Published: April 05, 2011
Manning Marable's newly released biography of Malcolm X introduces new information that could reshape the widely accepted narrative of the Muslim leader's life.
Marable died on Friday, just days before the book's publication. The African-American studies professor was 60 years old and died of complications from pneumonia. His life's work, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, came out Monday.
The new biography asserts that Malcolm X had exaggerated his early criminal career and had engaged in an early homosexual relationship with a white businessman. The book also claims that some of the triggermen responsible for killing Malcolm X are still alive and were never charged.
Melissa Harris-Perry, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, spoke with NPR's Michele Norris about how this affects the legacy of Malcolm X and how his life is taught in the classroom.
"Marable's picture of Malcolm X is of a profoundly flawed individual," Harris-Perry said, a "struggling human being — one who was consistently unsure of himself despite his own enormous intellect and resources." It's an abrupt departure from "heroic" and "perfected" visions of the African-American minister that were set in motion by The Autobiography of Malcolm X and perpetuated in American popular culture.
Marable argues that much of the narrative in the 1965 autobiography — a collaboration between Malcolm X and writer Alex Haley — is gross oversimplification. "Far too many of us ... have taught The Autobiography of Malcolm X as though it were sort of a historic document in and of itself," Harris-Perry said. "As though it were Truth with a capital T. ... We now have to go back and truly teach it it as a text — as an autobiography."
Take, for example, Malcolm X's relationship with Betty Shabazz. "In Manning Marable's reading, this was a relationship that Malcolm felt forced into as a result of his role as the minister in the Nation of Islam," Harris-Perry explained. "He felt that it was necessary to marry, and that his attachment with Betty was tenuous — not as profound an emotional and physical connection as has been presented by Malcolm himself and ... by his other biographers."
Marable also explores the question of Malcolm X's homosexual relationship with a white businessman. "It can be read as salacious or titillating to make this claim," Harris-Perry said. But Marable "doesn't necessarily say that Malcolm is a gay man. He is suggesting that Malcolm at certain points in his life engages in sexual activity with men and particularly this man — but he frames it around economic need and social anxiety."
But Malcolm X has been dead for 46 years, and theories about his personal life are only speculation. "Questions of homosexuality, race, manhood — they are really difficult discussions," said Harris-Perry. "And given that Malcolm himself is long ago departed, obviously he can't speak directly on these questions."
Marable focuses much of the book on Malcolm X's 1965 assassination — from the lead-up to the killing to the investigation that followed. Harris-Perry says "there is no doubt" that Marable was issuing a call to action to encourage a re-examination of the case.
"Had my dear friend Manning lived past Friday it was absolutely his intention to commit the process of ... promoting the book primarily to the work of bringing pressure for the purpose of reopening the case," Harris-Perry said. She suspects that Leith Mullings Marable, the professor's widow, is likely to pick up the work where her late husband left off. [Copyright 2013 NPR]
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Manning Marable's biography of Malcolm X, called "A Life of Reinvention" introduces all kinds of new information. Much of it is based on examining Nation of Islam documents, and it could reshape the widely accepted narrative of the black Muslim leader.
Manning Marable passed away last week, just days before the book's publication. Among other things, Marable asserts that Malcolm X had exaggerated his early criminal career and had engaged as a young man in a relationship with another man.
The book also claims that some of the trigger men responsible for killing Malcolm X are still alive and were never charged.
All these new details raise questions about how Malcolm X is viewed and how his life will be taught in the classroom. I put some of those questions to Melissa Harris-Perry. She's an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.
Ms. MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY (Associate Professor of Politics and African-American Studies, Princeton University): Marable's picture of Malcolm X is of a profoundly flawed individual.
You know, I think that in the kind of heroic reinventions of Malcolm X that have occurred as early as his own autobiography, where he apparently embellishes, I think that same trajectory was picked up in American popular culture in the mid-'90s through Spike Lee's film and, of course, also by people like Public Enemy and others in sort of the cultural milieu who adopted this almost perfected vision of Malcolm.
But what we get through Manning Marable's eyes of Malcolm X is an exceptionally flawed and struggling human being. Part of what we see in the Nation of Islam papers are the ways in which Malcolm is trying to hold on to his relationship with the Nation but then also, I think, this very intense and clear language about the Nation of Islam's decision to push Malcolm X out and not only to push him out but to perceive him as an enemy.
And that it is that perception of Malcolm as an enemy that Manning Marable ends up reading as at the core of the assassination a few years later.
NORRIS: I want to get to the assassination, but first you mention the autobiography of Malcolm X. And many people are introduced to Malcolm X through this Alex Haley biography, a book that's widely taught in American classrooms, really classrooms around the world and much embraced. Many people still have dog-eared copies in their personal collections.
But Marable says that much of that narrative was fictive. Will this book change the view of that seminal work and how it is used and taught in American classrooms?
Ms. HARRIS-PERRY: Absolutely. I think what now happens for all of us who have taught Malcolm X's autobiography from, you know, from high school through graduate school as a text, is we now have to go back and truly teach it as a text, in other words, as an autobiography.
I think far too many of us, and I'll make myself as a teacher culpable in this, have taught the autobiography of Malcolm X as though it were sort of a historic document in and of itself, as though it were truth with a capital T. You know, that changes, I think, how we understand the man who was Malcolm X.
NORRIS: There is much in this book about the assassination of Malcolm X, the lead-up to the killing, the investigation that followed. In the reading of that section, it seemed almost like Manning Marable was issuing a call to action. In reading this, did you think that he was trying to encourage people to re-examine the case, the questions about who exactly were the triggermen, the questions about what did the FBI or the police department do or what didn't they do in trying to prevent the assassination or to investigate it?
Ms. HARRIS-PERRY: It is completely clear that Manning Marable believes that he has identified the person who fired what they call the kill shot, the first and most deadly shot, that he believes that person to be alive and well and living under another name and that he believes there has been complete failure on the part of federal and local authorities to pursue justice in this case.
It was clearly Manning's next life and political and intellectual mission to bring this case to some kind of resolution, and I suspect that his now widow, who was very much his life partner intellectually and academically and personally, will likely take up this work.
NORRIS: Melissa Harris-Perry, good to talk to you. Thank you very much.
Ms. HARRIS-PERRY: Thanks for having me.
NORRIS: Melissa Harris-Perry is an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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