Thursday 26 May 2011

Review of Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Malcolm X. The name is forever redolent of an era of tumult and struggle of Americans of African descent seeking to obtain basic legal rights as well as to affirm a pride in their collective heritage.

His name conjures images of a bespectacled, alternatively clean-shaven and later goateed orator extraordinaire whose incisive diatribes on the ills of America and its treatment of its black inhabitants brought to prominence a religious sect known as the Nation of Islam.

He developed and perfected a rhythmically calibrated style of delivery which was clear and direct, and which he interspersed with a frequently coruscating wit. The arrow-straight finger which jabbed accusingly over a lectern or at a camera toward the oppressor, also served as a stern call-to-arms to the ‘deaf dumb and blind’ oppressed masses who he sought to educate and to emancipate.

Phrases which he coined like ‘By any means necessary’, parables he recounted like that of the ‘house Negro and the field Negro’ and speeches which he delivered such as the ‘Message to the Grassroots”, are memorable expositions of his spirited and uncompromising quest for the liberation of his people.

The potted outlines of his story from birth to death are fairly well-known; this aided pre-eminently by the best-selling Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was released some months after his assassination in 1965, and the 1992 film Malcolm X. His metamorphosis from street criminal to religious zealot culminated in a final state of transition during which he was cut down.

It was during this period that the man decried by his detractors as an apostle of hate and a promoter of racial separation altered significantly his approach and attitude to the struggle for rights, and with his break from the Nation of Islam, made a substantive amendment to his religious faith.

And though he continued to profess his adherence to the creed of Black Nationalism, his apparent moderation on racial matters together with shifts in his framework of social analysis, gave much scope to those from disparate schools of thought who wished to project him as having been allied to their ideas.

Claimed variously by black nationalists, pan-Africanists, socialists, Trotskyites and even by the American establishment via the issuing of a stamp in his honour, it sealed a seemingly improbable evolution in the perception of a man who when alive had been cast as a pariah by large swathes of American public opinion.  By the 1990s he had become apotheosised, his image reaching iconic proportions.

But the idolisation, the hagiography and the crass commercialisation appeared to cheapen his legacy. High up on this pedestal, the man eulogised by the actor Ossie Davis as “our black manhood” and “our shining black prince”, seemed to be shorn of nuance and complexity. 

Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention seeks to redress this, and his primary focus in terms of deconstructing the life of Malcolm was to scrutinise many of the key features undergirding Alex Haley’s autobiography including certain events, characters and chronologies.

Haley, it should be mentioned, was a talented storyteller given to embellishment and even plagiarism, a charge which was proven in devastating fashion by Harold Courlander, from whose novel, The African, he had appropriated substantive plots and characterisations in order to create his international bestseller Roots.

Marable, himself a left-leaning professor, charged that Haley, in his words a ‘liberal Republican’, had an agenda in shaping Malcolm’s legacy to suit a moderate and broadly integrationist philosophy which was the prevailing mood of the times.

In the years leading up to the release of his book, Marable spoke of the chapters missing from Haley’s work including a whole chapter dedicated to the aims of the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (O.A.A.U.), the secular body Malcolm formed in the last segment of his life.

There was the promise of further revelations relating to the circumstances surrounding Malcolm’s assassination, including the role played by government and police agencies and the identification of the assassins.

The book would also present, in a spirit of objectivity, perspectives of the Nation of Islam including interviews with its present leader, Louis Farrakhan.

Breaking from what he construed as the largely hagiographic formula in the works produced on the subject, Marable’s professed aim was to construct a more human Malcolm, to write a truly critical biography which would assess the competing narratives and record the public and the private aspects of Malcolm encompassing his brilliance as well as his shortcomings.

The results are decidedly mixed.

In an almost 600-page work filled with copious end-of-book notes and bibliography, Marable’s avowed aim of making this the ‘definitive’ biography on his subject is clearly manifested by the sheer scope and detail of his research.

Contemporary academics who write about serious issues and personalities whose life stories are expected to find an audience outside of the ivory towers of academia can no longer produce manuscripts which are styled in an atypically desiccated drone, but instead are obliged to write consistently in engaging and vibrant prose.

On this count Marable largely succeeds. For instance, he is rather good at conveying the style and rhythm of Malcolm’s oratory by analogising his speech patterns to the jazz cadences of be-bop around which Malcolm had lived, worked and hustled during his sojourn in Harlem.

He contextualises Malcolm’s life within the prevailing social, cultural and political circumstances in which he lived, and delves into  Malcolm’s childhood experiences with due note being made of his antecedents within the Garveyite movement.

A key thread of Marable’s narration, which is reflected in the book’s sub-title, is his portrayal of Malcolm’s life as an evolving drama of a character who adopts and projects identities which are rooted in the African American folk traditions of the trickster and the preacher.

The theme relating to Malcolm’s changing persona and capacity for self-reinvention is particularly apt as it has been a device employed through the ages by African Americans to serve as a survival mechanism, and indeed, is also a reflection of the American penchant for self-invention, an idea which professes that a person can be whoever they want to be and whoever they say they are.

In his deconstruction of Haley’s autobiography, Marable is particularly successful in discovering a number of exaggerations in terms of the extent of the criminality of Malcolm during his ‘Detroit Red’ phase. And his argument that Malcolm’s purpose in doing so was to empathise with the sort of audiences who he was trying to raise out of the cesspit of moral degeneration rings true.

In contrast to the last major biographical attempt by Bruce Perry in Malcolm: The Life of a Man who Changed Black America, which was steeped in references to the supposedly psychological traits of its protagonist, Marable casts his net further by persistently analysing Malcolm’s actions in the context of history and the future. For instance, his reference to the fact that Malcolm was one of the few prominent African Americans including Paul Robeson who had sought to internationalise the plight of the black citizens of America.

Some of Malcolm’s analysis, he claims, anticipated the works of Frantz Fanon, a contemporary, whose works like The Wretched Earth and Black Skin, White Masks were not yet available in the English language. He even credits Malcolm with an almost unerring prescience in his predicting that it was conceivable in a multicultural future that “the black culture will be the dominant culture”.

But Marable’s research and presentation in other critical respects are less praiseworthy and, indeed, have led to accusations of shoddy fact-finding, an indulgence in unwarranted speculation and succumbing to the level of tabloid-like sensationalism.

The references to alleged homosexual encounters are based on his inferences of a story recounted in Malcolm’s autobiography and an uncorroborated statement by a relative of Malcolm’s half-sister, Ella Collins.

Another bone of contention relates to a letter purportedly written by Malcolm to Elijah Muhammad, setting out in intimate detail his marital problems with his wife Betty. This particular item was apparently rejected by author Karl Evanzz when researching his book on Malcolm in the 1980s. Also contentious are the references he makes to two possible extra-marital affairs and one instance of a presumed adulterous encounter while abroad.

Other issues which leave Marable’s work vulnerable to devastating criticism include his implying that both Alex Haley and an investigative journalist named Alfred Balk were FBI agents. He may also have erred in absolving one of the alleged assassins of Malcolm.

A Life of Reinvention, the product of years of painstaking research into a quite remarkable man, is an absorbing read and does give a range of fresh perspectives and analysis into the life and influence of Malcolm X. But in his attempt to deconstruct the history and personality of his subject matter, Manning Marable may have succeeded in perpetuating a few myths of his own.

Adeyinka Makinde (2011)

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