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May 12 2011

Rescuing Malcolm X From His Calculated Myths | The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education - 2011-05-01

 

Still reinventing malcolm 3
Bob Adelman, Magnum Photos

Malcom X , 1962

Malcolm X bestrides the postwar age of decolonization alongside global icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. If King and Gandhi evoked nonviolence and disciplined civil disobedience as a shield to protect the world from imperial wars, racism, and rampant materialism, Malcolm wielded the specter of self-defense, violence, and revolution as a sword to permanently alter power relations between the global North and South. In an epoch contoured by revolutions that connected local political struggles to national and international upheavals, he self-consciously brokered links among Africa, the Middle East, and America, setting the stage for political, religious, and cultural reverberations that would continue past his lifetime.

 

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Almost a half-century after his death in 1965, Malcolm X continues to capture the global political imagination. His denunciations of white racism to packed Harlem crowds remain searing images that capture a specific style of black radicalism while simultaneously serving as a template for political revolutions that go beyond race and established the Third World as a bracingly independent geopolitical force. His speeches, political activism, and religious beliefs achieved mythic proportions after his death, spurred by the huge success of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written in collaboration with Alex Haley and published posthumously. It remains a classic memoir of the once wayward youth's transformation from juvenile delinquent and criminal into the Nation of Islam's fiery national spokesman and, following a messy divorce from the group that would ultimately lead to his death, a radical human-rights advocate and Pan-Africanist who candidly admitted that some of his past views had been politically shortsighted, even reckless.

Embraced by Black Power activists, hip-hop artists, socialists, and black nationalists, Malcolm's iconography had been successfully rehabilitated enough by the 1990s to merit a major motion picture, an official U.S. postage stamp, and mainstream identification as King's angry but eloquent counterpart. Recognition came at a high cost. Despite a plethora of popular and scholarly works—on Malcolm's political and religious views, his life as hipster and hustler, his embrace of Pan-African impulses, his break with the Nation of Islam—a definitive scholarly biography illuminating his singular importance as a dominant 20th-century historical figure remained absent. For personal, financial, and political reasons, his widow and subsequently his estate restricted access to important archival material until 2008. His former associates were loath to give interviews, and the Nation of Islam remained mostly silent about the circumstances surrounding his death. The FBI and the New York City Police Department closed off thousands of pages of surveillance and wiretapping records. Then too, the success of the Autobiography as a literary memoir narrowed the opening for a scholarly biography.

Historical scholarship has focused on Malcolm's words of fire, depicting him more as a brilliant speaker than a community organizer. His supple intellect, burgeoning political ambitions, and organizing prowess have garnered far less attention. As have details of his private life. And no single volume has attempted to craft a cohesive portrait that stands outside the Autobiography's considerable shadow. In that celebrated book, Malcolm X outlined his views on the importance of producing an accurate history: "I've had enough of somebody else's propaganda," he proclaimed.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking), by Manning Marable, a historian at Columbia University who died just days before publication of what is clearly his life's work, achieves the rare feat of rescuing a man from his own mythology with deep archival research and brilliant insight. Marable's untimely death adds a layer of poignancy to a biography that will stand as the most authoritative account of Malcolm's life that will be written for a long time.

Marable emerged as one of the leading scholars of black Marxism and radicalism in the early 1980s. The founding director of Columbia's Institute for Research in African American Studies and a prolific scholar, his work charted the black-freedom movement's domestic and global reverberations. In books like Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1990 (second edition, University Press of Mississippi, 1991), African and Caribbean Politics: From Kwame Nkrumah to the Granada Revolution (Verso, 1987), and The Great Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of Race in America (Basic Books, 2002), he deftly explored the way postwar black radicals helped transform American democracy in the service of a human-rights movement that transcended borders and boundaries.

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