Malcolm without the myth-making


BIOGRAPHY: Malcolm X: A Life of ReinventionBy Manning Marable, Allen Lane, 592pp. £30

HE WAS A HYPOCRITE, a misogynist and a racist who once attempted to collaborate with the Ku Klux Klan. He preached a bogus religion and was loyal to a charlatan. He was probably an anti-Semite, and he once shared a stage, uncritically, with the American Nazi Party. He gloated at John F Kennedy’s death and called Martin Luther King an Uncle Tom.

Malcolm X offended everybody, even (especially) his own: he was eventually assassinated by the group he had helped bring to national prominence, the Nation of Islam. Yet 46 years after his death, at the age of 39, only King ranks with him for popularity in the pantheon of black American leaders, while as an international icon of dissent he rivals Che Guevara. (Fittingly, they were mutual admirers.)

In this exhaustive new biography the late African-American scholar Manning Marable manages to deconstruct the mythology around Malcolm X even while explaining (and justifying) the reverence in which Malcolm is held. It is an immense achievement, the culmination of 20 years’ work by Marable, who died, aged 60, days before the book’s publication last month.

Marable’s starting point was The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published nine months after Malcolm’s assassination, in 1965. The enormously successful autobiography was ghostwritten by the journalist Alex Haley, and the collaboration was as much an exercise in myth-making as it was one in history.

The opening section of Spike Lee’s 1992 film, Malcolm X,based on the autobiography, deals with Malcolm’s early life as “Detroit Red”, a zoot-suited young man in Harlem. This is the stuff of classic gangster romance, the story of a fearless kid from out of town winning women, money and respect on the mean streets of the city.

It was a good story, but it wasn’t quite true: Malcolm had exaggerated his criminal record, perhaps to appeal more readily to wayward youths and to emphasise the drama of his recovery. And he had left out the more sordid aspects: as Marable reveals, he “participated in prostitution, marijuana sales, cocaine sessions, numbers running, the occasional robbery and, apparently, paid homosexual encounters”. He was also, it seems, an incompetent crook who, when caught, readily gave up his accomplices.

The consequence, in any case, was that Malcolm Little, as he was born, found himself sentenced to eight years for a bungled robbery. In prison he discovered the Nation of Islam, a cultish ideology of pseudo-Islam and black separatism. He dedicated himself to study and an austere personal regime, and by the time he emerged from prison he had become Malcolm X, a devout, intellectual black Muslim.

He would not, however, have been recognisable to Muslims elsewhere. Founded in 1930 by WD Fard, a pedlar who proclaimed himself divine, the Nation of Islam taught that American blacks were of an Asiatic people, Earth’s first. One of them, Yacub, an evil scientist, had created the white race, after which, through cunning and evil, the whites had displaced the Asiatic blacks. The solution, the Nation taught, was separation, the creation of a new black nation.

With his instinct for the vulnerabilities of those on the margins, and a rhetorical style that owed much to the ubiquitous rhythms of bebop jazz, Malcolm quickly proved himself the Nation of Islam’s leading proselytiser. By 1961 the Nation had seen a decade of explosive growth, from 1,200 or so members to more than 50,000, and Malcolm was its most prominent public figure, a charismatic and brilliant exponent of black nationalism and moral discipline. (The obscure cosmology was often relegated to the footnotes.)

Yet by then tensions were emerging, both within the Nation and within Malcolm. The Nation’s leadership had grown corpulent and Fard’s successor, “the honourable” Elijah Muhammad, had proven to be not quite so honourable around his female secretaries. Disillusioned by such moral laxity, and by Muhammad’s refusal to sanction political activism, Malcolm gravitated towards the mainstreams of both Islam and the black struggle. His rivals among the Nation’s leadership had long resented his star power; now they resented what they saw as his betrayal.

When he eventually broke from the Nation, to form a new mosque and a secular political organisation, the group mobilised its paramilitary wing, the Fruit of Islam, and assassinated him at a public lecture in Harlem in February 1965.

Marable gives much attention to the intrigue around Malcolm’s death, providing convincing evidence that at least one of those convicted of his murder was innocent, as well as circumstantial evidence that the FBI, the New York Police Department or both may have known of the assassination plans. He traces the evolution of Malcolm’s thought through the tumultuous and exhausting final years of his life (he survived often on four hours’ sleep, one meal a day and endless coffee) with painstaking rigour. But in all this detail something of the force of Malcolm’s rhetoric and character is sometimes lost. For this Spike Lee’s film, featuring Denzel Washington, is better: it captures the charisma, whereas the finer points of Malcolm’s positions, often conflicting, can simply be confusing.

Marable’s key insight does much to place this in context, however: Malcolm was a postcolonial thinker, in the tradition of Frantz Fanon, seeking to decolonise the minds of American blacks after 400 years of slavery and oppression. Ironically, the fine detail of Marable’s study demonstrates that the detail was not important. Malcolm was a performer (his rhetorical style influenced the jazz musician John Coltrane), and his performance was dedicated to the uplift of his people. The moral and oratorical force of that performance outweighed the contradictions of his person.

Marable restores to his subject the dignity of those human contradictions, and Malcolm is all the more compelling for it.

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