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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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.