Tag Archives: Human Rights

The Evolution—not “Reinvention”—of Malcolm X: A critical review of Manning Marable’s MALCOLM X: A LIFE OF REINVENTION

Malcolm X is one of the most multifariously portrayed individuals in human history, painted as someone between an “unashamed demagogue [whose] gospel was hatred”[1] to black people’s “own black shining prince—who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved [them] so.”[2] After nearly two decades of scouring a cornucopia of government documents, periodicals, dissertations, journal articles, books, oral histories, and face-to-face interviews, the late Manning Marable completed an exceptionally detailed and illuminating biography of Malcolm, entitled: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.[3] While Marable compendiously reconstructs Malcolm’s life within its sociopolitical and historical context, at times, he indulges in excessive interpretative privileges. In this essay, I will explicate the biography’s general framework, and provide a critical analysis of Marable’s speculative pursuits. Once readers discern Marable’s subtle biases, Malcolm emerges as a man who was so uncompromisingly committed to virtues of faith, truth, dignity, and justice for his fellow black brothers and sisters, that as he gained insight into his personal and ideological flaws, he had the courage to let go of deep-seated beliefs and evolve, not “reinvent” himself, toward becoming a man committed to the full humanity of all.

One troublesome element is the book’s recurring theme that Malcolm’s narrative was “a brilliant series of reinventions.”[4] Marable defines, “the art of reinvention” as the deliberate and “selective rearrangement of a public figure’s past lives.” Marable claims that, “self-reinvention was an effective way for [Malcolm] to reach the most marginalized sectors of the black community, giving justification to their hopes.”[5] While details of his past life may have been slightly exaggerated,[6] this hardly negates the fact that Malcolm’s experiences of being black, poor, and a former prison inmate in racist America all created an authentic, not invented, connection between Malcolm and millions of black people relegated to America’s ghettos.

The most egregious example of Marable’s speculative pursuits is his assertion around Malcolm’s “homosexual encounters.”[7] Based on a paradox, “circumstantial but strong evidence,” Marable takes the liberty to claim that in one section of Malcolm’s Autobiography he “was probably describing his own homosexual encounters [italics added].”[8] Drawing upon unverifiable rumors and the fact that Malcolm both worked for a man who was gay, and believed that the man would help him in a time of need, Marable implied that no other explanation was possible other than the two men being sexually involved. Homophobic narratives, such as this, are partly why many straight men think that if they become close friends with a gay man, they will be labeled as gay too.[9] Marable’s inclusion of the description, “homosexual lover,” along with a list of Malcolm’s past identities goes beyond responsible scholarship and into the tabloidization of facts.[10] Phrases like, “Malcolm was probably describing…” or in another section, “What [Malcolm] appears to be saying is…” are prime examples of Marable stating more than is given in the facts. It is necessary to discern Marable’s subtle speculations, because despite the book’s shortcomings, its overall tenor is well researched and very convincing.

Marable’s reconstruction of Malcolm’s childhood and early adulthood in the ghetto describes the early sources for the “emotional rage” he expressed when reacting “to racism in its urban context: segregated urban schools, substandard housing, high infant mortality, drugs, and crime.”[11] Malcolm’s first major evolution occurred in prison, where he met a sagacious and eloquent inmate named “John Elton Bembry: the man who would change his life.”[12] Bembry influenced Malcolm’s development into an “organic intellectual” as he devoured texts on history, philosophy, English, and religion.[13] The natural genius of Malcolm cannot be overstated.

Through the combination of learning about oppression in black history and his father’s involvement in Garveyism, Malcolm was “transformed…into a trenchant critic of white Western values and institutions.”[14] Additionally, the cumulative effect of incidents such as having his childhood home bombed by whites, being told by a white teacher that becoming a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger,” countless negative experiences with whites, and the hope that the Nation of Islam gave him for his life after prison explain how Malcolm’s early life made him amenable to the NOI’s theology that all whites were devils.[15] Eventually, however, no individual would have as great an impact on Malcolm’s life as the leader of the NOI, Elijah Muhammad.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its in-depth exposure of the history and structure of the NOI. In the biography, the NOI emerges as a heterodox sect of Islam (at least during Malcolm’s time), “whose core philosophy was apolitical” black nationalism, and was rife with internal conflicts sometimes resulting in violent disciplinary actions by “pipe squads.”[16] Elijah Muhammad’s control over the NOI, including much of his wealth, was “derived from his special (if fictive) status as Allah’s Messenger.”[17] Malcolm’s commitment to faith, truth, dignity, and justice for black people, as he believed it at the time, is demonstrated through his relentless efforts to grow the NOI and his fervent loyalty to Elijah Muhammad. As long as Malcolm believed that the truth of the NOI was the best alternative for black people, then Malcolm was sold out for its cause. Due to his loyalty to the NOI, Elijah Muhammad, and black people, Malcolm even made the regrettable mistakes of abandoning his brother Reginald and neglecting his wife and children.

Malcolm’s split with the NOI involved a combination of allegations around Elijah’s sexual exploitation of at least nine NOI secretaries, dissention and jealousy over Malcolm’s burgeoning status, and disapproval of his increasing involvement in secular politics. I would argue that this combination was the result of Malcolm’s commitment to faith, truth, dignity, and justice for black people. As Malcolm came to believe that neither Elijah was perfect nor that the NOI’s apolitical program was viable for black liberation, he drifted from strict adherence to the sect’s apolitical program. However, the fact that Malcolm did not speak out upon initially learning about Elijah’s sexual exploits is a good reminder that Malcolm was not without his flaws, and that even he waffled on his own values from time to time. Malcolm’s international experiences and exposure to orthodox Islam most likely added to his decision to renounce the doctrines of the NOI. Malcolm proclaimed that there is “no God but Allah,” yet:

Some of my very dearest friends are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics and even atheists—some are capitalists, socialists, conservatives, extremists…some are even Uncle Toms—some are black, brown, red, yellow and some are even white. It takes all these religious, political, economic, psychological and racial ingredients (characteristics) to make the Human Family and the Human Society complete.[18]

The final chapters of the biography are the most exciting, hopeful, and tragic. They are exciting because Marable provides a phenomenally detailed reconstruction of Malcolm’s evolving thought processes. While Malcolm embraced Islam’s universality and “equality of all races,” he stated that “As a black American…I do feel that my first responsibility is to my twenty-two million fellow black Americans.”[19] As such, Malcolm established the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization for Afro-American Unity.[20] The former was a strictly Islamic organization, while the latter was dedicated “to unify[ing] the Americans of African descent in their struggle for Human Rights and Dignity” and to the ‘building of a political, economic, and social system of justice and peace [in the United States].”[21] They are hopeful because of the momentum Malcolm was beginning to gain among the mainstream Black Freedom Struggle, along with his evolving willingness “to take a firm stand on the side of anyone whose human rights are being violated.”[22] It seems that Malcolm was even beginning to evolve past some of his sexist worldviews, when he “[insisted] that in the OAAU ‘women [should have an] equal position to the men.’”[23]

Yet, it all ends in the immeasurably tragic loss of a “black shining prince—who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved” so much. Marable’s detailed account of FBI files, along with the FBI’s refusal to disclose over a thousand pages in Malcolm’s file, revealed that the mystery behind Malcolm’s killers and the plausible complicity of law enforcement are yet to be resolved.

Contrary to Marable’s thesis of “reinvention,” I would argue that Malcolm was not deliberately changing his image to achieve a certain objective. Instead, Malcolm’s commitment to faith, truth, dignity, and justice for black people, along with his courage to change, fostered the evolution of Malcolm’s social, political, and religious views. My hope is that the church, theology, and American society, today, would pick up where Malcolm left off. Christians, especially, could learn from Malcolm’s willingness to “join in with anyone…as long as [they] want to change this miserable condition” of social, political, and individual oppression. We could especially learn from Malcolm’s courage to admit his wrongs and willingness to change his beliefs, all for the purpose of making “the Human Family and the Human Society complete.”

[1] Manning Marable, Malcolm X : A Life of Reinvention (New York: Viking, 2011), 455.

[2] Ibid., 459.

[3] Ibid., 490.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Ibid., 260.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Ibid.

[9] To be clear, if Malcolm engaged in same-sex acts, it would do nothing to diminish his contributions to humanity, in my opinion. Also, conceding that it may be acceptable to “out” someone’s sexuality in the rare case that they are a deceased public figure, this action should only be taken if conclusive evidence is available.

[10] Marable, Malcolm X : A Life of Reinvention, 78.

[11] Ibid., 7.

[12] Ibid., 73.

[13] Ibid., 90–91.

[14] Ibid., 91.

[15] Ibid., 25, 38, 77.

[16] Ibid., 79, 133, 242–244.

[17] Ibid., 169.

[18] Ibid., 369–370.

[19] Ibid., 368.

[20] MMI and OAAU, respectively.

[21] Ibid., 350.

[22] Ibid., 329.

[23] Ibid., 374.