The Meaning of Malcolm

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He's been "militant." He was called "brother minister" and even "our manhood, our living black manhood," the latter by Ossie Davis in his eloquent eulogy of the slain leader. It seems that for a host of people and one reason or the other, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (better known as Malcolm X) has occupied several spaces in the public imagination.

In a new book, scholar Manning Marable makes the case that Malcolm's mixed roles and multiple meanings are rooted in his knack for adaptation, his keen sense of narrative and the power of identity. I'd go even further to say that Malcolm was a testament to the complexity of identity - particularly that of Black, males. We can lean much from his fluid existence. As many Black Americans have idolized him during his life and since his death, it becomes critical that we stop and ask who was Malcolm really? What of him is society’s rendering? What is his meaning to us? 

For years, Malcolm had been finite. His arguably greatest work saw to just that. His collaboration with Alex Haley, which resulted in the deeply moving Autobiography of Malcolm X, was in many ways Malcolm X’s last act and his most lasting. With all of the authority and style of his public speaking, the book enraptures the reader and presents a captivating account of Malcolm’s life and times. It’s empowering and sometimes sad. It’s wistful one moment and contemplative another, but always focused. When reading the text, one gets the impression that Malcolm was making a point. His train of thought may meander along the contours of his colorful life but ever-present is the track of his social and political agenda.

Haley – a master story teller- aided in the process by establishing Malcolm as an ever-evolving figure. The two men carefully guide the reader through the many phases of his identity with chapter titles like "Mascot," "Homeboy," "Harlemite," and Satan. One begins to understand the great theme of Malcolm’s life. He was changing to survive - navigating the currents of the world around him and fashioning a working model of his own narrative and identity.

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This understanding of Malcolm is expounded upon by Manning Marable in the latest biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. In it, Marable takes on the daunting work of unpacking Malcolm’s carefully-crafted and much adored image. He deconstructs it and makes it accessible through adding the context of the world around him. In a sense, Marable’s effort is to separate Malcolm from the world. By providing the social and personal events of his life, we may know where Malcolm began and ended. If one gets nothing from the book, it is important to understand that Malcolm was a man of his times, often reacting to the phantom of American racism with solutions based in his lived experience. It is his connection to the reality of struggling Black Americans that made him so powerful. He had taken that struggle for himself and refashioned it into power. 

Naturally, when Manning Marable wrote Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, he knew that the book would come under storm. Many people, including two of Malcolm’s daughters didn’t like some of what is suggested within its pages. There is of course the assertion that Malcolm worked as a “hustler” or male prostitute for a rich White man as a young man. The book also presents evidence that he attended meetings and entertained working with the Klan in the cause of racial segregation. These details and others will undoubtedly make some uncomfortable and they should. Human behavior is an uncomfortable thing and if Malcolm is revealed as anything in this book, he is shown to be quite human.

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The reaction to the revelations of this new work cause me to wonder to what extent we need or heros to be stagnate. How important is it that we reduce Malcolm to a sound bite of “By any means necessary” and the few pages of his self-reported life. I applaud Marable’s nearly 500 page opus because it seeks to complicate Malcolm’s narrative and make him as multifaceted in death as he seemed to be in life. Although we would like to think that we know Malcolm X, what he would do, think and feel, devotees of the icon should be empowered by his glaring imperfection. We should be challenged by his ability to pivot on the ideas that he held most dear and wake up every morning anew. Someone once said that anything not growing is dead and by reexamining parts of Malcolm long cast aside, Marable has brought him back to life by growing his legacy to something more complex.

Donovan X. Ramsey