Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Marable vs Malcolm

Two Christmas’s ago I was given a copy of Marable’s Biography of Malcolm X by my aunt, who also had given me the autobiography several  years earlier. My first thought was that the gift might be a repetitive read, but I quickly found that Marable’s text is much more concerned about Malcolm’s life as it appeared through artifacts and to the outside eye, or as Marable seems to hold it as, the more historical version. He tries to shed light on the ‘real’ life of Malcolm and takes issue with the autobiography and more specifically Alex Haley’s misguided shaping of the autobiography. Now I should admit I did not read Marable’s text entirely (I wasn’t in high school anymore, not as much time for free-reads in college) but was eager to revisit portions of the biography and at least the intro and first chapter. Marable’s introduction is a quick build up, detailing the several weeks before Malcolm’s assassination, and the biography itself is a buildup to his eventual assassination, which in many ways added to the “legend” aspect of his life and served as the climax in his martyrdom.

When we meet Malcolm in the introduction he is about to deliver his final speech a the leader of the OOAU and is longer a member of the Nation of Islam, and has already “reinvented” himself as a proponent of “multicultural universalism rather than “militant black separatism.” The introduction is eerily vivid, and I would not be surprised  if the ominous foreshadowing and mentioning of the killers arriving  has even more of an effect on someone who has not seen Spike Lee’s depiction of Malcolm being gunned down. Although the majority of the biography focuses on the years 1962-1965 and the buildup to Malcolm’s assassination, Marable offers substantial insight into the early life of Malcolm. Marable seems to have done a great deal of research into the life of Malcolm’s father I had heard whispers of Malcolm’s father belonging to the UNIA, but I did not know how deep it went, and upon further investigation he was a president of the Nebraska and the introduction gives a glimpse of UNIA life in the south, which was definitely something even Garvey apparently struggled to understand, as he once met with KKK leaders in Atlanta.

While some could take issue with the term reinvention, I think it is fitting and is not meant to slight Malcolm. I might however take issue with Marable likening Malcolm to a “great method actor”. If Malcom’s life was about reinvention it was because he learned from his surroundings and was willing to adapt when he needed and when he saw fitting in the world around him. When Malcolm was in prison he recognized his mistakes , looked deep into himself, “Detroit Red”, and asked if he was satisfied with where he was, and adapted accordingly.  Marable paints Malcolm as a flawed individual, but  when he learned of Elijah Muhammad’s alleged affairs with young Nation of Islam secretaries he chose to distance himself from the leader. His reinventing himself is one of the main reasons he inspired others and served as proof of “ultimate salvation.”

I also take issue with his condemnation of Alex Haley’s  hand in the autobiography. As Tim O’Brien says in The Things They Carried  I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” Perhaps Malcolm’s autobiography was in ways shaped by Alex Haley, but it was still the life that Malcolm wanted to remembered by, and there are certain parts throughout Marable’s books that are potentially defaming. Not to say that we need to pick and choose now, but at some point in the future that decision could have an effect on Malcolm’s place in history.

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