Malcolm X Bio: Are We Missing the Point?

There's been a great hue and cry over Manning Marable's biography of the slain leader and its assertions about his sexuality. But focusing only on that part of this important book is a mistake.

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Paradoxically, though, the person who might help us understand Malcolm and his surrounding cult the most is the black arts movement writer, feminist and lesbian Audre Lorde. Like Lorde's Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, The Autobiography of Malcolm X  was as much biomythography as it was anything else. Malcolm and Haley were actively engaged in mythmaking, as were those who surrounded the specter of Malcolm. They needed to present blackness in the masculine terms established since the racist sexual economy of the plantation. Blackness seemingly had to be masculine. It, in a reactionary way, had to compete with white patriarchy. After all, white power had been nothing but the exertion of power over black bodies, male and female alike.

Therefore, anything that even slightly dared to question Malcolm's sexuality and, thus, black masculinity has quickly been seen as a violation of the power that Malcolm worked so hard to create and that his surrounding cult have worked to protect.

However, Marable's work doesn't deal in the mythmaking of the black martyr. His work aims at getting at the truth (as problematic as that concept is) of the man. This meant considering everything that has ever been said about our prince, including the allegations raised in the early '90s that he was homosexual. Anyone who actually read the book and didn't merely skim media reports knows that Marable puts to bed the idea that Malcolm secretly slept with other men. However, he does conclude that the same-sex interaction he may have had with a well-to-do white man was probably a hustle.

Malcolm's masculinity defined what blackness meant in the late 20th century, principally via black arts movement artists; because our notion of blackness centered on Malcolm, questioning the heteronormative and masculine Malcolm myth throws our very identity into crisis.

Hopefully, the ongoing discussions around the new biography and Malcolm X's life will challenge us to redefine our ideas and ideals of blackness along the lines of something a bit more global and a lot less sexist.

Wendell Hassan Marsh is a D.C.-based journalist. He specializes in the political economy of culture in Africa, the Middle East and their Diasporas. Find him online at theafrabian.com and on Twitter @marshreports.

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