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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Manning Marable was never a dogmatist. While he had his own strong point of view, he was respectful of, and attentive to, those who disagreed. Marable's last legacy is Malcolm X: A Life Reinvented, published just five days after he died. Marable courageously examined the contradictions and unanswered questions in the various accounts -- including Malcolm's own -- of Malcolm X's life and political agenda. 

If you are looking for a glorification of Malcolm X's life or a straightforward narrative about his politics, you should read another book. A key aspect of what Marable does is to firmly situate Malcolm X's politics within a long, primarily 20th-century tradition of black nationalism. Marable ascribes the foundation of his politics within the traditions established by the influential early-20th-century nationalist Marcus Garvey (founder of the largest black urban movement ever created, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA) and the black Muslim organizations, of which the Nation of Islam was neither the first nor initially the largest or most influential in urban Northern black communities. 

Indeed, Marable shows how the growth of black religious nationalism was significantly due to the slow crumbling of UNIA in the United States after Garvey's arrest and imprisonment in the 1920s. Malcolm X, through his parents, and the Nation of Islam, through its founders, had roots in Garveyism. Marable traces the tension between a religious nationalism based on a deep faith in Islam and a commitment to a political nationalism dedicated to the liberation of African peoples in the United States and throughout the world that challenged Malcolm X up to the very time of his assassination. 

Tensions between the two organizations that Malcolm founded after his break with the NOI -- the Organization of Afro-American Unity and the Muslim Mosque Inc. -- represented the tensions between two related but different black nationalisms, and persisted after his death. Acerbating these tensions were developments at the end of X's life in both his religious and political perspectives. Politically, he was seeing the struggle of Afro-Americans and other people of African descent connected to that of the other oppressed peoples of the world, especially those who were waging national liberation struggles or who had seized victory in Third World socialist countries such as Cuba and China.

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Some of the contours of this narrative had been "known" before. Marable, however, as any outstanding scholar should, unsettles and challenges our received understanding of the whole of Malcolm X's life, especially his political evolution at the end of his life. Those who believe that X was clearly on the road to socialism and would remain a dedicated revolutionary (political) nationalist or dedicated cultural nationalist should find much in Marable's account to undermine their faith.

What was consistent and firm in X's political thought, according to Marable, was his outstanding ability, because of his own life experiences, to identify with and articulate the anger and demands of the poor and working-class (my language) masses of black people -- a true "organic intellectual" (Marable's language), as Antonio Gramsci describes in Prison Notebooks. It was this that differentiated Malcolm, argues Marable, from Martin Luther King Jr. and the other mostly middle-class and often upper-middle-class civil rights leaders.

Malcolm X would remain justly, but sometimes overly, suspicious of those he considered "house Negroes.'' As a corollary, even though both W.E.B. Du Bois and King also demanded accountability from privileged blacks, Malcolm X was fierce and uncompromising in his demand that the black middle and upper classes support the just aspirations and political program of the vast majority of poor and working African Americans.

Another lasting legacy of Malcolm X was his insistence that black people as a people define themselves culturally, socially and, not least, politically. Marable states that Malcolm X believed that black people constituted "a nation-within-a-nation." Even as recently as early 2010, survey data inform that nearly 50 percent of African Americans believed that they constituted a nation-within-a-nation and not just another American ethnic group. This is in a time -- unlike the 1960s and 1970s -- when that language is no longer a part of common black political rhetoric and analysis.

Black self-definition had several components, according to Marable's analysis of Malcolm X's politics. One key element was a strong, foundational Pan-Africanism that was both cultural and political. Malcolm X's Pan-Africanism was cultural in several senses -- not the least his insistence that blacks in the United States were historically tied to blacks in Africa and throughout the Diaspora.