Dragging Malcolm X to Obamaland
Manning Marable’s rendition of Malcolm X’s life should be read very carefully, so as not to confuse Malcolm’s evolving worldview with the late Columbia University professor’s left-reformist politics. “Marable tries to convince us that Malcolm must have contemplated a reformist political path in his mind, if not in practice.” The author’s mission is to discredit revolutionary Black nationalism as outdated and primitive. Black Democratic Party activism and support for President Obama are hyped as the new Black Power.
In packaging the life of Malcolm X for a wide audience, the late Dr. Manning Marable has presented us with an opportunity to reignite the debate over the meaning of Black self-determination, a discussion-through-struggle that effectively ended when the Black Freedom Movement became no longer worthy of the name. Unfortunately, it appears this was not Dr. Marable’s intention, since Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is largely an attempt to render useless the vocabulary of Black struggle. Essential terms such as “self-determination,” “Black nationalism,” “revolutionary” and “empowerment” lose their meaning, abused and misused in order to portray the great Black nationalist leader as inexorably evolving into a “race-neutral” reformer on the road to Obamaland.
This article does not address the complaints of those angered by Marable’s insistence that Malcolm X had a youthful homosexual relationship with an affluent white man, although it is shocking that Marable would throw this in the mix based on wholly inferential evidence and the author’s own psychological speculations. Our overarching concern is that Malcolm’s politics have been distorted by often clumsy, sometimes clever manipulation of the language of struggle, so that the politics of today’s left-reformers and Obama supporters, like Marable, appear vindicated.
Marable’s interventions in Malcolm’s mental processes begin in earnest on page 285, in the “Chickens Coming Home to Roost” chapter. It is early 1964, and Malcolm is contemplating a final break with the Nation of Islam. Marable takes over as the Black icon’s muse, deconstructing Black Muslim theological doctrine, as he speculates Malcolm must have struggled to do, and concluding that “a new religious remapping of the world based on orthodox Islam would not necessarily stigmatize or isolate the United States because of its history of slavery and racial discrimination. Instead of a bloody jihad, a holy Armageddon, perhaps America could experience a nonviolent, bloodless revolution.”
While Malcolm was certainly questioning the catechism of inevitable, white man-scorching, Allah-directed Armageddon, it is another thing entirely to have Malcolm pondering a “bloodless revolution” in America. Malcolm derided those who conceived of revolution as anything other than bloody, and he was speaking in secular, not religious, terms. His best-known speech on the subject is “Message to the Grassroots,” October 10, 1963.
“There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution. [The] only kind of revolution that’s nonviolent is the Negro revolution. The only revolution based on loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. The only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated park, and a desegregated public toilet; you can sit down next to white folks on the toilet. That’s no revolution. Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.”
Malcolm never did accept the notion of revolution as bloodless, nor did he recognize the fight against segregated public accommodations as revolutionary. But Marable tries to convince us that Malcolm must have contemplated a reformist political path in his mind, if not in practice. This is William Styron-style biography, as Morgan State University’s Dr. Jared Ball has suggested, with Malcolm forced to play Styron’s Nat Turner.
By 1964 Malcolm had made a strategic decision to support Black integrationist efforts, at least rhetorically, but there is nothing that leads us to think that integration had become his end-goal, or that he believed integration was revolutionary. He had decided to become part of the broad “movement,” in order to both influence and benefit from it. Marable would have us believe (page 298) that Malcolm’s public endorsement of desegregation and voter drives signified that he had scaled down his liberationist aspirations, or that he thought voting equals or leads to African American self-determination –some very faulty logic. Revolutionary Marxists have also seen the value in electoral politics at certain junctures, but that didn’t mean they stopped preparing for the forceful overthrow of the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, Marable tells us that Malcolm’s movement activities “marked an early, tentative concession to the idea that perhaps blacks could someday become empowered within the existing system.”
The clear inference is that Malcolm was wilting in his desire to wipe “the existing system” off the map. What existing system does Marable refer to, precisely? White supremacy? Capitalism? Bourgeois electoral pay-for-play democracy? Marable keeps Malcolm’s mind vague and cloudy, although in his actual historical voice the “evolving” Malcolm hates capitalism and U.S. imperialism more intensely than did the “old,” Nation Of Islam Malcolm. Marable also introduces his trick word “empowered,” which he will use repeatedly in the book to confuse, rather than clarify. Blacks “could someday become empowered within the existing system” – to do what? To determine their collective destinies? To defy white majorities? To push aside the rule of capital? Marable tries to cage Malcolm, while assuring us that the revolutionary Black nationalist was “tentatively” becoming a liberal reformer.
Gratuitous, non-defensive violence, in Malcolm’s NOI talks, always came from the hand of Allah. Malcolm never rejected the right of self-defense; otherwise, he would not have become Malcolm the icon. Marable knew this, so he again invades Malcolm’s mind (page 302). “By embracing the ballot, he was implicitly rejecting violence, even if this was at times difficult to discern in the heat of his rhetoric.”
What kind of violence was Malcolm rejecting? Certainly, not defensive violence. And Malcolm had never publicly urged Blacks to commit unprovoked aggressions against whites. The purpose of Marable’s sentence can only be to show alleged movement by Malcolm toward some state of non-volatility, which we are expected to associate with political moderation: reform.
Marable grows so bold in pushing his back-to-the-future reformist fantasies, by page 333 he describes a Malcolm X who has become “race-neutral.” On May 21, 1964, Malcolm spoke at Chicago’s Civic Opera House, telling a crowd of 1,500 people, “Separation is not the goal of the Afro-America, nor is integration his goal. They are merely methods toward his real end – respect as a human being.” Malcolm went on the say: “Unless the race issue is quickly settled, the 22 million American Negroes could easily adopt the guerilla tactics of other deprived revolutionaries.” Not that he necessarily advocated that. (wink)
Three days before he was assassinated, Malcolm said, “I’m man enough to tell you that I can’t put my finger on exactly what my philosophy is now.” But, not to worry, Dr. Marable has the vision and the answer. He concluded that Malcolm had “made his race-neutral views clear in Chicago….” There is no rational basis for Marable’s amazing interpretation, other than he thought it moved his political story line on Malcolm’s evolution (or race-neutralization) forward.
The opposite of race-neutral, Malcolm lived and died a Race-Man, meaning simply that he put the Race first. As he wrote to an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood luminary who was disappointed that Malcolm was so decidedly non-race-neutral, “As a black American, I do feel that my first responsibility is to my twenty-two million fellow black Americans.” (page 368)
In the final “Reflections on a Revolutionary Vision” chapter, Marable speaks for himself – in the process confirming that he has been sneaking his own words, thoughts and politics into Malcolm’s head for four hundred pages. The Columbia University professor of African American Studies claims to know what Malcolm really, really wanted: “What Malcolm sought was a fundamental restructuring of wealth and power in the United States – not a violent social revolution, but radical and meaningful change nevertheless.”
Although the description is so vague, wishy-washy and – damnit!! – so soft and noncommittal as to bear no resemblance to any incarnation or developmental stage of Malcolm X, it fits the self-image of Manning Marable and his circle perfectly. They are the left Black Obamites, purported radicals who have a perpetual love affair with Power. Such people cannot imagine that others are not as enamored of Power as they are, and are eager to graft their own vacillations and corruptions onto others, by rhetorical hook or literary crook.
If this assessment seems harsh, it is certainly not as outrageous as Marable’s gall in superimposing his politics on Malcolm X. Even when Marable speaks in his own voice, he manages to intimate that Malcolm would agree with him. “If legal racial segregation was permanently in America’s past,” wrote Marable on page 486, “Malcolm’s vision today would have to radically redefine self-determination and the meaning of black power in a political environment that appeared to many to be ‘post-racial.’”
Marable appears to think these are heavy questions, but they’re actually products of an unfocused, but deeply biased, mind. First of all, legal segregation was defeated before Malcolm’s death, and no sane person at the time thought it would be brought back. Malcolm had time to find out what life was like for Black southerners without state-sanctioned Jim Crow. Marable’s question is badly put. If he means, What would Malcolm think about today’s levels of segregation, then the answer would be that the northern cities would remain very familiar to him in their racial composition, and are in fact blacker than in Malcolm’s day – which might tend to indicate to Malcolm that self-determination was an even more critical concern.
Still, Marable insists that Malcolm would be forced to redefine self-determination and its sibling, Black Power. But self-determination, as a foundational principle of relations among peoples, requires no redefinition. Marable understands it as “the right of oppressed nations or minorities to decide for themselves their own political futures,” and he agrees that Malcolm “never abandoned” the “ideal.” Why then, would Malcolm in 2011 have to “redefine” self-determination and the “meaning of black power?” Because the political environment “appeared to many to be post-racial?” Who is it that thinks the environment appears post-racial? If Marable is speaking of white people, or any non-African American people, their opinions cannot be cause for “redefinition” of another people’s right. If he meant that Black people in the mass believe we live in a post-racial nation, he was a damn fool. But even if such Black folks existed, that would not require a redefinition of self-determination. African Americans would simply “determine” that they love post-racialism and want to do nothing to change it, as is their self-determinationist right.
Marable risks making himself look stupid simply to make the intended point that Malcolm and his Black Nationalism and self-determination talk are passé and should be dismissed except as historical artifacts. For Marable and his Black left Obamites, Malcolm’s only other use is to somehow authenticate today’s reformers – and even President Obama! – as heirs to yesterday’s revolutionary Black nationalists. This is the purpose put to Malcolm by Peniel Joseph, the Tufts University professor of history and author of Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, which attempts to draw a straight-line historical connection between Malcolm X and the corporate politician in the White House.
Manning Marable was up to the same trick. “Given the election of Barack Obama,” Marable writes on page 486, “it now raises the question of whether blacks have a separate political destiny from their white fellow citizens.” He does not explain why Black destinies have changed just because a Black Democrat who raised more corporate money than the Republican won a presidential election. How did that electoral fact entwine Black/white destinies in ways that did not previously exist? How were the Black masses empowered by Obama’s victory, and if they were somehow empowered, why would that draw them closer to whites?
It would have been better for Marable to have left out his last chapter of Reflections – it reflected badly on his powers of reasoning.
Finally, Marable attempts to create artificial space between Malcolm X and his direct political progeny, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. On page 403 he wrote:
“Had Malcolm continued to mainstream his views, it is unclear how he would have negotiated relations a few years later with the Black Panthers, a group born of much of the intellectual framework Malcolm had assembled in the early to mid-1960s.”
It is nearly impossible to conceive of a Black Panther Party had there not been a Malcolm X. Marable insults a generation of Blacks that came into political consciousness in the Sixties – a cohort to which he chronologically belonged. He substitutes his imagined, inferred, reinterpreted Malcolm for the man whose words and bearing called forth and virtually sculpted the youthful Party that debuted in the year following his death. Marable projects Malcolm as if he would be a stranger to the Panthers, with whom he would have to “negotiate,” when Malcolm’s life tells us it is far more likely that the emergence of a militant revolutionary nationalist youth movement that spoke his language – because they learned it largely from him – would compel Malcolm to take the struggle to an even “higher level.”
– Glen Ford @ BlackAgendaReport.com