The fact that no credible writer can write about Malcolm X without referring to the oft-quoted eulogy by Ossie Davis underlines just how central gender and sexuality are to understanding the black experience in America. For indeed, "Malcolm was our manhood." Manning Marable's recent and controversial biography of the man of many names, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, does not miss this important analytical framework, even though it seems that many of us in the black community would prefer that it did.
Before the work had even lived under public scrutiny for a week, it suffered attacks on its character. The reason: Somebody heard someone saying something about Brother Malcolm being gay! Of all things, we could take the prostrations of a Malcolm Little under racist paternalism. We could even tolerate the shady dealings and criminality of Detroit Red. But a queer or even a queered Malcolm X who may not have been as faithful to his wife as commonly thought is apparently insupportable.
A few months before Marable's exhaustive work on Malcolm was published, I came across the letter addressed to Elijah Muhammad in which Malcolm confided his inability to sexually satisfy his wife. This document rocked my image of Malcolm. His autobiography had helped guide me into manhood. Somehow, I just knew that the handsome, aggressive black leader had a lively sex life. Was it a considerable coincidence that my own ideas of black consciousness came from this man who exuded masculinity?
The few pages of Marable's book that suggest possible infidelities on the part of our saintly prince Malcolm and his wife, Dr. Betty Shabazz, are not the only sexually related topic that Marable explores. In fact, one could argue that Marable's achievement is his synthesis of an abundance of historical facts into a narrative sensitive but not beholden to feminist and Marxist perspectives. It is as if Marable used a series of appropriate lenses to turn an overwhelming body of information into a fine, laser-precise beam of light, exposing not just the best approximation of the truth of Malcolm's life to date but also describing the larger political, social and intellectual movements of his moment.
From the beginning of Malcolm's life, when he felt betrayed by his mother's mental breakdown, to his roaring 20s, when he deemed his banishment to jail a result of a white woman's trickery, he had internalized a sexist, even misogynist, ethic. Accordingly, Malcolm sympathized with Elijah Muhammad's teachings, which insisted on female inferiority, and was comforted in the homosocial intimacy of the Nation of Islam's brotherhood.
Nevertheless, Malcolm's issue with women is not what the book is "about." Even though the salacious tidbits have made headlines, the treasure chest of revelation is not doing much to break what Marable himself has called the conspiracy of silence around Malcolm by both his enemies and those closest to him. Marable provides evidence that some hope will reopen the case against Malcolm's killers, which has attracted the attention of the Justice Department.
The most significant, and perhaps overlooked, element of the book is what Malcolm means to the entire world, particularly in an age when political Islam and people of color across the world are contesting the subjugated roles established by the West. In an essay published a few years ago, Marable wrote: "Malcom X was potentially a new type of world leader, personally drawn up from the 'wretched of the earth' into a political stratosphere of international power. Telling that remarkable, true story is the purpose of my biography."
So why hasn't the popular response to the definitive biography of a central figure of the black freedom movement focused on the global significance of Malcolm?
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.