Marable's Malcolm X Book Puts Icon in Context

The controversial biography places the slain Muslim leader firmly in the black nationalist tradition -- with all its contradictions, says this reviewer.

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It was political in the sense that X saw the political fate of blacks in the United States tied to the liberation of blacks throughout the world, not just in theory but in practice. Perhaps the central political component of Malcolm X's view of black self-determination was his insistence that blacks in the U.S. had the right to choose their political relationship with the United States. As Marable states, "He never abandoned the nationalist's ideal of 'self-determination.' "

Here I think Marable's analysis is slightly off. The black demand for self-determination was never limited to black nationalism in the 20th century. Early black socialist activists such as Hubert Harrison and Cyril Briggs -- black communists of the Depression and World War II era -- as well as many of the black radicals of the black power era, some traditional Marxists and others who combined socialism with black nationalism, all supported the demand for self-determination. Malcolm's influence in advocating self-determination both had deeper roots and wider influence than suggested. 

In his epilogue, Marable wonders if, with the election of Barack Obama, blacks still (if ever) "have a separate political destiny from their fellow white citizens" and whether Malcolm would have to "radically redefine self-determination and the meaning of black power in a political environment that appeared to many to be 'post-racial'."

Do we live in a post-racial society? I do know from survey and other evidence that black Americans between 2009 and 2010 once again became disillusioned with the antics of some of their fellow white citizens in the Tea Party and elsewhere, who often appeal to white racism while pursuing a policy agenda that would be devastating to the African Americans who were once Malcolm's main constituency -- the black poor in particular.

The majority of blacks once again are pessimistic about blacks achieving racial equality in the foreseeable future, while the great majority of white Americans believe that racial equality has either been achieved or is imminent. So self-determination may or may not need to be "radically redefined," but the need for black political power demonstrably remains in a country where the political disagreements, which still arise along racial cleavages, remain so vast.

Throughout his life, Marable brought to light these types of questions and debates. He precisely focused on some of the critical central questions confronting black and progressive politics. We are in his debt once again for bringing Malcolm X back to life and these questions to the fore. I am deeply saddened that I will not be able to debate them with Manning. We are all diminished by his loss.

Michael Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago; his third book on black politics, Not in Their Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics, will be published this fall by the University of Chicago Press.

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