Monday, June 27, 2011

Who was Malcolm X: Criminal, Minister, Humanist, Revolutionary, or Martyr?

Over the weekend I finished reading the 500+ page new biography of Malcolm X by Manning Marable:

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

The very aptly titled book traces this extraordinary and quintessentially American's multiple reinventions and transformations over the course of his all too brief 39 years.  The man who we know today as Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, to fiercely proud and independent Garveyite parents and died (assassinated by his former Nation of Islam "brothers" - likely with the foreknowledge and possibly the assistance of the NYPD and the FBI) just a few blocks from where I live in Washington Heights, New York City in 1965.

Spookily, the place of his assassination was the Audubon Ballroom, now The Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center, located at 3940 Broadway (Malcolm was between 39 and 40 years old when he was killed).

Because his mother's family was from the West Indies, Malcolm was very light skinned and had a red tint to his hair, leading him to take on various nicknames when he moved to the East Coast including Detroit Red, New York Red, and Big Red.  He even performed briefly as part of a stage act in New York under the stage name Jack Carlton.

Later during his six years in prison in Massachusetts for armed robbery (a trumped up conviction because he and his African American partner had done the jobs with a pair of white women - who were also their lovers), fellow prisoners named him Satan for his characteristic screaming out against a God who he then denied the very existence of.

But of course, prison served him also as the cocoon where he would make his most important reinvention, becoming Malcolm X and joining Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam soon after his release in the early 1950s.

During his time in the Nation (which ended in 1964), Malcolm was alternately known as Malachi Shabazz and Malik Shabazz, taking the last name of the mythical Afro-Asiatic Shabazz tribe as did many members of the Nation of Islam.

However, his final and prematurely interrupted reinvention came during the final year of his life after leaving the Nation when he made the Hajj - the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all able Muslims once in their lives.  Now he was known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, an orthodox Muslim who increasingly sought to link the fate of African Americans to that of the newly independent African nations and the larger struggles for revolution and self-determination in the emerging Third World.

Apart from the idea of his extraordinary life of constant growth, revision, and reinvention, here are a few more things that I took away from Marable's very readable, comprehensive, meticulously researched biography:

* Growing out of his Meccan pilgrimage, Malcolm returned east once again in 1964 spending nearly half of the final year of his life crisscrossing the African continent, visiting heads-of-state, and building alliances meant to serve him and his new twin organizations back at home, The Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI) and The Organization of African-American Unity (OAAU).

* The FBI (and later the NYPD) had Malcolm under constant surveillance during the last 15 years of his life, successfully infiltrating both the Nation of Islam and other groups he was part of.  Still, his "minders" developed a grudging respect for him and his almost fakir-like focus, work-ethic, and puritanical habits.  They had great trouble uncovering any "dirt" on Malcolm despite Hoover's demands.

* Though his constant growth and multiple reinventions are awe-inspiring, most of his contemporaries and followers had great difficulty always understanding and keeping up with him, leaving him vulnerable to misinterpretation, slander, and violent attack from all sides.  Also, his own organizations, MMI and OAAU, like the Nation of Islam itself, were rigidly organized, top-down groups built in the image of Malcolm himself, making them extremely un-democratic, rife with internal rivalries and conflict, and unable to survive the death of their founder and leader.

* The book is an extremely useful companion and corrective to the American classic, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to the liberal Black Republican reporter Alex Haley). The bio retraces many of the same mythic episodes described in the Autobiography, but with an eye to deflating the self-created legend of "X" in order to uncover the at turns driven, shy, humorous, unsure, and strangely vulnerable man behind the "X."

* The personal and sexual "bombs" contained within Marable's bio that have generated some controversy prior to the book's publication do little to detract from the subject's extraordinary life, and to my mind, only show him to be more fully human and filled, like all of us, with complexity and contradiction.  These "bombs" are that he had had a homosexual relationship with a wealthy white patron in the late-1940s (attributed to a friend in the Autobiography); that he was a largely absent father, "virulent misogynist, and a horribly neglectful husband" (see Toure's review in the NYT; also see this other fascinating review and article) who had a stormy, loveless, and unfulfilling relationship to his wife Betty (both seem to have had affairs); and that one of the ways that Elijah Muhammad betrayed him was by taking as a secretary and impregnating Malcolm's "first love," Evelyn Williams, among numerous other young secretaries.

* Malcolm's initial salvation, the Nation of Islam, eventually became his greatest adversary. The Nation comes across in the bio as an internally fractured, mafia-like organization, with a frail, ailing leader, increasingly run by power hungry thugs and underlings who could accept no dissent or criticism and were bent on destroying Malcolm's reputation within the Nation (to eliminate a potential power rival) and assassinating him after he left (to get rid of the man best positioned to expose and overshadow the sect).  However, it remains to be seen whether the Nation was a greater enemy and adversary for Malcolm than the FBI and the NYPD, both of whom seem to have been very busy pulling various strings aimed at eliminating the increasingly dangerous and influential Malcolm.

* Finally, there are brief if interesting sections in the bio that refer to Malcolm's meetings with Castro and possibly Che Guevara (see above), easily his closest ideological analogue at the time.

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