My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Malcolm X was a remarkable individual and political figure on the world stage. I don’t think it possible that this statement can be repeated enough. It is vindication against the revisionists who attempted to uproot and erase his mark upon history. There is nothing in the Marable text which upstages this very definite point. There is a profound amount of insight to be gleaned from the text if we use it to enhance the whole body of our research on Malcolm. It is not meant to be a new standard. We should hold no lofty expectation that any one volume could tell the complete story of such a complex man.
Ossie Davis summarized the prevailing view of the historical revisionists most eloquently in the following line from Malcolm’s eulogy. “There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times.” Still our Malcolm endures. Our Malcolm. Note that phrase for later reference because much of the controversy surrounding the release of this text has to do with the vision that you individually hold, cherish and have chosen to defend of Malcolm X.
Early on the reading, one becomes well aware that Marable’s biography does little to build you rapidly towards the inspiring cultural triumph we are accustomed to from “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”. There is not the same manner of revelry and nostalgia cast about regarding the activities leading up to his imprisonment. It lasts only long enough for one to realize that they are not reading the redux of that text.
They are reading something markedly and necessarily different. I won’t say better or more important. That is a judgement best reserved for individual decision. But it is in some ways a very important text in examining Malcolm’s legacy on the basis that we rarely receive readings of Malcolm that cast him against the backdrop and in the company of his political contemporaries. I could be entirely wrong on this charge. Perhaps I was not diligent enough in my own study of Malcolm over the years where such comprehensive readings were made available.
Marable succeeds in showing him engaging in debate, discussion and dialogue with other figures of the era such as James Baldwin, James Forman, James Farmer, (Yes. I randomly chose three James’.), Bayard Rustin and Julian Mayfield. We see the actions of Malcolm and each of the organizations he built told in a singular story arc with other organizations in operation at the same time such as CORE, SNCC, SCLC and NAACP.
History is an oral art form and much of this material existed in the minds of elders or perhaps other texts which are out of print or not able to garner the same attention as “The Autobiography”. In any case, we have a scenario in which the full story of Malcolm is lost to a particular generation. Even those who are aware of some portion of Malcolm’s history from both “The Autobiography” or Spike Lee’s film account read him as some manner of detached and disassociated figure in the zeitgeist of that era. I think this largely a consequence of the fact that the revisionists succeeded in writing him out of the textbooks if they could achieve nothing else.
When Malcolm did arrive for most of us, he came packaged inside of “The Autobiography” where we could not find the full measure of his action in concert with the other forces of the age that were actively influencing him. This is largely evidenced by the fact that whenever a casual discussion is made of Malcolm’s work, the nearly ubiquitous question is the difference between Malcolm and Martin.
Were they the only two figures that existed at the time? How many others differed or dissented with the philosophy of the more acceptable side of the Civil Rights Movement? Did we forget Robert Williams, the Deacons for Defense or the SNCC field marshals? Debates on strategy are to be expected among those organized for a common cause, but unsure how to achieve their aims.
It is very natural for the mind to never make that further connection between Malcolm and his contemporaries. This text can represent the missing link which would yoke Malcolm’s most cathartic form of social critique and resistance to oppression back to the entire struggle of the era in which we continue to find ourselves engaged.
My criticism of Marable’s approach is noted in a few areas. He initiates his text with an explanation of his motivation for undertaking the project (“Life Beyond the Legend”) and later reiterates these points in the epilogue (“Reflections on a Revolutionary Vision”). In both sections, he notes that Haley injected a personal opinion within “The Autobiography” and then attempted to mold our final evaluation of Malcolm in his “Epilogue”. I fail to comprehend how Marable can offer such a critique of Haley while Marable is actively reexamining and reinterpreting both Malcolm’s actions and the actions of others in these opening and closing sections as well as at various points throughout the main text.
Marable also extracts such a level of detail in the course of telling the story that I sometimes had difficulty remembering that this was actually a biography about Malcolm. While I fancy myself an amateur historian and a fan of historical trivia, I think that another less focused reader might find themselves lost as Marable trails off into such tangential topics as the Zoot Suit Riots, Ahmadiyya Muslims, and NOI mythology. There is also the matter of his citation throughout the text. While some quotes are affixed to a footnote at the rear, others simply dangle there like unsubstantiated secrets sown among schoolchildren. Sometimes I could turn to the appendix and have my curiosity satiated with further research and other times I had to guess where he might have received his information.
All of these conflicting feelings led me to assess this text with a review of 3.5, but for failure of Goodreads to provide me with such an option, I leave the rating at a 4 based upon historical merit, usefulness, and accuracy. It is highly imperfect, but capable of augmenting an exhaustive study of Malcolm’s politics and activities for the greater good. I think Jared Ball offered the most effective final assessment of the matter in his April 2011 broadcast for Black Agenda Report where he stated the following “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.” Be mindful, be aware, be Malcolm.