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Scholars critical of latest Malcolm X bio

Scholars critical of latest Malcolm X bio
This May 21, 1964 file photo shows Malcolm X as he speaks at a news conference at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, New York. The famed Hotel Theresa closed in 1967. The building where it was located, at 2090 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, was later designated a city landmark and is now an office building. The hotel was called the “Waldorf of Harlem,” hosting celebrities from Louis Armstrong to Fidel Castro. (Photo: AP)

For Malcolm X, like any international icon, the man behind the legend remains elusive.

 The basic details of his life are well-known: He was born Malcolm Little; as an adolescent became Detroit Red, a gambler, drug dealer, pimp and thief; was sentenced to prison and there became Malcolm X, a disciple in the Nation of Islam; and after rising through the ranks of the Nation, eventually split from the group, embraced Sunni Islam on his pilgrimage to Mecca and adopted his final name, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.

His life is best known through “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” but even in this carefully crafted work, many stories were left untold and questions unanswered.

Attempting to “go beyond the legend” and “recount what actually occurred in Malcolm’s life,” Columbia University professor Manning Marable offers a new biography, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.” For the scholar of African American studies, who died just days before the book’s release, the work chronicles, for better and for worse, a man who “embodied the spirit, vitality, and political mood of an entire population — black urban mid-twentieth century America.”

In constructing his work, Marable consulted many previously unexamined sources, including FBI, CIA and U.S. State Department files, Malcolm’s personal diaries and the Nation of Islam archives. The latter is particularly revealing. Before his project, Marable explains in the prologue, Louis Farrakhan, current head of the Nation, “had never permitted scholars to examine the sect’s archives.”

“After years of effort,” he gained access to many audiotapes of Malcolm’s old speeches, letters between Malcolm and former spiritual leader of the Nation, Elijah Muhammad, and impressively, a nine-hour interview with Farrakhan himself, as well as with other Nation of Islam members who had known Malcolm decades ago.

But perhaps most intriguing are the so-called “missing chapters” Marable gained unprecedented access to.

Alex Haley, co-author of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” originally conceived of the work in three parts: 10 chapters narrating Malcolm’s life, three essays outlining Malcolm’s religious and political positions and an afterward written by Haley. However, the three essays were eventually cut from the final manuscript, leaving the book strangely silent about the specifics of Malcolm’s political objectives.

The missing chapters were never published, and in the 1992 sale of Haley’s estate, they were sold to a Detroit attorney, Gregory Reed, for $100,000. Instead of making the documents public, they remain hidden away in Reed’s office. Marable recounts in his 2006 work “Living Black History” that “after lengthy telephone conversations” he met Reed in Detroit and was permitted to browse selections of the missing chapters for 15 minutes at a restaurant.

The short time was enough for Marable to determine that the chapters had been written between October 1963 and January 1964, the final months of Malcolm’s membership in the Nation. In these documents, Malcolm “proposed the construction of an unprecedented African-American united front of black political and civic organizations” and pushed for “open dialogue and political collaboration with the civil rights community.”

But, Marable laments, the secrecy surrounding the manuscript shields the answers to many questions about Malcolm’s life. “Since Reed owns the physical property, but the Shabazz estate retains the intellectual property rights of its contents, we may never know,” he writes.

 From these many sources, Marable extracts fascinating new details about Malcolm’s life and recounts stories not mentioned in the Autobiography.

For instance, Marable demonstrates that the FBI had been watching the leader even before he became Malcolm X. As the Korean War commenced, a 25-year-old Malcolm sent a letter to Pres. Harry Truman from prison, boldly stating, “I have always been a Communist. I have tried to enlist in the Japanese Army, last war, now they will never draft or accept me in the U.S. Army.”

The letter, written before he joined the Nation, became the first page of the FBI’s file on Malcolm.

Another anecdote, covered in Boston and Massachusetts newspapers at the time, shows that Malcolm’s internationalism began long before his pilgrimage to Mecca. As a new Muslim in the Norfolk Prison Colony, Malcolm made frequent demands on prison officials to accommodate his religious practices. He insisted that meals meet the Nation’s dietary restrictions, and that he and other Muslims be moved to east-facing cells so they could pray more easily to Mecca. When the prison warden refused, Malcolm threatened to go to the Egyptian consul’s office in the United States — and the warden reversed his decision.

But Marable’s work also illuminates unsettling details of Malcolm’s life, like his 1961 meeting with the Ku Klux Klan. The Nation and the Klan, two anti-segregationist groups found a strange alliance as the Nation sought the Klan’s assistance in buying farmland in the South. Then a minister in the Nation, Malcolm for years kept secret his participation in the meeting, and according to Marable, “viewed the entire affair with distaste.”

Other information presented in the book adds depth and nuance to the well-known outline of Malcolm’s life. Marable details the influence of Marcus Garvey’s teachings on Malcolm’s parents and his youth — suggesting that Malcolm’s adoption of the Nation and pan-Africanism later in life was more a return to his roots than conversion.

Similarly, Marable meticulously recounts Malcolm’s extensive international travel, which was more frequent and less successful than the Autobiography lets on, and his gradual adoption of Islamic orthodoxy, which started much earlier and with less certainty than in Malcolm’s retelling.

But the details surrounding Malcolm’s personal life have caused many to question Marable’s research. In his book, Marable describes Malcolm’s homosexual relationship in his youth, his constant marital woes with Betty and the couple’s mutual affairs. These details, meant to humanize Malcolm, are largely unsubstantiated rumors and, many say, have no place in a historical work like Marable’s.

Writer Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, called into question Marable’s uncritical use of government documents and Nation of Islam testimony, explaining that both groups “hated” Malcolm, and cannot be relied upon for insights into his character.

Likewise, Karl Evanzz, author “The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad” and “The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X,” accuses Marable of taking “cheap shots” at Malcolm and his family. “The footnotes reflect a heavy reliance upon people who were known enemies of Malcolm X,” Evanzz writes in a review. “Marable gives no source for some of his tabloid-type allegations . . .”

But perhaps most controversial is Marable’s naming of Malcolm’s assassin. While three Nation of Islam members were convicted for the 1965 shooting, obvious questions remained unanswered — leaving considerable doubt that the murder had been entirely solved. Two of the convicted men have always maintained their innocence and were paroled in the 1980s, while the third, Thalmadge Hayer, who was released from prison last year, confessed to the crime and later named his co-conspirators under a sworn affidavit.  

 Using Hayer’s statement, other documents and oral histories from Nation of Islam members, Marable sifts through the many aliases of the co-conspirators to identify one man currently living in New Jersey as the gunman who delivered the fatal bullet to Malcolm.

The man’s wife and attorney have both publicly denied his involvement in the assassination.

Evanzz argues that Marable’s broad conclusions are not new and have been lifted from previous research, including his own, but also that naming the alleged assassin is inappropriate and could be grounds for a defamation action and a book recall. Baraka, meanwhile, takes the position that Marable simply missed the point — by relying so heavily on government documents to reconstruct the murder, Marable simply failed to see the extent of the FBI’s involvement in the crime.

“Marable also tells us that even today the FBI refuses to release its reports on Malcolm’s assassination,” Baraka writes. “Yet he will quote one of those agencies without question.”

Whatever the flaws of Marable’s work, it has generated a renewed interest in Malcolm X that even the scholar’s critics laud — and rightfully so. While the turmoil of the civil rights era has passed and the first African American president has been elected, Malcolm’s honesty and courage continue to be a model for moral leadership, and his vision for a united humanity, timeless.