The Chronicle Review

Rescuing Malcolm X From His Calculated Myths

Bob Adelman, Magnum Photos

Malcom X , 1962
May 01, 2011

Malcolm X bestrides the postwar age of decolonization alongside global icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. If King and Gandhi evoked nonviolence and disciplined civil disobedience as a shield to protect the world from imperial wars, racism, and rampant materialism, Malcolm wielded the specter of self-defense, violence, and revolution as a sword to permanently alter power relations between the global North and South. In an epoch contoured by revolutions that connected local political struggles to national and international upheavals, he self-consciously brokered links among Africa, the Middle East, and America, setting the stage for political, religious, and cultural reverberations that would continue past his lifetime.

Almost a half-century after his death in 1965, Malcolm X continues to capture the global political imagination. His denunciations of white racism to packed Harlem crowds remain searing images that capture a specific style of black radicalism while simultaneously serving as a template for political revolutions that go beyond race and established the Third World as a bracingly independent geopolitical force. His speeches, political activism, and religious beliefs achieved mythic proportions after his death, spurred by the huge success of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written in collaboration with Alex Haley and published posthumously. It remains a classic memoir of the once wayward youth's transformation from juvenile delinquent and criminal into the Nation of Islam's fiery national spokesman and, following a messy divorce from the group that would ultimately lead to his death, a radical human-rights advocate and Pan-Africanist who candidly admitted that some of his past views had been politically shortsighted, even reckless.

Embraced by Black Power activists, hip-hop artists, socialists, and black nationalists, Malcolm's iconography had been successfully rehabilitated enough by the 1990s to merit a major motion picture, an official U.S. postage stamp, and mainstream identification as King's angry but eloquent counterpart. Recognition came at a high cost. Despite a plethora of popular and scholarly works—on Malcolm's political and religious views, his life as hipster and hustler, his embrace of Pan-African impulses, his break with the Nation of Islam—a definitive scholarly biography illuminating his singular importance as a dominant 20th-century historical figure remained absent. For personal, financial, and political reasons, his widow and subsequently his estate restricted access to important archival material until 2008. His former associates were loath to give interviews, and the Nation of Islam remained mostly silent about the circumstances surrounding his death. The FBI and the New York City Police Department closed off thousands of pages of surveillance and wiretapping records. Then too, the success of the Autobiography as a literary memoir narrowed the opening for a scholarly biography.

Historical scholarship has focused on Malcolm's words of fire, depicting him more as a brilliant speaker than a community organizer. His supple intellect, burgeoning political ambitions, and organizing prowess have garnered far less attention. As have details of his private life. And no single volume has attempted to craft a cohesive portrait that stands outside the Autobiography's considerable shadow. In that celebrated book, Malcolm X outlined his views on the importance of producing an accurate history: "I've had enough of somebody else's propaganda," he proclaimed.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking), by Manning Marable, a historian at Columbia University who died just days before publication of what is clearly his life's work, achieves the rare feat of rescuing a man from his own mythology with deep archival research and brilliant insight. Marable's untimely death adds a layer of poignancy to a biography that will stand as the most authoritative account of Malcolm's life that will be written for a long time.

Marable emerged as one of the leading scholars of black Marxism and radicalism in the early 1980s. The founding director of Columbia's Institute for Research in African American Studies and a prolific scholar, his work charted the black-freedom movement's domestic and global reverberations. In books like Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1990 (second edition, University Press of Mississippi, 1991), African and Caribbean Politics: From Kwame Nkrumah to the Granada Revolution (Verso, 1987), and The Great Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of Race in America (Basic Books, 2002), he deftly explored the way postwar black radicals helped transform American democracy in the service of a human-rights movement that transcended borders and boundaries.

His commitment to black political empowerment went beyond the confines of academe, however, as he established an international network of contacts with activists and scholars throughout Africa, the Caribbean, and the larger Third World. Building enduring intellectual and institutional links between Harlem and Columbia—a hard-fought achievement in an Ivy League institution that has at times had a fraught relationship with the historically black neighborhood—he was the rare public intellectual willing to speak truth to power while using scholarship to transform society.

In Malcolm X, Marable found a perfect subject, one whose uncanny ability to reinvent himself during his prematurely short life and truncated public career touched upon themes of black political self-determination, economic justice, internationalism, and radical democracy represented in the scholar's own intellectual corpus.

Marable's subtitle, A Life of Reinvention, succinctly captures his book's larger effort to recast the political and personal life of the Black Power icon in both subtle and surprising ways. The Malcolm X revealed in these pages is at once a larger-than-life figure and a scaled-down, even frail human being. Marable refuses to shy away from Malcolm's flaws, candidly discussing his sexism, errors in political and personal judgment, and occasional anti-Semitic utterances. Suggestions, albeit based on circumstantial evidence, that Malcolm may have engaged in homosexual encounters during his time as a hustler promise to unleash renewed controversy about the identity of a man who adopted almost a dozen different names.

For scholars, if not the general public, Marable's Malcolm X now joins the Autobiography as an indispensable resource in comprehending Malcolm's complicated life. It not only "illustrates that many elements of Detroit Red's narrative are fictive," as Marable notes, referring to an early alias. More important, the book also offers the first accurate and in-depth chronology of a turbulent journey from criminal to icon. It shows us a man possessed of an uncanny ability both to absorb and project the sights and sounds of his surroundings, an aptitude that helped him convey a political and personal sincerity that has made him, till this day, perhaps the single most authentic leader that the black working class has produced.

Portions of the biography questioning Malcolm's sexuality and alleging an extramarital affair by his wife have already elicited controversy, including at least one critical review attacking Marable's research methods. Years in the making, Malcolm X is a thoroughly researched biography, mining a rich archive of primary sources (including many never accessed before) and collecting oral histories from Malcolm's associates and Nation of Islam officials (most notably Louis Farrakhan). Marable's discussion of Malcolm's at-times strained marriage relies on such oral histories and on personal correspondence from Malcolm to Elijah Muhammad, his mentor and the Nation's spiritual leader, which offer substantive evidence of a troubled union. That's also the kind of material undoubtedly painful for surviving family members. The even more controversial assertion that Malcolm may have participated in a homosexual business relationship with a white man who served as his sometimes benefactor rests on more slender evidence, which the author himself describes as "circumstantial." But such instances of interpretive overreach are scarce.

Racial politics formed part of Malcolm Little's birthright, an inheritance from his parents, Earl and Louise Little, two politically courageous supporters of Marcus Garvey—or, depending on your perspective, ill-fated pioneers of black nationalism—in the distant outpost of Omaha, Neb., where Malcolm was born on May 19, 1925. While Malcolm was still young, the family moved to Lansing, Mich. His was a difficult childhood, plagued by bouts of domestic violence, harassment from the local Klan, and Earl's gruesomely suspicious death (he was cut nearly in two by what white authorities claimed was a streetcar accident and Malcolm surmised was part of a lynching). Earl Little's death shattered his surviving family, hurling them into an emotionally fatiguing battle with state relief agencies that found the young Malcolm relying on foster care and eventually triggered Louise's mental breakdown and institutionalization. By 1941, Malcolm had moved to Boston to live with his older half-sister Ella. It was here that Malcolm Little first reinvented himself as a small-time hood whose crimes were at least partially inspired by Ella's own extralegal activities in pursuit of a middle-class lifestyle.

Marable deconstructs the the Legend of Detroit Red outlined in the Autobiography, finding that Malcolm purposely exaggerated his criminal exploits as a way of obscuring painful and embarrassing memories and of emphasizing the importance of the Nation of Islam in his eventual transformation. Far from being aligned with major gangsters, in this period Malcolm alternated between part-time legal employment like selling food on railroads (where he was known as Sandwich Red), dealing small amounts of marijuana to jazz musicians, and engaging in largely amateurish holdups, at least one of which ended in an early arrest. Successfully evading the draft by feigning mental illness, Malcolm engaged in escalating drug abuse and petty crime that ended abruptly shortly after World War II. Arrested in 1946 for a series of burglaries, fooled by false promises of leniency, he turned in his whole crew. The interracial makeup of the burglary ring, which included Malcolm's white girlfriend, inspired a harsh sentence of eight to 10 years.

Within the walls of Norfolk Prison Colony, in Massachusetts, Malcolm Little would reinvent himself again. Through letters from his brother Reginald, he was first introduced to the Nation of Islam, a religious nationalist sect whose emphasis on pride, self-respect, and discipline echoed his father's distant Garveyite preaching. Newly energized and clean and sober, Malcolm dove into a meticulous study of religion, history, and philosophy. Paroled in 1952, he quickly became a full-time Nation of Islam minister. Whereas Garvey resurrected ancient African kingdoms as proof of black nobility and self-respect, the Nation of Islam touted religious prophesy through an imaginative blend of Islam, black nationalism, and religious mythology that identified whites as "devils" and predicted America's destruction even as it embraced a conservative economic vision of black capitalism.

Reborn as Malcolm X, a surname that reflected black people's loss of identity in America's racial wilderness, the former Detroit Red now embraced personal self-discipline and an ascetic lifestyle. "The trickster disappeared," writes Marable, "leaving the willful challenger to authority." The biography weaves in new details to flesh out the narrative of Malcolm's becoming a minister and his rise to power within the Nation of Islam. He was an indefatigable organizer, whose remarkable ability to inspire new converts and recruits helped propel the Nation's tiny infrastructure into a formidable group with global ambitions.

But tensions cropped up early. One of the new biography's greatest strengths is in shaping a nuanced portrait of postwar Harlem as a city within a city, teeming with competing political, religious, and labor groups, self-appointed leaders, and deteriorating economic conditions, which helped the Nation of Islam tout itself as a haven for black men and women. Malcolm's extraordinary talent for "fishing" for new recruits outside of his fast-growing Harlem Temple No. 7 and his ability to successfully establish new temples in the North, South, and the West Coast between 1952 and 1962 marked him as Elijah Muhammad's most indispensable minister. It also made him enemies within the organization, especially among those connected by blood or marriage to Muhammad. Ultimately, even Malcolm's handpicked protégés would side against him in the aftermath of his split from the group, unexpected circumstances that he found bitterly disappointing.

According to Marable, Malcolm's poor choice of political allies within the Nation extended to his personal life and the fateful decision in 1958 to marry Betty Sanders, later renamed Betty Shabazz. In contrast to the loving, dutiful wife characterized in the Autobiography and 1992 film, Betty is depicted here as a stubborn, willful spouse who challenged Malcolm's patriarchal views of marriage and even engaged in an extramarital affair with one of his closest lieutenants—revelations that have understandably upset the Shabazz family. The couple endured rather than enjoyed each other's company over the course of a seven-year marriage, and Malcolm went so far as complaining to Muhammad in private correspondence of their sex life: "At a time when I was going all out to keep her satisfied (sexually), one day she told me that we were incompatible sexually because I had never given her any real satisfaction. From then on, try as I may, I began to become very cool toward her."

That quote, taken from a March 1959 letter barely a year after their wedding, powerfully illustrates that Malcolm's marriage to Betty was tense from almost the beginning; tensions were exacerbated by periods of prolonged absence, financial stress, and harassment from law enforcement and later the Nation of Islam. Despite sustained analysis of his personal life, the complex psychological reasons behind Malcolm's reticence toward emotional intimacy with Betty remain elusive, buried, it seems, beneath a disciplined exterior that Marable seems incapable of completely shattering. He makes an intriguing suggestion that Malcolm's past sexual history with prostitutes and fast women created a kind of emotional trauma that rendered him incapable of properly addressing Betty's "emotional and sexual needs"; it's only a hint, and it deserves more exploration.

All of the forces that had built Malcolm X seemed to speed up in the 1960s. Joint surveillance from the New York Police Department's Bureau of Special Services unit and the FBI added to Malcolm's increasingly complicated life, one that by 1960 included extensive speeches on the college lecture circuit, a popularity spurred by the previous year's documentary The Hate That Hate Produced, narrated by Mike Wallace. The film was dedicated more to sensationalism than journalism and characterized the Nation of Islam as akin to the Ku Klux Klan, but it cast Malcolm into the public eye.

Politics increasingly animated Malcolm's public speeches and organizing energies, a situation that created anxiety within the upper reaches of the Nation. His national notoriety announced Black Muslims as a kind of ghoulish counterpart to King and the Southern civil-rights movement's nonviolent demonstrations—even though Muhammad strictly forbade his group from engaging in secular political activity. Moreover, both Malcolm and Muhammad agreed that the Nation should be part of a global community of Islam, but the Messenger, as Muhammad was known, sought recognition from orthodox Muslims in the Middle East to reinforce his standing at home, while Malcolm hoped that the entire group might join in a secular civil-rights movement.

While Marable shows that the Nation's internal decision-making process, including formalizing a nonaggression pact with the American Nazi Party and George Lincoln Rockwell, pained Malcolm, his portrait does not shy away from Malcolm's own culpability in constructing an elaborate and eventually deadly cult of personality around the Messenger that brooked no internal criticism and meted out violence to dissenters. By the early 1960s, the Fruit of Islam had emerged as a powerful arbiter of physical violence within the Nation, a group implicitly sanctioned by Malcolm that would emerge as a deadly adversary after his break from the Nation.

Malcolm's circle was changing. Against the backdrop of the civil-rights movement, his radical call for black political self-determination struck a chord in urban black militants discontented with nonviolence yet skeptical of Muhammad's claim to divinity. A diverse network of activists, entertainers, and celebrities like Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee, and elected leaders like Adam Clayton Powell Jr., formed alliances with Malcolm. His secular ambitions found him balancing on an increasingly perilous tightrope: implicitly sponsoring the kind of robust political activity Muhammad considered taboo while maintaining a public, almost fawning fealty to a religious sect he was intellectually outgrowing. Zesty debates with the nonviolent guru Bayard Rustin, the writer James Baldwin, and the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, James L. Farmer Jr., quickly turned into more-intimate friendships, a pattern replicated with journalists like Louis Lomax and Alex Haley. Collectively, such people first challenged and then helped propel Malcolm into a more activist posture. "He seemed more than ever of two minds" during the early years of the Kennedy administration, Marable writes, "pulled both by his loyalty to Muhammad and by a need to engage in the struggle."

In 1963, the year that civil-rights demonstrations in Birmingham and the March on Washington captured the world's collective imagination—and the Nation of Islam was quashing scandalous accusations regarding the Messenger's sexual misconduct—Malcolm X became the Nation's national minister. On November 10, he delivered his famous Message to the Grassroots, brandishing revolution as the antidote to racial oppression to sympathetic militants in Detroit who imagined him the leader of an as-yet-unnamed movement that would both parallel and intersect the civil-rights struggle.

Throughout the year, Malcolm had blasted President Kennedy's reluctance to defend black citizenship in the face of German shepherds and fire hoses in Alabama, even as he recoiled at King's use of children in demonstrations that erupted into violence. Unwisely, in December, he continued his blistering criticism, in flagrant violation of Muhammad's explicit orders to remain silent. Malcolm's "chickens coming home to roost" sound bite in response to a reporter's question about Kennedy's death sought to illustrate the boomerang effect of American violence, but quickly became engulfed in conjecture as to whether the Nation rejoiced in the death of the president. Malcolm's enemies in the Nation pounced, prodding Muhammad to discipline his wayward prodigy. What began as a three-month suspension turned into an organizational rout and whispers of assassination plots.

Banished from the Nation, Malcolm reinvented himself once again, this time as an independent, radical political activist and religious apostate. Marable's biography offers the most detailed examination yet of the final, exhilaratingly frenetic year of Malcolm's life: one in which he founded two short-lived religious and political organizations; spent 24 weeks in Africa; reimagined his understanding of revolution; embraced orthodox Sunni Islam; and networked with African and Middle-Eastern rulers in an effort to leverage revolutionary political struggles back home.

Shortly after his departure from the Nation, Malcolm delivered his famous "The Ballot or the Bullet" speech, in which he touted a vision of radical democracy. But he remained an unapologetic political combatant, offering the ballot as a rapprochement with politics, while reminding listeners that the bullet might well remain the ultimate arbiter of America's historical racial divide. The speech also emphasized his longstanding belief in racial solidarity and united-front politics, sentiments often obscured by impassioned polemics, Marable shows us.

Malcolm's hajj to the holy city of Mecca that April culminated in another transformation: The sectarian religious warrior now embraced a universal vision of Islam that transcended race, geography, and ideology in favor of what Marable calls a new "role as a kind of evangelist," capable of fusing revolutionary politics and religion as part of a global human-rights effort. Malcolm's travel diaries, revealed for the first time in this biography, reflect the contemplative thoughts of a man of war who had at last found peace. "There is no greater serenity of mind," he wrote, "than when one can shut the hectic noise and pace of the materialistic outside world, and seek inner peace within oneself." Africa also offered festivities, including meetings with Nigeria's Azikiwe and Ghana's Nkrumah, before returning home for a scarcely two-month effort to put together the Organization of Afro-American Unity, a secular attempt to expand support beyond disgruntled Muslims and loyalists who formed Malcolm's relatively small political base.

By July he was off again for an extended stay in Africa, where he became intimately acquainted with the strengths and limitations of Pan-African politics, found small joys in sightseeing and drinking alcohol for the first time in many years, and basked in the luxurious hospitality of being recognized as an official guest of state in many countries. That summer and fall, he experienced a sense of freedom, energy, and spiritual renewal that made this period one of the happiest in his life. Collectively, Malcolm's three trips to Africa and the Middle East represent a stunning level of international engagement that Marable argues produced tangible religious and political alliances that disturbed the State Department and outraged Nation of Islam officials. Politically, these trips provided a blueprint for a subsequent generation of radical activists, most notably Stokely Carmichael, who would (sometimes consciously) retrace Malcolm's itinerary, en route to fashioning their own global political identities.

Malcolm returned to the States under the threat of a death sentence by the Nation. Marable painstakingly dissects Malcolm's February 21, 1965, assassination, arguing that two of the three convicted assassins were absent from the Audubon Ballroom at the time of the murder and making a compelling and detailed case for the ways in which the New York police's botched investigation allowed four guilty conspirators (including Malcolm's main shooter) to go free. The person Marable names as the alleged assassin currently lives in Newark and denies any involvement in Malcolm's death. Marable accessed thousands of new FBI, CIA, and other surveillance and informant files under the Freedom of Information Act, but the issue will remain open until all the relevant files have been found and released.

Marable takes pains to illustrate that the iconography in Haley's Autobiography at times presumptuously crafted an image of Malcolm in line with Haley's own political views as a liberal Republican—and one apt to sell commercially. The Autobiography sanitized Malcolm's radical politics by tacking on an introduction by a New York Times writer and an epilogue by Haley himself, even as it excised three chapters originally designed to showcase Malcolm's new political philosophy.

A self-made political leader, Malcolm "keenly felt, and expressed, the varied emotions and frustrations of the black poor and working class," Marable reminds us. In that he became the avatar of not only a domestic movement for racial justice, but a symbol of an international human-rights movement, one that crossed religious and racial boundaries and transcended geographical and ideological restrictions. Yet for all of his efforts at reinvention, Malcolm X remained at his core "a black man, a person of African descent who happened to be a United States citizen."

One of the many pleasures of Marable's Malcolm X is its ability to reveal the sights and sounds of black America's postwar freedom surge, a time marked by the exhilarating sounds of bebop, the internal migration of rural Southern blacks to the urban North, and escalating racial protest against Jim Crow. Tellingly, jazz musicians and entertainers were attracted to Malcolm and the Nation of Islam. Malcolm's own powerful rhetoric contained jazz flourishes and clipped, at times improvised, passages that attested to his time around musicians as a young man.

More than 45 years after his death, we now have a historical portrait of Malcolm X that goes beyond literary clichés and autobiographical fictions to reveal an all-too human man beset by personal trials and political tribulations that would have felled the less courageous. Stripped from the cocoon of his posthumous aura of invincibility, Malcolm X emerges from these pages an endlessly fascinating and protean figure whose shortcomings make his political accomplishments all the more remarkable. Against the backdrop of private disappointments and embarrassingly public betrayals, Marable reminds us that Malcolm X still managed to transform "the discourse and politics of race internationally," a final enduring reinvention that continues long after his death.

Peniel E. Joseph is a professor of history at Tufts University. His most recent book is Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama (Basic Civitas, 2010).