ended his career that way. Black power was just one more hustle, a scheme for blacks to get things out of the white man that they had given up trying to build for themselves.