Like a Sniper in the Ivory Tower: Manning Marable’s Academic Assassination of Malcolm X

The late Manning Marable’s magnum opus (published literally days after his death) Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention was highly anticipated by many, many people. It was work years in the making, and was thought to be the definitive work on Malcolm’s life, filling in the gaps left by Alex Haley and Malcolm’s own beautiful and poetic, but certainly not objective, Autobiography of Malcolm X. However, since it’s release it has stirred controversy. Some reviewers, in response to the accusation of Malcolm’s supposed bisexuality/homosexuality, have put out analysis of the book that have bordered on the outright homophobic and have focused on ad hominem attacks on Marable.

However, many more reasoned, objective reviews of the book have been written, and they have taken Marable to task for the work he produced after many years and millions of dollars. What I have done below is reproduce some of the better ones for your information.

Marable’s Malcolm X: A Eulogy of Revolution as an Idea, by Jared Ball

Manning Marable titles his book’s epilogue “Reflections on a Revolutionary Vision.” However, his conclusion is more of a eulogy for the revolutionary ideas so carefully put to permanent rest throughout its preceding pages. Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention positions itself alongside, if not atop, a previous work by Marable’s protégé Peniel Joseph, as a well-written and hard-to-target missive clearly designed to popularize without implementation radical ideas – and by so-doing destroy them.

Throughout the book Malcolm’s constantly deepening and progressive struggle with armed resistance, white supremacy, socialism, pan-Africanism and even the power of the vote are softened by Marable in ways to support what has now become the only way to discuss radical ideas; riddled with scandal and distorted by selective emphasis. Marable’s conclusion is the dead giveaway. The overall tone of the book is simply foreplay to his repackaging of Malcolm’s political trajectory into marketable liberal politics of the post-9/11 book publishing world.

Malcolm’s biting and insightful criticism of electoral politics and neocolonial Black elected officials is repackaged into that which “anticipated” the power of the Black electorate to deliver Barack Obama. Malcolm’s increasing devotion to Sunni Islam and his persistent support of the Mau-Mau, even a similar effort within the United States, is re-imaged, absent context or critique, into a condemnation of Islamic “terrorism.” Malcolm’s explicit post-Mecca views on race that the white man here had not changed so nor would he and that John Brown remained his standard of white activism is lost beneath repeated descriptions of his moving toward views that are “race neutral” and support for anti-imperial struggles around the globe are re-written as “gentle humanism.”

Marable carefully crafts a narrative that promotes Malcolm’s political changes paternalistically as maturation and consistent with the world we face today. So other than Barack Obama and al-Qaeda which serve as ideological goalposts between good and evil the only contemporary reference Marable makes is to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism which he alleges “was in many ways a fulfillment of Malcolm’s international vision.” Obama becomes the safe expression of Malcolm’s Black nationalist control over politics and al-Qaeda become the anti-hero required to safely place Malcolm’s continued move toward orthodox Islam.

The 2001 conference provides Marable with a timely balance which conveniently allows him to use Malcolm as a Muslim to condemn 9/11. But if Malcolm spoke of chickens coming home to roost over Kennedy would this really be his position? Such questions are only raised to make a current political point. Otherwise we might be more accurate to say that had Malcolm lived the world would be radically different; 9/11 would have never happened and we would all be living in an African-centered socialist utopia. Here Marable becomes William Styron, who in the late 1960s gave an interview praising Nat Turner while condemning Rap Brown. Radicalism is fine once dead and buried, but it has no place in the present.

But no mention is made of the Durban II conference where the world gathered to decry the absence of progress made since 2001. But Obama refused to acknowledge this one just as Bush had the first and for similar reasons equally inconvenient for Marable. Malcolm’s anti-Zionism is easily dismissed as the negative influence of Nkrumah and Nasser. Its contemporary detractors have no such easily dismissed dead targets.

But major publications on such potentially threatening topics like Malcolm X and his ideas must make logically fallacious leaps like those in Marable’s conclusion. Malcolm X is the antithesis of Obama, not part of the president’s political lineage. The very question of Malcolm’s thoughts in 2011 demand that we accept the political impossibility of 2011 existing as it does with a living Malcolm X. This world exists because he and his ideas were and are in perpetuity assassinated.

 I am not likely to say much more about Marable’s book. My obsession with it will soon pass. As I close I am reminded of what someone once said not long ago about being careful to distinguish between who you read and who governs your interpretation of what is read.

For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Jared Ball.

An Ivory Tower Assassination of Malcolm X, by Kamau Franklin

 “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” – Malcolm X

I am pleased that Karl Evens and Zak Kondo, two biographers of Malcolm X, are speaking up and offering accurate critiques of Manning Marable’s new twisted biography of Malcolm X. They are defending Malcolm’s legacy, as Karl Evens put it, as “a Black Panther of a Man.” Manning’s book is a second assassination along the lines of Bruce Perry’s previous hatchet job and George Breitman’s attempt to move Malcolm from his ideological positions. In Marable’s bio we get a two for one attempt to move Malcolm from being a powerful black nationalist into a more academy friendly anti-racist social justice activist. Dangerous to no one but perfect for a liberal left academic establishment.

The only two books on Malcolm I can remember receiving in-depth New York Times reviews where Manning’s and Bruce Perry’s. Both were applauded by the Times, and both were meant to reinvent Malcolm and undermine his stature as the fountainhead of modern Black Nationalism. Breitman began the legacy of attempting to re-position Malcolm with his commentary on Malcolm’s shift to the socialist camp by picking individual statements and extrapolating their “true” meaning, which of course tended to be close to the writers ideological position. In Perry’s bio Malcolm sets his own house on fire, he introduces the first claim of Malcolm’s newly discovered sexual habits and tells us how psychologically unbalanced Malcolm was. Now with Marable we get a Malcolm who is more of an anti-racist social justice seeker. Marable’s backers say he wants to “humanize” Malcolm by making suggestions and unsubstantiated claims about Malcolm’s marriage and sexuality. Really, does Malcolm need to be “humanized? Is it not Malcolm’s humanity as exhibited by his personal struggles as a young man followed by his transformations that resonates with many of us?

Marable’s unsubstantiated claims are actually meant to create controversy in order to sell books, but more importantly as a way to undermine Malcolm’s standing in the Black Nationalist community. Marable, whose own politics always had an anti-nationalist bent, was a founder of the Black Radical Congress which led to a split in the group. Marable continued to call meetings of his BRC, literally serving hors d’oeuvres and wine while he organized the masses. Marable’s sad attempt to reposition Malcolm is such that by the end of the book Malcolm’s views are extrapolated to what he would believe if he was around today, which is closer to (surprise, surprise) Manning’s views and ideological beliefs.

Like many young black people I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X and it opened my eyes to the history of white supremacy in America, and to the ideas of Black Nationalism as the way to move forward. It made me want to investigate not just Malcolm’s life but capitalism, imperialism, African history and the history of Africans in America. This is not a unique experience for those who read the Autobiography (The book is so popular in the Black community that it is usually just called “the Autobiography”). Many people trace their political awakening to reading the Autobiography.

I have never met anyone who has said the Autobiography made them think of Malcolm in a conservative light. If that was Haley’s “liberal republican” attempt then he failed miserably. The Autobiography targeted in particular young brothers from the streets, working class sisters and brothers who after reading it wanted to find out more about political and economic structures in our community and how white supremacy impacts those communities from both the inside and out. In other words it radicalized people like few texts have in the modern era. Marable’s book is an attempt to take that away. If Marable’s book becomes the new lens through which a new generation learns about Malcolm, he loses his street swag, he loses his indomitable spirit and his political compass. Manning’s new construction of Malcolm takes him from the streets and his black nationalism and makes him a committed radical anti-racist.

 Marable received a good paycheck from his sponsors in the ivory tower to present us a Malcolm who would ultimately see the election of Barak Obama as part of Malcolm’s legacy. However no one that worked with Malcolm in his last days, that I have spoken to or heard speak, has ever made that claim. But today it seems safe to attempt to turn Malcolm into an anti-racist social justice soldier, one that can be embraced by middle class college educated people of all races. That is not Malcolm’s legacy. That is the legacy of overpaid ivory tower radicals who never refused a paycheck from their white institutions, who have never sided with Black Nationalists because most of their liberal friends (and bosses) would disown them. They could never give a different direction than more pressure on the Democratic Party as the most viable strategy.

When biographers replace their own ideology and wish list for their subjects they are no longer scholars but propagandists who speak through their subjects. The attempt to kill Malcolm again by “making him human” then re-packaging his ideas into the author’s version of a “mature” person is the most disdainful.

Marable claims Obama is part of Malcolm’s legacy. Really? Malcolm supported the bombing of Africa? He supported the continued embargo on Cuba? Free-trade zones? (Malcolm may not have yet been a socialist, but he was clearly anti-capitalist). Reliance on the two party system to solve the problems of African people in the United States? Malcolm spoke about black self-determination, not integration. Malcolm worked openly and actively to improve the collective lives of Black people, devise closer links to Africa and to bring the United States government up on charges before the United Nations, as he said not to bring the case to the criminal (civil rights) but to bring the criminal to court (human rights). This is our Malcolm, the real one.

Activist attorney Kamau K. Franklin is a leading member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. He is the former co-chair of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and a past member of the Executive Committee of the National Lawyers Guild. He can be contacted at kamauadeabiodun(at)yahoo.com

Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention or the Reinvention of a Life?, by Jared Ball

There is a growing sense among those who have read it that Manning Marable’s latest book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is itself a reinvention, or worse. From reviewers, journalists and scholars, some of whom have as yet not gone on record, we are hearing descriptive words like, “disappointment” and “unfortunate” in reference to the book. In one more severe response from an expert on the life of Malcolm X whose public statements are as of now still forthcoming, the comparison was made to political defamation in the form of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program warfare against revolutionary leaders and movements. Perhaps most damaging is that the author is one as prominent, well-respected and recently deceased as Marable and that the subject is Malcolm X, a man whose high regard among Black Americans and genuinely good human beings of all backgrounds is simply and often literally second-to-none.

 In our initial discussion of the book Dr. Todd Burroughs offered his first observations which included that the book appeared to have been written “by committee,” that is by a staff of graduate student and junior faculty researchers, and that the book was limited in its references and even more so by its woefully short list of only 25 interviews. Burroughs has said that he will with “sadness” publish his full review this week. We also discussed with Richard Prince of Journal-isms his reporting of an interview conducted with Karl Evanzz, a noted author of and researcher into the life and assassination of Malcolm X. Karl Evanzz has said that Marable’s book is a “fraud” and a “failure.” His problems include that Marable offers nothing new or particularly revelatory, and that all of the more salacious claims in the book, from Malcolm and his wife Betty’s mutual adultery to Malcolm’s homosexuality, are far from supported by Marable. Evanzz also notes that some of the more attention-grabbing elements of the book involving the assassination have been more or less known for quite some time and had even been reported popularly in mainstream outlets for decades. Evanzz is also in the process of writing a more full review.

 Outside of the more sensational and personal aspects of Marable’s focus on Malcolm’s life are what appear to be the two central claims he makes that will help to, as he says of his book, “reconstruct the full contours of {Malcolm X’s} remarkable life.” The first, according to Marable, is that U.S. intelligence agencies and the New York Police Department did nothing to prevent the assassination despite strong evidence that it was coming. The second is that the plot was largely a product of the Newark, N.J. mosque of the Nation of Islam. Now, his review has not as yet been published but Karl Evanzz might indeed point out the fact that his own 1992 publication The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X and Zak Kondo’s 1993 publication, Conspiracy’s: Unraveling the Assassination of Malcolm X had already covered this. In fact, Evanzz is likely to further note that while Marable dismisses most of the books written on Malcolm X during the 1990s as having little value, a claim he makes without detail or explanation, he also references some of them in summarizing their arguments for his own work. This, along with a list recently sent to the book’s publisher by another well-known author detailing no less than 14 specific misspellings, inaccurate dates, and other errors, is likely to raise more concerns about the scholarship of a book already being described in some prominent places as a “meticulous… portrait” or as the “definitive” biography of Malcolm X.

While much of the recent discussion of the book has been of necessity part of glowing celebrations of Marable’s life and scholarship not enough has yet to occur that critically examines this enormously popular book specifically from the perspective of the Black political left. Malcolm X remains too important to too many for occasions like these to not be turned to our advantage. Read Marable’s work, read it in conjunction with many others. Host symposia, conduct interviews and challenge your organizations to do the same and then to adopt the actual politics and strategies of Malcolm X lest they – the most important aspects of the man – be lost in the shuffle of the academy or personal gossip. Indeed this is what we are doing. So stay tuned.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention – Review, by Comrade Nomes

That was it?

After racing through Manning Marable’s nearly 500-page biography of Malcolm X, recently released, I realized that I hadn’t learned anything significant, more than that which I already knew, except that Malcolm was not very happy in his marriage (I knew Betty wasn’t happy with Malcolm’s sexual performance at some stage in their marriage) and that he may have cheated on Betty a few times near the end of his life, just as she may have cheated on him. We also get some more details on Malcolm’s tourism/activism abroad, and details on the relationships Malcolm had with people inside and out the Nation of Islam. Sometimes, these details are almost mundane and gossipy. Overall, the book leaves one with an empty feeling.

There is no real analysis of Malcolm’s social and political thought. There is no real summation of what changes the man was going through, and how they were significant. We get a hodgepodge, which may well have reflected Malcolm’s own state of mind, sometimes here, sometimes there, not sure if he was being sincere or if he was just playing to get a broader audience. But even that hodgepodge is not spelled out and traced through with adequate analysis. So what’s the point of going through all of that literature to come up with what is largely a cross between filling out some gaps and tabloid fodder?

Sure, knowing details of his life are good, and I am not saying that we should not know that Malcolm and Betty had problems in their marriage, or that he admitted to sipping alcohol on some of his trips in Africa which he shouldn’t have done as a practicing Muslim — that is all well and good, it humanizes him as we should, our heroes are not now and never have been saints. But all of that is almost secondary, unless it tells us something deeper about the frame of Malcolm’s mind, or if it tells us something about his social and political legacies. But that doesn’t ever properly make it into Marable’s book.

As a complement to the Autobiography and the various collections of Malcolm’s speeches, it passes muster for giving details. But it doesn’t tell us anything about the gaps sometimes inserted into those speeches (e.g., by Pathfinder Press), there is no assessment of the debate over his legacy, except personal reflections by Marable. Indeed, where there is assessment it’s almost patronizing, e.g., Malcolm didn’t understand the value of reformism on the road to revolution. What kind of a Marxist would come up with so simple an assessment of a long debate?

I want to know what Malcolm did understand, that is, how did he understand revolution, how did he understand reforms? Marable seems to intimate that what set Malcolm apart from the rest was his embrace, sometimes, of violence (then, sometimes, he abandoned it), and that somehow armed militancy made him more left than others. That doesn’t tell us anything. I’ve argued elsewhere that Malcolm stressed the tactical availability of violence as an option in a broader range of tactics and strategies. That’s the message we keep getting pounded into us, and that’s him being neither more left nor more right, it’s a tactical opinion.

It seems like the book will build up to something, to some description or analysis of Malcolm’s thought, but it just doesn’t do that. “He had become the cutting edge for rethinking black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and their own home-grown version of Islam,” the book claims (p. 460), but you wouldn’t know that from reading it.

In a video clip Marable says that he found Malcolm was becoming more revolutionary at the end of his life, but Marable does little to explain any of that. Instead he makes Malcolm seem really confused, rather than revolutionary. For instance, in the book, Malcolm’s view of Israeli settler-colonialism is shown as some kind of derivative of Ghanaian and Egyptian patronage, rather than any kind of proper analysis. At least Marable could have pointed us to further reading. There are some curiosities that are nice to know — most significant for me was that Malcolm was cultivating relationships with Islamic organizations backed by Cairo and by Riyadh simultaneously. Okay. And … so what? So nothing.

There’s also a really ridiculous and absurd thread through the book to interpret Malcolm’s life through the use of Islamic idiom. The Nation’s campaign against Malcolm is a “jihad.” Someone in the Nation put forward a “fatwa,” as the book defines it, a “death warrant” — since when did fatwa mean death warrant? There are broad assertions about marriage norms throughout the Islamic world — which, with Muslim communities in every part of the world is so vast as to defy generalization, and even in the 1960s stretched from Western Sahara to Indonesia. And then there are parts about how Malcolm may have come upon ideas of Shi’ite martyrdom in his studies of Islam. That’s almost uniquely absurd, if his studies were in Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s  Sunni orthodox institutions, the likelihood of exposure to Shi’ism was slim. But this had to somehow be stuffed in there. The “Islamic” idiom in use here is truly ridiculous, veering on Orientalist, and one would expect better from a leftist academic. (But we know a lot of people worked on this book, not just Marable — the narrative is pretty choppy at times.)

There is nothing in this book that is so remarkable or new that it would blow someone off their feet if they’ve done more than the requisite Autobiography reading of Malcolm X; rather, it satisfies minor curiosities.

The book is not worth the hype that Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson showered on it, as well as Henry Louis Gates. I think there is a lot more fundamentally riveting and compelling Black scholarship and activism that gets clouded over by the self-indulgent pseudo-radicalism. I would put this book, unfortunately, in that category as well. For a decade of research, it’s a poor showing.

Karl Evanzz’s review is far more scathing, and it devolves into ad hominem attacks and is preoccupied with the extramarital stuff. I found the Raw Cotton Blog review to be really well done, and I couldn’t agree with it more.

A Layman’s Review of Marable’s “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention”, by Raw Cotton

I want to begin this review by saying that there surely is not enough literature devoted to a man who, to this day, remains an enigmatic icon. Malcolm X, even in death, continues to ignite flames of passionate rhetoric from all sides of the globe due to the extraordinary transformations throughout his life. For anyone to assert that a single piece is the pivotal literary analysis of his life is to liken Malcolm’s existence and legacy to something that, in fact, can actually be totally comprehended. On the contrary, it is because of his multitudinous transformations that one can never completely understand this man, his life, and his legacy; it is possible, however, to BETTER understand him, and the parts of Marable and his team’s research that are scholarly give the reader an opportunity to view Malcolm with fresh eyes.

In this manner, and if your view of Malcolm was dictated solely by his autobiography, Marable’s piece is a success. The best parts of this book come from places of fact; the research done into criminal records (of Malcolm and known associates, many of whom joined the Nation of Islam – NOI), trial transcripts, recorded eye witness accounts, FBI surveillance, and various other primary sources is superb. When you are able to remove yourself from the subjectivity of one of the most passionate autobiographies written, you are able to appreciate and respect the herculean research efforts of Marable and his team. Gaining unprecedented access to the NOI archives (via Farrakhan), the FBI, and the NYPD (everyone’s favorite police force!) truly helped underscore Malcolm’s nuanced life of reinvention in a way that was objective, even handed, and, ultimately, far more accurate than his autobiography could allow.

If, however, your understanding of Malcolm was not based solely upon a single, subjective, Haley crafted literary piece, then this book could leave you with more questions than answers.

This is my experience.

While I, in no way, claim to be a Malcolm X scholar, my understanding of the basic chronology of his existence was as follows (pardon the simplicity, but here it is necessary):

He had a hard childhood.
He was a criminal.
He went to jail.
He was introduced to the NOI.
He got out of jail.
He became a prominent NOI minister teaching Black nationalism.
He got married.
White people were afraid of him.
He began to feel constrained by the NOI.
He found out Elijah Muhammad was spreading his seed.
He painfully broke from the NOI.
He took trips to Africa.
He became enlightened.
He was assassinated.

It’s quick and dirty, I know, but it still encompasses the major points of his life that were of importance in my recollection of him. In a more fleshed out fashion, I knew that there was far more than the autobiography let on. While I am no historian or African-American studies scholar (despite my undeclared Swarthmore Concentration), I am smart enough to know that “the quick and dirty” is not the complete encompassing of a man who spent the balance of his life fighting for a people with as divided a loyalty as you can imagine. Any leader fighting for the rights of a large group is bound to have supporters as well as detractors; I think that observation is less a revelation and more an indicator of common sense. Nonetheless, what I appreciate about Marable’s work is his attempt to flesh out the accuracy of the aforementioned chronology. You learn more about Malcolm’s parents and his siblings and the necessary tale of his family’s experience unfolds with such breathtaking detail and weaves seamlessly into the cautionary tale of his criminal life. But this quite natural segue, and some of the pieces that follow, are what give me pause and lead me to ask, veritably, “What is the point of this?”

Relatively early on, Marable kind of drops the bomb that most Blackademics had heard before the book’s release: Malcolm has a gay relationship with a White man.

I’m sorry, what?

Yes, I said it. Malcolm X. Gay relationship. White man.

However, unlike the scholarly parts of research that immediately precede this “revelation”, this salacious piece of information is corroborated by hearsay from Rodnell Collins, son of Ella Collins (Malcolm’s sister), and, later on, Shorty Jarvis, Malcolm’s right hand man who harbored tremendous resentment against Malcolm because Malcolm snitched on him.

This sounds like gossip to me, not research. And it is here that my disappointment began.

Marable points to the part in Malcolm’s autobiography that describes the tale of a “friend” or “fellow hustler” named Rudy who engaged in some role play with a rich man from Boston. Marable, himself, admits the evidence suggesting that “Rudy” is Malcolm is circumstantial, at best, but indicates it is “strong” as well. Where is the strength of this evidence? Rodnell’s “insight” is not proof of anything. In fact, there is no evidence at all to support the assertion that Malcolm engaged in homosexual encounters, gay for pay or otherwise. In examining prison visit records, any concrete information about non-family visitors (labeled “Friends” in the visitor log) has been redacted by the feds so the air of mystery surrounding who these friends were seems to be sufficient, for Marable, to posit that Paul Lennon was this role playing, rich, gay White man with an affinity for Malcolm.

What is clear, though, is the fact that Malcolm did work for Lennon as a butler and occasional houseworker and listed him as a former employer when transitioning into prison life (Marable, p. 66). That is all. That is all the evidence we have. No cum stained blue dress a-la Monica Lewinsky; no semen stained underwear a-la Kobe Bryant and his later dismissed rape charges; no dazed and confused strippers crying rape a-la Duke lacrosse players.

What contributes to my feeling as if this nugget of unsubstantiated information was added for purely tabloid reasons is the fact that there is no further explanation of the effect Malcolm’s alleged homosexuality would have had on his prison life, his prison transformation, and eventually his emergence as one of the greatest leaders of our time. I think it logical to assert that closeted homosexuality would have done excessive psychological damage to Malcolm, such that his ideological development would have been severely stunted. But even if I am wrong, Marable pays little attention to the effect such a secret would have on Malcolm, overall, and, instead, chooses to superficially and flippantly remind you of the fact that he tipped his gossip hand far earlier than he should by referring to these episodes as “paid homosexual encounters” and, at one point, outright labeling Malcolm “a homosexual lover”.

I cannot touch and agree with you, Prof. Marable. I simply cannot.

The next kernel of information that motivated me to comb the book’s index, source citations, notes, and bibliography was the foray into the misery that was Malcolm’s marriage to Betty. Anyone with half of a brain can infer that, in their marriage, the two likely spent more time apart than they did together but, if you lend credence to Spike Lee’s cinematic interpretation of their courtship and relationship, you would think that everything kind of worked out. Well, not so much! Admittedly it was difficult to read that Malcolm had proposed to two other women and then pulled the old “SIKE!” as he recanted both proposals for various reasons. It was also difficult to read that Malcolm’s choice of Betty included a heavy consideration of how she, thankfully, was darker than the other two women. This, right here, would have been a perfect time to offer a critique of Malcolm’s extreme color consciousness, particularly as he, a very light complected male who had gotten by on his looks, red hair, and charm, deliberately stayed away from women who looked like he and his mother. Was Malcolm saying “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” or was he indicating a deeper potential sense of self-hatred that facilitated his venom and vigor within the NOI? I’m glad you asked; too bad Marable does not have the answer because, well, Marable does not ask the question.

What Marable does, however, is identify Betty’s independent streak, born of a strong Christian upbringing (please note, I assign neither praise nor criticism of said upbringing), as part of the root of the problem. Citing “girlfriend to girlfriend” gossip in Rickford’s piece entitled Betty Shabazz and interviews with James 67X, Malcolm’s most trusted employee and confidant after his NOI split, Marable shares that while Betty allowed Malcolm to have free reign and rule in the public sphere, she was not to be toyed with inside the house and the docile and obedient wife expectation Malcolm may have had was surely mistaken. Initially, I took this second bit of information, this pure matrimonial mismatch, as yet another attempt to throw salt on the wound of superfluous revelation. However, having the full text of the letter (thanks to some Googling by Dr. Kristine Lewis out of Drexel University in Philadelphia) gave a wider, and more thorough, perspective.

Marable cites the 4 paged letter, written by Malcolm to Elijah Muhammad in March of 1959, where Malcolm painfully details the domestic discord. It is truly one of the most powerful, emotional, and touching pieces I have read. The crux of the matter, as outlined by Malcolm himself, was that he and Betty were not on the same page…sexually. Malcolm highlights other pieces as contributing factors (Betty throwing tantrums, Betty being in debt before they married) but writes the following:

“But the main source of our trouble was based upon SEX. She placed a great deal more stress upon it than I was physically capable of doing. Please forgive me for this topic, but I feel compelled to tell you of it, and would tell it to no one else but you. At a time when I was going all out to try and keep her satisfied (sexually), one day she told me that we were incompatible sexually because I had never given her any real satisfaction.

From then on, try as I may I began to become very cool toward her. I didn’t ever again feel right (free) with her in that same sense, for no matter how happy she would act I’d see it only as a pretense…

I had stopped all sexual relations with her. shortly after her return from Chicago, she said to me that if I didn’t watch out she was going to embarrass me and herself (which under questioning she later said she was going to seek satisfaction elsewhere). So I renewed relations with here (sic) (after six months of abstinence). Again she this time outright told me that I was impotent…and even tho I could father a child I was like an old man (not able to engage in the act long enough to satisfy her).

I had a frank discussion with her, and told her for the first time that this was the source of all our troubles. Her remarks like this were very heart breaking to me (and would be to any other man). I explained that even if a woman thinks a man is not a man sexually, she should never tell him that, especially her husband, because from then on he will always this she is pretending no matter how she acts…and will take the whole act as just another waste of time. No matter what she says after that the words have such a strong psychological effect that it stays on my mind as a man.”

Let that marinate.

No, seriously.

To add to what appears to be a miserable living situation, one must remember that Malcolm, after the birth of each of his daughters, would disappear on yet another trip for either the NOI or, later, himself, the MMI, or the OAAU. Malcolm’s post partum departures, from a family perspective, are deplorable. Leaving your wife after she has carried your child for 9-10 months and then given birth, I’m sure, for multitudinous hours is simply awful and irresponsible and demonstrates that your priorities are misplaced. I simply cannot abide by or support this behavior.

However, my God today it has got to be awful to have your wife call you impotent – on multiple occasions – and feel like you, as a healthy male, do not have the physical wherewithal or stamina to satisfy her sexual needs particularly when there are droves of women who would, at a moment’s notice, toss Betty aside to take her spot in your life. The exploration of the pain this had to have caused within Malcolm’s psyche is absent, in my opinion. Marable cites the juiciest tidbits of the letter (he only openly quotes the first two paragraphs) but does not attempt to highlight what Malcolm had to be feeling and how those feelings directly affected his work. This man, who the world saw as invincible, unbreakable, and unmovable was crying out for help to his mentor in a way that only a son can do with his father or other important male role model. He was heart broken, by his own admission, and if we take him at his word, never truly enjoyed sex with his wife again. He was the voice of a nation, yet was silenced in his own home and appeared to enjoy neither the act of physical intimacy with his wife nor emotional intimacy post childbirth with his family. A man that preached about the necessity for unity and solidarity and harmony in the Black home had none in his own. This is huge! While, of course, not surprising in today’s society due to the craziness of religious officials and their sexually explicit lives, to think of the fact that Malcolm stayed true to his wife (well, at least until the last few years of his life, according to Marable) amid his contemporaries who made other decisions and in a hostile home is amazing.

And worthy of deeper analysis.

By the time I finished this section of the book (Marable, p. 147), I held out little hope for the remainder. It took me a full day to truly process the complete text of the letter (http://nathanielturner.com/malcolmxletter.htm) and once I picked up the book again, I had a fresh perspective on Malcolm, his behaviors, particularly as they related to family, and his motivations. I read Marable’s thoughts and speculations about Malcolm’s intentions in different situations and would say, “Hmm, interesting” and then move on. No more was I taken aback by anything he said because, well, I knew if it was something worth exploring, he likely wouldn’t and if it was something not worth exploring, he would likely beat it like a dead horse.

The end of the book includes, necessarily, the “where are they now” section that is always my favorite part of a non-fiction piece. Essentially, everybody is dead. Farrakhan – well, we all know his story (I chose not to include my thoughts on Marable’s analysis of Malcolm and Farrakhan’s relationship, as told by Farrakhan, obviously LOL). This review is already long enough so I shall not bore you with the sundry details. Moreover, there is no new light shed on Farrakhan, his involvement in Malcolm’s assassination, or his thoughts about how Malcolm failed the “test” Elijah Muhammad giving him by silencing him. Yes, Farrakhan benefited most from Malcolm’s assassination, we all know that.

But, let us turn our gaze to Willie Bradley, the man who – according to Marable’s sources – was actually the gunman who delivered the kill shot with the sawed off shot gun at, essentially, point blank range. Due to incompetent and lazy police work, and the fact that the ballroom was thoroughly scoured for a dance held four hours after the assassination, evidence of Willie’s involvement was washed away – literally. Two men who hated Malcolm, but were still innocent, were sent to prison because nobody wanted to believe the crowd captured assailant who admitted, in open court, that Johnson and Butler were not even in the ballroom at the time of the shooting. Thomas Hayer identified his criminal counterparts but the police were like, nah that’s cool. We have who we want, thanks.

No surprise there. Good job, NYPD.

But I was surprised at the fact that Mr. Bradley, after getting away with murdering Malcolm X, has been able to live a life of luxury that culminated with him stumping with and for Newark’s mayor, Cory Booker, during his initial election. Really? You can kill Civil Rights leaders and just get away with it? I thought there was no statute of limitations on murder; shouldn’t there be a re-opening, then, of the case with this new evidence presented by Marable’s definitive work? Or, are we to believe that Bradley was a government information, permanently protected for life for doing the government a favor? Again, far more of an opportunity to explore the rationale behind and expose the illegitimacy of the police investigation and potential government involvement but, hey, we’re not really into that at this point, right?

To summarize, I think this book, ambitious and necessary, takes on a lot (maybe my review did too?) and answers very few of my questions. Yes, it was nice to read the day by day account of Malcom’s trips to Africa and hear, over and over again, how strategic it was for him to build global Islamic alliances to force the NOI out of any chance of legitimizing their existence in the eyes of orthodox Muslims worldwide. It was slightly enjoyable to hear, over and over again, how Malcolm railed against the apolitical restraints of the NOI and saw Civil Rights and the everyday, civic struggles of Black people as a way to introduce Islam as a religious solution to a practical problem. And we all enjoyed it when Denzel gave the little hand signal and the FOI did all their cool formation stuff. Yeah, yeah that was all well and good but I had hoped that this book would be able to provide more personal and legitimate insight into who Malcolm was, as a person. I had hoped his diary was cited more (or, actually, at all) or that more of his correspondence between he and his family would be presented. What better way to gain insight into a man’s life and thoughts than through his own words?

Oh wait. We already read that. It’s called his autobiography and Marable said Malcolm exaggerated. Well, he might have. In fact, I’m sure he did and (and I’m sure Haley took some creative license), as a piece of objective literature, it fails! But it’s the spirit behind the hyperbole, the picture painted by the broad strokes that engages the heart and echoes the spirit of this great man. That heart and spirit were missing in this piece and I don’t think objectivity and heart should be mutually exclusive; in fact, for a piece to be successful, I believe it has to be both, simultaneously. While the framework of this piece was solid, being built around Malcolm’s timeline, and the aspirations noble, I think it falls short of capturing the true essence of a man whose letter we sport with pride in February and May.

I am not likely to say much more about Marable’s book. My obsession with it will soon pass. As I close I am reminded of what someone once said not long ago about being careful to distinguish between who you read and who governs your interpretation of what is read.

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Posted on April 25, 2011, in Radical History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Sherell Moshos

    Thx for information.

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