REVIEW: Malcolm X is still controversial nearly 50 years after his assassination. In examining his life from a multitude of perspectives, author Manning Marable brings the reader close to Malcolm’s thoughts, deeds, leadership, struggles, conflicts, contradictions, and presence — which even today seems to have been larger than life.
Malcolm X made jaws drop and blood pressure rise. Contentious, newsworthy, contradictory, and sometimes transformative, he continually attempted to act as an agent for change in the areas of racial equality, racial identity, and racial pride in a world that often appeared to want nothing to do with any of his goals.
A man who was both of-the-moment and timeless, Malcolm X spoke most eloquently to those who were overlooked and underappreciated (at best) or subjugated and exploited (or worse). But everyone else who paid attention was frightened or angered by his statements.
What author Manning Marable has done in “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” (ISBN: 9780143120322) is eloquently present the many aspects of Malcolm using a sympathetic viewpoint while never relinquishing a grip on historical perspective and journalistic objectivity.
From an early age Malcolm Little (as he was born) had constructed multiple masks that distanced his inner self from the outside world. Years later, whether in a Massachusetts prison cell or traveling alone across the African continent during anticolonial revolutions, he maintained the dual ability to anticipate the actions of others and to package himself to maximum effect.
That “effect” was continually changing, as were the different names or personas he was using at the time:
These layers of personality were even expressed as a series of different names, some of which he created, while others were bestowed upon him: Malcolm Little, Homeboy, Jack Carlton, Detroit Red, Big Red, Satan, Malachi Shabazz, Malik Shabazz, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. No single personality ever captured him fully. In this sense, his narrative is a brilliant series of reinventions, “Malcolm X” being just the best known.
Satan? Yup. Take a moment right now to imagine what behavior it might require for a twenty year-old to earn the nickname of “Satan” from his fellow prison inmates.
Malcolm converted to Islam while he was serving four concurrent eight-to-ten-year sentences as well as three concurrent six-to-eight year sentences. Officially, he was imprisoned for larceny, illegal possession of a firearm, and breaking-and-entering, although it is clear from the narrative that his sexual relations with a white woman had a lot to do with his convictions.
Once released from prison, Malcolm embarked on a too-brief life filled with incendiary rhetoric, massive inconsistencies, and continual readjustments of stated objectives. “What made him truly original,” Marable writes, “was that he presented himself as the embodiment of the two central figures of African-American folk culture, simultaneously the hustler/trickster and the preacher/minister.”
That dichotomy reared its head time and time again as Malcolm was compelled to make one sweeping and outrageous statement after another, sometimes reversing himself from month to month or even from one speech to the next depending on circumstances, press questions, audience demographics, and so on.
Malcolm would often excoriate Martin Luther King and that leader’s methodology of non-violence, yet he occasionally delivered speeches that appeared to commend similar tactics. On one day, Malcolm would stir up crowds with statements like “The Ballot or the Bullet,” but on the next he might be preaching something akin to tolerance. Other examples: Malcolm repeatedly and inexplicably attacked the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and shockingly endorsed Goldwater over Johnson in the 1964 presidential elections.
Rebellion and Revelry
Malcolm’s fight plan encompassed everything that touched the lives of the non-white community and he welcomed the elements of rebellion found in fashion and in the music of bebop:
Malcolm was thoroughly immersed in this world, and well aware of the new sound and its implications — the frisson of outsiders shaking up mainstream culture. Like the zoot-suiters, beboppers implicitly rejected assimilation into standards established by whites and were contemptuous of the police and the power of the U.S. government over black people’s lives. Both sought to carve out identities that blacks could claim for themselves. Jazz artists recognized the parallels and, not surprisingly, later became Malcolm’s avid supporters in the 1960s. His version of militant black nationalism appealed to their spirit of rebellion and artistic nonconformity.
The Nation of Islam
There are numerous passages in the book relating to an intense culture of hypocrisy in the Nation of Islam (NOI) and its self-proclaimed messenger of God, Elijah Robert Poole (who christened himself Elijah Muhammad).
Thug tactics, intimidation, beatings, arson, and assaults by the Fruit of Islam (FOI or The Fruit) their goon squad, were a large and sorry part of the story as were the many sexual shenanigans on the part of Muhammad himself.
Needless to say, Malcolm had to work extremely diligently to dodge these potential land mines as he traveled around the country speaking as a minister in the NOI. Despite this, he was incredibly loyal to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation, repeatedly building up the cult around the leader even in the face of so much evidence of greed and chicanery.
And the message delivered by Malcolm was often seen by whites as scabrous. He “asserted that all black Americans, regardless of their religious views, were in effect prisoners under a racist system.” The themes of Black Nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Third World revolution are shuffled and reiterated many times in front of many audiences, often with surprising results, especially when he also lurched back to calls for desegregation.
Beneath the rhetoric, there was a glaring inconsistency in his logic. Malcolm was encouraging African Americans to vote, even to throw their weight behind either major party; yet simultaneously he accused both major parties of racism, incapable of delivering fairness to blacks.
Malcolm’s speeches and debate appearances always garnered attention and strong reaction. His speech titles alone were sometimes pulse-pounding — in addition to the aforementioned “Ballot or the Bullet” there were also “God’s Judgment of White America,” “The Farce on Washington,” and “There’s a Worldwide Revolution Going On.”
I Spy You Spy
While Malcolm remained part of the Nation of Islam organization, he was monitored by them. Someone from the NOI was always concerned with his activities, speeches, interviews, travels, expenses, public and private conversations — ostensibly everything. As is that wasn’t enough, he was under seemingly constant scrutiny by the FBI, often for reasons that made little sense.
The FBI never understood that the NOI did not seek the destruction of America’s legal and socioeconomic institutions; the Black Muslims were not radicals, but profound conservatives under Muhammad. They praised capitalism, so long as it served what they deemed blacks’ interests…. The NOI’s theology certainly “demonized” whites, yet its program in many ways merely channeled the profound sense of alienation that already existed among working-class blacks, born of the reality of Southern Jim Crow segregation and Northern discrimination.
Regarding the extra-curricular activities of Elijah Muhammad, there is one extremely frustrating passage in the book. Amidst the litany of out-of-wedlock births to NOI secretaries as the result of undercover goings-on by the elderly Muhammad, we watch, appalled, as the so-called spiritual leader would “select attractive and talented young women for service in the national headquarters’ secretarial staff.” And then appears this sentence: “Once they arrived, it took little for him to get what he wanted from them.” Do tell. The entire male population waits in vain for the details.
When Malcolm finally left the cult, he and his family became the target of their wrath.
At two forty-five a.m., the Shabazz family’s sleep was shattered by the crack of a window downstairs, and second later a Molotov cocktail exploded, quickly filling the entire house with black smoke. As Malcolm raced downstairs to the children’s room, a second bomb landed. A third struck a rear window but glanced off, without combusting. Malcolm helped Betty escape through the rear door, then gathered the children together and led them into the backyard. A few seconds later he dashed back into the now blazing house to retrieve important property and clothing.
Killing in the Name of…
It is shocking to read about the level of violence affecting so many of the people encountered in this book. And the amount of killing — in addition to the assassination of Malcolm, there were murders of Earl Little (Malcolm’s father), Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Tom Mboya (political leader in Kenya), and George Lincoln Rockwell. And yes, I recognize the shock that some will have by my inclusion of Rockwell’s name but more on that in a moment.
There are chilling sentences throughout the volume as blacks and whites sowed the seeds of hatred: “The destruction of a black family’s home by racist whites was hardly unique in the Midwest at this time.” However, the NOI shared in the campaigns of destruction:
Punishment ran from simple beatings for routine transgressions to far, far worse. Elijah Muhammad, Jr.’s stern reminder to the Fruit that “in the old days” brothers who stepped out of line had been killed was inaccurate only [in] its suggestion that such punishment remained in the past.
And “Later that night, after Gill had retreated to his hotel room to recover, a second Nation pipe squad broke into his room to finish what their brothers had started. Ameer was so severely injured that he was hospitalized for more than two weeks….”
And “…Kenneth Morton, who had quit the mosque at the time of Malcolm’s departure, was ambushed by members of the Fruit in front of his Bronx home. He was so severely beaten in the head that he subsequently died from his wounds.”
Cowardice seems to be at the heart of the movement against Malcolm. For example, the hoodlum schemes of the Nation of Islam were repeated with depressing regularity, including continual death threats, often directed at his wife Betty:
Fruit of Islam members were instructed to ring Malcolm’s home once every five minutes. If anyone picked up, the FOI member might say something threatening — or say nothing at all — and after a long silence would simply hang up. “You’ll never see your husband again,” one caller promised Betty. “We got him. We cut his throat.”
We now come to one of the strangest incidents in the history of black/white relations: a coalition between the Messenger of God and the leader of a white supremacy group. Really? Yes:
George Lincoln Rockwell may have thought himself white America’s answer to Malcolm X. Square jawed and solidly built, he cut a striking figure when commanding the stage at rallies held by the group he had founded and led, the American Nazi Party…. a longtime naval reservist, he opposed racial integration and despised communism, and for a brief time was employed by William F. Buckley, Jr., the editor of National Review…. In its early years, the American Nazi Party’s literature routinely described African Americans as “niggers,” morally and mentally inferior to whites. However, once Rockwell learned of the Nation of Islam’s anti-integrationist positions, he became fascinated by the concept of a white supremacist-black nationalist united front.
Rockwell and Muhammad met and agreed to the Nazi’s participation at NOI rallies. Of all the strange imagery in the book, none can match scenes like this one:
On June 25, 1961, the Nation of Islam held a major rally in Washington, D.C. Before an audience of eight thousand, Rockwell and ten storm troopers — all crisply dressed in tan fatigues and bright swastika armbands — were escorted to seats near the stage in the center of the arena.
I am old enough to remember seeing images of this on news programs. It didn’t make any sense to me then and I’m not sure it does now. But it happened, and although it was weird, it fits all-too-well with the variegated devastation surrounding Malcolm’s world.
The book claims to reveal the long-hidden truth of Malcolm’s assassination, including naming the murderer:
At that precise moment, an incendiary smoke bomb ignited at the extreme rear of the ballroom, instantly creating panic, screams, and confusion. It was only then that Willie Bradley, sitting the front row, got to his feet and walked briskly toward the rostrum. When he was fifteen feet away, he elevated his sawed-off shotgun from under his coat, took careful aim, and fired. The shotgun pellets ripped squarely into Malcolm’s left side, cutting a seven-inch-wide circle around his heart and left chest. This was the kill shot, the blow that executed Malcolm X….
That appears on page 426 but on page 475 Bradley is referred to as the “alleged murderer.” We cannot question the author about this because Marable died at age 60 from complications of pneumonia just days before publication of the book.
Tale of Woe, Trail of Tears
The ups and downs of Malcolm’s life are truly astonishing. The entire range of human emotion is captured here. Whatever your politics, there is no getting around the sheer amazement — the “wow factor” — of reading about this man’s life. I haven’t even touched on some aspects of the tale, which include homosexuality, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm’s meeting with the Ku Klux Klan, the reason for the X replacing surnames, and the rise of calypso singer Louis Eugene Walcott, who morphed into another incendiary figure named Louis Farrakhan.
Triumphs and tragedies abound in this story and the book gives you all of it while regarding everything with an unwavering eye.
“Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” by Manning Marable; Penguin, ISBN: 9780143120322, 608 pages, 16 photo pages, $18.00
Malcolm X speech excerpt:
Article is Copr. © by John Scott G and originally published on eNewsChannels.com – all commercial and reprint rights reserved. Disclosure: No fee or any other consideration was paid to this site or the author of this unbiased review, by any agency, or the book’s author or publisher.