Reinvention is presented as a foundational theme in Marable’s work, since Malcolm’s life was one of conscious and continual reappraisal. Malcolm was active in shaping the representation of what he represented: lower-class blacks, black nationalists, Muslims, radicals. He knew that one of the greatest successes of white racism was its denial of black people’s ability to narrate their own stories and represent themselves. The psychological effects of blacks’ inability to define themselves created a sense of inferiority. By constantly reinventing himself, by authorizing his life’s story through Alex Haley, Malcolm granted himself permission to narrate, becoming his own master — in his own image.
This feat inspired and directed the black arts movement. His message of embracing blackness became a central tenet for the new generation of authors and artists. The move uptown of LeRoi Jones (who became Amiri Baraka) to Harlem following Malcolm’s death marked the embrace of cultural production that knew black was beautiful and that could be a weapon against white racism. Jones and others repaid Malcolm in kind for liberating their expression. Malcolm became their muse and their message. The works produced were obsessed with Malcolm’s masculinity. He was tall, athletic and eloquent; he was sexually desirable. And he made blackness sexually desirable. Blackness became masculine.
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.