Friday, July 1, 2011

Red, white, blue—and Black

Jim is observing the 4th of July holiday weekend. His recent summer reading has included Manning Marable's new biography of Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention. This magisterial work of history was published just before Marable's premature death this spring. It is likely to be the definitive biography for a generation or more.

One of the more important tasks Marable undertakes in this project is to provide a more accurate and textured portrait of Malcolm (I don't usually address historical subjects by their first names, but it seems stilted and or confusing to use "X") than that of the hugely influential Autobiography of Malcolm X, "as told to" Alex Haley. Marable asserts that the portrait of the fiery Civil Rights leader was shaped by Haley's moderate Republican sensibility, which tended to stint the edginess of the late Malcolm's vision and, in particular, his pan-Africanism. Marable believes that Malcolm's work with the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) was especially important, and indeed roughly half of this 500-page book deals with the final year of Malcolm's life.

Marable also believes Malcolm himself distorted and even falsified the facts of his own life for political ends. He asserts the young zoot suit-wearing youth was never as hard-core a criminal as he claimed to be. He believes that Malcolm was involved in a homosexual relationship as a young man, and that his relationship with his wife -- portrayed as positively Eisenhowerian in the Spike Lee movie -- was marked by constant tension and mutual infidelity. Marable pays a good deal of attention to what he regards as a misguided dalliance with the similarly racially separatist Ku Klux Klan. While the portrait that emerges is not always flattering, Marable's commitment to honesty results in a more three-dimensional picture of his subject, and one that finally commands our respect. We're presented with was a man of his time who grew tremendously, and bequeathed a language, vision, and hope for his people that outlived him and continues to inspire a wide array of successors.

Toward the end of the book, Marable laments that Haley's version of Malcolm was closer to that of Benjamin Franklin than the man who fused the rebellious tradition that stretches from Gabriel Prosser to Tupac Shakur with that of prophetic figures like Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the larger black church tradition. Fair enough. But let us agree that American history is capacious enough to include all these figures, even as we acknowledge that for some of us, the American Dream of freedom was only born of the American reality of slavery. Whatever else he may of been -- Muslim, radical, Pan-African -- let us also honor Malcolm as a great American who made us bigger, and one who usefully haunts us to this day.