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"Only such real, meaningful actions as those which are sincerely motivated from a deep sense of humanism and moral responsibility can get at the basic"Only such real, meaningful actions as those which are sincerely motivated from a deep sense of humanism and moral responsibility can get at the basic causes that produce the racial explosions in America today. Otherwise, the racial explosions are only going to grow worse." ~ Malcolm X
Before I offer an opinion of this text, there is something which I feel I must confess. I am not Will Smith. I did not read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" like 3 times (see episode where Aunt Viv lectures to Will's Black History class). I did read it once before around the age of 18 and even then not very thoroughly, but because I was a pre-teen experiencing my formative years during the opening of Spike Lee's film, I certainly felt I had the scoop and the insight on who Malcolm was and what he represented (as ill formed and incomplete as that opinion might have been).
I have identified with him mentally (and perhaps physically) since my attendance at the opening of the film in New Orleans when I was 12 years old. I had perhaps heard chatter prior to then that I bore him some resemblance, but it was never more true to life and form than when I saw Denzel Washington's portrayal of Malcolm's firebrand eloquence in the theater. From then on I would search for ways that I might carve out my personality more in tune with his likeness intellectually. I was a reader before then of Fear Street fiction and other such youthful exploits, but I immediately parted ways with those childish pursuits in favor of Ralph Wiley, Chancellor Williams, Marcus Garvey, Stokely Carmichael, and self identification with Islam.
While I never went full bore into the final stage of conversion to Islam of any form, pursuit of the personal philosophy of Malcolm X would inform my future relationships and organizational engagement for the next 18 years. What is the relevance of my personal story to this text? It is one of evolution and identification; of change and the challenges of growing. The mere fact that I can take this very same text and read it with two, ten, or twelve years between readings and draw starkly different conclusions each time speaks to Malcolm X as an entirely evolutionary (and by extension revolutionary) figure.
I think that my brother Kamau Rashid stated it best when he noted that upon his first reading of the text, he was a sympathizer, but now he can be fully objective and critical of the text because he has developed greater nuance in his thinking and positions. Not unlike Malcolm as we began to reach the close of this text and his life. He wanted the world to understand that his philosophy was evolving and growing in a number of ways, but perhaps because we as humans are not as evolutionary in scale as we would like to think, we could not get away from the first Malcolm that we knew rapidly enough to embrace his second coming.
I want no one to be confused about the fact. Malcolm was still the most strident contender that a seething racist American undertone would ever encounter in his generation. His view on the situation in America for Black people was still unhindered by his insight from traveling the world, but America's nativist tendency was unable to confront the tarnish of world opinion on a just and stable field.
Malcolm was splashed with the lead paint of his past speakings. He was tarred and feathered so well by the same system which would later literally manufacture evidence to convict Geronimo Pratt and all of the other victims of COINTELPRO that even in the face of the FOIA documentation we can have someone like Kevin Williamson state on NPR Tell Me More that "Well, I think that we had an opportunity at that time to take things socially in a slightly different direction, and Malcolm X and the movement that he stood for, I think, probably did more damage to the cause of fully integrating blacks in American public life and American private life than it did good."
I think the unfortunate nature of literature in America is that more people don't subject texts such as "The Autobiography..." to multiple critical readings. Don't read the book to say that you have read it or so that you may have an argumentative jump off point to slander Malcolm's intellectual progeny in debate. Read it and understand what manner of system can create the man and the mind. Read it and understand how personal evolution can make that which once was destructive become instructive. Read it and recognize how much you need to change so that the world can change.
No matter what is written of this text now or in the future, there will be no other biography of Malcolm that matters as much. The first person narrative here and acute detail for the length of Malcolm's life is far too gripping and overwhelming to be undertaken by any study, no matter how deep or insightful, of Malcolm's life and legacy. This is Malcolm. Our Malcolm....more
Malcolm X was a remarkable individual and political figure on the world stage. I don't think it possible that this statement can be repeated enough. IMalcolm X was a remarkable individual and political figure on the world stage. I don't think it possible that this statement can be repeated enough. It is vindication against the revisionists who attempted to uproot and erase his mark upon history. There is nothing in the Marable text which upstages this very definite point. There is a profound amount of insight to be gleaned from the text if we use it to enhance the whole body of our research on Malcolm. It is not meant to be a new standard. We should hold no lofty expectation that any one volume could tell the complete story of such a complex man.
Ossie Davis summarized the prevailing view of the historical revisionists most eloquently in the following line from Malcolm's eulogy. "There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times." Still our Malcolm endures. Our Malcolm. Note that phrase for later reference because much of the controversy surrounding the release of this text has to do with the vision that you individually hold, cherish and have chosen to defend of Malcolm X.
Early on the reading, one becomes well aware that Marable's biography does little to build you rapidly towards the inspiring cultural triumph we are accustomed to from The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. There is not the same manner of revelry and nostalgia cast about regarding the activities leading up to his imprisonment. It lasts only long enough for one to realize that they are not reading the redux of that text.
They are reading something markedly and necessarily different. I won't say better or more important. That is a judgement best reserved for individual decision. But it is in some ways a very important text in examining Malcolm's legacy on the basis that we rarely receive readings of Malcolm that cast him against the backdrop and in the company of his political contemporaries. I could be entirely wrong on this charge. Perhaps I was not diligent enough in my own study of Malcolm over the years where such comprehensive readings were made available.
Marable succeeds in showing him engaging in debate, discussion and dialogue with other figures of the era such as James Baldwin, James Forman, James Farmer, (Yes. I randomly chose three James'.), Bayard Rustin and Julian Mayfield. We see the actions of Malcolm and each of the organizations he built told in a singular story arc with other organizations in operation at the same time such as CORE, SNCC, SCLC and NAACP.
History is an oral art form and much of this material existed in the minds of elders or perhaps other texts which are out of print or not able to garner the same attention as The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. In any case, we have a scenario in which the full story of Malcolm is lost to a particular generation. Even those who are aware of some portion of Malcolm's history from both The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley or Spike Lee's film account read him as some manner of detached and disassociated figure in the zeitgeist of that era. I think this largely a consequence of the fact that the revisionists succeeded in writing him out of the textbooks if they could achieve nothing else.
When Malcolm did arrive for most of us, he came packaged inside of The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley where we could not find the full measure of his action in concert with the other forces of the age that were actively influencing him. This is largely evidenced by the fact that whenever a casual discussion is made of Malcolm's work, the nearly ubiquitous question is the difference between Malcolm and Martin.
Were they the only two figures that existed at the time? How many others differed or dissented with the philosophy of the more acceptable side of the Civil Rights Movement? Did we forget Robert Williams, the Deacons for Defense or the SNCC field marshals? Debates on strategy are to be expected among those organized for a common cause, but unsure how to achieve their aims.
It is very natural for the mind to never make that further connection between Malcolm and his contemporaries. This text can represent the missing link which would yoke Malcolm's most cathartic form of social critique and resistance to oppression back to the entire struggle of the era in which we continue to find ourselves engaged.
My criticism of Marable's approach is noted in a few areas. He initiates his text with an explanation of his motivation for undertaking the project ("Life Beyond the Legend") and later reiterates these points in the epilogue ("Reflections on a Revolutionary Vision"). In both sections, he notes that Haley injected a personal opinion within The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley and then attempted to mold our final evaluation of Malcolm in his "Epilogue". I fail to comprehend how Marable can offer such a critique of Haley while Marable is actively reexamining and reinterpreting both Malcolm's actions and the actions of others in these opening and closing sections as well as at various points throughout the main text.
Marable also extracts such a level of detail in the course of telling the story that I sometimes had difficulty remembering that this was actually a biography about Malcolm. While I fancy myself an amateur historian and a fan of historical trivia, I think that another less focused reader might find themselves lost as Marable trails off into such tangential topics as the Zoot Suit Riots, Ahmadiyya Muslims, and NOI mythology. There is also the matter of his citation throughout the text. While some quotes are affixed to a footnote at the rear, others simply dangle there like unsubstantiated secrets sown among schoolchildren. Sometimes I could turn to the appendix and have my curiosity satiated with further research and other times I had to guess where he might have received his information.
All of these conflicting feelings led me to assess this text with a review of 3.5, but for failure of Goodreads to provide me with such an option, I leave the rating at a 4 based upon historical merit, usefulness, and accuracy. It is highly imperfect, but capable of augmenting an exhaustive study of Malcolm's politics and activities for the greater good. I think Jared Ball offered the most effective final assessment of the matter in his April 2011 broadcast for Black Agenda Report where he stated the following "Read Marable’s work, read it in conjunction with many others. Host symposia, conduct interviews and challenge your organizations to do the same and then to adopt the actual politics and strategies of Malcolm X lest they – the most important aspects of the man – be lost in the shuffle of the academy or personal gossip. Indeed this is what we are doing. So stay tuned." Be mindful, be aware, be Malcolm....more