Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable

Malcolm X. A Life of Reinvention

I gather that Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is now considered the definitive Malcolm X biography. Certainly Marable has done a massive amount of research.

Throughout the book, the author compares the truth—or at least the best approximation of the truth produced by his research—with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as he knows that that book is the primary source of information about Malcolm for most people who know anything of him. (It was for me before reading this.) He concludes that the Autobiography is significantly inaccurate.

I’m not sure that I would draw that conclusion from his premises. The differences maybe seem more minor to me than to him.

Many of the differences are differences of emphasis or interpretation. The author, for instance, contends that Malcolm’s break with the Nation of Islam was more over doctrinal matters than one would infer from the Autobiography, where it is attributed much more to Malcolm’s disillusioning discovery of the personal corruption of Elijah Muhammad, with his numerous lovers and illegitimate children. That’s a plausible point based on the evidence he provides, but I don’t know that Malcolm can be accused of being particularly inaccurate or dishonest in the Autobiography; he just chose to emphasize a different aspect of the break, and maybe even consciously believed that that was the bigger factor than the policy disagreements.

Other differences are matters of omission. For example, the Autobiography, not surprisingly, has no mention of the fact that Malcolm was probably involved in a dalliance with an 18 year old woman for a brief period shortly before he was assassinated—ironic, given his dispute with Elijah over his adventures out of wedlock. (I’m not saying what Malcolm did—if it’s true—is equivalent to what Elijah did. Elijah cheated with multiple people for decades, he fathered several children along the way, and he denied it all and fought to avoid taking any responsibility financial or otherwise for those children as long as he could. Plus he made (ludicrous) claims to being at least a prophet on the level of Mohammed if not divine himself, so one would think the standards would be a bit higher for him.)

There are a smaller number of things in the Autobiography that really are—assuming Marable is correct—inaccurate. For instance, one of the juicier tidbits one learns in this book is that Malcolm, in his pre-Nation of Islam days, prostituted himself to an older, wealthy white man. He may have had more experiences as a male prostitute, but that’s the one that can be confirmed with the available evidence. There is a little something about that in the Autobiography, but there Malcolm claims he is relating something a guy he knows named “Rudy” did rather than admits that he did it.

The inaccuracy that Marable emphasizes the most is that Malcolm substantially exaggerated his criminal past in the Autobiography, presumably to dramatize how far down he had fallen and therefore how far he was subsequently pulled up by Elijah and the Nation of Islam.

I’m a stickler for accuracy, so I’m not going to say it’s totally unimportant if the Autobiography is embellished, but when I say the discrepancies Marable has uncovered don’t feel as significant to me as they apparently do to him, what I mean is if your picture of Malcolm comes mostly from the Autobiography, I don’t think it’s all that far off from reality. It’s likely some of his criminal exploits you read about there were fictitious, but it’s not as if he was a middle class person or otherwise had a substantially different lifestyle from what is depicted in the Autobiography.

He was a hoodlum, he lacked a stable home and bounced around from place to place in his teens and young adulthood, he had a series of low level jobs that he couldn’t—or chose not to—hang on to, he was an active participant in the shady aspects of Harlem’s nightlife, he committed robberies and other crimes, he had at least some involvement with drugs, and in general he was a lower class black man surviving on the streets by his wits. And he eventually got caught and thrown in prison. All that is in the Autobiography, and all that is true.

Again, it’s not completely unimportant if he invented or exaggerated some of the details of that period of his life, but I don’t see that correcting them really changes the overall sense of what kind of a person he was.

The author, by the way, mostly doesn’t take issue with the Autobiography’s claim that Malcolm’s father was murdered by racist whites, which some right wing critics claim has been debunked. The author confirms that the father and the family as a whole were harassed and victimized in various ways by whites, and says that it cannot be proven whether the father’s death was an accident or murder, but that it was highly suspicious. The evidence in favor of the Autobiography’s account is moderate to high, though inconclusive.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is particularly strong in providing background and context about Malcolm’s family, the Nation of Islam, other movements in black America that preceded or were contemporaneous with the Nation of Islam, etc.

Malcolm’s parents were activists in the Marcus Garvey movement. I had heard of Garvey before reading this, but knew almost nothing about him except that apparently his movement was a “back to Africa” thing about encouraging American blacks to move to Africa.

There was a lot more to it than that, and even that one aspect of it, while not completely false, is misleading. The Garvey philosophy was a kind of separatist, self-help one for blacks, an encouragement to build their own institutions and rely on their own community as much as possible rather than be dependent on whites. Members also were encouraged to remember and honor their kinship with Africans and with other blacks around the world, and at one point some of the leaders of the movement adopted goofy titles referencing Africa as if they were a sort of government in exile or future government of Africa, but it’s not like all they were about was getting blacks to physically return to Africa.

There were several pseudo-Islamic groups for blacks before the Nation of Islam came into existence. Like the Nation of Islam, they combined elements of Islam with things they made up. In addition to overlapping with these groups, the Nation of Islam, with its emphasis on racial separatism and self-help, also overlapped with the Garvey movement, which presumably made it more appealing to Malcolm and other family members who were raised in a Garveyist environment.

The Nation of Islam was really a dud for a long time, even more insignificant than the now largely forgotten other black pseudo-Islamic groups of the time. With its bizarre science fiction style mythology, it was a kooky fringe group even compared to those other kooky fringe groups.

Part of the reason it was a tiny, obscure group for so long is likely that it was led by Elijah Poole (rechristened Elijah Muhammad). Elijah was chosen by Founder Wallace Fard as his successor early in the group’s history, just before Fard disappeared, one step ahead of the law. He was a dubious choice.

Elijah was a poor speaker with no charisma. Not to mention he was a megalomaniac who did things like change the rules so that members had to face Chicago where he lived when they prayed instead of Mecca. (He later changed it back to Mecca.)

Really the group only took off when Malcolm joined and fully devoted his extraordinary talents to it, becoming a figure famous around the world. It was given another boost when it managed to land Muhammad Ali as a convert.

Having a few famous figures like that can do wonders for a cult, hence the “Church” of Scientology’s strategy of pulling out all the stops to get Hollywood celebrities to join.

The Nation of Islam earned its thuggish reputation; that wasn’t some myth created by racist white critics. Its paramilitary wing routinely beat and occasionally killed members who broke the rules (such as if they were caught smoking) or who were perceived to be in any way disloyal to the cult.

Was Malcolm an exception to the group’s violent strain? Yes and no. I see no evidence that he was inclined to use violence in petty political squabbles to improve his internal position in the cult, nor to use violence on members under his control just as an outlet for sadism—in both cases unlike many others in Nation of Islam leadership positions.

But he consistently spoke in favor of blacks having the right to use violence in the broader societal struggle against the white power structure. On one occasion, when blacks were slaughtered by cops at a mosque in Los Angeles, Malcolm started the process of forming hit squads to assassinate cops in retaliation. No attacks were carried out, because Elijah overruled him, stating that the only people who died were cowards who were surrendering instead of defending their mosque, and so were unworthy of being avenged.

That makes it sound like Elijah was fine with spontaneous violence in self-defense, but not premeditated retaliatory violence. From the fact that he was fine with retaliatory and punitive violence within his organization, we can infer that his opposition to retaliating for the Los Angeles incident was not a matter of principle, but a matter of self-interest. He knew he had a good racket going, and that while it was based in part on fiery rhetoric against the powers that be, if the group crossed the line into actually taking action against those powers—by assassinating cops, for instance—the whole thing could come crashing down and he could end up spending his final days in prison rather than in mansions surrounded by his mistresses.

Indeed, Elijah’s unwillingness to draw attention to the group as enemies of the state, and Malcolm’s growing urgency about being a political leader of his people and challenging the white power structure made it more and more likely they would have to come to a parting of the ways. If it hadn’t happened over Elijah’s scandalous personal behavior, it likely would have happened fairly soon over something else.

Elijah claimed that staying out of politics was part of a long term strategy of letting the civil rights movement run its course and fail, after which blacks would turn to the Nation of Islam en masse due to their disillusionment with other options, at which point they could pursue more political goals from a position of greater strength. But in all likelihood, like I say, it had a lot more to do with avoiding putting his life of luxury at risk.

Given the nature of the Nation of Islam, when the break finally did come, everyone seemingly fully expected Malcolm would be killed over it. This wasn’t like stepping down as a priest or minister and returning to a civilian life. It was like betraying the Crips or the Stasi. Malcolm’s was one of the least surprising assassinations in history.

Toward the end of his time with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm seemed increasingly open to working with and forming coalitions with civil rights groups, but Elijah would have none of it.

Actually, among the few potential alliances Elijah didn’t veto were those with, of all things, white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazis (on the grounds that they agreed on one of the central tenets of Nation of Islam ideology, which was that the races should remain separated—no forced integration of neighborhoods and schools, no interracial marriage, etc.). Malcolm cooperated with this—he was one of the Nation of Islam leaders who met with representatives of these racist groups—but according to Marable he was not comfortable with it.

Even as Malcolm at times seemed more receptive to working with civil rights groups, he continued in speeches and debates and such to usually parrot the Nation of Islam party line that the civil rights movement was fundamentally misguided in that it naively sought to appeal to the consciences of whites and nonviolently persuade them to change their ways, whereas whites in fact were devils who would always hate and oppress blacks and resist integration, and would have even greater disrespect and contempt for them if they were so weak that they used only nonviolence.

Malcolm and the Nation of Islam liked to think that they were the realistic ones who had seen and understood the true nature of things, including the essential evil of whites. Some in the civil rights movement had a telling rejoinder for them, however, voiced for instance by Bayard Rustin in a debate with Malcolm, which was that the last thing the Nation of Islam should be bragging about is their realism, given that the only alternative they seemed to offer to the civil rights movement’s goals of integration and equal rights was a separate nation carved out of the United States just for blacks, where they could live separately, not oppressed by whites or dependent on whites. However realistic the civil rights movement’s goals were or weren’t, surely the likelihood the United States would turn over a good chunk of its territory to a new blacks-only country was infinitesimal. There simply was no conceivable path to that outcome, with or without the use of violence.

The author contends that Malcolm saw merit in that point, and that the fact that he couldn’t openly acknowledge that merit and act accordingly was just another indication that he could never fully realize his potential as a leader as long as he was constrained by Nation of Islam ideology.

There’s no doubt that Malcolm was changing toward the end of his time with the Nation of Islam and especially after leaving it. He came to embrace real Islam for one thing, and he certainly became a lot less simplistic in his racial views, recognizing that while as a system America retained significant racism that needed to be combatted, individuals of any race could be good or evil.

The author, though, stresses as one of his main points in this book that there is little evidence to support the now common simplistic version of these changes, which is that Malcolm was gradually shifting toward the Martin Luther King wing of the civil rights movement and likely would have embraced his philosophy of nonviolence.

Part of the reason was a matter of sociology, he contends. King had always had his greatest appeal for Southern blacks, rural blacks, and middle class blacks, not to mention liberal whites, but had never had much of a following among the masses of poor blacks living in misery in urban ghettos. On the other hand, Malcolm had by far his greatest appeal for precisely those urban blacks who largely equated nonviolence and cooperation with whites as treachery and inauthenticity. By the mid-60s, the ranks of those who were disillusioned with King and wanted more “action” were only growing, and indeed even the little bit Malcolm “softened” before his death led to his losing some of that base. The future—short term at least—was with the militants, and it’s unlikely Malcolm would have abandoned them, claims Marable, by embracing a philosophy that would be more palatable to whites.

Certainly I agree that it is not inevitable, or even likely, that had he lived long enough Malcolm would have evolved to become a great leader of nonviolence like King. I nowhere get the feeling—from this book or other things I’ve read—that Malcolm ever grasped the philosophy of nonviolence, the theory behind the ideas and actions of figures like Gandhi and King. I don’t think he understood it and rejected it in an informed way; I think he reacted to it in more of a superficial, gut-level way as weakness, and I don’t see that that changed much if at all toward the end of his life.

Still, I probably hold out a little more hope than the author would deem justified that Malcolm might have moved significantly in the direction of nonviolence had he lived.

Gandhi said many times in his life that great warriors—people who fought with honor and courage, including with violence, for what they believed in—were much closer to his ideal than the majority of people who were superficially nonviolent. If a person was nonviolent because they were passive, cowardly, not willing to stand up for themselves, etc., he contended, it was very hard for them ever to be the kind of nonviolent activist he needed for his movements, whereas it was a much shorter step from being a brave and determined violent fighter to a brave and determined nonviolent fighter.

Malcolm was a bright, principled, courageous person fiercely committed to his vision of justice. He was never a cruel person. In his way he in fact was a very loving person, and toward the end there was a significant diminution in the hatred that for ideological reasons had long coexisted with that love.

I think Gandhi would have seen a great deal to admire in Malcolm, and would have held out considerable hope that he could be converted to nonviolence as his moral awakening continued, and further that if that did happen then we would see the true greatness he was capable of.

I agree with the author that Malcolm still believed in violence in a good cause, and still mostly was dismissive of King’s version of civil rights activism, but I also agree with (what I’m attributing to) Gandhi that it would not have been all that long a step from where Malcolm was, especially at the end of his life, to being a nonviolent warrior for justice. So I’d put the likelihood of Malcolm—had he lived—ending up as more of a King-type nonviolent leader at under 50% yet higher than I take it Marable would.

I gather from the book that a fair amount of the Nation of Islam’s violence and its scheming against Malcolm was independent of Elijah. It’s not like Elijah was in total control pulling all the strings. On the other hand, that dark side of the group was consistent with him and his values. It’s safe to conclude he was aware of and approved of the vast majority of the manifestations of the Nation of Islam’s gangster nature, including specifically its actions against Malcolm, even if he didn’t directly order them all.

The author does not go in for any extreme conspiracy theories about the assassination of Malcolm that deny he was killed by a hit squad from the Nation of Islam. But he does cite enough suspicious aspects of what happened to make it quite plausible that there was “more to the story” than the official version, that law enforcement looked the other way and allowed the assassination to happen, or possibly participated in it to some degree.

Certainly the FBI hated Malcolm, just as it hated King and pretty much anybody to the left of Lester Maddox. FBI surveillance of Malcolm, and of the Nation of Islam once it rose to prominence, was constant and sometimes illegal. (Creepy as that is, I guess the upside of it is that it’s a boon to later researchers. You sometimes get the feeling reading this book that 50% of its contents are based on information found in Freedom of Information request documents from the FBI.)

There are plenty of other interesting tidbits in the book that I haven’t mentioned yet.

Part of the time he was known as “Detroit Red” due to his red hair, the young Malcolm worked as a dishwasher at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in Harlem. One of the other dishwashers was a young man named John Sanford, who also had red hair and was dubbed “Chicago Red” to distinguish him from Malcolm. Chicago Red had a dream of making it big in show business, which he eventually did as a comedian with the stage name Redd Foxx.

Malcolm may have perceived himself as a hot shot, big time criminal, but he certainly didn’t live by the “code.” When he was arrested, he immediately ratted out his partners in the hopes of receiving leniency. His partners didn’t behave much better. For instance, his white girlfriend and the other white females associated with the robbery gang pretended to be victims who had been coerced by the black males to do what they did. Pretty much everyone scrambled to save their own ass, which I’m sure is quite common in such situations, whatever contrary rhetoric people in that lifestyle might espouse. When he was older, Malcolm showed much physical courage and commitment to principle, but not back then.

Not to mention that selling out his partners didn’t work. Malcolm and the other males in the group got much stiffer sentences than the norm for the crimes of which they were convicted, probably reflecting grave disapproval of their being with white women.

Malcolm is depicted in the book as having had a very rocky marriage. Among other things, he and his wife clashed frequently over sexual issues. Apparently he was hopelessly unable or unwilling to satisfy her sexual needs. Who knows why. There’s certainly no shortage of potential reasons. He had had at least some homosexual experience earlier in his life; maybe he wasn’t all that gung ho about heterosexual sex in general. The Nation of Islam had a very strong puritanical, moralistic streak to it; that can mess people up to where even approved sex creates conscious or unconscious ambivalence or guilt. Malcolm was a phenomenally hard worker and was constantly on the move, constantly busy with some Nation of Islam business or something political; maybe he was just too exhausted or distracted for more than infrequent, low quality sex.

He often confided in Elijah by mail about the sexual problems in his marriage. (This was back when his relationship with Elijah was still fairly strong, and he saw him as a great, practically infallible, leader, mentor, and father figure.) One consequence of that is that some of those in leadership positions in the Nation of Islam later openly mocked him about his sexual inadequacies, not only wanting to humiliate him, but to show him that nothing he might have thought was confidential about his communication with Elijah really was.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is a very valuable book for anyone interested in Malcolm X. I don’t think it’s a “debunking” of Malcolm’s famous Autobiography, which I would still put as number one by a narrow margin over this book as “must reads” for those wanting to explore the life of this fascinating, inspiring, and troubling person. Not that I’m saying Marable would claim it is such a debunking, but I’d guess he thinks of his work as going 10%-15% of the way in that direction, and I’d put it at more like 5%.

But in any case this book is a formidable achievement, worthy of a strong recommendation.

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