Rethinking Malcolm means first learning how to think: what was Marable thinking? And how?

Author:Alkalimat, Abdul
Position:Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention - Book review

The new book by Manning Marable, "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention," will help us to get a deeper understanding of Malcolm X and the times we're living in now. This will not be a direct result of what Marable has done, but rather of what needs to happen now because of what he has done.

We can advance our thinking through deep and thorough criticism of this book. We are facing a challenge to our perspective, philosophy and politics for Black liberation. We respect Manning Marable and ourselves by taking him seriously and raising our critique to the highest level. Many will oppose and even resent this review, but I write for the brothers and sisters who will dare to struggle to take the hardcore stance we need for victory.

First came the book, days after Marable's death, then an avalanche of praise and polemic vaulting Marable into the esteemed ranks of ruling class darling public intellectuals. I collected and sent, to the H-Afro-Am list, nearly 100 reviews and commentaries on this Marable book. They range from "magnificent," "magisterial" and "a magnum opus of a life's work based on 20 years of research," to "sloppy," "unprofessional" and "speculative based on logical fallacy." Why such extremely opposite views of this book?

Of course we have been here before with books trying to redefine major historical figures under the pretext of making them more human. This is usually done with innuendo, hearsay and gossip supported by state surveillance reports, all amounting to nothing that can be supported with responsibly sourced data or withstand academic peer review.

The main trend uniting these books is their focus on redirecting the force of revolutionary nationalism towards social democracy reform of a kind that finds its home in the capitalist Democratic Party or towards the figure's personal or sexual identity, being as influential as political identity. Such work has been written about, among others, Nat Turner (Styron 1976), Paul Robeson (Duberman 1989), Martin Luther King (Garrow 1987, Dyson 2000) and Malcolm X (Perry 1991, Lee 1992). As a generational deviation, this trend is exposed in the 2008 book, "Betrayal," by Houston Baker. Marable's book somewhat differs from this trend but nevertheless fits the genre.

It is necessary to critique this book for at least three reasons. First: Marable speaks from within the movement with the legitimacy of being a Black studies professor at an ivy-league school. This reverses the "street cred" marshaled by Spike Lee for his 1992 film, "Malcolm X." Many have learned from Marable and, given his recent death, are not open to deep and revealing criticism. But this does not serve our movement. Silence never trumps critique. As on Malcolm, so on Marable, on Malcolm.

Second: The rulers are making the Marable argument their own, as are the reigning Black public intellectuals, namely Henry Louis Gates, Mike Dyson, Cornel West, Peniel Joseph, Nell Painter etc. It is unprecedented for a book on a leading revolutionary nationalist to be positively reviewed in the main English language capitalist media, i.e., the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Guardian (UK), Financial Times (UK) and so on. Reviews are in all the major European languages as well. They hyped the book into the New York Times hardback non-fiction bestseller list for five weeks: April 24 at number three on the list, May 1 at six, May 8 at 13, May 15 at 16 and May 22 at 34.

But third and most important of all is the fact that the issues arising from the book are fundamental and may influence both what and how we think. This is my main concern. Elijah Muhammad wrote several books on "How to Eat to Live." Now we need to focus on how to think to live! And by live, I mean to affirm our radical Black tradition, to critique and resist all forms of oppression and exploitation and to chart a path of social justice toward social transformation.

We need to consider perspective, philosophy and politics in critiquing "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention." Our concern is to probe past the specific inaccuracies, innuendos and judgmental conclusions to get at the basics of how to think to live.


First, the question of perspective: Whose eyes do we use to see? Whom do we intend to hear us? One of the great paradigm shifts of Black studies is to reclaim and reorient the relationship between Black intellectuals and their community. We began to speak to and with each other without necessarily seeking the approval of white authority. We sought peer review from each other and the brothers and sisters off campus. We wanted to understand each other, map our agreements and disagreements, find the intertextuality of our traditions--meaning Black liberation theology, womanism, nationalism, pan-Africanism and socialism--and base our understandings on the dogmas and debates within these traditions.

Marable, at page 492 of "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention," says this of his collaboration with his Viking editor: "Kevin and I communicated almost daily, discussing various versions of chapters, in the effort to build a narrative to reach the broadest possible audience."

This explains why he regards the Organization of African American Unity (OAAU) as "controversial," page 2, and not merely what it was: An attempt to bring the united front strategy of the Organization of African Unity to the Black liberation movement. Who considered it controversial? He refers to alleged "anti-semitic slurs," page 246, without putting this in the context of a necessary struggle against Zionism and the relative power of Blacks and Jews in New York City.

He regards the surveillance of the state as legitimate rather than as flawed in its spreading of disinformation to discredit and disorient. No serious Black liberation perspective would allow this.

On the one hand, Marable contributes interesting summations of Harlem, page 51-64, and Islam, page 79-86, but he is noteworthy for not engaging any of the major writers who have done serious research which has resulted in viewpoints different from his own. A good example of this is Bill Sales' work on the OAAU, listed in the bibliography but not engaged in the text.

Nor does Marable engage the primary references used by Sales, notably the main state surveillance of the OAAU. And the same goes for James Cone and his definitive comparison of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Both Sales and Cone were members of the Malcolm X Work Group, a collective of intellectual activists working collaboratively on research about Malcolm X and holding important symposia in 1987, 1988 and 1989.

Perhaps the most cold-blooded negation is his statement that Malcolm has to be resurrected for Black people where, most certainly, he should have said white people. Black people have never forgotten Malcolm X and certainly the state and white intellectuals haven't either. He was more of an icon in the Black radical tradition than even Martin Luther King Jr. The primary reference for this can be found in the website, where there are lists of schools, parks, cultural events, academic lectures and many other things named after Malcolm in communities all over the world. Included are the proceedings of the historic international conference on Malcolm X, "Radical Tradition and Legacy of Struggle," 1990.

Perhaps the most egregious omission in this regard is the failure to mention Preston Wilcox. Not only had Preston been a professor at Columbia University, but he was the founder of the Malcolm X Lovers Network. As a community-based archivist, for decades he sent out mailings of the news clippings and ephemera he collected at the community level, flyers of events, petitions, documentation of naming ceremonies, debates, lectures, conferences etc. He was a long time resident of Harlem and left his papers to the Schomberg Center. To ignore Preston Wilcox is to show no respect for the Black community or its community-based intellectuals who...

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