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March 21, 2012

Filed under: culture»america»race_and_class

A Life of Reinvention

When I speak, I don’t speak as a Democrat, or a Republican... I speak as a victim of America’s so-called democracy. You and I have never seen democracy; all we’ve seen is hypocrisy. When we open our eyes today and look around America, we see America not through the eyes of someone who have — who has enjoyed the fruits of Americanism, we see America through the eyes of someone who has been the victim of Americanism. We don’t see any American dream; we’ve experienced only the American nightmare. We haven’t benefited from America’s democracy; we’ve only suffered from America’s hypocrisy. And the generation that’s coming up now can see it and are not afraid to say it.

--Malcolm X
I have always found Malcolm X fascinating, even before I had any idea of who he was beyond that of a Black Power boogieman. The Autobiography of Malcolm X sits on my shelf of favorite books--ironically, right next to Gene Sharp's Politics of Nonviolent Action trilogy. Obviously, though, I never lived during Malcolm's actual lifespan. I never experienced the political environment and struggle of his times. So it's easy to be more taken with the legend than with the actual person. It was with that in mind that I devoured Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention these last few weeks.

Reinvention opens with a description of Malcolm's assassination, then jumps back to tell his story from the beginning, from his family's Garveyite black nationalism through his criminal youth, joining the Nation of Islam, and then his protracted shift into independence and orthodox Islam before his death. Marable draws extensively on historical documents and interviews, which sometimes reveals interesting new angles on his subject: although the evidence that the young Malcolm may have had sex with an older man for money has gotten a lot of attention, the most fascinating tidbits may be those that explore his relationship with his wife and children, which was often contentious and distant (or contentious because of his distance). Marable is also able to produce a detailed portrait of Malcolm's complicated dynamic within the Nation of Islam, which bloomed under his attentions but also continually worked to rein in his political ambition.

Marable describes his book as a "deconstruction" of the Autobiography, and I think that's a fair description. Haley and Malcolm's narrative is that of an acutely intelligent man struggling from low beginnings to enlightenment. Marable's digging does not contradict this, but it exposes a more complicated story: as he points out, Malcolm and Haley both had their reasons to exaggerate the arc of redemption, Malcolm for the purposes of legend-making and Haley (as a liberal Republican) to drive it towards an sensational, integrationist conclusion. The Autobiography thus tends to play up Malcolm's criminal youth (which was never really that criminal), and it short-changes his organizational struggles with the civil rights movement and with his own independent groups, the MMI and OAAU (not to mention his Nation of Islam connections with white-supremacist groups like the KKK). That filling in these details does not diminish the man is a tribute to both Marable's skill and the force of Malcolm's character.

In his epilogue, Marable looks for the core of Malcolm's impact on America--as he puts it, "the social architecture" of his subject's life:

There is now a tendency of historical revisionism, to interpret Malcolm X through the powerful lens of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: that Malcolm was ultimately evolving into an integrationist, liberal reformer. This view is not only wrong, but unfair to both Malcolm and Martin. King saw himself, like Frederick Douglass, first and foremost as an American, who pursued the civil rights and civic privileges enjoyed by other Americans. King struggled to erase the color bar of stigmatization and exclusion that had relegated racial minorities to second-class citizenship. As in the successful 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama, King wanted to convince white Americans that "race doesn’t matter"—in other words, the physical and color differences that appear to distinguish blacks from whites should be meaningless in the application of justice and equal rights.

In striking contrast, Malcolm perceived himself first and foremost as a black man, a person of African descent who happened to be a United States citizen. This was a crucial difference from King and other civil rights leaders. ... Malcolm perceived black Americans as an oppressed nation-within-a-nation, with its own culture, social institutions, and group psychology. Its memories of struggles for freedom were starkly different from those of white Americans. At the end of his life he realized that blacks indeed could achieve representation and even power under America’s constitutional system. But he always thought first and foremost about blacks’ interests. Many blacks instinctively sensed this, and loved him for it.

The Malcolm that Marable reveals was a charismatic leader and an intriguing thinker, but a mediocre organizer and an absent family man. He spent his entire life struggling his way free of one toxic system, often only to fall headlong into another--too big to fit within the apolitical confines of the Nation of Islam, while unable to completely grow beyond its restrictions. His story is in many ways a tragedy, and like the best tragedies it was partly due to forces beyond his control, and partly built on the strength of his own principles. Marable explores how time and time again, Malcolm reinvented himself, but couldn't completely shed the legacy of prior reinventions.

Historical revisionism has served to sanitize both X and King--the latter's history as a strong anti-war speaker and a controversial advocate for social justice has been nearly erased in favor of a bland, easily-appropriated anti-racism. Malcolm, meanwhile, is often reduced to a double-sided parody: either the straight-laced, separationist Muslim in a suit and bow-tie, or the militant Black Power revolutionary held aloft by a new generation. The truth as Marable shows it is more shaded, more imperfect, and more difficult to reduce to a single ideological point of view. It's always better to see our heroes as people, not as cartoons, but for Malcolm X it's in line with the sum of his life: a constant demand for complexity and engagement. In this, Marable's book is sometimes unflattering, but it also represents a deep respect for its subject, one that leaves readers more admiring of the man than the myth.

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