While Perry leaves no doubt that Malcolm was a lousy husband, his wife, Betty Shabazz, is a far more vivid character in Marable’s book. Marable also establishes Malcolm’s pattern of finding a reason to take a long trip immediately after the birth of each of his children. He also relates the previously unreported tidbit that Malcolm confessed to Elijah Muhammad that he was unable to satisfy his wife sexually.
However, Perry spends a lot more time with Malcolm’s troubled history with women, including his dabbling with homosexual prostitution. While Marable accepts Malcolm’s bragging that he was a hound dog and ladies man in his youth as fact, Perry paints a picture of a sexually confused young man, which makes his unsatisfactory performance as a husband unsurprising, to say the least.
Somewhat oddly, Marable blames the factual distortions that appeared in The Autobiography of Malcolm X on co-author Alex Haley, to whom he constantly refers as “an integrationist Republican” as though that were indictment enough. Marable, however, mostly accepts Autobiography‘s real errors in fact — at least the ones that support his political point of view — even though they had been refuted by Perry.
Marable’s primary interest in his subject as a political figure pays dividends in his detailing of Malcolm’s infighting within the NOI and his embrace of Pan-Africanism. Marable appears to be correct to claim Malcolm X for the Left, not primarily because of the Black Power movement but because of his Pan-Africanism involvement.
Both books stand in contrast to Spike Lee’s movie Malcolm X, which paints his famed pilgrimage to Mecca as the epiphanal moment that caused him to re-evaluate his separatist and racialist views.
In truth, Malcolm had recognized the limitations of that appeal long before any of his trips abroad. He had made public statements moving in that direction, although he continued to make inflammatory rhetorical flourishes among the faithful to keep them fired up long after his return from his pilgrimage.
Even Marable, who vaunts Malcolm’s supposed “sincerity,” admits that much.
Marable’s account of Malcolm X’s assassination is told with a little more storytelling flourish, as Perry is a little more Joe Friday with his just-the-facts approach. It’s after the assassination where the two books really part ways.
Perry, as usual, sticks with established facts and the public record. One of the selling points of Marable’s book is supposedly breaking new ground on analyzing the murder and its prosecution. But while Marable’s (mostly couched) conclusions may be sensational, his bases for them are thin gruel, indeed.
For instance, Marable implies that the police were complicit in or at least indifferent about the assassination, using as “proof” that undercover officers had been placed within the NOI and around Malcolm X. But police and federal agencies are notorious for never risking their undercover assets to the point of rendering them useless to their purported task.
Marable’s explanation of the alleged police indifference is typical of the innuendo that permeates the book whenever he wants the reader to believe something for which evidence is sketchy:
“The deep skepticism about the NYPD’s unprofessional behavior was not without merit. Most street cops were contemptuous of Malcolm, whom they considered a dangerous racist demagogue. Many believed that Malcolm had firebombed his own house in some kind of publicity stunt. Besides, they thought, given Malcolm’s incendiary rhetoric, it was inevitable that the black leader would be struck down by the very violence he had promoted. Most police officers generally treated this murder case not as a significant political assassination, but as a neighborhood shooting in the dark ghetto, a casualty from two rival black gangs feuding against each other.” [emphasis added]
Gee, what would make the cops think that? Evidence? Observation?
Both authors strain to try to tell readers why Malcolm X matters. The fact is, when he died, Malcolm X may have been the most famous Black Muslim in the United States, but after he split from the NOI, his coterie of followers wasn’t exactly growing by leaps and bounds.
Perry compares Malcolm to Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated in 1961 weeks after becoming prime minister, but in 1991, when Perry’s book came out, that probably had more readers scratching their heads and asking “Who?” Current readers are even less likely to remember a slain Pan-African leader who was killed 50 years ago.
Marable’s comparison of Malcolm to Che Guevara is probably more apt, but not for the reasons he puts forward:
“At that moment, Guevara was perhaps Malcolm’s closest analogue on the world stage, a relentless supporter of the struggles of oppressed people and a committed revolutionary. Like Malcolm he was deeply concerned about ongoing and recent events in Africa. …”
While Malcolm was not directly responsible for thousands of deaths or relegating millions of those he supposedly was trying to help to brutal oppression, he does have one thing in common with the Cuban revolutionary. Their similarity? Che and Malcolm today are more T-shirt icons than historical figures whose lives and legacies are portrayed with any attempt at accuracy in the popular culture.
Neither author buys into the fallacy that Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr. were moving in one another’s direction and would have presented a united front that would have defeated racism for all time had they only lived longer.
As Hampton Sides vividly relates in Hellhound on his Trail, King, having accomplished his goals of tearing down government barriers to integration, was moving past race as his primary focus and pursuing a broader agenda of a vaguely European-style socialist movement for all of America’s poor. In fact, when he was shot, King was in Memphis not over a racial issue but to support a garbage workers’ union strike.
While Malcolm may have softened his rhetoric somewhat, race was still his primary focus; he was just trying to move to an international stage.
Marable is convinced this is an important and lasting legacy:
“Malcolm also changed the discourse and politics of race internationally. During a period when many African-American leaders were preoccupied with efforts to change federal and state policies about race relations, Malcolm saw that for the domestic struggle for civil rights to succeed, it had to be expanded into an international campaign for human rights. The United Nations, not the U.S. Congress or the White House, had to be the central forum.”
To call this argument a stretch is to overrate its connection to reality. Marable, of course, gives no examples of how the U.N. has affected race relations in the United States because none exists.
But Marable is not done with overstatement:
“Finally, and most important, Malcolm X represents the most important bridge between the American people and more than one billion Muslims throughout the world.”
His evidence of this? Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a postage stamp in featuring Malcolm X in 1984 to commemorate “the Universal Day of Struggle Against Race Discrimination.” No, I am not kidding.
Marable gives no indication that he sees any irony there despite a long discussion earlier in the book condemning Malcolm’s efforts to reach out to another anti-Semitic group, the Klu Klux Klan. (Like boxer Muhammad Ali, Malcolm admired their stance on race mixing and intermarriage.)
But, as they say in infomercials, wait — there’s more! Did you know that American Talibanist John Walker Lindh’s “spiritual advisor Shakeel Syed is convinced Lindh could ‘become the new Malcolm X’”? Or how about al Qaeda videos that have proclaimed Barack Obama a “`race traitor’ and ‘hypocrite’ when compared to Malcolm X’”?
For sheer invention, though, it’s hard to beat Marable’s assertion that the man who left the Nation of Islam to pursue a Pan-African version of traditional Islam really was moving toward the “politics of radical humanism,” based on the recounting of one conversation with author James Baldwin. Marable writes:
“(Malcolm’s) gentle humanism and antiracism could have become a platform for a new kind of radical global ethnic politics. Instead of the fiery symbol of ethnic violence and religious hatred, as al-Qaeda might project him, Malcolm X should become a representative for hope and human dignity. At least for the African-American people, he has already come to embody those loftier aspirations.” [emphasis added]
Ultimately, the only thing more fictional than Malcolm X’s own accounts of his past are the attempts made by the agenda-driven—like Manning Marable– to fashion an important and positive legacy for him in the present.
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