Malcolm X: A 'work in progress' cut short
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Malcolm X's life may have been cut short, but his legacy has had a long reach.
Capitalists and communists, radical and orthodox Muslims, jazz musicians and hip-hoppers, mainstream civil rights leaders and proponents of black power -- even Barack Obama -- all have found something in his life to inspire them.
But Malcolm's message, says black historian Manning Marable, was aimed specifically at black urban males of mid-20th-century America.
For them, he was the embodiment of their challenged manhood. He had lived their frustration and despair. When Malcolm was a young boy in Omaha, Neb., a white teacher had told him that his dream of becoming a lawyer was not appropriate for a "nigger."
As a child, he had been called that epithet so often he thought it was his name. His resulting rage and call for black self-determination and self-defense -- armed, if necessary -- gave voice to an entire population of black men, without jobs and without hope who also suffered daily indignities from the white society that controlled them.
Delivered with "clarity, humor and urgency," Mr. Marable says, it was a radical political message that Malcolm never abandoned, despite his many metamorphoses.
This portrait stands in marked contrast to the more moderate Malcolm X portrayed at the end of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," the earlier book that has been the source of most people's view of the charismatic leader (that, and Spike Lee's film which was based on that work).
"The Autobiography," now a staple in college curricula, soft-pedals Malcolm's politics, barely mentioning, for example, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, the radical political organization he founded after his break with the Nation of Islam, Mr. Marable says.
Malcolm may have moved away from the black separatism of the Nation of Islam and its racist rhetoric, but he hadn't abandoned his call for black consciousness and the right of the oppressed to defend themselves "by any means necessary," his biographer argues.
Presenting Malcolm X as far more complicated and flawed than the iconic legend of "The Autobiography," Mr. Marable includes a number of uncomfortable details about the black leader's life that were skimmed over or left out of earlier works.
He describes an early close and possibly sexual relationship the young Malcolm had with a rich, white businessman, for example, to underscore his early fragility financially and psychologically. He provides details about Malcolm's less-than-loving marriage with Betty Shabazz and their possible infidelities to highlight the pressures of the Nation of Islam's rigid moral structure and to reflect Malcolm's changing views of morality.
He documents Malcolm's anti-Semitic and racist remarks and reports on his overture to the Ku Klux Klan, later chronicling Malcolm's denunciation of all forms of racism and separatism.
Only in a final chapter, when Mr. Marable offers with startling certainty what he believes Malcolm X would think about racial issues today, does the biographer falter. How can he be so sure that Malcolm X would not have supported affirmative action or cheered Mr. Obama's bid for the presidency?
If anything is proven by the life that Mr. Marable so masterfully lays out in more than 600 pages, it is this:
Malcolm X was a work in progress. Who knows what he might have become -- or thought -- if he hadn't been gunned down in 1965 at the age of 39?
As the book's subtitle declares, Malcolm was constantly revising and reinventing himself. Born Malcolm Little into a racially polarized Omaha, he had lost his father (possibly murdered by white supremacists) by 13 and then his mother (who ended up in a mental hospital). Bounced around foster homes, he morphed into Detroit Red, turning to a life of crime (a period exaggerated for effect in his autobiography, says Mr. Marable). In prison, he joined the Nation of Islam and was transformed into the fiery black separatist known as Malcolm X.
Later, turning to orthodox Islam, he called himself El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz, an international superstar who found common cause with the Third World's fight against colonialism.
"Our own black shining prince," declared actor Ossie Davis at his funeral. When later asked why he called him that, Mr. Davis said, "Because a prince is not a king," a phrase that doubly resonates. For, unlike the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X was not a fully formed leader with clear goals (integration) and a consistent method (nonviolence).
Ever evolving, Malcolm had yet to reach his full potential when he arrived at the Audubon Ballroom, north of Harlem, on that fateful afternoon of Feb. 21, 1965.
A once opulent pleasure palace named for the exotic carved birds in its foyer, the crumbling Audubon had two bookings for its Grand Ballroom that day:
At 2 p.m., a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, and an evening church dance. The former would be tragically aborted when Malcolm X was shot down in full view of his followers, his wife and his children.
By 6 p.m., the police departed at the management's request, leaving the blood of the slain leader on the shattered stage to be mopped up by workers. At 7 p.m. the "festive George Washington Birthday Party dance was held, as advertised ... only four hours after the assassination," writes Mr. Marable, underscoring how little interest law enforcement took in the gruesome murder.
The lack of care in securing the crime scene is only one worrisome aspect of the assassination, says the author. Other questions:
Why did the New York police take so long to come to the murder scene?
Why were Malcolm's security personnel unarmed? Why was no one in the audience checked for weapons, given the fact that Malcolm's house had been recently firebombed?
Were all three men who were arrested and convicted for the murder really responsible? Were there others involved?
Who ordered the killing?
Mr. Marable raises these questions but can offer no definitive answers. "History is not a cold-case investigation," he writes. "I have had to weigh forensic possibilities, not certainties."
It's too bad Mr. Marable will never know whether his valiant efforts to uncover the truth about Malcolm's death will prompt a reopening of the 40-year-old murder case. The historian died April 1, just a few days before this biography, 20 years in the making, was published.
What is a resounding success, though, is his illuminating portrait of Malcolm X's life. He has given us a very human Malcolm in all his messy glory, a man who still has the power to inspire.
First Published May 22, 2011 12:00 am