Saturday, June 30, 2012

Review: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

I listened to the reading of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable, who passed away at almost the same time the book was published. Here are a few thoughts:

1) The book certainly strips away many of the "epic" elements of Alex Haley's autobiography which make it such engaging reading. Malcolm was not the thug or mastermind criminal the autobiography portrays. His marriage to Betty Shabbazz was not ideal. He was no liberal integrationist at the end of his career. And in each "reinvention," Malcolm pursued contradictory paths until one eventually became more defining. A naive reader such as the 17-year old author of this blog entry forgets Alex Haley's presence, but Marable's examination of Haley's correspondence with his publisher and Nation of Islam members (NOI) reveals Haley's integrationist agenda in the final product.

2) Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and New York Police Department (NYPD) surveillance and use of informants were far-reaching and contributed to the violence which eventually claimed Malcolm's life. In a broad sense, the government used its resources covertly to undermine black separatist and nationalist movements. While in no way being the major reason that these movements often became characterized by schism, paranoia and internecine conflicts, the intelligence activities contributed to these negative developments. As these documents are reclassified and declassified, it is a strong argument against those who claim that contemporary targets of such tactics only object because "they are up to no good."

3) Muslims almost always point to Alex Haley's autobiography's portrayal of Malcolm's hajj experience to talk about the transformative power of Islam. While Marable confirms Malcolm's religious experiences, Marable emphasizes that Malcolm's major concern was the liberation of black peoples worldwide. Most of his efforts, both abroad and in the United States after his return, were for that goal. He did not see Islam or any other religion as the most important part of that liberation. US Muslims should not criticize black American Muslims for continuing to care about that liberation struggle and place it at the center of their identity. In 2005, I reviewed a book which discusses this issue, Dr. Sherman Jackson's Islam and the Blackamerican.

4) Marable has very little good to say about the NOI leadership. Yet the book insists it was not "personality differences" or even the misconduct of the NOI leadership which drove Malcolm from the NOI. Rather, it was Malcolm's insistence on political activities to further the liberation of black Americans. One could certainly conclude from Marable's allegations of corruption that the separatism of the NOI was not religiously-based but instead it was simply a way for the leadership to continue to reap the material rewards of the tithing and labor contributions of the organization's members without having to produce political results. But there is no mistaking Marable's emphasis on Malcolm's political activities in concert with other black Americans of all stripes as the chief factor in his suspension from the NOI.

5) Looking back, it is a great accomplishment that Wallace D Muhammad was able to transform the Nation of Islam, over the course of many years, into the decentralized form his organization assumed by the late 1990s. This decentralization liberated American Muslims from what had previously been, at its worst, an exploitative organization.

6) I'm extremely eager now to read The Hon. Elijah Muhammad: The Man Behind the Men. There is a very good argument that the Nation of Islam did much good, and I think this will balance the impression that I have now after hearing Marable's book.

7) Whenever Marable actually talked about Islam, I think it was extremely superficial.

8) Radical political movements have tremendous obstacles in their path. They tend to attract large personalities, which, when the movements have a centralized command structure, contribute to their dysfunction. Throw in counter-intelligence activities, and you're likely to get a movement stuck in place or throwing itself off a cliff.

The book itself generated a lot of publicity. I'm simply going to list reviews and responses to the book:

And this could continue, but you can do that on your own.