the day of Manning Marable’s death, April 1, 2011, I received
an additional piece of disturbing information. A friend
of mine informed me of a discussion he had just had with
a Black activist-writer who, in hearing about Marable’s
passing, went into what could only be described as a rant
against Marable. Marable’s body was hardly cold, and this
individual, who knew Marable, was castigating him to my
friend, claiming that Marable was everything but a child
of God. It was at that moment that I knew that Marable’s
X: A Life of Reinvention(hereafter
referred to as MX) would ignite a firestorm in
some quarters of the Black Freedom Movement. Within days,
despite the overwhelmingly positive response to the book,
this firestorm emerged.
In approaching the controversies that surround MX
it is important to ask two questions prior to responding
directly to critics: (1)what did Manning set out to do?
(2)did he succeed? We will take these one at a time before
commenting on some of the issues raised by various critics
and what lies beneath them.
did Manning set out to do?
MX is a blockbuster of enormous proportions.
The mere act of writing a 500+ page biography is a significant
achievement on any scale. Yet Marable was not attempting
to write the definitive biography when he first started
out on this journey. As he himself noted, his first objective
was to write what he called a “political biography” of Malcolm
X. Over time the objectives shifted somewhat and became
a bit more complex.
Much has been made of the biography “humanizing” Malcolm,
a term which I have myself used. Yet that is not the starting
point for understanding the objectives. A better starting
point is perhaps derived from Marable’s own statements on
the matter, the gist of which begins with the fact that
Malcolm X had been—and remained—a hero for Marable, who,
in his opinion, had been the most significant Black activist
figure of the mid-to-late 20th century. It was Marable’s committed belief in Malcolm X’s significance
that moved him to dedicate the last decade of his life to
chronicling Malcolm’s life and legacy through the Malcolm
X Project at Columbia University. And it is this same commitment
to Malcolm X’s and his family’s legacy that caused Marable
to utilize his institutional influence and resources to
push Columbia University to make good on its promise to
open the site of the former Audubon Ballroom as the Malcolm
X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial Center. MX
is the product of a historian who cared deeply for his subject,
who felt that his subject was deserving of a comprehensive
examination of his life. Marable took this task seriously,
grappling with aspects of Malcolm’s life that he knew would
challenge our iconic view of Malcolm but also do it in a
way that would deepen our appreciation of his heroicism
as human being to other human beings. Yet in trying to understand Malcolm’s
trajectory, not just when he left the Nation of Islam, but
much earlier, there were curious features in the Autobiography
of Malcolm X that were difficult to either understand
From my own discussions with Marable, as well as what is
contained in MX, I know that Marable had been
perplexed for years regarding what was missing from the
Autobiography. Most people that I know who
have read the Autobiography found the ending
somewhat odd, i.e., that there is little discussion of Black
freedom strategy and then, suddenly, we are into Alex Haley’s
final words! Like many other things in life, the tendency
was just to chalk this up to circumstances, in this case,
that the book was completed after Malcolm’s assassination
and that not everything could be wrapped together.
This explanation did not satisfy Marable. His conclusion,
as he notes in the book and in numerous interviews he conducted
prior to his death, was that Haley edited the book in such
a way as to make it more acceptable for the audience that
Haley wanted to reach (mainstream white America). Accordingly,
sections of the Autobiography, such as that
which covered Malcolm’s proposed Black united front, were
eliminated entirely. Haley, a Black Republican, had no
interest in a Black Nationalist or Pan Africanist vision.
This mere fact makes highly ironic some of the criticisms
raised of Marable in connection with the book, specifically,
that he was attempting to make Malcolm more acceptable to
a liberal audience. The facts, simply put, demonstrate
that such a conclusion is ridiculous. Why it is being offered,
however, is something that will be discussed later.
The Autobiography contained some other issues
for Marable, however. In the process of conducting his
research he came across contradictions, or at least problems,
that led him to understand that the Autobiography
was a political testimony by Malcolm that, like most autobiographies,
had specific contextual objectives. As such, Malcolm tended
to exaggerate certain things, and in other cases, ignore
significant facts altogether. This is not uncommon and
not something for which Malcolm should be chastised. But
it is the job of the historian and biographer to search
beneath that which is acknowledged to ascertain accuracies,
patterns, as well as other potential ‘story lines,’ for
lack of a better term.
It is in this context that one can better understand the
notion of “humanizing’ Malcolm X. From the moment that
Malcolm was killed there were efforts by the State and the
Nation of Islam to demonize him. On the other hand, there
was a largely grassroots move among many black nationalists,
Pan Africanists and socialists, to uphold his memory and
work. Within this last category there were those who tended
toward canonizing Malcolm X, irrespective of any qualifiers
issued at the time or since.
Malcolm became larger than life, and for an activist, black
radical historian like Marable, this produced complications
particularly when the complexities of Malcolm’s experiences
were not properly understood. Yes, Malcolm was a hero,
but what was going on with him as a person? What were the
questions that he had? Did he ever stumble? Was there
a straight trajectory in his evolution? What constituted
the nature of his politics, including as they and he evolved?
An additional objective for Marable was to explain Malcolm’s
evolution, particularly what took place while he was in
the Nation of Islam as well as what took place in the aftermath
of his leaving. Again, for many revolutionary black nationalists
and other radical forces, at least at the time, there was
this sense of a dramatic break in 1964 followed by a straight
radical line. This notion dissatisfied Marable and he went
to work to research what took place, particularly when Malcolm
was in the Nation of Islam.
There is another part to his objective, however. What was
going on in the period of the building of, first, the Muslim
Mosque, Inc., and later the Organization of Afro-American
Unity? What strategies were being unfolded? How was leadership
being addressed? How was the role of women changing over
time in these formations?
In MX Marable also set out to show that Malcolm
was not another version of Martin Luther King. Again, Haley
implied, and many others have tried to suggest more explicitly,
that Malcolm and Martin Luther King were somehow converging.
As Marable demonstrates, and clarifies quite explicitly
in the final chapter, that was not the case at all. While
there were points of agreement and while the record is clear
that Malcolm envisioned the possibility of a united front
with King, Malcolm represented a different political tendency.
He was a revolutionary nationalist and Pan Africanist, but
he was also someone who entertained the use of electoral
politics for more than symbolic value. His post-NOI politics,
in other words, were in flux, but in either case they were
But here is where things get complicated: Marable sought
to establish to what extent Malcolm’s politics were in line
with those of people who claimed to follow him. This became
an additional source of controversy.
Finally, Marable sought to determine who killed Malcolm
X. This was certainly not an initial objective of his when
he chose to write this book but as he became more absorbed
in the story he was drawn to examine the facts and myths
surrounding the murder. As with other portions of the book,
Marable drew from original sources, secondary sources, witnesses,
etc. His conclusions were, to some extent consistent with
some earlier analyses, but startling in others, particularly
in his examination of the dynamics within the MMI and OAAU
that very likely contributed to the success of the assassination.
Marable succeed in his objectives?
This is what makes the controversy surrounding the book
both fascinating and, often, distasteful at the same time.
Through in depth research, Marable does succeed in his objectives.
He uncovered the ‘hidden’ chapters of the Autobiography
and demonstrates to the reader their importance in understanding
Malcolm’s evolution. He provides the reader with a detailed
understanding, not only of the Nation of Islam, but of other
Muslim currents in the USA that influenced Black America
generally, but also the NOI. He shows the struggles within
the NOI that helped to shape Malcolm, but also helps the
reader understand the frustrations that Malcolm increasingly
felt within the NOI. Finally, Manning offered the social
and historical context for understanding Malcolm, both within
his time, but also in subsequent decades.
There are two, specific features of MX I wish
to focus upon, however. One has to do with gender and the
second concerns the assassination. But prior to that a
word on methodology.
Shortly after the publication of MX I had
the opportunity to speak with a Black journalist about the
book. He indicated that he did not care for the book.
When I probed, it turned out that his major concern was
that he did not believe that Marable should have offered
any tentative conclusions about matters where he failed
to have complete facts. One example of this was the matter
of the same-sex encounter for pay in the Malcolm Little
period and a second example was the possible affairs that
Betty Shabazz may have had.
I was a bit stunned in hearing these concerns only later
to recognize that this journalist was approaching this book
as if it had been an article for a mainstream newspaper.
In an article for a newspaper there is a certain approach
that the writer must take. That is never the case
with a historian or biographer, and as such there is a standard
that Marable is being held to that is both unfair and disingenuous.
A historian (and biographer) looks at all of the available
evidence and draws a conclusion. By analogy it is along
the lines of a civil trial vs. a criminal trial. In a civil
trial the jury looks at the preponderance of the evidence
in order to draw a conclusion. In a criminal action the
jury, as we know, can only convict if there is NO shadow
of a doubt.
Historians look at the evidence and draw conclusions. This
is why history is never an exact science. While we can
generally confirm specific facts, e.g., Napoleon was defeated
at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the reasons for an action,
event, etc., are always the subject of analysis and debate.
New theories emerge to explain different developments.
This is also the case when one is developing a biography.
Further, a genuine scholar, of Marable’s caliber, in writing
a biography cannot simply refuse to acknowledge important
claims or uncomfortable facts. Such matters must be addressed,
in which case the biographer can certainly take a pass if
they have not arrived at any conclusion; they can challenge
them; or they can affirm the earlier conclusions.
For a variety of reasons which we shall touch upon below,
there are many critics who challenge this approach. They
may mechanically look at this matter from the standpoint
of journalistic standards or they may have other motives
that hide behind a challenge to the methodology.
With regard to gender, Marable dared to touch on a piece
of Malcolm that has largely been ignored by biographers,
both friend and foe. The matter of a same-sex encounter
for pay, though related to gender obviously, was useful
more in understanding the criminal, parasitic life that
Malcolm Little lived prior to prison. What was, however,
more useful in terms of gender, was to understand Malcolm’s
misogynism. Marable raised some uncomfortable questions
on this score, including the manner in which Malcolm discussed
his mother and her eventual collapse, but also the conclusions
that Malcolm drew when his female collaborators in crime
turned against him in order to save themselves. There is
a pattern that Marable identifies that lasts into the post-NOI
period when it came to women. Once Malcolm broke with the
NOI his views began to shift on matters of gender, and actually
shift in such a way so as to unsettle some of his key male
supporters in the MMI.
One can go deeper, however. Malcolm’s relationship with
Betty Shabazz was more complicated than either the Autobiography
or many of Malcolm’s uncritical supporters would make it
out to be. Betty was a strong woman in her own right who
sought security and sexual satisfaction, to name just two
items, in her marriage to Malcolm. She also strongly supported
him, often raising cautionary notes that were prescient.
However, she did not have identical politics to Malcolm
and certainly did not evolve further down the path of revolutionary
nationalism and Pan Africanism. In other words, the relationship
was complicated, and in order to address some of the challenges
contained in this relationship Malcolm sought help from
Elijah Muhammad, only to have that request for help turned
into an instrument against him in the factional wars in
The entire matter of gender has caused its own uproar and
in so doing has betrayed an uncomfortable vein within Black
America that has hemorrhaged in the past and could very
well again. One need only remember the controversy surrounding
the Clarence Thomas hearings and the allegations by Anita
Hill to recognize the volatility of the issue.
A second matter of focus was the assassination. As noted
earlier, Marable did not set out to uncover the full scope
of the plot, but here he touched upon one matter that had
received very little earlier attention: the tension within
and among his supporters in the post-NOI period. First
things first, however. Marable’s research has already provided
the impetus for a discussion regarding the need for a new
examination of the circumstances surrounding the assassination.
This includes the role of the police, FBI, as well as some
elements of the NOI. The facts, as presented by Marable,
and in some cases by earlier scholars and investigators,
raise such serious questions regarding who was actually
involved in the assassination that silence on this matter
is simply unforgivable.
There are many points of controversy surrounding the assassination,
but what is especially worth noting is that Marable’s investigation
identified three forces that had an interest in Malcolm’s
death: the State; the NOI; and some of Malcolm’s own supporters.
This is not the first time that history has demonstrated
that an assassination or otherwise criminal action had multiple
players, each with its own interest in the success of the
operation even if they may not have been actively collaborating
or have consciously conspired. In this case, the curious
actions of the police on the day of the murder; the faulty
security (by Malcolm’s own people); and the identification
of the assailants, points to multiple perpetrators, each
with their own set of objectives. The problem of Malcolm’s
followers seems to have been a matter—never publicly discussed—revolving
around some of them feeling betrayed by Malcolm’s own evolution,
an evolution which was moving at the speed of light compared
with their own changes.
critics and their discontent
When one listens to the critics of MX it is
often difficult to ask anything other than, what is reallygoing on here?
In order to understand what is going on, one must identify
multiple sources, much of which has almost nothing to do
with the book itself. These include: the creation of Malcolm-as-icon;
homophobia; personal jealousy targeted at Marable; New York
chauvinism targeted at Marable; and on-going differences
regarding strategy within the Black Freedom Movement. As
the reader will notice, however, the debate has little to
do with the facts as articulated in the book, despite the
words of some of the critics. None of the challenges regarding
alleged errors in fact that have been raised, irrespective
of their relative validity, calls into question anything
of significance in the book. In fact, a surprising number
of the challenges to the book appear to have come from people
who, at least at the time of their criticism, had
not even read the book or just read selective passages.
I have personally found myself in situations where individuals,
in discussing the book, begin by saying something like:
“I have not read the book but…” or “I have not finished
reading the book but…” and then gone on to offer impassioned
analyses with very little foundation. The fact that individuals
believe that they do not have to do a real reading is a
matter that could be the subject of an entirely separate
Unfortunately, for too many followers of Malcolm—myself
included—the Autobiography has been treated
as the word of God. Rather than appreciating the politics
that accompany all autobiographies, many of us have treated
this book, along with Malcolm’s speeches, as the final or
near final word on Malcolm-the-person. The story is a magnificent
story of redemption, but also of pride and revolutionary
courage. Yet in our search for heroes, we often seek demigods.
We seek a type of perfection that does not exist within
humanity and wish to believe that the only way that a hero
can be a hero (or heroine) is if they have reached that
dimensional plateau of perfection. As one critic of Marable
stated, quite unapologetically: the people need icons.
It is true that the people need heroes and heroines, particularly
as a means of fighting despair. It is often the case that
we shape or reshape those heroes or heroines in order to
accomplish other political purposes. The State certainly
understands that. As Lenin so aptly noted, upon the death
of a people’s hero, the capitalist State moves to alter
society’s understanding of said hero in order that the dead
hero can become acceptable and advance the interests of
The people can also reshape a hero in order to uphold the
cause(s) advanced by the hero during their life. Malcolm’s
immense courage and defiance are legendary, but is that
courage and defiance called into question if we find out
that Malcolm vacillated about actually splitting with the
NOI? Is it called into question if we know that he expressed
misgivings? Is his manhood—however we happen to interpret
that—challenged when we learn that there was a sexual/emotional
disconnect between Betty and him?
When we demand that our heroes and heroines be perfect,
then each human challenge, such as those noted earlier,
calls into question whether our hero can be our hero. This
is what lies beneath many of the criticisms of MX
and of Marable.
When we turn heroes and heroines into demigods there is
an additional problem that arises: we make it less possible,
and in some cases even impossible, to emulate said hero.
As political activists we should be utilizing the memory
and practice of heroes, whether Martin Luther King, Fannie
Lou Hamer, or Malcolm not simply to inspire but as sources
of wisdom. We should be learning from their practices,
including how they confronted their challenges, and shaped
who they were and who they became. We should be learning
how to take from those experiences and apply to our own.
To borrow from the late, great leader of the revolution
in Guinea-Bissau/Cape Verde, Amilcar Cabral, we on the Left
must “tell no lies and claim no easy victories…”
including about our own great leaders. But once these individuals
rise to the status of demigods that all becomes impossible.
After all, how can we mere humans emulate Hercules?
While the fury over the challenge to Malcolm-as-demigod
has been at the core of much of the uproar, some of the
initial outrage resulted from the discussion of the possibility
that Malcolm engaged in a same-sex encounter for pay prior
to his going to prison. There are some interesting features
to this outrage. This is not the first time that this matter
has been raised. In fact, several authors have posed this
issue. As such, it would have been highly questionable
for Marable to have ignored the matter as if it were some
imaginary issue. It isimportant to note that in Marable’s treatment of this aspect of Malcolm’s
life, he used both primary sources (prison letters Malcolm
wrote) as well as three secondary sources (including memoirs
from Malcolm's nephew Rodnell Collins and his partner in
crime Malcolm "Shorty" Jarvis) to corroborate
Methodology, however, is not the main issue here. What
infuriates some critics is that the possibility of Malcolm
engaging in a same-sex encounter raises questions as to
his manhood. This assumption is based on the erroneous
notion that one’s sexuality is a fixed and determined category
and that the positive aspects of Malcolm-the-revolutionary
leader are somehow invalidated by what at one moment
may have been sexual ambivalence.
The outrage expressed by some people at this ‘revelation’
is certainly tinged with homophobia, although I am not assuming
that all of those who have reacted negatively to this segment
of the book are automatically homophobic. Nevertheless,
both the outrage and any homophobia associated with it does
not withstand scrutiny when challenged, as it has been by
Michael Eric Dyson, who has pointed out that the Malcolm
who may have engaged in a same-sex encounter for pay was
the Malcolm Little of the thug period. In that period he
engaged in pimping, gambling and armed robbery. For many
critics it appears to be completely acceptable that he engaged
in these assorted activities but somehow same-sex encounters
for pay are over the top.
What is shocking about this debate is how few pages it covers
in the actual book (no more than two) and that Marable was
very careful in his conclusions. As with any historian,
he draws certain conclusions from the evidence he had but
then goes on to make an interesting point: there were no
subsequent examples or claims of either same-sex encounters
for pay or homosexual activity period. While this should
have calmed down the critics, the mere suggestion of such
activity was enough to unsettle them.
Another feature of the criticism of MX is
the allegation that it represents an attempt to portray
Malcolm as having the same politics as Marable; liberalize
Malcolm so that he is more acceptable to a mainstream audience;
or turn Malcolm into some sort of social democrat. There
is no foundation for these arguments. The closest thing
to a legitimate issue was Marable’s poor choice of words
to describe Malcolm’s evolution toward Pan Africanism (see
The final chapter of the book refutes the critics—hands
down—on this matter of an attempt to liberalize Malcolm,
etc. One need only review that chapter and consider the
points that Marable raised. Not in order of importance,
1.Malcolm was not converging with King. [We discussed this point earlier.]
2.Malcolm saw the need for a complete restructuring of the USA in order for Black
liberation to ever be achieved.
3.Malcolm would most likely have not been enthralled with affirmative action because
he would have been looking for more structural solutions
to our situation.
4.Malcolm would have engaged in a certain form of electoral politics.
5.Malcolm was trying to define his politics at the global level and situate the
African American struggle within the global struggle against
imperialism and racism.
There is nothing in this that sounds like liberalism or
social democracy. Instead it more closely conforms to variants
of anti-imperialist politics, in particular a form of anti-imperialist
politics that was prevalent in the global South at that
Some critics, however, have raised Marable’s use of the
term “race neutral” in talking about the form of Pan Africanism
and Third World solidarity Malcolm was advancing in order
to allege that Marable was trying to water down Malcolm.
Having known Marable for more than 25 years I would attribute
this to either a poor choice of words or a mistaken editing
decision. Let’s explore, however, what Marable was attempting
There was a moment that Malcolm himself described
when, during one of his trips, he encountered a North African
revolutionary. The North African revolutionary questioned
Malcolm about his use of the term “black nationalism.”
This North African revolutionary, being AFRICAN, was apparently
also quite light-skinned and asked Malcolm where that put
him in the context of “black nationalism”. Malcolm did
not have a clear answer for this but, towards the end of
his life appeared to have been grappling with this issue
and what it meant for how he was to conceptualize and describe
Marable used the term “race neutral” to describe a set of
anti-racist politics that were Pan African and Third Worldist,
not in the sense that liberals or the right use the term
‘race neutral.’ It would have been more akin to what the
South African movement has called “non-racial” or “anti-racist.”
He was trying to describe this as something that was not
about black as skin color but more akin to the manner in
which “black”, terminologically, came to be used in places
such as Britain, South Africa and the Caribbean in the late
1960s and 1970s, i.e., as a political characterization (thus,
South Asians often identified as “black” in each of those
settings and did not reserve this designation to only those
of direct African descent).
What makes the criticism of Marable so patently disingenuous
is that one need only consider the body of Marable’s
works to know that his usage of the tern “race neutral”
was far from an example of liberalism, or other such disorders.
This all leads to a final point, i.e., that many of the
criticism of MX have little to nothing to
do with the book itself; they have to do with Manning.
So, it is time to explore some of these in order to understand
additional aspects of the temper associated with many of
I began this essay with a story concerning the response
by one person of note to Manning’s death. This story was
in some ways a subplot in a larger story.
The larger story includes the matter of the legacy of Malcolm
X and who can lay claim to it. There is an assortment of
Black radicals, largely men, who believe that they carry
Malcolm’s torch. Whether due to conferences that they have
held or books that they have written, they believe that
only they are entitled to pontificate on the question of
Malcolm X. Marable’s book, and the largely positive response
that it received (not to mention the thoroughness of its
research) inflamed many of these individuals who seemed
to have concluded that they had been eclipsed. Rather than
welcoming Marable’s contribution, they chose instead to
smear it and him, as if that would somehow enhance their
Then there is the particular question of Manning Marable-the-person.
Marable was an incredibly smart, dynamic, and prolific African
American who gained significant attention. At a relatively
early age he positioned himself through reaching out to
the broader African American population via his columns.
What Manning understood, and something that he explained
to me a long time ago, was that Black newspapers are regularly
looking for good material. What he chose to do, which many
other Black radicals ignored, was reaching out to the Black
press and inserting a left/progressive point of view. That
meant winning over publishers, many of who were/are relatively
conservative and do not spontaneously gravitate to radical
Marable followed three courses. One was to make a name
for himself in the academy as an exceptional scholar. Second,
he recognized the importance of and worked at the building
a Left. He was never a Marxist-Leninist and, as such, was
not involved in the revolutionary party-building efforts
of the 1970s and 1980s. His politics were complicated,
even when he was in the Democratic Socialists of America.
In essence he was a Marxist looking to create a mass, left-wing
formation that was thoroughly anti-racist and anti-sexist.
He was concerned with and critical of vanguard-ism,
as he saw it, among so many radicals, not only in the USA
but overseas. In fact, his book about African and Caribbean
politics goes through an important analysis of the collapse
of the Grenadian Revolution, the sources of which involved
elements of what came to be known as the “crisis of socialism,”
including but not limited to vanguard-ism.
Marable was very influential in the early stages of the
Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism,
a formation that resulted from a split in the Communist
Party, USA. Although Marable had never been a member of
the Communist Party, he hoped that CCDS would become a mechanism
for a Left realignment and the building of a mass, radical,
This was also the same person who was at the core of initiating
the Black Radical Congress, an effort to create a front
or coalition of Black leftists ranging from left nationalists
to non-nationalist communists. If anything could be said
of Marable, it was that he approached this in a non-sectarian
manner, even where he had differences with individuals (and
groups) from other tendencies.
The final of the three courses was Marable’s commitment
to entering into mainstream discourses from the Left.
Contrary to many leftists who are content to speak to themselves
and their small groups, Marable sought to reach out to a
broader range of the general public, from liberals on to
The intensity of the attacks on Marable, and particularly
the personal nature of some of the attacks, actually represents
a continuation of a struggle that took place in the Black
Radical Congress between 1998-2001. The BRC was a broad
grouping of Black radicals that came together to engage
in joint campaigns. Formed in June 1998, the BRC had a
diverse leadership core that included Marable. Marable,
one of the co-founders of the BRC, became one of the three
co-chairs of the BRC. This leadership position meant that
he was one of the spokespersons for the BRC but also one
of its acknowledged leaders.
Within the BRC there were those who both disagreed with
Marable but also resented him. The resentment may seem
a bit strange to the reader, but that is why I began this
essay with the story of the reaction of one person to Manning’s
death. The resentment appeared to have been rooted in a
combination of factors that included the high visibility
that Marable had achieved by the 1990s; his appointment
to Columbia University and the fact that this raised his
profile in New York City (and for some New Yorkers this
is unpardonable if one is not from New York, a point I can
make as someone born and raised in New York); and, even
more ironically, that Manning refused to stay in the box
of being a traditional academic but instead insisted on
being directly involved with the construction of a movement.
In addition to resentment, there were strategic differences
within the BRC. These differences were quite natural for
an organization that had the ideological breath of the BRC.
The BRC was not a cadre organization and membership included
people with very divergent views. In and of itself, this
should not have been a problem. The problem, however, lay
in how differences were handled.
Manning came under assault for an orientation that was reflected
in his writing. He was intent on making the BRC a politically
relevant formation by which he and many others meant that
it would be a recognizable force in the Black Freedom Movement
and would represent a legitimate pole of Left opinion in
Black America and beyond. Such an approach necessitated
alliances with forces far broader than the traditional Left.
It included outreach to more liberal forces as well as other
social movements, including the NAACP and organized labor.
It also meant connecting with progressive Black Democratic
Manning’s view stood in contrast with an alternative approach,
or approaches. One alternative view was that which saw
the BRC as needing to be more purist in its left-wing politics.
For this segment, it was enough for the BRC to articulate
the ‘correct line’ but there was less interest in interacting
with forces outside of the BRC who were not on the Left.
Those articulating such a view did not come from one particular
group or represent one particular tendency. On both sides
of the divide there were nationalists, communists, socialists,
liberation theologians, feminists, etc. What split these
two tendencies revolved more around something that Rosa
Luxemburg called “revolutionary Realpolitik.” To what extent
should a formation like the BRC, or for that matter any
other mass Left-wing formation, attempt to be a real political
force with clear leftist politics vs. remaining a refuge
for the tried and true? To what extent would the BRC roll
up its sleeves and get a bit dirty interacting with those
with who it had political differences but might share some
agreement on a specific set of issues? Manning favored
taking the risk of such an engagement, and for that reason—often
combined with other sources (mentioned earlier)—he came
under attack. The attacks became so personal that Manning
ultimately decided that both due to his growing concerns
with his health (the sarcoidosis) and his determination
to write the Malcolm X biography, that it was no longer
worth it to subject himself to such a barrage.
MX attempts to speak to a broad audience.
It is not directed at the Black Left, though certainly many
members of the Black Left have been reading it. It seeks
an audience within Black America and beyond who are and
have been trying to understand this remarkable historical
figure, Malcolm X.
Yet there is another side to MX that relates
to the strategic differences that emerged in the BRC (noted
earlier). To some extent Marable was attempting to better
understand the strategic challenges that Malcolm confronted
in attempting to build a Black radical pole to lead the
Black Freedom Movement. The lost pages from the Autobiography,
Malcolm’s interest in electoral politics; and, Malcolm’s
embrace of Pan Africanism were not isolated ideas or notions,
but reflected an effort by Malcolm to fashion a strategic
vision and direction that would root the Black radical movement
he sought to build within the larger currents of Black America.
His announced intention, for instance, of supporting Civil
Rights workers in the South was a significant step taken
to build a bridge in the Black Freedom Movement. Rather
than castigating Black liberals and progressives who followed
Dr. King, by 1964 Malcolm saw a chance for his brand of
Black radicalism (with a nationalist bent, since it is important
to note that there was Black radicalism already within the
‘King’ camp of both similar and different bents) to directly
link with and influence other tendencies within Black America.
I believe that this is one thing that made Malcolm most
intriguing for Marable.
to use MX?
In the fall of 2010, as Manning was recovering from his
lung transplant, we spoke about his forthcoming book. I
suggested to him that the book could become an important
instrument for advancing a discussion about the state of
Black America, but more specifically, the future of Black
radical politics. In that light, I went on to suggest that
the book should not simply be promoted through personal
appearances by him, but that there should be activists and
scholars around the country who were enlisted in building
events and studies, using the book to move a discussion
that needs to happen. While Manning was intrigued with
this approach, for a variety of reasons he was unable to
do anything about it.
One of the best tributes to Manning, and for that matter
one of the best ways of honoring the memory of Malcolm X,
would be to use the book precisely for discussions about
the future of Black radicalism; its relationship to other
progressive movements in the USA; and the relationship of
Black American radicalism to the domestic and global movements
of the world’s ‘colored peoples.’ This certainly does not
mean that everyone has to agree with me that MX
is a fabulous book. What it does entail, however, is stepping
back from the innuendo, personal jealousies, and trivial
pursuits, and focusing instead on the issues that the book
raises. Here are a few issues that have preoccupied me
since reading the manuscript and then the final book:
1.What is the balance between charismatic leadership and democratic organization?
2.What do we mean by “Black political power” in the era of Obama, racial backsliding,
and right-wing populism?
3.What sort of alliances can be built both within Black America as well as within
the USA that advance the interests of the majority of African
4.What does 21st century Pan Africanism look like? What is its relevance
to the domestic Black Freedom struggle?
5.How should issues of gender be addressed in ways that are more than symbolic?
6.How do we understand the role of the State and what are the implications of
that analysis for public, political activity?
7.How does Black radicalism come to, once again, resonate within the Black working
Discussing issues, such as these (and this is not an exclusive
list), can advance our movement. MX can become
an instrument to help us further our journey. Twisting
words, ignoring the scope of Marable’s works, and settling
personal, private, and largely irrelevant accounts does
nothing more than demonstrate that some critics have allowed
themselves to ultimately become condemned to irrelevancy.