The World House: On Malcolm X

The World House: On Malcolm X

A biographer’s flawed attempt to rediscover the politics in the decidedly political life of Malcolm X.


Has any American radical of the twentieth century been more strongly embraced by America than Malcolm X? His Autobiography, published several months after he was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965, has sold millions of copies. Since 1999 a photo of Malcolm looking dapper and resolute has adorned a first-class stamp. In defending its decision to issue the stamp as part of its Black Heritage series, the US Postal Service claimed that Malcolm’s downplaying of black separatism in the final year of his life signaled his acceptance of “a more integrationist solution to racial problems.” That might have come as a surprise to Malcolm.

Malcolm’s admirers run the gamut from Dan Quayle to Spike Lee, whose biopic sparked a Malcolm craze in 1992. After Martin Luther King Jr., there is no twentieth-century black American political personality who enjoys greater popular standing and acclaim than Malcolm X. In the eyes of many young men and women, especially but not exclusively African-Americans, his outsider status makes him a more compelling and iconic figure than the middle-class and nonviolent King. How is it that a man who in life was an unrelenting foe of American actions has been in his cultural afterlife so thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream?

One reason is that as Malcolm’s iconic stature has grown, the memory of his political beliefs and commitments has faded. The claim that Malcolm lacked a coherent political point of view has been repeated so often that it has become second nature for people to regard the street tough turned Nation of Islam (NOI) organizer almost exclusively as a cultural symbol of black self-worth, a person Ossie Davis famously eulogized as “our living black manhood.” In today’s America, in which hyphenated identities abound and cultural pluralism often enjoys official sanction, Malcolm X occupies a position for African-Americans similar to the one Christopher Columbus enjoyed among Italian-Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century. When Malcolm’s political views do get discussed, they are often tailored to fit conventional wisdom about race relations or the civil rights movement.

If any strain of Malcolm’s radicalism has remained salient, it has been his fiery talk of revolutionary violence. His declarations about armed resistance and securing one’s rights “by any means necessary” continue to appeal to teenagers (white and black, in suburbs and cities), and their veneration of him is one reason he has become our Che Guevara—a saint of defiance, an enemy of indifference. Like Che, Malcolm endures through talismanic trinkets, his image and words reproduced on key chains and cuff links, T-shirts and tattoos, his legacy publicly commemorated and politically defanged.

In the gripping biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, the late Manning Marable does much to recover the politics in a decidedly political life. (Marable died in April on the eve of his book’s publication, after having been hospitalized for pneumonia.) For Marable, Malcolm’s commemoration—the reinvention of his story by others—began with The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Marable considers Alex Haley, Malcolm’s co-author, to be a “liberal Republican” attracted to “the tortured tale of Malcolm’s life” but decidedly opposed to his ideas. Moreover, because Malcolm died before the book was completed, the text, widely seen as his “political testament,” was shaped by Haley to depict Malcolm as a more palatable civil rights figure. Haley paid hardly any attention to the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which Malcolm founded in 1964 after leaving the NOI, or to its primary objectives, such as creating a united black front at home and abroad.

Through what he calls a “critical deconstruction” of the Autobiography, Marable attempts to clarify Malcolm’s actual political and ideological beliefs and to transcend what he views as Haley’s fascination with “personalities.” As Marable reminds us, “Among African American leaders throughout history, Malcolm was unquestionably the most consummately ‘political’ activist, a man who emphasized grassroots and participatory politics led by working-class and poor blacks.” What comes through in Marable’s telling is that, in a life marked by multiple identities and near continuous reinvention (from his years as a hustler in Harlem and Roxbury, Massachusetts, to his jailhouse conversion to the NOI in 1948 to his political work in the ’60s), Malcolm’s one constant belief was that the condition of blacks in America was part of a larger colonial predicament ensnaring the third world. Self-determination for the colonized world and self-determination for African-Americans were parallel objectives, to be pursued jointly, united as they are by the historic fact of European empire as well as by the West’s ongoing interventionism. The extensive trips Malcolm took throughout Africa and the Middle East, especially from July to November 1964, little noted by Haley in the Autobiography, were but one manifestation of this belief.

* * *

Given Marable’s ambitions, it is unfortunate that much of the coverage of the biography has been preoccupied with its controversial claims about Malcolm’s personal life. Marable suggests that Malcolm, during his time in Roxbury, may have had an intimate sexual relationship with a wealthy white man in Boston. He also details Malcolm’s misogynistic and distrustful view of women, along with the strains in his marriage to Betty Shabazz. According to Marable, Malcolm was a loving but distant parent, always finding a reason to travel immediately after the birth of each of his and Shabazz’s children, and his marriage was marked less by romance than propriety, which itself may have been compromised by periodic infidelities on both sides. Marable addresses another thorny subject in the book’s final chapters, detailing his belief that two of the men convicted of Malcolm’s murder were not guilty and that one of the gunmen remains free. The circumstances of Malcolm’s death are murky, as are the connections between the FBI, the NYPD (both of which had Malcolm under surveillance at the time of his death) and the NOI, and Marable’s research clarifies matters. Yet in the final pages of the biography, his almost singular investigative focus on the assassination diverts the book’s narrative—the development of Malcolm’s political ideology and standing—into a cul de sac.

The task of recovering the political actor beneath the cultural icon requires the frank examination of Malcolm’s defining encounters, practical mistakes and ideological limitations. For instance, Marable discusses Malcolm’s willingness, despite serious personal qualms, to consent to the NOI’s overtures to the Ku Klux Klan in 1961 on the grounds that both groups sought racial separation. Marable also explains that the NOI exploited the tensions in Malcolm’s marriage to undermine his credibility before and after his official split with its leader, Elijah Muhammad, in March 1964—which, according to Marable, was motivated significantly by Malcolm’s growing impatience with the gulf between the NOI’s fiery rhetoric and its accommodationist posture. All of these experiences speak to the process, personal as well as political, by which Malcolm Little became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

Marable’s recovery project begins with a reconsideration of Malcolm’s early family life. He was born in 1925, the fourth child of Earl and Louise Little. His father was a longtime organizer for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, which emphasized pride in African ancestry and sought to ameliorate the condition of blacks through economic self-help and the creation of a shared black cultural identity. Facing nearly continuous threats from white supremacists, the Littles moved frequently in Malcolm’s early years. In 1929 their home in Lansing, Michigan, was torched by local racists. Two years later, after finding a new home in Lansing and continuing his work as a Garveyite teacher, Earl died after being run over by a streetcar. The coroner ruled the death an accident, but the family as well as the larger black community in Lansing believed Earl had been murdered by the Black Legion, a white supremacist group.

Although the Autobiography details the aftermath of Earl’s death, Marable points out that both Malcolm and Haley chose to de-emphasize the politicized environment in which Malcolm was raised in order to lend narrative power to his prison conversion to the Nation of Islam. But Marable argues that by avoiding this Garveyite background, the Autobiography ignores how a particular pan-African vision shaped Malcolm’s lifelong political identity (it also inspired his siblings to join the NOI in the 1940s). Marable explains that at the heart of Garvey’s philosophy was the view that

people of African descent were all part of a transnational “nation,” a global race with a common destiny…. What Garvey recognized was that the Old World and the New were inextricably linked: blacks throughout the Caribbean and the United States could never be fully free unless Africa itself was liberated. Pan-Africanism—the belief in Africa’s ultimate political independence, and that of all colonial states in which blacks lived—was the essential goal.

Such views were so deeply ingrained that even during Malcolm’s days as a hustler, he would often discuss “Garvey’s concepts in terms of how they could benefit us as a people,” as a friend of Malcolm’s told Marable.

In 1946 Malcolm found himself in prison serving three concurrent six-to-eight-year sentences for robbing several homes. A few years later he joined the NOI, which at the time was a small organization, and he was soon agitating for prison food consistent with Muslim dietary restrictions and for cells that faced east, so that black Muslims could pray in the direction of Mecca. When the warden initially refused, Malcolm threatened to contact not the NAACP but the Egyptian consulate in Washington. The warden backed down and agreed to Malcolm’s demands. In 1955, three years after his release, Malcolm was serving as the primary NOI minister in Harlem; he was so moved by the Bandung Conference, a gathering in Indonesia of many newly independent Asian and African states committed to principles of third world internationalism and solidarity, that he urged black American leaders to “hold a Bandung Conference in Harlem.” As Marable explains, Malcolm thought the “principles of nonaggression and cooperation that had characterized the Bandung Conference should inform the strategy of black ‘Asiatics’ inside the United States.” He was among the first civil rights leaders to forcefully attack the Vietnam War, and he did so by describing it as a continuation of European (now American) hegemony in the third world. For Malcolm, “human rights” spoke to the international elimination of all remaining vestiges of imperialism and entailed full economic and political self-determination for nonwhite peoples everywhere. By contrast, “civil rights” merely denoted an American project of social mobility for middle-class blacks, and the inclusion of some of them in institutions of economic and political privilege.

* * *

These beliefs informed the political choices Malcolm made following his break with the NOI. According to Marable, Malcolm’s efforts in 1964 and 1965 to coordinate with other black activists and his conversion to orthodox Islam should not be understood as a retreat into reformism or liberal integration. The purpose of Malcolm’s 1964 summer tour of Africa and the Middle East was to cultivate alliances with third world nations and, in effect, to internationalize the black freedom movement at home. Earlier that year Malcolm had met with representatives of various civil rights groups and persuaded them to place the issue of racial subordination in the United States before the UN General Assembly. Given his extensive international contacts, he was then asked by those in attendance, who included spokespeople for A. Philip Randolph, the Congress of Racial Equality and Martin Luther King Jr., to travel across the Middle East and Africa to garner support.

Marable argues that Malcolm’s embrace of Islamic universality led him to emphasize the economic factors preserving Western hegemony—even after states across Africa and Asia had gained formal independence. Increasingly for Malcolm, the common thread linking African-Americans with ethnically plural communities in the third world was economic dependence, one expressed historically through the use of nonwhite labor and third world raw materials to sustain Western abundance. Marable quotes Malcolm as saying, “It’s impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism.” The two were intertwined as systems that reproduced domestic hierarchies and that promoted growing disparities between the global North and South. What is remarkable about Malcolm’s more humanistic outlook in his final months is how he connected an Islamic perspective with secular pan-Africanism—two orientations that appeared antithetical at the time and certainly do today. For Malcolm these were the twin pillars unifying his broader and revolutionary internationalism. Rather than an opposition to the sort of secular politics espoused by Gamal Nasser in Egypt, orthodox Islam underscored for Malcolm the incompatibility of militant black separatism and those pluralistic solidarities he increasingly believed were required to defeat colonialism.

The major flaw of Malcolm X is that after hundreds of pages about the development of Malcolm’s pan-Africanism, in which minute shifts in thought from speech to speech are traced and analyzed, Marable offers no substantial concluding reflections on Malcolm’s influence on global liberation politics or black ideas. In the last chapter, Marable does hint at Malcolm’s enduring political significance, but unfortunately this discussion is largely a missed opportunity. Similarly, Malcolm’s influence on the rise of Black Power and the general radicalization of the civil rights movement is discussed, but inadequately.

One matter that would have been worth pursuing is how King, shortly before his own assassination, was echoing Malcolm in his speeches and writing, linking racism to economic subordination and calling for a Poor People’s Campaign and a guaranteed income, with the goal of initiating a “radical restructuring of the architecture of American society.” King also linked black freedom at home to the end of Western hegemony abroad by opposing cold war interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and elsewhere in the third world. The prevailing account of the connections between the two men has always been that Malcolm moved closer to King in 1964 and 1965, but perhaps the reverse is just as true. By the end of their lives, neither King nor Malcolm was a conventional reformer; rather, each had come to view race in the United States through both class structure and the global legacies of empire. In 1968 King published a book called Where Do We Go From Here, and in the chapter “The World House” he declared, “Equality with whites will not solve the problems of either whites or Negroes if it means equality in a world society stricken by poverty and in a universe doomed to extinction by war.” The chapter could have been a fitting afterword to The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

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