Manning Marable’s Malcolm: The revolutionary as human

I am undergoing a study on Black liberation this year. Im taking time off from other political work I could be doing in order to, in part, do this study because I have felt that lacking this has been a huge gap in my own intellectual development in the last few years. I think it’s important because it shapes so much of race and white supremacy in the United States and because it is one of the richest movement experiences in the US, from which so many other movements sprang. I hope that later down the road this study will help me flesh out my very underdeveloped ideas about being racialized as Muslim in the US, whether “Muslim” can even be a racial category or not, and the class composition of South Asians and Arabs in the US.

However, though I have a list of books that I want to get to eventually, there is no rhyme or reason to my study. I was drawn to Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X for no apparent reason, apart from all the hype and reaction surrounding its release a few months back. I think I was drawn to the book because of how formative the Autobiography “as told to” Alex Haley was on me at a very young age. I watched Spike Lee’s movie when it came out. I will date myself and admit that I was only 8 years old. My parents took me, perhaps along with my older sister, to watch the movie with another South Asian Muslim family. (I have written about the kind of place I grew up in earlier posts. The racial character of the town will become clear when I say that though I believe it was only shortly after the movie had been released, on a Sunday afternoon we were literally the only people in the movie theater.)

At the age of ten I borrowed a copy that my 16 year old sister had borrowed from a friend. I sneaked it from her room and read it over and over again. At that age I was not very careful with other peoples’ books and by the time my sister got it back, I had managed to get gum on the inside cover, among other damage. She had to buy another copy for her friend and presto! Though not done intentionally, I had my very own copy of the Autobiography of Malcolm X.

I would guess that I read it over 50 times in the next 8 years. This is not to boast, I was a super nerdy and pretty unhappy kid, and I tried to lose myself in fiction. This was probably the only non-fiction book I read voluntarily in those years, because Malcolm’s story was so compelling. I cant remember what I thought about the whole thing, though. I knew vaguely that it was my inspiration for trying to get involved in politics as I got older, as evidenced by some really back spoken word I wrote in honor of Malcolm in college. The only really tangible lesson I remember taking away from that book, and what is still with me now is, don’t sit with your back to the door in a restaurant. To this day I’m very uncomfortable with that. Cute, if somewhat paranoid, but not really a foundational lesson for an organizer and revolutionary.

I used to think, though, that the Autobiography had had a revolutionary affect on me even if I couldn’t exactly explain how. After reading Manning Marable’s book on Malcolm, I can see, through his critique of the Haley book, that perhaps the impacts on me were not all that revolutionary. Perhaps they also lent themselves to some of my flirtations with liberalism.

Anyhow, that’s enough of a preface for what follows, which is just a few thoughts pulled together after recently completing the book, and by no means a thorough book review. I’m bullet pointing my thoughts for clarity.

-Cult of Personality

I think that the Manning Marable book is an important intervention into the cult of personality that surrounds Malcolm. There is the lovey-dovey multicultural cooptation of Malcolm, in the vein of Alex Haley, which would have us believe he had accepted Gandhian non-violence at the end of his life and the middle class Muslim narrative that divorces him from Black America. On the other hand, there is the Black Nationalist narrative that sometimes ignores Malcolm’s (changing) Islam, and would turn him into a prophet by refusing to engage critically with his life. (This is evidenced by a recent speaking tour on which Malcolm’s grandson was referred to as Malcolm’s “first direct male heir.” Creepy.)

Manning Marable blows all of this apart. We see a Malcolm in process, a man who is constantly changing, sometimes vacillating, often questioning. Marable’s Malcolm is not a monolithic figure. He is allowed to be a human, with his flaws and mistakes and misjudgments laid bare. I can identify with him. I can imagine these things happening to me in my life, perhaps I can even think of certain moments where they have already happened, and I can see myself as unfolding, constantly reaching potential, and always in process, just like Malcolm. He is no longer a prophet. He is a true brother to us all.

This is unlike many political biographies, Tony Cliff’s biographies of Lenin, for example. These kinds of biographies give us a twisted sense of what it means to be a revolutionary. Marable doesn’t fall into that trap of glorification.

Perhaps if the historical figure in question were not Malcolm, then diving into the depths of his sexual relationships and alleged infidelities could be considered going too far. But I think it is necessary, especially given that the most controversial elements of his book had to do with gender, sexuality and womens’ place in the movement and community, which leads me to my next point.

-Gender and Sexuality

One of the things I appreciate most about this book is that Marable Manning looks at Malcolm’s attitudes to women through the lens of his previous experiences with women. But he does not attempt to make excuses for Malcolm. When talking about Malcolm’s early years in the Nation, Marable admits that Malcolm was probably more outwardly misogynistic than most of the other ministers.

Before I jump into the ins and outs of this dynamic, I’ll step back and talk about my own experiences with Black Power and Women’s Liberation. Before really being introduced to revolutionary politics, I did demonstrate some good instincts, I think, by turning to whatever Black Power texts I had on my shelf as a way to become grounded in a political tradition that might offer some answers. Regretfully, I deprioritized the Angela Davis books I had in order to read 1) George Jackson’s Prison Letters 2) Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver and 3) Fanon’s chapters in Black Skins, White Masks on relationships between black men and white women and relationships between black women and white men. I wont go into detail, but suffice to say that I was freaked out by the reactionary gender politics present in each text. And I had no way of making sense of why I shouldn’t reject the whole Black Power thing flat out. Later, I was told that we have to pick and choose from every movement, that we should emphasize 3rd World Feminism and its responses to the problems of patriarchy in poc movements, and I figured that hey, if any of the movements we can learn from had been perfect, I wouldn’t be doing this cause they would have achieved revolution already. And so I committed myself to a project of synthesis among the many realms of political though and action that have influenced me and others. (Just to point out that I was not just a feminist with an axe to grind, I was also concerned that Marx was a racist and was debating whether to throw him out of the window at this time, too.)

But I know that I am not the only one with this problem. A constant conversation among the organizers that I know is around the piss poor legacy of the Left and the Black, Brown and Red Power movements on questions of gender and sexuality. We are battling this legacy in our own organizations and communities today. And it’s a question that has to be answered very, very soon.

So Marable explains how Malcolm’s early relationships led him to mistrust all women, and to distance himself from women. First prison, and then the Nation of Islam, really provided him with perfect opportunities to maintain that distance. He was able to write off all women as gossipy and not concerned with important religious and political matters, and that is how he treated them for a very long time. It is illuminating to me how Marable reveals that Malcolm was engaged to two other Muslim women, and broke off the engagements, before he proposed to Betty. He was this erratic because his primary purpose in wanting to be married was organizational, not personal or romantic. He may have needed to make that clearer to his intended wife, though. I am guessing that one of the things that many Black Nationalists object to in this book is Marable’s revelation that Malcolm was unable to please Betty sexually (as well as emotionally) thereby causing aspersions on his masculinity, which spread through the community. I am sure this hardened him to male-female relationships even further.

Marable does go into trying to explain why women would accept the limitations and restrictions placed on them by the Nation in the first place. They were at least afforded a promise of respect and some kind of safety within the Nation (although when we get to the fact that Elijah Muhammed was preying on his young female secretaries, impregnating them, and then treating them like shit, this promise has its obvious holes.)

Later in life, though, we see that Malcolm changes his practices, if not his core beliefs. After he leaves the Nation, he starts two organizations: One is the MMI, a new ortho Muslim group, and the other is the OAAU, a Black political organization. The old Malcolm’s way of doing things still fly in the MMI- women have very little organizational power and actually the whole organization is run top-down, just like the Nation. The OAAU, on the other hand, has several powerful young Black women at its center, all of whom Malcolm recruits to the project. Some of the Muslim brothers object to this, but the objections never even reach Malcolm because his right hand man, James 67X, knows it useless. The OAAU is also not run top-down.

Does this reflect pragmatism on Malcolm’s part, and the knowledge that Muslims will accept segregation and submit to hierarchy, when non-Muslims will not? Or does it reflect Malcolm’s changing consciousness on gender, though with its contradictions? It is hard for me to tell. To be the latter, it seems that Malcolm needed to have certain experiences which would illuminate to him the role women can and had been playing in the Black Liberation movement, before he would suddenly break with his conservative ideas about women. It is not clear from Manning Marable’s book that Malcolm had any such experiences. But was it sheer strategy that caused him to recruit a women to first help him build this project, who in turn became a core member and key to much of the organization’s potential? That seems unlikely, too.

Also, though I don’t read a lot of political content into Marable’s assertions that Malcolm was involved in a homoerotic relationship with an older white man before he went to prison, I LOVE that he went there, because its driving the homophobes CRAZY.

-Organizational Lessons

My final point is something that emerges from the final year of Malcolm’s life, and that was his organizational and organizing talents and shortcomings. Unfortunately, after reading Marable’s books I am not totally clear on his talents other than his great oration skills, his persistence and his ability to relate to the Black underclasses in a way that even MLK could not do. I do plan on reading William Sales’ From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity later on this year, mostly because I hear that it takes on the question of Malcolm the organizational leader and organizer. Hopefully that will shed light on some of the questions I have.

Malcolm makes some key organizational mistakes that I have seen people make. Marable shows how Malcolm is changing rapidly due to his realization that Elijah Muhammed is not all he thought he was, the Nation’s rejection of him, and his trips to the Middle East and Africa. However, he’s not able to bring all his supporters along with him on these leaps. He flirting with a class-based understanding of race and working with some Trots, at times he questioned his previous advocacy of violence, and he chalked up the debate between integration and separation as simply two means to the same end, when years previously he would have fought an integrationist to the verbal death. However, he had no organizational or informal way to bring all of his supporters, Muslim or not, along with him on these leaps. To his death, those closest to him were unclear on what he thought. Its allowed for the wide range of interpretations of his politics and life that we have today.

This can be attributed in part to the fact that he was not in the end, a theorist, even though I would say he was an intellectual. He did not have things worked out perfectly, probably to the degree that the movement itself did not have these issues worked out in practice. He didn’t write much beyond his speeches. And he was changing all the time in that last year of his too short life.

But it can also be attributed to the fact that he relied on a top-down organizational structure, that he had no formal way of trying to make these leaps with other people, that he did not treat most of the other people around him as political equals but rather as students, and those that were treated as his equals were sent out to complete complicated organizational tasks, like building the MMI and the OAAU, without much input from him. He acted as a lone ranger of sorts, when organization building requires cooperation, trust, and humility.

He also started these organizations, and then expected other people to form them while he spent most of his last year abroad, trying to build relationships in the international arena. He must have thought this was more important than being present to build these organizations himself, though Marable argues that he was also probably aware that he was lengthening his life by staying abroad. Now, starting an organization and then peacing out leaving other people to do all the work sucks in and of itself, but people in these groups remember how it was his personality that drew them to these projects, and without him there, they were directionless.

After all is said and done, though, despite his flaws and mistakes and even unjustifiable actions/attitudes, I love Malcolm and respect him more than ever. My eyes teared up when I saw the picture of Malcolm’s body lying in wake. And I am aware, now more than ever, what is to be learned from his short life.


  1. Here’s a series of 5 short videos that Marable did with truth2power films, basically summarizing his narrative of Malcolm’s life. I found them really enjoyable. Consider them the Cliff Notes to the 600 page book.

  2. When I read the book, I didn’t like it (see, angry review on my blog). I still stand behind my review, insofar as the reason I was disappointed was because I was expecting something of an engagement with the development of Malcolm’s social and political thought (it was advertised as a political biography), but this aspect was the most superficial aspect of the book.

    The other aspect of the book that I didn’t like is that it throws down these facts, like the ones you mention, but then doesn’t weave them into a narrative for what they might have meant for Malcolm’s personal, psychological and ultimately political development. In that sense, it would be better if Marable had just given us a bunch of references to go see for ourselves, rather than try to write the book in a narrative form. It reads like a series of gossipy vignettes.

    But upon reading your review, it’s given me cause to pause and step back. Admittedly, the Angela Davis on my bookshelf is still unread (though, in my defence, not the bell hooks and Audre Lorde). That Marable didn’t provide this overview, or that he turned Malcolm into a budding social democrat in his epilogue, is certainly a problem. But the text can be used differently, as you so pointedly do, to develop an understanding of what Malcolm’s life experiences mean for politicals and organizing, and for the so-called personal aspects of these.


  3. Wow, thanks so much for fleshing these points out and condensing them so well. i’ve started listening to the book on audio, and these bullet points will help guide me thru.

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s