Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention – Review

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.

P.S. One thing that annoys me is people claiming that Malcolm was somehow channeling Frantz Fanon or was inspired by him — an implication the book makes a couple of times, without explicitly making the argument. Malcolm, as the book itself points out, had no proper grasp of French. Fanon’s major works were translated into English well after Malcolm had been killed. If there are similarities between Malcolm and Fanon, it’s because their source material — both ideological, e.g., Hegel and a focus on psychology, and material, i.e., the national oppression and racism bit — were similar. this!

3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Nathaniel said,

    April 16, 2011 @ 12:14 am

    Good review. When I watched Marable’s Malcolmology videos IIRC he made that claim about Malcolm being deeply familiar with and influenced by Ali and Karbala and it seemed unlikely. I’ve only read about 70 pages or thereabout so I hadn’t gotten to the use of Islamic terminology you mention. I had expected it to be more readable, too, more of a voice, and instead the voice is sort of pedantic (and not going into interesting questions as the Raw Cotton Blog puts it). Maybe it’s the bad reviews rubbing off on me (though Evanzz’s review is so full of spleen it makes me want to like the book).

    I’ll definitely still finish it, although I had really hoped it would be *the* companion to the autobiography.

  2. 2

    JMP said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 7:02 pm

    Great review: now I understand what you were yelling in my ear at the concert the other night (I have problems properly understanding important things in noisy contexts). It’s not too hard to get Cornel West to plug a book, though: he has some overly enthusiastic comments on the back of Bob Avakian’s memoirs after all!

    But as for your post-script, I think you’re over-simplifying. When Malcolm X was in North Africa he spent time with people like Abdelrahman Babu (leader of left/Maoist wing in Zanzibar revolution) and Babu claims that he introduced Malcolm X to many of Fanon’s ideas, along with other concepts, so there is a connection.

  3. 3

    ewashington7000 said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 4:43 am

    Has it NOT occurred to anyone that, peradventure, Dr. Marable (RIP) is actually NOT the genuine author of this literary piece? Despite appreciating the conditions that may attend sarcoidosis, moreover, does it NOT appear peculiar to anyone that Dr. Marable has died (seemingly) so suddenly, even before the release of (t)his “monumental work”!?

    A careful vetting of some of Dr. Marable’s previous books (e.g., Living Black History) and some of his analyses of (the mind frame of) Brother El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’s circa 2005-2007 ACE online may provide some helpful insights into this matter……

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