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Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
August 26, 2011 5:45 AM   Subscribe

How to be black in America was the challenge for spirited young men of colour who found their way to Harlem in the troubled years of the 1940s, when music, poetry, dance and art were giving way to drink, drugs, street crime and sex for money. Malcolm Little’s first impulse was to cut loose in the big city where he found himself soon after his 17th birthday in 1942.
posted by veedubya (13 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
thanks, good article. previous thread on Malcolm.

I think the pivot from no-politics to engaging in politics is something interesting and that I don't know much about on a granular level in Malcolm's story

At some point, never announced, he realised that in fact he respected political activists like Adam Clayton Powell Jr, pastor of Harlem’s huge Abyssinian Baptist Church, who fought and won many political battles; and Percy Sutton, the black lawyer, chief of the local NAACP branch and future president of the borough of Manhattan, who represented Malcolm when the Nation of Islam tried to evict him from his house in Queens. By early 1964 he stopped denying the plain truth: the no-politics strategy gave Elijah Muhammad what he wanted – reverence for his role as the Messenger of Allah, plenty of dues-paying followers and a stable of young women – but it offered nothing to black Americans.

I've definitely heard him cite NAACP members and MLK etc. as peers in the struggle so it's interesting to see how this change happened
posted by the mad poster! at 6:15 AM on August 26, 2011


Just to add a little bit of context. There is a good BBC Radio 4 documentary called "One Block in Harlem" where Michael Goldfarb traces the iconic neighbourhood's story by telling the history of a single street in Harlem from 1910 to the present day.

Direct links to the podcast MP3

Part 1

Part 2
posted by popecork at 6:41 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was a bit disappointed in this article. I didn't think the interweaving of Malcom X and Ralph Ellison really worked, and there wasn't much about Malcolm X that wasn't already found in the Autobiography.

Before Marable passed away, I heard that his new biography was supposed to be somewhat controversial or revolutionary in the way it recast the story of Malcolm X, but this review doesn't say much about what new material Marable's life's work contributes to the historical record. I couldn't imagine that Marable's book is as redundant as this review, so for now I'm going to assume that it's just a weakness of the article.

I still want to read Marable's book, though.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:23 AM on August 26, 2011


Great article. Tying together Invisible Man with Malcolm X's life was brilliant.

I can't wait to read Manning Marable's new book. He had been a Marxist professor at places like U of Colo. at Boulder and, more recently, at Columbia in NYC. Marable was a classmate of mine at a tiny Quaker school in Indiana few have heard about, Earlham College, where there were a pretty large contingent of mostly leftist black students, many of whom lived in the African-American House or whatever they called it back in the early 70's.

Reading Alex Haley's (whom I met once: a gracious man) gripping version of Malcolm's life was a turning point for many of us. What a life story. And as the article points out, what a tragedy that the great second act of his life was so cruelly truncated.
posted by kozad at 7:29 AM on August 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


Holy shit I didn't know Manning Marable had died.
posted by cashman at 7:30 AM on August 26, 2011


overeducated_alligator, this isn't a proper review of the book at all. It's more just the author at LRB musing the nature of Malcolm's early transformation. Marable's book has a sweeping take on Malcolm's whole life and puts forth several notions that aren't yet seen as the mainstream understanding (that Haley heavily colored the conciliatory attitude in the latter end of the book, that Malcolm was assassinated with clear help from US Government agents, etc.)
posted by the mad poster! at 7:33 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I remember my mom telling me about Malcolm X when I was a kid, and for her, the story was the second act, or what began of it. The highlight of her telling was his hajj, and his realization that all these people of all different colors and sorts were there worshipping the same God, and that they were all equal before him.

I had no idea until years later, when I read the Autobiography, about the Nation of Islam, or of Malcolm X as a controversial or divisive figure.

Years after that I read his speeches, one line from which has stuck with me--that you can't hate the root of the thing without hating the thing itself. He was talking at the time about how blacks were taught to hate Africa and the Africans, but, cultural misappropriator that I am, I've found it useful in a variety of contexts. And while it's true that he didn't effect specific political change, I think he ought to get a lot of credit for reframing the whole idea of blackness and of race, which isn't something that any policy can really do.
posted by newrambler at 11:28 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Strange that few have commented on this interesting article, and, also, really, about Marable and his new book. I hate to say this, but Metafilter is a pretty Eurocentric (read: white, American, and some Europeans) site. I don't have a problem with this, because I am a white American, and I have friends who prefer Black chatrooms, etc. No big deal: we chat with people of our own kind, so, also, white trash folks who don't write in complete and well-punctuated sentences don't hang out here.

Anyway, on the eve of the dedication of the MLK monument (delayed due to weather), it is interesting that our two biggest black leaders of the second half of the Twentieth Century had such dramatic and all-encompassing world views articulated in their last couple of years, views which transcended race and tried to get at the heart of our problems. For MLK, these world views were not so dramatically different than what he had been talking about for years, although they are elided from the mainstream summary of his message today. For Malcolm X, due to his involvement in the NOI cult, they were a more dramatic change...but their messages were very similar in their last precious years/months on the planet.

Tragically, their images are frozen in the same media frames they were saddled with in the 1960's. I wish, but do not expect, that their perceptive and prescient analyses of our problems were more accurately - and even fervently! - promulgated today.

But, pigs aren't about to take wing at this point in history.
posted by kozad at 6:18 PM on August 26, 2011


Tragically, their images are frozen in the same media frames they were saddled with in the 1960's. I wish, but do not expect, that their perceptive and prescient analyses of our problems were more accurately - and even fervently! - promulgated today.

it's a tragedy man. The easy narratives of X leader vs Y leader do no justice to any of these figures. I'm not black or american but I swear I find 20th century black intellectual history just bracing and awe-inspiring — the lot of 'em. One term that sticks with me when I read people like James Baldwin is MENTAL FIREPOWER. There was so much grit and grace in the struggle, no wonder J Edgar Hoover & co. couldn't fathom it
posted by the mad poster! at 6:28 PM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm in the middle of Marable's book now. I hadn't felt the need to read another book on Malcolm since the Autobiography moved me another step along the path to embracing Islam 20 years ago. But all the hype surrounding this one piqued my interest. What I've enjoyed so far has been all the historical context, about Garveyism, about the Nation, about Harlem's intellectual life at the time, about the broader civil rights struggle, etc. That's been great.

Marable's treatment of Malcolm himself is a lot less strong. Maybe I'm just sensitive: Malcolm X is essentially a saint for orthodox muslims in the US. Among American muslims it is not uncommon to follow his name with (q) for quddus Allahu sirruhu, May Allah sanctify his holy secret, an honoriffic statement for the beatified. When you consider that a full third of all muslims in the US trace their lineage through him, it makes sense.

In any case, there are many places in the book where the editorial voice comes through and it isn't very nice. The whole "reinvention" theme as a way of tying his life together, for example, is kind of trite. The word sounds affected or insincere, and the way early phases of this life are thus framed makes it seem like that is indeed the way author intends it. Halfway through the book, those issues were bugging me enough that I went looking for other reviews beyond all the 5-star ones popping up everywhere. So here's one for balance, by Karl Evanzz, another Malcolm biographer.

The last thing I'll say is that if you had never read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, I don't even think Marable's book would make sense on its own. So read that first and approach Marable's book as an exegesis of the Autobiography would be my advice.
posted by BinGregory at 8:05 PM on August 27, 2011


This review addresses Marable's politics and biases head on. Dragging Malcolm X to Obamaland
posted by BinGregory at 8:23 PM on August 27, 2011


BinGregory, I think the Reinvention theme is pretty much part of Malcolm's canon as specified by his own self-stylings... Detroit Red → Malcolm X → El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz
posted by the mad poster! at 1:25 PM on August 28, 2011


I'm specifically complaining about the word "reinvention", as opposed to transformation, evolution, change, growth etc. The word "reinvention" first and foremost implies conscious planning on the part of the individual. We are not reinvented by what happens to us, we reinvent ourselves is the way the word is always used. It carries unmistakable connotations of artifice to say "he used his trip to Mecca to reinvent himself". That's not a direct quote, but read the book and you'll see. Madonna reinvents herself, Lady Gaga is a genius at reinvention, etc ad nauseum. Malcolm X was not a reinventer and it cheapens him to use a term that is most commonly used in the entertainment section of your newspaper every time a celebrity changes his/her hairstyle. I could give Marable the benefit of the doubt - in fact I did give: I bought the book and I'm on the last chapter right now - but though I could just say OK I know what he's getting at, in the end I think it is a very poor choice of words at best and part of a pattern of subtly denigrating his subject at worst.
posted by BinGregory at 8:30 PM on August 28, 2011


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