On the day of Manning Marable’s death, April 1, 2011, I received an additional piece of disturbing information. A friend of mine informed me of a discussion he had just had with a Black activist-writer who, in hearing about Marable’s passing, went into what could only be described as a rant against Marable. Marable’s body was hardly cold, and this individual, who knew Marable, was castigating him to my friend, claiming that Marable was everything but a child of God. It was at that moment that I knew that Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (hereafter referred to as MX) would ignite a firestorm in some quarters of the Black Freedom Movement. Within days, despite the overwhelmingly positive response to the book, this firestorm emerged.
In approaching the controversies that surround MX it is important to ask two questions prior to responding directly to critics: (1)what did Manning set out to do? (2)did he succeed? We will take these one at a time before commenting on some of the issues raised by various critics and what lies beneath them.
What did Manning set out to do?
MX is a blockbuster of enormous proportions. The mere act of writing a 500+ page biography is a significant achievement on any scale. Yet Marable was not attempting to write the definitive biography when he first started out on this journey. As he himself noted, his first objective was to write what he called a “political biography” of Malcolm X. Over time the objectives shifted somewhat and became a bit more complex.
Much has been made of the biography “humanizing” Malcolm, a term which I have myself used. Yet that is not the starting point for understanding the objectives. A better starting point is perhaps derived from Marable’s own statements on the matter, the gist of which begins with the fact that Malcolm X had been—and remained—a hero for Marable, who, in his opinion, had been the most significant Black activist figure of the mid-to-late 20th century. It was Marable’s committed belief in Malcolm X’s significance that moved him to dedicate the last decade of his life to chronicling Malcolm’s life and legacy through the Malcolm X Project at Columbia University. And it is this same commitment to Malcolm X’s and his family’s legacy that caused Marable to utilize his institutional influence and resources to push Columbia University to make good on its promise to open the site of the former Audubon Ballroom as the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial Center. MX is the product of a historian who cared deeply for his subject, who felt that his subject was deserving of a comprehensive examination of his life. Marable took this task seriously, grappling with aspects of Malcolm’s life that he knew would challenge our iconic view of Malcolm but also do it in a way that would deepen our appreciation of his heroicism as human being to other human beings. Yet in trying to understand Malcolm’s trajectory, not just when he left the Nation of Islam, but much earlier, there were curious features in the Autobiography of Malcolm X that were difficult to either understand or explain.
From my own discussions with Marable, as well as what is contained in MX, I know that Marable had been perplexed for years regarding what was missing from the Autobiography. Most people that I know who have read the Autobiography found the ending somewhat odd, i.e., that there is little discussion of Black freedom strategy and then, suddenly, we are into Alex Haley’s final words! Like many other things in life, the tendency was just to chalk this up to circumstances, in this case, that the book was completed after Malcolm’s assassination and that not everything could be wrapped together.
This explanation did not satisfy Marable. His conclusion, as he notes in the book and in numerous interviews he conducted prior to his death, was that Haley edited the book in such a way as to make it more acceptable for the audience that Haley wanted to reach (mainstream white America). Accordingly, sections of the Autobiography, such as that which covered Malcolm’s proposed Black united front, were eliminated entirely. Haley, a Black Republican, had no interest in a Black Nationalist or Pan Africanist vision. This mere fact makes highly ironic some of the criticisms raised of Marable in connection with the book, specifically, that he was attempting to make Malcolm more acceptable to a liberal audience. The facts, simply put, demonstrate that such a conclusion is ridiculous. Why it is being offered, however, is something that will be discussed later.
The Autobiography contained some other issues for Marable, however. In the process of conducting his research he came across contradictions, or at least problems, that led him to understand that the Autobiography was a political testimony by Malcolm that, like most autobiographies, had specific contextual objectives. As such, Malcolm tended to exaggerate certain things, and in other cases, ignore significant facts altogether. This is not uncommon and not something for which Malcolm should be chastised. But it is the job of the historian and biographer to search beneath that which is acknowledged to ascertain accuracies, patterns, as well as other potential ‘story lines,’ for lack of a better term.
It is in this context that one can better understand the notion of “humanizing’ Malcolm X. From the moment that Malcolm was killed there were efforts by the State and the Nation of Islam to demonize him. On the other hand, there was a largely grassroots move among many black nationalists, Pan Africanists and socialists, to uphold his memory and work. Within this last category there were those who tended toward canonizing Malcolm X, irrespective of any qualifiers issued at the time or since.
Malcolm became larger than life, and for an activist, black radical historian like Marable, this produced complications particularly when the complexities of Malcolm’s experiences were not properly understood. Yes, Malcolm was a hero, but what was going on with him as a person? What were the questions that he had? Did he ever stumble? Was there a straight trajectory in his evolution? What constituted the nature of his politics, including as they and he evolved?
An additional objective for Marable was to explain Malcolm’s evolution, particularly what took place while he was in the Nation of Islam as well as what took place in the aftermath of his leaving. Again, for many revolutionary black nationalists and other radical forces, at least at the time, there was this sense of a dramatic break in 1964 followed by a straight radical line. This notion dissatisfied Marable and he went to work to research what took place, particularly when Malcolm was in the Nation of Islam.
There is another part to his objective, however. What was going on in the period of the building of, first, the Muslim Mosque, Inc., and later the Organization of Afro-American Unity? What strategies were being unfolded? How was leadership being addressed? How was the role of women changing over time in these formations?
In MX Marable also set out to show that Malcolm was not another version of Martin Luther King. Again, Haley implied, and many others have tried to suggest more explicitly, that Malcolm and Martin Luther King were somehow converging. As Marable demonstrates, and clarifies quite explicitly in the final chapter, that was not the case at all. While there were points of agreement and while the record is clear that Malcolm envisioned the possibility of a united front with King, Malcolm represented a different political tendency. He was a revolutionary nationalist and Pan Africanist, but he was also someone who entertained the use of electoral politics for more than symbolic value. His post-NOI politics, in other words, were in flux, but in either case they were not King’s.
But here is where things get complicated: Marable sought to establish to what extent Malcolm’s politics were in line with those of people who claimed to follow him. This became an additional source of controversy.
Finally, Marable sought to determine who killed Malcolm X. This was certainly not an initial objective of his when he chose to write this book but as he became more absorbed in the story he was drawn to examine the facts and myths surrounding the murder. As with other portions of the book, Marable drew from original sources, secondary sources, witnesses, etc. His conclusions were, to some extent consistent with some earlier analyses, but startling in others, particularly in his examination of the dynamics within the MMI and OAAU that very likely contributed to the success of the assassination.
Did Marable succeed in his objectives?
This is what makes the controversy surrounding the book both fascinating and, often, distasteful at the same time. Through in depth research, Marable does succeed in his objectives. He uncovered the ‘hidden’ chapters of the Autobiography and demonstrates to the reader their importance in understanding Malcolm’s evolution. He provides the reader with a detailed understanding, not only of the Nation of Islam, but of other Muslim currents in the USA that influenced Black America generally, but also the NOI. He shows the struggles within the NOI that helped to shape Malcolm, but also helps the reader understand the frustrations that Malcolm increasingly felt within the NOI. Finally, Manning offered the social and historical context for understanding Malcolm, both within his time, but also in subsequent decades.
There are two, specific features of MX I wish to focus upon, however. One has to do with gender and the second concerns the assassination. But prior to that a word on methodology.
Shortly after the publication of MX I had the opportunity to speak with a Black journalist about the book. He indicated that he did not care for the book. When I probed, it turned out that his major concern was that he did not believe that Marable should have offered any tentative conclusions about matters where he failed to have complete facts. One example of this was the matter of the same-sex encounter for pay in the Malcolm Little period and a second example was the possible affairs that Betty Shabazz may have had.
I was a bit stunned in hearing these concerns only later to recognize that this journalist was approaching this book as if it had been an article for a mainstream newspaper. In an article for a newspaper there is a certain approach that the writer must take. That is never the case with a historian or biographer, and as such there is a standard that Marable is being held to that is both unfair and disingenuous. A historian (and biographer) looks at all of the available evidence and draws a conclusion. By analogy it is along the lines of a civil trial vs. a criminal trial. In a civil trial the jury looks at the preponderance of the evidence in order to draw a conclusion. In a criminal action the jury, as we know, can only convict if there is NO shadow of a doubt.
Historians look at the evidence and draw conclusions. This is why history is never an exact science. While we can generally confirm specific facts, e.g., Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the reasons for an action, event, etc., are always the subject of analysis and debate. New theories emerge to explain different developments. This is also the case when one is developing a biography.
Further, a genuine scholar, of Marable’s caliber, in writing a biography cannot simply refuse to acknowledge important claims or uncomfortable facts. Such matters must be addressed, in which case the biographer can certainly take a pass if they have not arrived at any conclusion; they can challenge them; or they can affirm the earlier conclusions.
For a variety of reasons which we shall touch upon below, there are many critics who challenge this approach. They may mechanically look at this matter from the standpoint of journalistic standards or they may have other motives that hide behind a challenge to the methodology.
With regard to gender, Marable dared to touch on a piece of Malcolm that has largely been ignored by biographers, both friend and foe. The matter of a same-sex encounter for pay, though related to gender obviously, was useful more in understanding the criminal, parasitic life that Malcolm Little lived prior to prison. What was, however, more useful in terms of gender, was to understand Malcolm’s misogynism. Marable raised some uncomfortable questions on this score, including the manner in which Malcolm discussed his mother and her eventual collapse, but also the conclusions that Malcolm drew when his female collaborators in crime turned against him in order to save themselves. There is a pattern that Marable identifies that lasts into the post-NOI period when it came to women. Once Malcolm broke with the NOI his views began to shift on matters of gender, and actually shift in such a way so as to unsettle some of his key male supporters in the MMI.
One can go deeper, however. Malcolm’s relationship with Betty Shabazz was more complicated than either the Autobiography or many of Malcolm’s uncritical supporters would make it out to be. Betty was a strong woman in her own right who sought security and sexual satisfaction, to name just two items, in her marriage to Malcolm. She also strongly supported him, often raising cautionary notes that were prescient. However, she did not have identical politics to Malcolm and certainly did not evolve further down the path of revolutionary nationalism and Pan Africanism. In other words, the relationship was complicated, and in order to address some of the challenges contained in this relationship Malcolm sought help from Elijah Muhammad, only to have that request for help turned into an instrument against him in the factional wars in the NOI.
The entire matter of gender has caused its own uproar and in so doing has betrayed an uncomfortable vein within Black America that has hemorrhaged in the past and could very well again. One need only remember the controversy surrounding the Clarence Thomas hearings and the allegations by Anita Hill to recognize the volatility of the issue.
A second matter of focus was the assassination. As noted earlier, Marable did not set out to uncover the full scope of the plot, but here he touched upon one matter that had received very little earlier attention: the tension within and among his supporters in the post-NOI period. First things first, however. Marable’s research has already provided the impetus for a discussion regarding the need for a new examination of the circumstances surrounding the assassination. This includes the role of the police, FBI, as well as some elements of the NOI. The facts, as presented by Marable, and in some cases by earlier scholars and investigators, raise such serious questions regarding who was actually involved in the assassination that silence on this matter is simply unforgivable.
There are many points of controversy surrounding the assassination, but what is especially worth noting is that Marable’s investigation identified three forces that had an interest in Malcolm’s death: the State; the NOI; and some of Malcolm’s own supporters. This is not the first time that history has demonstrated that an assassination or otherwise criminal action had multiple players, each with its own interest in the success of the operation even if they may not have been actively collaborating or have consciously conspired. In this case, the curious actions of the police on the day of the murder; the faulty security (by Malcolm’s own people); and the identification of the assailants, points to multiple perpetrators, each with their own set of objectives. The problem of Malcolm’s followers seems to have been a matter—never publicly discussed—revolving around some of them feeling betrayed by Malcolm’s own evolution, an evolution which was moving at the speed of light compared with their own changes.
The critics and their discontent
When one listens to the critics of MX it is often difficult to ask anything other than, what is really going on here?
In order to understand what is going on, one must identify multiple sources, much of which has almost nothing to do with the book itself. These include: the creation of Malcolm-as-icon; homophobia; personal jealousy targeted at Marable; New York chauvinism targeted at Marable; and on-going differences regarding strategy within the Black Freedom Movement. As the reader will notice, however, the debate has little to do with the facts as articulated in the book, despite the words of some of the critics. None of the challenges regarding alleged errors in fact that have been raised, irrespective of their relative validity, calls into question anything of significance in the book. In fact, a surprising number of the challenges to the book appear to have come from people who, at least at the time of their criticism, had not even read the book or just read selective passages. I have personally found myself in situations where individuals, in discussing the book, begin by saying something like: “I have not read the book but…” or “I have not finished reading the book but…” and then gone on to offer impassioned analyses with very little foundation. The fact that individuals believe that they do not have to do a real reading is a matter that could be the subject of an entirely separate essay!
Unfortunately, for too many followers of Malcolm—myself included—the Autobiography has been treated as the word of God. Rather than appreciating the politics that accompany all autobiographies, many of us have treated this book, along with Malcolm’s speeches, as the final or near final word on Malcolm-the-person. The story is a magnificent story of redemption, but also of pride and revolutionary courage. Yet in our search for heroes, we often seek demigods. We seek a type of perfection that does not exist within humanity and wish to believe that the only way that a hero can be a hero (or heroine) is if they have reached that dimensional plateau of perfection. As one critic of Marable stated, quite unapologetically: the people need icons.
It is true that the people need heroes and heroines, particularly as a means of fighting despair. It is often the case that we shape or reshape those heroes or heroines in order to accomplish other political purposes. The State certainly understands that. As Lenin so aptly noted, upon the death of a people’s hero, the capitalist State moves to alter society’s understanding of said hero in order that the dead hero can become acceptable and advance the interests of the State.
The people can also reshape a hero in order to uphold the cause(s) advanced by the hero during their life. Malcolm’s immense courage and defiance are legendary, but is that courage and defiance called into question if we find out that Malcolm vacillated about actually splitting with the NOI? Is it called into question if we know that he expressed misgivings? Is his manhood—however we happen to interpret that—challenged when we learn that there was a sexual/emotional disconnect between Betty and him?
When we demand that our heroes and heroines be perfect, then each human challenge, such as those noted earlier, calls into question whether our hero can be our hero. This is what lies beneath many of the criticisms of MX and of Marable.
When we turn heroes and heroines into demigods there is an additional problem that arises: we make it less possible, and in some cases even impossible, to emulate said hero. As political activists we should be utilizing the memory and practice of heroes, whether Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, or Malcolm not simply to inspire but as sources of wisdom. We should be learning from their practices, including how they confronted their challenges, and shaped who they were and who they became. We should be learning how to take from those experiences and apply to our own. To borrow from the late, great leader of the revolution in Guinea-Bissau/Cape Verde, Amilcar Cabral, we on the Left must “tell no lies and claim no easy victories…” including about our own great leaders. But once these individuals rise to the status of demigods that all becomes impossible. After all, how can we mere humans emulate Hercules?
While the fury over the challenge to Malcolm-as-demigod has been at the core of much of the uproar, some of the initial outrage resulted from the discussion of the possibility that Malcolm engaged in a same-sex encounter for pay prior to his going to prison. There are some interesting features to this outrage. This is not the first time that this matter has been raised. In fact, several authors have posed this issue. As such, it would have been highly questionable for Marable to have ignored the matter as if it were some imaginary issue. It is important to note that in Marable’s treatment of this aspect of Malcolm’s life, he used both primary sources (prison letters Malcolm wrote) as well as three secondary sources (including memoirs from Malcolm’s nephew Rodnell Collins and his partner in crime Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis) to corroborate his conclusion.
Methodology, however, is not the main issue here. What infuriates some critics is that the possibility of Malcolm engaging in a same-sex encounter raises questions as to his manhood. This assumption is based on the erroneous notion that one’s sexuality is a fixed and determined category and that the positive aspects of Malcolm-the-revolutionary leader are somehow invalidated by what at one moment may have been sexual ambivalence.
The outrage expressed by some people at this ‘revelation’ is certainly tinged with homophobia, although I am not assuming that all of those who have reacted negatively to this segment of the book are automatically homophobic. Nevertheless, both the outrage and any homophobia associated with it does not withstand scrutiny when challenged, as it has been by Michael Eric Dyson, who has pointed out that the Malcolm who may have engaged in a same-sex encounter for pay was the Malcolm Little of the thug period. In that period he engaged in pimping, gambling and armed robbery. For many critics it appears to be completely acceptable that he engaged in these assorted activities but somehow same-sex encounters for pay are over the top.
What is shocking about this debate is how few pages it covers in the actual book (no more than two) and that Marable was very careful in his conclusions. As with any historian, he draws certain conclusions from the evidence he had but then goes on to make an interesting point: there were no subsequent examples or claims of either same-sex encounters for pay or homosexual activity period. While this should have calmed down the critics, the mere suggestion of such activity was enough to unsettle them.
Another feature of the criticism of MX is the allegation that it represents an attempt to portray Malcolm as having the same politics as Marable; liberalize Malcolm so that he is more acceptable to a mainstream audience; or turn Malcolm into some sort of social democrat. There is no foundation for these arguments. The closest thing to a legitimate issue was Marable’s poor choice of words to describe Malcolm’s evolution toward Pan Africanism (see below).
The final chapter of the book refutes the critics—hands down—on this matter of an attempt to liberalize Malcolm, etc. One need only review that chapter and consider the points that Marable raised. Not in order of importance, but:
1. Malcolm was not converging with King. [We discussed this point earlier.]
2. Malcolm saw the need for a complete restructuring of the USA in order for Black liberation to ever be achieved.
3. Malcolm would most likely have not been enthralled with affirmative action because he would have been looking for more structural solutions to our situation.
4. Malcolm would have engaged in a certain form of electoral politics.
5. Malcolm was trying to define his politics at the global level and situate the African American struggle within the global struggle against imperialism and racism.
There is nothing in this that sounds like liberalism or social democracy. Instead it more closely conforms to variants of anti-imperialist politics, in particular a form of anti-imperialist politics that was prevalent in the global South at that time.
Some critics, however, have raised Marable’s use of the term “race neutral” in talking about the form of Pan Africanism and Third World solidarity Malcolm was advancing in order to allege that Marable was trying to water down Malcolm. Having known Marable for more than 25 years I would attribute this to either a poor choice of words or a mistaken editing decision. Let’s explore, however, what Marable was attempting to address.
There was a moment that Malcolm himself described when, during one of his trips, he encountered a North African revolutionary. The North African revolutionary questioned Malcolm about his use of the term “black nationalism.” This North African revolutionary, being AFRICAN, was apparently also quite light-skinned and asked Malcolm where that put him in the context of “black nationalism”. Malcolm did not have a clear answer for this but, towards the end of his life appeared to have been grappling with this issue and what it meant for how he was to conceptualize and describe his politics.
Marable used the term “race neutral” to describe a set of anti-racist politics that were Pan African and Third Worldist, not in the sense that liberals or the right use the term ‘race neutral.’ It would have been more akin to what the South African movement has called “non-racial” or “anti-racist.” He was trying to describe this as something that was not about black as skin color but more akin to the manner in which “black”, terminologically, came to be used in places such as Britain, South Africa and the Caribbean in the late 1960s and 1970s, i.e., as a political characterization (thus, South Asians often identified as “black” in each of those settings and did not reserve this designation to only those of direct African descent).
What makes the criticism of Marable so patently disingenuous is that one need only consider the body of Marable’s works to know that his usage of the tern “race neutral” was far from an example of liberalism, or other such disorders.
This all leads to a final point, i.e., that many of the criticism of MX have little to nothing to do with the book itself; they have to do with Manning. So, it is time to explore some of these in order to understand additional aspects of the temper associated with many of the responses.
I began this essay with a story concerning the response by one person of note to Manning’s death. This story was in some ways a subplot in a larger story.
The larger story includes the matter of the legacy of Malcolm X and who can lay claim to it. There is an assortment of Black radicals, largely men, who believe that they carry Malcolm’s torch. Whether due to conferences that they have held or books that they have written, they believe that only they are entitled to pontificate on the question of Malcolm X. Marable’s book, and the largely positive response that it received (not to mention the thoroughness of its research) inflamed many of these individuals who seemed to have concluded that they had been eclipsed. Rather than welcoming Marable’s contribution, they chose instead to smear it and him, as if that would somehow enhance their own stature.
Then there is the particular question of Manning Marable-the-person. Marable was an incredibly smart, dynamic, and prolific African American who gained significant attention. At a relatively early age he positioned himself through reaching out to the broader African American population via his columns. What Manning understood, and something that he explained to me a long time ago, was that Black newspapers are regularly looking for good material. What he chose to do, which many other Black radicals ignored, was reaching out to the Black press and inserting a left/progressive point of view. That meant winning over publishers, many of who were/are relatively conservative and do not spontaneously gravitate to radical ideas.
Marable followed three courses. One was to make a name for himself in the academy as an exceptional scholar. Second, he recognized the importance of and worked at the building a Left. He was never a Marxist-Leninist and, as such, was not involved in the revolutionary party-building efforts of the 1970s and 1980s. His politics were complicated, even when he was in the Democratic Socialists of America. In essence he was a Marxist looking to create a mass, left-wing formation that was thoroughly anti-racist and anti-sexist. He was concerned with and critical of vanguard-ism, as he saw it, among so many radicals, not only in the USA but overseas. In fact, his book about African and Caribbean politics goes through an important analysis of the collapse of the Grenadian Revolution, the sources of which involved elements of what came to be known as the “crisis of socialism,” including but not limited to vanguard-ism.
Marable was very influential in the early stages of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, a formation that resulted from a split in the Communist Party, USA. Although Marable had never been a member of the Communist Party, he hoped that CCDS would become a mechanism for a Left realignment and the building of a mass, radical, transformative project.
This was also the same person who was at the core of initiating the Black Radical Congress, an effort to create a front or coalition of Black leftists ranging from left nationalists to non-nationalist communists. If anything could be said of Marable, it was that he approached this in a non-sectarian manner, even where he had differences with individuals (and groups) from other tendencies.
The final of the three courses was Marable’s commitment to entering into mainstream discourses from the Left. Contrary to many leftists who are content to speak to themselves and their small groups, Marable sought to reach out to a broader range of the general public, from liberals on to the Left.
The intensity of the attacks on Marable, and particularly the personal nature of some of the attacks, actually represents a continuation of a struggle that took place in the Black Radical Congress between 1998-2001. The BRC was a broad grouping of Black radicals that came together to engage in joint campaigns. Formed in June 1998, the BRC had a diverse leadership core that included Marable. Marable, one of the co-founders of the BRC, became one of the three co-chairs of the BRC. This leadership position meant that he was one of the spokespersons for the BRC but also one of its acknowledged leaders.
Within the BRC there were those who both disagreed with Marable but also resented him. The resentment may seem a bit strange to the reader, but that is why I began this essay with the story of the reaction of one person to Manning’s death. The resentment appeared to have been rooted in a combination of factors that included the high visibility that Marable had achieved by the 1990s; his appointment to Columbia University and the fact that this raised his profile in New York City (and for some New Yorkers this is unpardonable if one is not from New York, a point I can make as someone born and raised in New York); and, even more ironically, that Manning refused to stay in the box of being a traditional academic but instead insisted on being directly involved with the construction of a movement.
In addition to resentment, there were strategic differences within the BRC. These differences were quite natural for an organization that had the ideological breath of the BRC. The BRC was not a cadre organization and membership included people with very divergent views. In and of itself, this should not have been a problem. The problem, however, lay in how differences were handled.
Manning came under assault for an orientation that was reflected in his writing. He was intent on making the BRC a politically relevant formation by which he and many others meant that it would be a recognizable force in the Black Freedom Movement and would represent a legitimate pole of Left opinion in Black America and beyond. Such an approach necessitated alliances with forces far broader than the traditional Left. It included outreach to more liberal forces as well as other social movements, including the NAACP and organized labor. It also meant connecting with progressive Black Democratic politicians.
Manning’s view stood in contrast with an alternative approach, or approaches. One alternative view was that which saw the BRC as needing to be more purist in its left-wing politics. For this segment, it was enough for the BRC to articulate the ‘correct line’ but there was less interest in interacting with forces outside of the BRC who were not on the Left. Those articulating such a view did not come from one particular group or represent one particular tendency. On both sides of the divide there were nationalists, communists, socialists, liberation theologians, feminists, etc. What split these two tendencies revolved more around something that Rosa Luxemburg called “revolutionary Realpolitik.” To what extent should a formation like the BRC, or for that matter any other mass Left-wing formation, attempt to be a real political force with clear leftist politics vs. remaining a refuge for the tried and true? To what extent would the BRC roll up its sleeves and get a bit dirty interacting with those with who it had political differences but might share some agreement on a specific set of issues? Manning favored taking the risk of such an engagement, and for that reason—often combined with other sources (mentioned earlier)—he came under attack. The attacks became so personal that Manning ultimately decided that both due to his growing concerns with his health (the sarcoidosis) and his determination to write the Malcolm X biography, that it was no longer worth it to subject himself to such a barrage.
MX attempts to speak to a broad audience. It is not directed at the Black Left, though certainly many members of the Black Left have been reading it. It seeks an audience within Black America and beyond who are and have been trying to understand this remarkable historical figure, Malcolm X.
Yet there is another side to MX that relates to the strategic differences that emerged in the BRC (noted earlier). To some extent Marable was attempting to better understand the strategic challenges that Malcolm confronted in attempting to build a Black radical pole to lead the Black Freedom Movement. The lost pages from the Autobiography, Malcolm’s interest in electoral politics; and, Malcolm’s embrace of Pan Africanism were not isolated ideas or notions, but reflected an effort by Malcolm to fashion a strategic vision and direction that would root the Black radical movement he sought to build within the larger currents of Black America. His announced intention, for instance, of supporting Civil Rights workers in the South was a significant step taken to build a bridge in the Black Freedom Movement. Rather than castigating Black liberals and progressives who followed Dr. King, by 1964 Malcolm saw a chance for his brand of Black radicalism (with a nationalist bent, since it is important to note that there was Black radicalism already within the ‘King’ camp of both similar and different bents) to directly link with and influence other tendencies within Black America. I believe that this is one thing that made Malcolm most intriguing for Marable.
How to use MX?
In the fall of 2010, as Manning was recovering from his lung transplant, we spoke about his forthcoming book. I suggested to him that the book could become an important instrument for advancing a discussion about the state of Black America, but more specifically, the future of Black radical politics. In that light, I went on to suggest that the book should not simply be promoted through personal appearances by him, but that there should be activists and scholars around the country who were enlisted in building events and studies, using the book to move a discussion that needs to happen. While Manning was intrigued with this approach, for a variety of reasons he was unable to do anything about it.
One of the best tributes to Manning, and for that matter one of the best ways of honoring the memory of Malcolm X, would be to use the book precisely for discussions about the future of Black radicalism; its relationship to other progressive movements in the USA; and the relationship of Black American radicalism to the domestic and global movements of the world’s ‘colored peoples.’ This certainly does not mean that everyone has to agree with me that MX is a fabulous book. What it does entail, however, is stepping back from the innuendo, personal jealousies, and trivial pursuits, and focusing instead on the issues that the book raises. Here are a few issues that have preoccupied me since reading the manuscript and then the final book:
1. What is the balance between charismatic leadership and democratic organization?
2. What do we mean by “Black political power” in the era of Obama, racial backsliding, and right-wing populism?
3. What sort of alliances can be built both within Black America as well as within the USA that advance the interests of the majority of African Americans?
4. What does 21st century Pan Africanism look like? What is its relevance to the domestic Black Freedom struggle?
5. How should issues of gender be addressed in ways that are more than symbolic?
6. How do we understand the role of the State and what are the implications of that analysis for public, political activity?
7. How does Black radicalism come to, once again, resonate within the Black working class?
Discussing issues, such as these (and this is not an exclusive list), can advance our movement. MX can become an instrument to help us further our journey. Twisting words, ignoring the scope of Marable’s works, and settling personal, private, and largely irrelevant accounts does nothing more than demonstrate that some critics have allowed themselves to ultimately become condemned to irrelevancy.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a member of the Editorial Board of BlackCommentator.com, a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfricaForum, and co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA.