Marable’s Malcolm

It’s Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (and he’ll cry if he wants to). But do he and other lambrusco liberals bandying about the term know what revolution really means, or even care? In the first of several posts on food and revolution over the next couple months, I retweet passing thoughts I posted elsewhere on Manning Marable’s new biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

Hoards line up for the latest smartphone. Bevies for Justin Beaver tix. Me, I’m gonna run my broke ass downtown for a copy of Manning Marable’s Malcolm X book.

Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review turned Manning Marable’s Malcolm X back into Alex Haley’s.

Kakutani seemed intent on saving Malcolm from his radicalism, as if a service to her Times readership, a position to which Marable was explicitly reacting in the first place.

Dead, Marable displays more understanding of the American sociopolitical fabric in his still-growing fingernails than can be found in Kakutani’s complete oeuvre.

Saw Marable speak at the City College of New York about, hmm, ten years ago. He asked us afterward where the subway station was. A few of us offered him ironic but kind directions. He was, after all, the only Columbia cat who would bother turning up on the other side of Harlem Heights. Most at Columbia don’t know what CCNY means–as acronym or as parable–much less where the fuck it is.

The book begins surprisingly: a sociogeographic history of the Audubon Ballroom.

Ninety amazing pages in. Even the ten pages on the origins of Islam and its American variants, topics for which I thought I had little inclination, are worth the price of admission.

Malcolm Little took ‘Detroit Red’ to differentiate from fellow redhead and Jimmy’s Chicken Shack employee ‘Chicago Red’, John Elroy Sanford, later Redd Foxx. Y’know, ‘Sanford and Son’, “You hear that Elizabeth? I’m coming to join you, honey.”

Much has been made over the Nation of Islam’s variance with traditional Islam, eventually by X himself. But Marable describes the conditions under which NOI converged upon many Shi’a tenets.

The origins of a Kanye West line. When X marched hundreds of Nation of Islam members in formation around a Harlem station to free three NOI beaten and jailed by police, one officer, groping for an explanation, remarked, “No one man should have that much power.”

Medgar Evers investigated racist crimes. In Mississippi. In the 1950s.

Here’s one for Paul Krugman and other liberals waiting for the real Barack Obama to show up,

Malcolm…denounced the Eisenhower administration, particularly its failure to support the desegregation of public schools across the South. “The root of the trouble…is in Washington, D.C., where the modern-day ‘Pharaoh’s Magicians’ are putting on a great show, fooling most of the so-called Negros by pretending to be divided against each other.” The worst offender was Eisenhower himself, ‘the ‘Master Magician’ who was “too busy playing golf to speak out–and with the expert timing of a master general, when he does speak out, he is always too late.”

American electoral politics: Changing the locks every four years still keeps a people imprisoned.

Malcolm’s African conversion began long before his break from the NOI. Indeed, both Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad were profoundly affected by trips taken there years previous. Each attempted upon his return to better square the circle, trying to align NOI with traditional Islam and Pan-Africanism.

Both ultimately failed, less by virtue of errors on their parts than the extent to which–speaking in broad generalities–African Americans were isolated and alienated. It is truly a painful thing to be the very point you are making.

Beatnik placard greeting Castro on his first trip to the U.S.: “Man, like us cats dig Fidel the most. He knows what’s hip and bugs the squares.”

If you’ll allow me a ‘big thought’ 200 pages in. Black history has long run against a dysgenic headwind, if I may ironically appropriate Murray and Herrnstein. It is the notion on which whites across the political spectrum daily act–that their opinion is how the world works.

Race is hardly the only axis along which this assumption operates, but I can think of no more painful or vexing problem if you’re caught on the wrong side of the line.

In the midst of an Autobiography session with Alex Haley, Malcolm, reminiscing on Detroit Red, began scatting “re-bop-de-bop-blap-blam” and lindy-hopping with a piece of pipe.

The 1963 Malcolm engaged in a personal Mexican standoff–at one and the same time engaging an internationalist Islam, leading an emergent secular black radicalism, and holding off a recalcitrant internal NOI opposition with red meat about blue-eyed devils. The latter he was expected to curry with a cautious loyalty to the American republic!

Reads like a psychological political thriller, with the genre’s lead-up and pacing. Marable is clearly sympathetic toward his flawed hero’s dangerous quest but begs little of Malcolm’s bullshit.

If we can draw a lesson from Marable’s conceit of continual rebirth it is that the left, while sticking to its principles, would do well to embrace the right to learn and grow. Certainly circumstances conspire but imbuing history itself with a moralistic frustration corners many into thinking changing one’s mind is a sign of weakness.

How else would we attract ‘adherents’, goes the finely honed instinct, if we ‘vacillate’?

Revising strategies and tactics needn’t introduce the danger of co-option if principles and objectives are defined.

Easier said than done, with the game so rigged. But the reward of play is adaptation–the ability to respond to changing circumstances, including, we would hope, of our own making.

People become revolutionized when they find the space to give birth to themselves together.

The 1964 Malcolm, now ejected from NOI, appears at one and the same time fragile and free(er). He is in many ways still in the NOI (and now with no money) but even pre-Hajj begins to better integrate mind and message on his own terms.

On hajj Malcolm was able to better integrate self and politics into an albeit burning serenity. White supremacy at home needn’t be reflected back in black separatism but refuted by Islamic integration.

Wherever you go there you are. Wherever you go there is the world.

Not a counsel of despair. Indeed, even a means of liberation. The solutions found in one place can be hacked elsewhere. Geography can be our friend.

I just went Cabral on yo’ ass.

Malcolm gives Obamerica something to chew on: “It’s impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism.”

Malcolm’s second trip to Africa is a triumph, tinged with ambiguity and even melancholy. To the State Department’s (and the CIA’s) surprise and annoyance Malcolm succeeds in securing widespread support across Africa, including a number of open denouncements of American racism, a difficult task abroad during the Cold War.

He also ices NOI out of international Islam.

At the same time he must balance competing factions across Africa and the Middle East, including neocolonialists who wine and dine him, the kind of negotiation his ongoing reinvention makes difficult even among his own supporters at home.

His African success pushes the NOI and USG elements to independently(?) conclude “such a man is worthy of death.”

And Malcolm knows this as he steps on the plane back to the States.

Funny, the guy’s been dead longer than he was alive and groups across the political spectrum are still trying to get Malcolm’s attention. No fools, he dead.

Obviously, as Marable writes between the lines, this has something to do with more than one man, whose metaphysical journey included many a pit stop now posting signs, “Malcolm slept here.” No one would bother with such a post except Malcolm’s metamorphosis, as an object unto itself, remains for many at one and the same time fascinating and offensive.

Upon Che Guevara’s New York visit Malcolm declares, “We’re living in a revolutionary world and in a revolutionary age…[We must realize] the direct connection between the struggle of the Afro-American in this country on the struggle of our people all over the world…”

“You’ll never get Mississippi straightened out. Not until you start realizing your connection with the Congo,” where the U.S. sponsored Patrice Lumumba‘s assassination.

Al Jazeera offers a fascinating debate about Manning Marable’s book one would never find on a national broadcast here:

This is indeed Marable’s Malcolm, but are the critics quibblers? Haven’t reached the allegedly problematic sections, although Marable’s integrationist Malcolm, even on multiple detours, is so far no liberal.

X strikes me as all over the place even pre-post-NOI. Exploring a variety of ideological and strategic pathways, courting diverse allies, speaking to multiple (kinds of) audiences.

With his house–and almost his family–firebombed by NOI, Malcolm, living, in his own words, “like a man who’s already dead,” makes a damning and empathetic diagnosis of his murderers: “It takes madness almost to deal with a power structure that’s so corrupt.”

Shades of Fanon and Memmi. But leaving aside the intellectual framework we see the deepest of existential pain: a man who knows he’s been killed, like his father before him, by the sum totality, the runaway momentum, of a country which finds its meaning in savaging itself.

Only a few pages in but Marable’s investigation of Malcolm’s death is riveting. Of course, Malcolm was killed many times over, including, as we discussed previously, before his death. Apropos Sunday [when the assassination of Osama bin Laden took place], his murder was also followed by character assassination, a revealing reveling in America’s sacred anxieties.

Time Magazine wrote,

Malcolm X had been a pimp, a cocaine addict and a thief. He was an unashamed demagogue. His gospel was hatred…[The Audubon program started late because] characteristically [Malcolm] had kept his followers waiting for nearly an hour while he lingered over tea and a banana split at a nearby Harlem restaurant.

How, then, did he ever get on a stamp? The feds can stretch a big tent over a graveyard.

And so Malcolm is killed. Even in death he walks among his followers (and his killers), through their thoughts, passions and dreams:

Ossie Davis delivers a eulogy for the ages, written at a kitchen table.

Mosque 7, Malcolm’s old NOI temple, is burned to the ground.

NOI is itself eventually razed once Wallace Muhammad, on Elijah’s death, turns it toward traditional Islam and changes its name. Today’s NOI is an offshoot of Louis Farrakhan‘s own founding.

Malcolm’s conservative half-sister Ella takes control of his organizations and runs off his supporters.

Two of his accused assassins make for the border. There is another death, a strange one in the Mexican desert, the identity of the victim as mysterious as the killer.

A Boston-based Farrakhan, who, denying a role in Malcolm’s death in spite of pronouncing his once-mentor “a man worthy of death,” speaks three hours after the assassination at the Newark mosque Malcolm’s killers attended.

Years later Farrakhan speaks to a gray-haired Malcolm in a dream, informing Malcolm he failed Elijah Muhammad’s test. When it’s the visitor who listens, revelation is turned into rationalization.

Like Alex Haley, Bayard Rustin attempts to mainstream Malcolm into a pragmatic integrationist America could put on a stamp, ironically enough a machination with which Marable himself would be charged by critics in search of a certain kind of radical Malcolm.

For instance, Marable thinks Malcolm, on a “personal journey…toward peace and away from violence” would condemn September 11 as a rejection of Islam’s core. Perhaps uncomfortably an oversimplification which trades in tactics for ethos, scoring one for Marable’s critics.

Ah, and them critics. Most scathing from the black nationalist left. Karl Evanzz’ unpublished review, scotched by an e-zine headed by Henry Louis Gates who advanced-blurbed the book, scores some points in between ad hominem attacks on Marable. A man with Washington Post on his CV, however, shouldn’t spin another’s professional successes as a character flaw.

There are some elements of truth in there, however: Ella and Betty are really roughed up. And Marable’s treatment of Malcolm’s sexuality, among other elements, is at best speculative. But whatever minor errors or variances in interpretation there may be, and there will always be such, are being used to bludgeon the book’s paradigm-shifting merits. A bait-and-switch.

So peaceable statesman Malcolm wasn’t. But a decades-dead Malcolm is also pressganged into someone else’s war: Al-Qaeda’s new boss Ayman al-Zawahiri attempts to maneuver Malcolm against ‘house Negros’ Obama, Powell and Rice.

As Martin Luther King would discover on his own, following Malcolm’s radical road two years later, the campaign for Malcolm’s life wasn’t green-lit for his advocacy of tactical violence or separatism but, tellingly, once he turned to a socialistic internationalism.

A thing none of the major players in this story–FBI, NYPD, State Department, NOI, MMI, civil rights movement–cared for. At the risk of his own life Malcolm was truly cutting his own path, as Ossie Davis put it, “because he loved us so.”

Although I have more to say, this will conclude my tweets about the new book. My version of Marable’s Malcolm. The Reinvention is an exceptional work, whatever its flaws, which, given its scope and effort, are in my admittedly outsider view relatively minor.

As he’s been as much an object as subject, I think it best to end with Malcolm speaking for himself. To turn the tables, from whence comes Malcolm’s Marable (or Evanzz)?

First, excerpts from the founding rally of the Organization of African-American Unity in June 1964 and, if you’ll excuse the commercials, a lengthy excerpt of the man’s remarks at a debate at Oxford University in December 1964, two months before his death.

The clips demonstrate Malcolm’s dangerousness was located in his ability to use his education, a jailhouse degree, on his own terms–for the liberation of his people. He never aimed at merely making the machine work better, which many of us maneuver ourselves into thinking is the best that we can do.

Malcolm, however, was well aware of the costs he, or anyone else, must be willing to pay for such a liberation, for revolution.

“The price of freedom is death.”


2 Responses to “Marable’s Malcolm”

  1. rgwallace Says:

    You’re very welcome!

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