‘Malcolm X’ Challenges What You Thought You Knew About the Man

If rapper Rick Ross says Tupac’s back, well then, so is Malcolm X.

But then again, for many Malcolm X never left. Arguably the most celebrated figure of black American protest and resistance, Malcolm X is the blue print for the African American Urban Legend (no shade, T.I.). His legacy stands on spittin’ truth – point ‘em out when they’re wrong – and the uplift of the wronged and oppressed. Yet more often than not, Malcolm X’s legacy is unquestioned and uncontested, presenting an often romanticized view of “traditional” black leadership and, ultimately, black manhood during the turbulent black liberation movements of the ’50s and ’60s. This doting affection is often the center of the following joke:

Q: Which three pictures hang above nearly every African American mantelpiece?

A: Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus Christ, and Malcolm X. (sidenote: Barack Obama and JFK may be honorable mentions.)

And, like Dr. King and countless others regarded as black American figures, their memory is often watered down to a Hallmark-esque archetype of racial uplift and harmony. I’m thinking particularly of Dr. King, who has been reduced, with time and fading memory, to a “dreamer” instead of a progressive man with radical thoughts, forced into a digestible role of peacemaker instead of conscientious agitator. Which fits this moment, considering we’re postracial and all.

Intriguingly, however, Malcolm X has avoided such typecasts, instead being pitted as King’s opposite. These ‘warring’ ideologies, after all, present a much more savory and polarized battle of blackness, authenticity, and cultural memory: King supporters were down for sitdowns and peaceful (but persistent) protests. Malcolm X raised a little more hell; freedom by any means necessary, get or get got. The “X”, initially a symbol of anonymity, given the lost history of his person and his people, and resistance to white supremacy, by eschewing his given name, has been commodified and reappropriated for fashion and youthful resistance.

What does Malcolm X signify in American (popular) culture today? This is a looming question among others that frames historian Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

Released a week after Marable’s untimely death, Malcolm X analyzes not only the historical (in)accuracies surrounding Malcolm X’s life and death, but the actual creation and sustenance of his memory and legacy. Marable weaves an engrossing historicized account of what he posits is the various performances of Malcolm X’s identity. The daunting challenge of “academizing” Malcolm while situating him into (counter)public popular discourse is met with a meticulous balance of academic and narrative prose, much of which is taken from interviews with Malcolm himself. A nearly two and a half decade research process,Malcolm X is Marable’s magnum opus.

Perhaps most noticeable about Malcolm X is Marable’s depiction of Malcolm as a trickster figure, a folklore hero known to outwit and teach life lessons to his peers and oppressors. The ability to adapt one’s identity to the space allotted is often a staple in trickster folktales, suggesting that different mindsets and ideological (re)presentations are needed to achieve one’s goal. As Marable points out: “Malcolm always assumed an approachable and intimate outward style, yet also held something in reserve. These layers of personality were even expressed as a series of different names, some of which he created, while others were bestowed upon him… no single personality ever captured him fully.”

From the nonchalance of a young Malcolm Little to the hustling spirit of Malcolm’s urban ego “Detroit Red”, to the broken and imprisoned angry black man “Satan” and finally the shining prince of the Nation of Islam El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm X painstakingly recounts and builds upon Malcolm’s complex changes. Each chapter walks the reader through a milestone in his life.

Particularly striking is Marable’s handling of the role of women in Malcolm’s development. Whether discussing the mental breakdown of Malcolm’s mother Louisa or the gangstarole of his older sister Ella, women play a visible yet problematic role in Malcolm’s narrative. The murkiness of the woman question in Malcolm X parallels to similar regards in the ’60s for black women to be adoring, quiet little (church) women in support of the resuscitation of black men.

Of course, this is historically inaccurate, providing the experiences and leadership of Angela Davis, Elaine Brown, Ella Baker, and their predecessors like Ida B. Wells-Barnett or Anna Julia Cooper. Even Malcolm’s mother Louisa was a staunch Garveyist, highly active in and supportive of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association in the early part of the 20th century.

There’s also the role of Bea Caragulian, Malcolm’s long term white mistress, whom he feels sells him out for a shorter jail sentence. Bea’s initial narrative is subtly fetishistic – a white woman in lust with an African American man – and becomes jarringly victimized once she and Malcolm are arrested and put on trial. “Bea pleaded to the courts that she and the other white women were innocent victims of Malcolm’s vicious criminal enterprise.”

Bea’s voice, like that of the majority of the women’s presented in Malcolm X, falls into a familiar cycle of blurred definitions of African American men as the victim and victimizer much like the fictional narratives of Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison. I can’t help but wonder if this was Marable’s intention, to refocus Malcolm’s pre-conversion narrative and interaction with women in a similar format to authenticate his knowledge of Malcolm’s experiences and era? As these stories are interwoven with Malcolm’s own narrative, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish Marable’s perspective from Malcolm’s belittling and disparagement of women in general.

Most controversial about Marable’s work is his decision to tease out the depth of the intimacy between Malcolm and a long time associate, William Paul Lennon, a white entrepreneur whom Marable suggests had homosexual interaction with Malcom. Subtle and far from a piece of homoerotica, Malcolm and Lennon’s relationship is depicted here more like a patronage, like that of black artists during the Harlem Renaissance than a romantic relationship. Marable suggests that Malcolm looked to Lennon for his resources moreso than affection for Lennon himself.

Malcolm’s daughters, outraged at the insinuation their father was gay or, to borrow a contemporary term, ‘on the down low’, fostered a heated rebuttal of Marable’s work. Suggesting any homoeroticism would tamper with, if not destroy, Malcolm X’s legacy and work, right? While this subject is only discussed briefly, Marable’s addressing of Malcolm and Lennon’s relationship forces the reader to reconsider not only Malcolm’s legacy, but that of traditional black leadership. Even with the prowess and dedication of openly gay activists like Bayard Rustin, both the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements prided upon their leaders being on the straight and narrow (pun intended).

It’s highly probable that this concern was apparent to Malcolm, opting to create what Marable believes is a fictional character named Rudy to interact with Lennon in Haley’s Autobiography. The desire to separate himself from controversial matters nods towards Marable’s argument that Malcolm suggested which life experiences would be publicly consumed as part of his legacy: “Malcolm had the intelligence and ingenuity to mask his most illegal and potentially upsetting activities from his family and friends.”

So, how do we interpret Malcolm X today? Marable posits that hip-hop culture played a significant role in the resuscitation of Malcolm’s presence in American (popular) culture, citing rappers like Public Enemy and Gang Starr as vehicles for Malcolm’s return to the public stage. Both Public Enemy and Gang Starr are widely revered as ‘conscious’ rap groups. Either raised during or immediately following the Black Power Movement, their music is a reflection of their inoculation of Black Nationalist Thought.

Staying in line with hip-hop as Malcolm’s contemporary promoter, I question how Malcolm’s image and life is projected in the 21st century. A few one liners from Marable’s text jumped out: “get your hands out my pocket!” used to distract security from Malcolm’s shooters, is used by Wyclef Jean in the song “Dirty South” off his Carnival album. Kanye West’s “Power” played in my head as I read how one police officer described Malcolm’s influence as “no one man should have all that power.” Lupe Fiasco frequently references Malcolm X in his music, aiming to bring a Black Nationalist level of consciousness to a generation twice removed from the initial ’60s movement. In the chorus of his freestyle “B.M.F. (Building Minds Faster)” Fiasco attempts to bridge figures and ideologies of ’60s black resistance with a post-Civil Rights generation using a popular rap beat: “I think I’m Malcolm X, Martin Luther/Add a King, add a Junior/Some bible verses, a couple sunnahs/An-AK 47, that’s revolution.”

A difference between initial references to Malcolm X and more recent manifestations is how his image and narrative is interpreted for both the individual (West) and collective empowerment (Public Enemy, Gang Starr, Lupe Fiasco). Both reflections are needed to illuminate and sustain Malcolm’s presence in (counter)public memory. These varying manifestations suggest Malcolm’s complexity, instead of a static and tailored understanding of his life and experiences.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is an excellent testament to Marable Manning’s historical prowess, and attempts to shed light on one of America’s most transfixing leaders. It challenges the readers’ willingness to look at the complexities of a legend that started off as a man.

RATING 9 / 10