After over a month after the controversial biography on Malcolm X by the late Manning Marable debuted, there is still much to be discussed. This past Thursday, the CUNY Grad Center held a discussion around Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention to a packed auditorium. Hosted by GC professor and longtime labor activist Stanley Aronowitz, the overall tone was a spirited defense of Marable, the book, and an assessment of Malcolm’s life and his impact on America and the entire world.
Marable’s wife, Prof. Leith Mullings, public intellectual Cornel West of Princeton University, and columnist for the Guardian Gary Younge from the U.K. all spoke on the book and added their voices to the contentious discourse out there. Under the circumstances, this was necessary. There have been some scathing reviews of this book, and in some cases some of the conversations around it have descended into personal attacks and denunciations of the late Columbia professor. Some feel that Malcolm has been disrespected by dragging certain details of his personal life into the light. In my opinion, much of what has been said in criticism is said with the intent of dissuading people from reading the work. If you poison the air so to speak, about a thing, that may be enough for some to completely back off. I think that in order to dial back alot of the heated denunciations, we need to realize that a the work of an honest scholar is not to trash someone.
When Prof. Mullings began her remarks about Marable’s study of Malcolm, she stated that the idea for another bio goes back to 1993. “Marable was fascinated by and loved Malcolm”, Mullings proclaimed to the audience as she recounted his ongoing research and tireless digging in spite of his serious health problems. In assessing all of this, it is unlikely that Marable set out to do such work in order to simply disrespect Malcolm’s legacy. The point of this book is to go beyond the legend and present Malcolm as a complex person. And sometimes, that means discussing aspects of his life that make people uncomfortable. This was done out of a deep respect for who he was, and his various transformations as he rose from criminal to activist. It’s unfair to Marable to insinuate that he spent 15 years of his life researching Malcolm just to assault his legacy.
Cornel West, who knew Marable for 3 decades, spoke of his academic peer in high regard. “Manning was like an older brother to me” , said Prof. West as he spoke about his colleague influenced him. In speaking of Marable’s work, which West has read twice, (and mentioned page numbers to prove it) the Princeton professor framed the bio in terms of an assessment of where we are today. One of his most powerful questions put to the audience was “How do we talk about Malcolm in the age of Obama?” A multi-faceted, uneasy to unpack question indeed. West ended his remarks encouraging everyone in the audience to read the book for themselves.
Gary Younge presented about the book, and said that Marable’s book rescued Malcolm from the pedestal and put him back with the people. He spoke on the commercialization of Malcolm, and cautioned the audience that respect should not be confused for reverence. In Mr. Younge’s opinion, now that the book has put Malcolm back in the popular discourse, this is an opportunity to counteract some of that. In an apt metaphor, Younge describes Manning Marable’s work on Malcolm X as the “red pill” from The Matrix a way of seeing past what is merely presented to you.
In thinking about this event, and some of the things I have heard around the issue of Manning Marable, Malcolm X, and the Black community today, I feel like I should say a couple of things. One, there is an underlying theme in much of the back and forth that not many want to address. But I will say it anyway. The undercurrent of tension between Academic Marxists and Black Nationalists to a certain extent have played themselves out in not so obvious ways. Many academics feel as though there is not a line between the personal and the political, and there should be no separation between the two. Many Black Nationalists take the view that an individuals personal life should have nothing to do with anything that is done for the struggle, and to raise it is disrespectful. That’s a divide that will not be bridged any time soon. But it just gives you an idea of what is being contended.
Two, and I am about to get myself in more hot water by raising this, but why not go for the gold? Is what Manning Marable put out there any different then what was put out there by Ralph Abernathy about the sexual behavior of Martin Luther King in his autobiography And The Walls Came Tumbling Down? Just a couple of things to think about as the conversation continues.
For those who could not attend, there is some audio of the presentations available here. I am still reading the book myself, (This is not a review) and will be giving more of my thoughts on this book and the conversation around it.
-Marc W. Polite
*Still reading the book