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Wednesday, April 27,2011

Debate still rages over Malcolm X

A new biography reignites old controversies surrounding the African-American leader

by Bill Castanier

It’s only fitting that the recent
publication of “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” has received both
compliments and a firestorm of criticism. After all, that befits a
conflicted and complicated life.


The book, by noted African-American
author and historian Manning Marable, professor of history and public
affairs at Columbia and director of Columbia’ Center for Contemporary
Black History, comes 46 years after Grove Press posthumously published
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” co-written by Alex Haley.


Like Malcolm X, Marable did not live to
see his book make it into print; he died three days before its
publication. In the book, Marable makes numerous claims — which are
being called “revelations” —that Malcolm X was bisexual, that he
exaggerated his criminal background, that he was unfaithful to his wife,
Betty Shabazz, and that his assassin was never brought to justice. 


It’s unfortunate Marable is not around to
answer questions. Historians, journalists and, in particular, the
daughters of Malcolm X would like to ask him what evidence he used to
arrive at these conclusions.


Marable was quick to invoke the
seldom-used word “fictive” to describe “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,”
the scores of other biographies and the folklore fueled by Spike Lee’s
1992 film; ironically, Marable’s own work is being questioned. 


On the surface, “Reinvention” purports to
destroy some of the commonly held assumptions about Malcolm X, some
created and perpetuated by Malcolm X himself and others created by
Haley. In the book, which he spent more than 20 years researching and
writing, Marable points out time and time again that Haley may have
created a Malcolm X that didn’t exist. It’s important to note that
Malcolm X never got the opportunity to review Haley’s final manuscript
and that three chapters were excluded all together. (More about that
later.)


Twenty-five pages of the book recount
Malcolm X’s time in Lansing, when he was known as Malcolm Little. Even
Marable (who at one point had 20 graduate students researching
chronology) admits having difficulty in tracking his subject, due to the
many names Malcolm X assumed during his life: He was known at various
times as Red, Red Detroit¸ Satan and Malik El-Shabazz.


Malcolm X’s stay in the Lansing area
(from when he was about 4 until he was 15 and took a Greyhound bus to
Boston) was largely left unchallenged by Marable. However, the author
did reinforce the idea that the death of Fred Little, Malcolm’s father,
in 1931 was never conclusively determined to be the work of the Black
Legion, a Klan-like organization, contrary to what has become popular
opinion.


The Littles’ first home had already been
burned down and, as Marable points out, although arson investigators
tried to blame Little for the fire, it is likely the home was torched by
racists protesting his presence in an all-white neighborhood just south
of Lansing.


Marable recalls how at various times in
his life Malcolm X claimed his father, a follower of Marcus Garvey, was
murdered, but that in a 1963 speech at Michigan State University he
specifically said his father’s death was accidental. If anything,
Marable only confirms what historians have long known about Malcolm X:
that he was a conflicted individual open to reinvention and that his
storytelling was often inconsistent.


Mid-Michigan and Detroit area readers
will be fascinated by the passages about the time he spent in Lansing,
Mason and Detroit. In many ways, it is a quick tour of what clearly
must’ve been a formative time in his life: the recounting of the arson
and his father’s death underneath a Lansing streetcar; the
disintegration of his family; his time with the foster family, the
Gohannas (about whom readers will want to know more); his uprooting to
rural Mason, where he would become class president in junior high
school, etc.


John H. McClendon, MSU professor of
philosophy and former director of the African-American and African
studies program, said that overall he was disappointed in Marable’s
work.


“He makes charges demeaning Malcolm’s
character without sufficient proof,” McClendon said, citing the section
describing Malcolm X’s alleged homosexual encounters as a case in point.


"The proof he offers is second- and
third-hand, and anyone who is a historian would have problems with that.
If there was no evidence, it should’ve been left out.”


McClendon also has strong opinions about
Marable’s assertions that not only did Malcolm X exaggerate his criminal
life, but that Haley created a totally new persona for Malcolm X based
on his own Republican beliefs. McClendon said that documenting that type
of thing is quite difficult: “Description of street crime is nebulous
at best.”


McClendon said the research was further
complicated by how easy it could be to confuse the various aliases of
Malcolm X, especially “Red,” which was a common nickname among other
African-Americans with red hair.


Marable’s psychological analysis of
Malcolm X is something else that McClendon finds questionable. He is
especially critical of Marable’s analysis of the relationship between
Malcolm and Betty Shabazz that’s based on a smoking letter that Malcolm X
sent to Elijah Muhammad about their relationship.


“It’s a shot in the dark,” McClendon says, “and a credible scholar and credible historian would not have done that.”


McClendon’s take on the overwhelmingly
positive reviews the book is receiving is that journalists and
historians may be giving a pass to Marable because of his untimely
death. “The bottom line is it will become the definitive biography for
years to come,” he said, “and that is unfortunate since, in reality, it
hasn’t taken us that far.” 


The battle over the facts of Malcolm X’s
life is far from over. In 1992, Detroit entertainment lawyer and MSU
graduate Gregory Reed purchased the manuscript of the “Autobiography of
Malcolm X” for $100,000 in a sale of the literary estate of Alex Haley.
Reed was also able to purchase three unpublished chapters for $23,000.


The chapters, according to published accounts, detail Malcolm X’s blueprint for the future in  a world he could see evolving into one that was less racially divided.


Reed did allow Marable to read short
portions of the unused chapters, but the exact content of those pages is
still a secret. Reed will publish an annotated electronic version of
Haley’s manuscript on May 21 that he says will refute much of what’s in
Marable’s biography.


The final chapter of the life of Malcolm X clearly has not been written.

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