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Monday, November 21, 2011

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention or "Marable's Gamble"

Reading "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention" by Manning Marable has been both exciting and disappointing.  The image of Malcolm X most people remember today is that of Spike Lee's reintroduction of the man and his socio-theology based on "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and Denzel Washington's outstanding portrayal.  Manning Marable died a few weeks before the publication of his book, a book that took him 25 years of research, interviews and other sources of information.  His take on Malcolm X is both amazingly informative and/or downright wrong in many places.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Malcolm X's life is the transformation from drug peddler, pimp, hustler into one of the most intellectually dynamic voices of our times.  His intellect was incredibly sharp; his debate skills downright near perfect.  This is the part of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" that most influenced me as an undergraduate.  The first time I came into contact with an excerpt of Malcolm's autobiography was in "The Harper Row Reader" where Wayne C. Booth praised Malcolm's transformation as nothing short of a miracle.  I must say I agree with him, and, in the interest of full disclosure, I must accept the fact that my interest in Malcolm X led me to do my graduate dissertation on "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," a book I read and re-read and knew better than I knew any account of my own life.  As a result, I must confess a certain amount of bias when it comes to defending Malcolm from allegations that 1) are not true, and 2) there's no way of proving them true.

What Marable fails to do in the first half of the biography is explain or substantiate some claims that seem obviously put in place to raise controversy.  Case in point: Malcolm's homosexual relationship with one William Paul Lennon.  Marable's account is that Malcolm distorted the role or even the personification of this Lennon character in the autobiography as simply someone Malcolm peddled prostitutes to.  In exchange, Marable argues the relationship was that of a homosexual nature.  He further argues that Lennon visited Malcolm in prison but qualifies it as "possible" that in fact Lennon ever did visit Malcolm.  Another more revealing part of the claim is that while Marable asserts a string of constant correspondence between Lennon and Malcolm, he admits that [t]here's no evidence from [Malcolm's] prison record in Massachusetts or from his personal life after 1952 that he was actively homosexual." I don't doubt Marable's excellent academic career, or his life-long work regarding Malcolm's legacy, but I do know that even academics write in this "juicy" or "gossipy" tidbits in order to create controversy or even sell more books.  If publicity was what Marable was seeking, he definitely got it from Malcolm's children.  All of Malcolm's daughters came out in defense of their father, creating (among Kardashian's and Casey Anthony's circus) a minor media sound-bite.

The other part of the first half of the biography that I personally find lacking is the minor use of "Shorty" Jarvis, Malcolm's best friend and partner in crime to corroborate not only the time lines, but also the facts about their life of crime.  Mr. Jarvis is an open book when it comes to his relationship with Malcolm--so much so, that in 1996, I wrote and was able to interview him personally in supporting my interpretation for my thesis.  He was a kind, gentle and jovial.  To this day, he still finds it hard to talk about the painful memory of Malcolm's fate.  I am not quite sure why Marable limited "Shorty" Jarvis in his research.  On the other hand, Marable used an almost exhaustible research based on Malcolm's time in the Nation of Islam; even when he knew the Nation of Islam would try and divert attention from the fact that they were involved in Malcolm's death.  Nevertheless, Marable more than makes up for it in the second part, problematizing Nation of Islam accounts and pointing out discrepancies.

The second half of the biography shines with details and well-researched facts.  It was really an eye opening experience to read about Malcolm's assassination and what followed.  Revelations of how deeply involved were some of the government agencies who at the time were tracking Malcolm even in his overseas trips were good to read and corroborated by Marable, they made for the most interesting part of the biography.   The outcome of the investigation, and, more tragically, the mismanagement of the crime scene by the NYPD is a true testament of the civil rights inequalities in his country at the start of the 1960s.  The mismanagement was so great, that a dance that was scheduled for the Audubon grand hall that very evening went right on as schedule (only less than five hours or so after the assassination).

Marable closes the autobiography with masterful research into the lives of the people that most influenced or touched Malcolm's life.  For example, I never knew of any information available about Ella Collins, Malcolm's half-sister, with whom Malcolm lived in the first days of his move to the East Coast.  She tried to keep Malcolm's organizations going but with little help, she was bound to fail.  Other information regarding Malcolm's right hand men (James 67X and Charles 37X Kenyatta) and how their own dislocated and misguided  efforts to keep Malcolm's legacy alive did more harm than good.

This was an interesting and timely book.  Manning Marable manages to offer a good account of Malcolm X's life, a life that wasn't without its faults and controversies.  Where Marable fails is the insistence on points regarding Malcolm's life that are neither important nor revelatory.

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