A Personal Critique of Manning Marable’s Non-Definitive Biography of Malcolm X
by Bill Strickland
At the outset, I want to “make it plain” that my critique of Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X is political, historical, and personal—personal because I was born in Boston and grew up in the same Roxbury that Malcolm once called home. Though he was, of course, a generation older.
Malcolm, Roxbury and Me
I first met Malcolm when I was a youngster in Roxbury because he was a good friend of my cousin, Leslie Edman, who I thought, in my elementary school days, was the coolest cat in the world because girls would call him long distance from faraway exotic places like New York City. I also knew Gene Walcott—before Malcolm recruited him into the Nation of Islam—and he became Louis X. Indeed in those days Gene Walcott was Boston, and New England’s, own version of Harry Belafonte; playing the violin and performing calypso music on his ukulele under his stage name: The Charmer. Now the world knows him as Minister Louis Farrakhan.
I especially remember Malcolm though because he and Leslie were members of a neighborhood sports club called the Panthers who wore these shiny black jackets embossed with the orange emblem of a black panther (long before the Oakland Black Panthers). So when Malcolm came to my aunt and uncle’s house on Hubert St. to pick up Leslie and be off to whatever devilment they were up to, his jacket made an impression that has stuck with me over the years. But I would move away from lower Roxbury after the third grade; away from Hubert St., and Marble St., and Shawmut Avenue where Gene Walcott lived, to “the Hill” in upper Roxbury. And time-wise, I would finish high school and military service and be in college before I met Malcolm again.
That was in the early Sixties when Malcolm came to Harvard to speak. After the talk, I introduced myself, brought up our Roxbury connection, and told him that I was Leslie Edman’s cousin. After that, we stayed in touch; crossing paths purposefully—and coincidentally. I invited him, for example, to speak in an extracurricular seminar in Eliot House that I was involved in. And I arranged interviews for him on Harvard’s radio station when he was in the Boston area. I also would attend meetings at Louis X’s Temple No. 11 on Intervale St. when I knew that Malcolm was going to be the guest minister. Because, aside from Malcolm, Fate had also intervened to pique my interest in the Nation.
What had happened was that I had been accepted as an undergraduate in a graduate seminar in sociology taught by one of the preeminent sociologists of the day, Gordon Allport, the author of The Nature of Prejudice. And who was in that seminar? Why, C. Eric Lincoln who had just published his groundbreaking book on the Nation of Islam, Black Muslims in America. Also enrolled was Atlanta’s Whitney Young who was being prepped to go to New York and become head of the National Urban League. So the race question was all around me; motivating me to write my seminar paper on the Nation, and visit the mosque whenever I could.
To this day, I don’t know what Malcolm saw in me but we became friends. He even came to my house on Cobden St. on occasion. And whenever I had a break from school and went down to New York, I would drop by the Nation’s restaurant on 116th St. to see if Malcolm was in town. But despite our various interactions, he never tried to convert me. So though I never joined the Nation, it was Malcolm’s political perspective that I imbibed—and that guides me still. . . Because in the same way that Karl Marx is the fundamental critic of capitalism, and Frantz Fañon is the fundamental critic of colonialism, Malcolm X is the fundamental critic of American racism.
Malcolm, The Movement, and Me
Like many others in college at the time, I answered the call of the Movement and formally joined the Boston chapter of the Northern Student Movement (NSM) which had been organized by a young white undergraduate at Yale named Peter Countryman. Peter, inspired by the southern student sit-ins, had mobilized northern students to aid the southern movement in general, and SNCC, the southern Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, in particular. (Cobb, 44)
Combining protest against northern discrimination with its original focus of tutoring children in urban black communities, NSM had offices in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, Hartford, and Boston. But the more the NSMers tried to combat the failures of the public school system, the more they began to feel that the problem of education was just one of the many afflictions of a basically unjust system. So taking a leaf from SNCC’s book, they elevated their game to community organizing; trying, a la the SNCC mantra, to empower people to empower themselves.(Cobb, ibid)
At this stage of NSM’s development, Peter Countryman decided to go back to school and asked me to become NSM’s Executive Director. I agreed, and left Boston and Roxbury to move to New York to NSM’s national office on Morningside Drive near Columbia and above Central Park. . . and Harlem. Later, the office would move to 514 W. 126th St. to the same block, I would soon learn, where lived one of Malcolm’s most devoted followers, Japanese-American, Yuri Kochiyama. So the gods had put Malcolm and me back in touch once more.
Living now in New York, I would see Malcolm fairly often because he would preside on 125th St., making critical commentary on national and international events, on the errors he believed the civil rights movement and its leaders were making, and, of course, extolling Elijah Muhammad’s worldview. In those days, one didn’t need television news, all one had to do was stroll over to 125th St., and tune in on the X.
After Malcolm left the Nation in March of 1964, we were in even closer contact because NSM had begun working more closely with SNCC and I went to Mississippi to help the MFDP, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, with its Congressional Challenge. (Carmichael, 356-57) Coming back from Mississippi in June, I bumped into Malcolm in Lincoln Center not too long after he had returned from Africa. He told me that he was planning a new organization and was having planning meetings that he asked me to participate in. I said, “sure” and went as a student representative to what turned out to be his secular political organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, the OAAU. But after successfully kicking off the OAAU, Malcolm left in July for Africa again, not returning until around Thanksgiving.
In the meantime, NSM had deepened its involvement with the MFDP and its Congressional Challenge to three targeted white Mississippi Congressmen who had won their Congressional seats by depriving black Mississippians of their right to vote, a violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. In protest, the MFDP had nominated Mrs. Annie Devine, Mrs. Victoria Gray, and Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer to challenge for those three Congressional seats when Congress reconvened in January.
NSM rallied its supporters in all their cities to support the Challenge and an overall Northern Coordinating Committee was established in New York, which I co-chaired. (Carmichael, 419-20) Naturally, I immediately sought Malcolm’s support. Thus when a delegation from Mississippi came to Harlem in December, Malcolm not only spoke to the youth, he also hosted a meeting with Mrs. Hamer and me that Christmas week at the Williams Institutional Church to publicize the MFDP’s Challenge. Exactly two months later, he was killed.
Atlanta, The Institute of the Black World (IBW), and The Search for “An Adequate Theory of Emancipation.”
After Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, Coretta Scott King asked Dr. Vincent Harding, the stellar black historian and one of Martin’s closest friends, to take the helm of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center.
Vincent was teaching at Spelman at the time but he agreed to become Director of the Center. He also proposed to establish, as one element of the Center, a project which he, and his colleague, Stephen Henderson, chair of Morehouse’s English Department, had been brainstorming about for some time: a black think tank that would analyze the lessons of the movement that had just ended, research the longitudinal history of the black struggle, and propose policies, agendas, and programs that might help advance the next stage of struggle. It was to be called The Institute of the Black World (IBW). To staff it, Vincent reached out to scholars and activists from near and far to join him in Atlanta as Senior Research Fellows.
In education, Chester Davis came from Sir George Williams in Canada. Lerone Bennett, Jr. took leave from Ebony to teach history along with another native Chicagoan, Sterling Stuckey. Joyce Ladner, a SNCC alumna, came from St. Louis and Steve Henderson and Gerald McWorter (now Abdul Alkalimat) joined IBW while retaining their teaching positions at Morehouse and Spelman, respectively. And I, flattered by Vincent’s invitation, left New York to teach and analyze politics.
IBW was a critical learning experience for me in ways too numerous to count. One of the most important was that through researching movement history and talking to Vincent about Martin, I gained an appreciation for Dr. King that I had never had before. Since, as a confirmed Malcolmite, when I and my high school buddies would see Martin on television saying things like, “If any blood is to be spilled, let it be ours,” we would look at one another and ask, “What’s wrong with this silly mother….?” But discovering later that the FBI and other government agencies had the same animus toward Martin that they had towards Malcolm, caused me to regard Martin more sympathetically. It soon became evident, however, that the politics of IBW and those of some of the key advisors of the Center were not compatible so IBW broke with the King Center to follow its own independent path.
Ironically, IBW lasted (1969-1983) as long as Martin’s own movement life, from Montgomery to Memphis (1955-1968)–even though we had to overcome the inevitable fallout from funding sources when we no longer had the benediction of a Martin affiliation. Thus we had to try and fend for ourselves.
One strategy we agreed upon was to reduce payroll. So several of us took teaching jobs away from Atlanta but commuted regularly to continue contributing to IBW’s mission. Chet Davis, for example, went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, while Bobby Hill, the Jamaican Garvey scholar who had joined IBW’s staff, went to Dartmouth. Vincent went to the Quaker school in Pennsylvania, Pendle Hill, while I followed Chet to Amherst and UMass. And who was at UMass studying for her doctorate in education? Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s widow. . . .
Amherst, Malcolm, and Me
I did not know Betty Shabazz personally, though I had spoken to her on occasion when I called their house in Queens to speak to Malcolm. Of course, I naturally sought her out and we talked a few times because she had moved to Mt. Vernon, New York and was commuting weekly to Amherst. But when we talked, she did not seem terribly interested in writing about Malcolm herself or being interviewed about her life with Malcolm. And when I asked her if there were any unpublished documents, she mentioned , “Yes there were some things in the garage.” But she never volunteered anything further. So I concluded that if I was truly interested in doing what I could to advocate how central I believed Malcolm’s thought and analysis was to illuminating and advancing the black struggle, I could not depend solely on other voices. So I wrote about Malcolm for Presence Africaine, The Village Voice, and sundry other newspapers, magazines and journals. Then the gods intervened again; sending Jan Carew, the Guyanese writer/playwright to Hampshire College in 1977 and Tanzanian revolutionary, Abdul Rahman Babu, to Amherst College in the early Eighties. Both were living witnesses to Malcolm’s thought and persona abroad, in London and Africa respectively, in the last few months of his life. Now the gods had brought us each, sequentially, to Amherst.
I recount these smidgens of my personal relationship with Malcolm so that the reader will understand my Malcolm bias and the lens through which I view–and fundamentally disapprove of–Manning’s solipsistic creation.
PART TWO: MANNING MARABLE’S NON-DEFINITIVE BIOGRAPHY
The problems with Manning’s biography are many and multiple. They range from historical gaffes, and endless non-sequiturs, to key historical omissions; from patchwork analysis pieced together from the works of others without accurate attribution–and sometimes with no attribution at all–to selective and questionable sources. But most of all, the work disqualifies itself as historical scholarship because it is consistently riven with allegations and statements based on speculation alone. (I invite the reader to read–or reread–the book with pen and notebook at hand to keep a count of the frequency of qualifiers in the text such as “may have,” “could have,” “probably,” “likely,” “if,” ad infinitum.)
And then there are the facile character assassinations of Malcolm, Betty Shabazz, Alex Haley et al. justified, we are told, as “humanizing” Malcolm’s story. Malcolm, for example, is accused, among other things–and en passant–of adultery, homosexuality, sexual inadequacy, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and being purposefully manipulative about the facts of his life, i.e., “Malcolm deliberately exaggerated,” (Marable, 260) “packaged himself . . .[like] a great method actor,” etc., etc. (Marable, 10)
Not Riots But Rebellions: Malcolm and the Masses Confront the American Police State
Manning’s interpretation of Malcolm’s life as “reinvention” had given me my original sense of unease because “reinvention” suggests a designed twisting of the truth and self-glorifying motives. I wondered why, for instance, Manning didn’t use more neutral language such as “transformation” or “development,” or “growth,” or “evolution.” But utilizing that kind of language would derail a central theme of the book: to portray Malcolm as both hero and anti-hero, to de-iconize him. Thus, in the very first pages of the book, Manning accuses Malcolm of being “controversial” and of making “provocative” statements. One wondered, of course, “controversial” and “provocative” to whom since Malcolm enthralled most folk who heard him.
As evidence for his accusation, Manning cites an interview which Malcolm gave to a New York Times reporter in March of 1964:
The whites had better understand this while there is still time. The Negroes at the mass level are ready to act. There will be more violence than ever this year.” (Marable, 3) (emphasis mine)
Manning then frames Malcolm’s observation by quoting the New York City Police Commissioner who castigates Malcolm as:
. . . another self-proclaimed leader [who] openly advocates bloodshed and armed revolt and sneers at the sincere effort of reasonable men to resolve the problem of equal rights by proper, peaceful, and legitimate means. (Marable, ibid)
And what happened four months later in the summer of 1964? In July, Harlem erupted over the police killing of fifteen year old James Powell, the second black youth shot by New York City cops that month. (Evanzz, 251) Nor was Harlem the only black community to erupt that summer. Rebellions also occurred in Jacksonville, Florida; Rochester, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Patterson, Elizabeth, and Jersey City, New Jersey. All of these 1964 rebellions which America misleadingly called “race riots,” were in response to some real or perceived racist conduct by the police of those cities. But instead of citing these rebellions as proof of the accuracy of Malcolm’s March prediction, Manning mentions them not at all, thus lending undeserved credibility to the Police Commissioner’s condemnation of Malcolm.
I was incredulous at this omission since one feature of the Harlem rebellion was the masses calling on Malcolm, in Africa at the time, to come home and lead them. . . So the Police Commissioner’s “self-proclaimed leader” was precisely the leader Harlem turned to in its summer uprising.
Neglecting these rebellions which continued to erupt until July of 1968 is to neglect their tie to Malcolm’s own earlier protests against police racism in Harlem in 1957 and 1958, and his later desire to confront the Los Angeles police who invaded the L.A. Mosque in 1962, assaulted mosque members willy-nilly, and killed Malcolm’s transplanted Roxbury comrade, Ronald Stokes. Only Elijah Muhammad’s prohibition kept Malcolm, and other black Muslims, from descending on Los Angeles to avenge Stokes’ death. (Evanzz, ibid, 117-121)
So from 1964 to 1968, with the exception of the firestorm of black rebellions that swept the country after Martin’s assassination in Memphis that April, black folk, nationwide, rose up against racist police rule; escalating Malcolm’s pioneering protests of the Fifties. Consequently, Manning’s failure to identify Malcolm’s historical link to these subsequent mass protests against the police, the occupying military force over black America, is an analytical shortcoming that significantly undermines his stated aim of clarifying Malcolm’s real political-theoretical contribution to the black struggle, i.e., rejecting America’s identity as a democratic Republic and linking it to South Africa as a racist state.
Malcolm (and Martin’s) Assassination Revisited
In attempting to give the reader a preview of his interpretation of Malcolm’s life which is supposed to eclipse all others, Manning recapitulates in his Prologue,(pgs1-14),”Life Beyond The Legend,” the events of Malcolm’s assassination in the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965.However he leaves out the most significant detail casting suspicion on the role of the NYPD that day.
That is, he laboriously identifies the members of Malcolm’s Muslim security detail; giving their names, where they were stationed, their usual routines, and alleged deviations from those routines that he, Manning, insinuates is suspicious. Except there is one bodyguard, Gene Roberts, famously depicted in the photo of the group trying to minister to the fallen Malcolm on the Audubon stage who Manning does not mention at all in his version of what took place.
This omission is not only incomprehensible, it is historically–and politically–inexcusable since Gene Roberts, as Manning tells the reader belatedly ( on pg.422), was an undercover police agent. Roberts is especially significant in evaluating the role of the police that day because, after Malcolm’s previous meeting at the Audubon, on February 15th, Roberts had told his police superiors that he had observed what he believed to be “a dry run on Malcolm’s life.” He said that there had been. . .
a commotion [and that he had seen] . . . this young fella come down the middle aisle and slip into about the second or third row and take a seat. He was wearing a blue suit, white shirt and a red bow tie which is basically the uniform for the Nation of Islam. I remember seeing a couple of people there that I hadn’t seen before. . . and I mentioned their names. (Strickland, 202)
Roberts says that the reaction of his superiors to his warning was, “We’ll take care of it. . . And that was that.”
Well we now know how they ‘took care of it.’ That, despite Malcolm’s house having been bombed on February 14th, and their own agent reporting a potential death threat on February 15th, on February 21st, a minuscule police presence was carefully stationed in an irrelevant part of the building but not inside the ballroom itself while the vast majority of police were stashed across the street, conveniently and safely away from the meeting itself. Of course when questioned about it later, the police claimed that someone in Malcolm’s entourage had made the request that they absent themselves. (They did not volunteer, of course, the fact that Malcolm’s “entourage” was heavily infiltrated with police spies.)
This tragicomedy is remarkably similar to one that would take place three years later on April 4th, 1968, when the Memphis police reduce Dr. King’s security detail from the usual ten or more officers, to two, and then pull the head of the detail, black detective Ed Redditt, from his assignment at the Lorraine Motel and order him back to police headquarters. There, in a meeting with the Chief of Police, the Sheriff, the Highway Patrol, Army Intelligence, the National Guard and the Secret Service, Redditt is told that word has come from Washington that there is a contract out on his life and that he must go home immediately. (Lane & Gregory, 131) (emphasis mine) (Now are we to assume that James Earl Ray had such good federal connections?)
Redditt defers however; volunteering to stay on the job despite the alleged threat on his life. But to no avail. The Chief of Police orders him home and sends him there, accompanied by Memphis police officers who camp in his house “to safeguard him.” (And of course to ensure that he does not go back to the Lorraine on his own.) (Lane & Gregory, 132-33) This 1968 Memphis scenario at the Lorraine Motel is a virtual replica of the Audubon scenario in New York in 1965 in that the Memphis police, like the New York police, also alleged that someone in Dr. King’s entourage had told them they would not be needed because a local black street gang, the Memphis Invaders, would handle security. (Although it has never been conclusively proven that it was members of the Memphis Invaders, or provocateurs pretending to be Invaders, who precipitated the violence of the first King march in Memphis on March 28th that prompted Dr. King to return to Memphis to prove that non-violence could work, it has been verified that police agents had infiltrated the Invaders. Indeed one of those agents, Marrell McCollough, like Gene Roberts in New York, is captured in the photograph huddled around King’s body on the balcony outside King’s Lorraine Motel room.) (Pepper, 254-55)
It is thus quite extraordinary that a scholar of Manning’s reputation should inform his readers of the inherent contradictions of the official explanation of the assassination of Malcolm X but not expound on the bigger picture that emerges when one witnesses the same dishonest “cover story” trampling on the truth of King’s assassination as well. But the shape of that “big picture” did surface, if ever so briefly, some thirty years after King’s assassination when, unbeknownst to the American people, and scrupulously ignored or misreported by the national media, the official version of the King slaying was rejected on December 8, 1999 by a Memphis jury of six blacks and six whites who concluded that King was assassinated by “a conspiracy involving Lloyd Jowers and others, including government agencies.” (New York Times, 12/09/99, 23) (emphasis mine)
One would have thought that such a verdict would have been front page news of every newspaper in America and the lead story on all the television news shows. But with the exception of one reporter from the local Memphis paper, only foreign media covered the trial. In addition, the startling headline: “Memphis Jury Sees Conspiracy in Martin Luther King’s Death,” was treated as only one of several stories reported on page twenty-three of the New York Times!
Unaccountably, Manning fails to mention this exposé, even after accusing both the FBI and the NYPD of having “advance knowledge” of the plot to kill Malcolm. He also hypothesizes “that the New York District Attorney’s office may have cared more about protecting the identities of undercover police officers and informants than arresting the real killers.” (Marable, 13) His lapse may be due to the fact that he seems to accept the sanctioned version of King’s death; equating it with that of Medgar Evers, since he writes that both were “gunned down by lone white supremacists.” (Marable, ibid) But be that as it may, we know that Malcolm was not only targeted by the FBI, BOSS, and the NYPD, but also the CIA, the State Department, the Secret Service–and god knows who else. We also know that J. Edgar Hoover, after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, said that “We must mark him now. . . as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of Communism, the Negro, and national security.” (O’Reilly, 130) So what are we to call these forces arrayed against Malcolm, Martin, and the movement as a whole?
Well, Malcolm often reminded us what to call them when opening his meetings at his myth-shattering jocular best. He would greet the audience with, “Hello, brothers and sisters. . . and friends and enemies.” Then, while folk were still chuckling, he would ask: “You know that you have enemies, don’t you? You wouldn’t be here if some ’enemy’ hadn’t brought you here.” This was the iconoclastic Malcolm with a different vision than the civil rights leaders of his day. Because, unlike most of them, Malcolm did not proceed on the assumption that America was capable of racially reforming its institutions and culture on its own. That is why he proposed the two-pronged strategy of internationally charging the United States of genocide at the United Nations on the one hand, and the national strategy of “the Ballot or the Bullet” on the other.
Malcolm “Deconstructs” America
Malcolm was such a spellbinding orator that the fact that he was also a political theoretician is little appreciated. But he was. He advocated, for example, that instead of pursuing the misdirecting goal of integration, black people ought to control their own communities economically and politically, and fight to exercise their 15th Amendment right to vote nationwide. Then they could extricate themselves from the hypocritical grasp of the two party system and be an independent political power in their own right. But if America was unwilling to “do the right thing,” voting-wise and otherwise, Malcolm advised Blacks to emulate the revolutionary struggles of Africa, Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, et al. and fight for their liberation too, i.e., “the Ballot or the Bullet.”
Accordingly, the larger context lacking in Manning’s biography is its failure to sufficiently explicate that Malcolm was much more than America’s most angry black man. Rather, Malcolm was America’s most quintessential racial critic, the person who exposed the inadequacy of defining “the racial problem” in terms of “prejudice,” “discrimination,” “southern segregation,” et al. In fact, he used to say: “Stop talking about the South. When you cross the Canadian border, you’re in ‘the South.’”(Strickland, 3)
Ergo the critical question that America needed to ask itself was not about Malcolm the so-called individual spewer of “racial hatred,” but why the tens of thousands of black men and women, given their own racial experience in the land, were so willing to accept Elijah Muhammad’s depiction of the white man as “the devil” and join the Nation of Islam.Or why the thousands who didn’t join, yet identified with the Nation’s characterization of America’s racist nature. I suspect that would have been Malcolm’s sixty-four dollar question.
So where Aretha breathed life into our cultural souls, Malcolm resurrected our political minds–and souls. Because it was Malcolm who told us that we were victims of a national and historical SYSTEM. And he gave that system a name which clarified our consciousness a thousand fold. He called it racism. And in so doing, he not only redefined our struggle, he also redefined America.
PART THREE: ON THE METHODOLOGY OF MERCANTILISM, CHARACTER DENIGRATION, AND WRITING A BIOGRAPHY FULL OF HOLES
“Reinvention” Über Alles
It is awkward to criticize someone whom one knew fairly well who is now not able to defend himself. Some may even consider it in bad taste–or worse. While understanding those feelings, I have two rejoinders.
First, speaking well of the dead is a standard that Manning did not adhere to himself. Second, our task as scholars and researchers is to seek the truth of our history rather than bend it to our subjective will. For the lessons to be drawn from the history—for our own time and for the future—are infinitely more important than the arbitrary musings of any one individual. In fact, as one example of the arbitrary nature of Manning’s hegemonic trope, his theory of Malcolm’s “reinvention” of self, let us take the concept and apply it to Manning’s own life. To wit. . .
In the thirty-odd years of Manning’s academic career (1974-2011), he taught at at least eleven different colleges and universities. Two were black, Fisk and Tuskegee, the rest were white institutions. Moreover, his academic identity at those institutions was many and varied. He begins as an Associate or full Professor of Political Science. Then in his next locales, he morphs into a Professor of Economics or History or Sociology. After that he is, at the same place, a Professor of History, Political Science and Sociology, all in one. In the latter stage of his academic journey, he chairs a Black Studies Department, then takes his last post at Columbia as Director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies. Thus Manning has traveled from east coast to west coast; from Massachusetts and upstate New York to California; thence to the South, Alabama and Tennessee, and from there to the Midwest, Ohio and Indiana. He then crosses the Mississippi to Colorado before finally returning to the East and taking root at Columbia.
This is quite a unique travel record since one assumes that he received offers of tenure at some, if not most, of the universities where he taught. So why did he leave so many, so often? Was it wanderlust? Or was it tempting status-raising offers he received from an Academy that coveted him as a young rising black star? But who and what did he leave behind as he vacated one position after another? One might even ask: Did he leave all of these places voluntarily or is there some hidden history, personal or professional, behind all these uprootings? The point here is twofold: to demonstrate how neatly Manning, by raising questions from left–or right–field about his life, might be garbed in the cloak of self-reinvention himself. It also shows how easy it is for practically anyone to be tarred and feathered by this approach… A particular example of which is the most problematic conjecture in the book, Malcolm’s alleged homosexuality.
Manning’s book index contains two citations re Malcolm and “homosexual encounters.” In the first, Manning tells the reader that the fictional character, Rudy, in the Autobiography who sprinkles talcum powder over an “undressed” white man named Paul Lennon is actually Malcolm himself. He writes: “Based on circumstantial but strong evidence, Malcolm was probably describing his own homosexual encounters with Paul Lennon.” (Marable, 66) (emphasis mine) But where is this “strong evidence” since Manning doesn’t cite it but invokes his relentless tendency to “probablytize” history.
Again, a little later in that same paragraph, still riding the Detroit Red horse, he writes, “But in his Detroit Red life, he [Malcolm] participated in prostitution, marijuana sales, cocaine sessions, numbers running, the occasional robbery and apparently paid homosexual encounters.” (emphasis mine) So he changes the adverb from “probably” to “apparently” but the aspersion does not change. Then, having established Malcolm’s homosexual history to his own satisfaction, Manning writes about it as a given fact in his next chapter: “. . . Malcolm-Detroit Red, Satan, hustler, one time pimp, drug addict and drug dealer, homosexual lover, ladies man, numbers racketeer, burglar, Jack Carlton, and convicted thief. . .” (Marable, 78) (emphasis mine)
Manning has now become his own authority; quoting himself as his evidentiary source! (I am certain that other contributors to this volume will have something to say about the homosexual issue raised by Manning, so let us focus now on another example which, I think, is the most revealing about where this book is really coming from: Manning’s case against Alex Haley and the Autobiography.)
On Making A Case For Oneself
There is a persistent theme in the biography: that Alex Haley, a black Republican and integrationist, was fundamentally opposed to black nationalism, and therefore, slyly, shaped the Autobiography to be more in tune with his own ideology than Malcolm’s.
Few of the book’s reviewers appreciated that it was actually a joint endeavor—and particularly that Alex Haley. . . had an agenda of his own. A liberal Republican, Haley held the Nation of Islam’s racial separatism and religious extremism in contempt. . . In many ways, the published book is more Haley’s than the author’s” because Malcolm died in February, 1965, he had no opportunity to revise major elements of what would become known as his political testament. (Marable, 9)(emphasis mine)
To begin with, Manning’s statement that most of the reviewers of the Autobiography did not realize “it was . . . a joint endeavor,” defies logic since the title of the Autobiography—in big, bold letters—reads: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X—AS TOLD TO ALEX HALEY!! There is also the small matter of the seventy-three page “Epilogue” by Haley at the end of the book. So one assumes that book reviewers who are allegedly literate, are able to put two and two together and conclude that the book was ‘a joint endeavor.’ But Manning doesn’t seem to think so.
Then there’s his issue of Haley being a black Republican. Well let’s see if we can make sense of that fact. . . Haley was from Tennessee and Tennessee happens to have been the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan whose political party to which the White Leagues, the Knights of the White Camellia, and other white terrorists belonged—was the party that overthrew Reconstruction, the Democratic party. Therefore most Southern black men, after the passage of the 14th and 15 amendments, who were not harassed, intimidated, or murdered, and had freedom of choice to vote, were Republicans. Indeed, Frederick Douglass once said: “The Republican party is the ship. All else is open sea.”
But we need not linger with the horror stories of the nineteenth century to establish the strength of the Klan in the Democratic party because fifty years after Reconstruction, the Klan was so strong that in 1924, at the Democratic National Convention in New York City, it nominated its own candidate for President, a New York lawyer, William McAdoo. (Murray, 87-88)
McAdoo had been born in Georgia, reared in Tennessee, and moved to New York at the age of twenty-nine in 1892. Thirty-two years later at Madison Square Garden, the Democratic party held the longest political convention in american political history. Deadlocked Democratic delegates cast one hundred and two ballots over sixteen days before they could elect a compromise candidate over McAdoo, the Klan’s nominee. But although they had lost the first prize, the Klan had already consolidated its power in Oregon, Texas, California, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kansas, Indiana, and the South. It had elected a senator from Texas, and “as many as seventy-five members of the U.S. House of Representatives.” (Murray, 19)
So what party should a southern black man, like Haley, belong to, especially in the years 1963-1965 when the Autobiography is being written and the Democratic party in Alabama and Mississippi is proudly flying their state flag of a white rooster with the caption, “White Supremacy”? Being a black Republican, as Haley was in those movement years, is therefore not the same as being a black Republican in the era of Clarence Thomas, Ronald Reagan, Bush, Sr. Bush-Cheney, et al. A distinction that seems to have eluded Manning entirely.
His other points seem equally in limbo. . .
He implies that Haley inserted ideas of his own into the text but offers no proof.
He says that Malcolm had no time to revise the Autobiography because he was killed in February and the book was published six months later. Except Haley says Malcolm reviewed all the chapters and that they worked together in December and January “incorporating his new views into the final chapters of the Autobiography. . .” (Marable, 402) On February 14th, in fact, a week before Malcolm’s death, Haley tells his agent, Paul Reynolds, that the book is practically finished; that he is “winding up Malcolm X’s book. . . You’ll have it prior to March . . .” (Marable, 403) (emphasis mine) That is to say, within the next two weeks! So if Haley wrote something after March, what was it and where is it? Most tellingly, Manning’s insinuations about Haley masterminding and undermining Malcolm’s message in the book, is contradicted by Haley’s own admission that just the opposite was happening, that collaboration with Malcolm on the Autobiography had profoundly affected him, i.e., he told his agent and editors that “. . .he was at the point at which the process of writing the Autobiography was changing him” . . ‘when the material begins to direct you and command you into what must be done with it.’” (Marable, 261) (emphasis mine) But casting a shadow over Haley’s and the Autobiography’s integrity is only one scene in a script that disparages the work of all previous writers, researchers, and biographers of Malcolm X.
According to Manning, “the historical Malcolm, the man with all his strengths and flaws was being strangled by the iconic legend that had been constructed around him. “In reading nearly all the literature about Malcolm produced in the 1990’s, I was struck by its shallow character and lack of original sources. . .” (Marable,490) At any rate, the solution to this perceived historical deficiency was self-evident: like the cavalry in the classic American westerns, Manning felt compelled to ride to the rescue.
But significantly, Manning was no Lone Ranger riding to the rescue by himself. Factually, a more appropriate image is to see him as the overseer of a large research plantation stretching back over two decades; manned–and womaned–by countless staff. That is what distinguishes Manning’s project from nearly all other Malcolm researchers and historians: he had financial and institutional resources others didn’t have. He had numerous staff over the years that others didn’t have. He worked over a time span others did not enjoy. (Remember Manning developed his research perspective over a twenty year time period while Haley and Malcolm wrote the Autobiography in two years.)
More importantly, the Autobiography was a two person collaboration in which Malcolm was the ultimate decision-maker as to what went into the book. Manning, on the other hand, acknowledges that he worked closely with one Viking editor “in the development of each chapter” [and] “. . . communicated almost daily. . . for nearly eighteen months. . .” [with other editors to discuss] “. . . various versions of chapters, in the effort to reach the broadest possible audience.” (Marable, 492) (emphasis mine)
Thus Manning’s biography was a collective effort crafted, under the publisher’s aegis, “to reach the broadest possible audience,” which is to say that the historical narrative appears to have been subordinated to the marketing strategy; depriving us of comprehending how prophetically Malcolm’s political analysis, insights, and conclusions about America’s fundamental racial failings became the movement’s own…How the incessant betrayals by government and society led even the once hopeful and idealistic Martin Luther King, Jr. to take on Malcolm’s perspective– and even his language.So that he too,twelve years after the Montgomery bus boycott,had reached the point of deploring a society crippled by its “materialism, militarism, and RACISM”(emphasis mine). Leading him to conclude, six months before his own assassination, that:
I have found out all that I have been doing in trying to correct this system in America has been in vain. . . I am trying to get to the roots of it to see just what ought to be done. . . The whole thing will have to be done away with. (Strickland, 165) (emphasis mine).
Malcolm couldn’t have said it better….
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Carmichael, Stokely with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Cobb, Charles E., Jr. On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008
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Evanzz, Karl, The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X. New York: Thunders Mouth Press, 1992.
______ The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad. New York: Pantheon, 1999.
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