Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: Objectivity vs. Memory

| May 27, 2013
A Lie of Reinvention book cover

“A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X” by Jared A. Bell and Todd Steven Burroughs

by Todd Steven Burroughs

The recent death of Malcolm Shabazz, the grandson of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), during the same month as Malcolm X’s 88th birthday (on May 19th), has brought the 20th century radical leader’s contributions, death and legacy back into current Black public consciousness.

Unfortunately, Manning Marable’s controversial, and Pulitzer Prize-winning, biography of the elder Shabazz, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” put Malcolm X into America’s public conversation two years ago in shallow ways. The book’s many, many flaws were ignored by supporters of Marable, who died days before the book was published in April 2011.

This essay—the Coda of the new book “A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X,” edited by Jared A. Ball and Todd Steven Burroughs and published by Black Classic Press—is a meditation on African-American historical memory in light of Marable’s monumental blunder.

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One day when I was lost, I discovered a Black writer by the name of Manning Marable. I was studying journalism, in a private, predominantly White Catholic university in the midst of the Reagan era, with the clear goal of one day writing for the New York Times. I had just turned eighteen, a second-semester freshman working as a freelancer for the New Jersey edition of the Afro-American weekly newspaper chain. It was just a newspaper to me. I was a reporter, and we both (the newspaper and I) just happened to be Black.

The New Jersey Afro carried the national Afro’s opinion page, and I found there a column called “From the Grass Roots” and its weekly entry titled “Challenge to Black Journalists.” The author of the piece was Manning Marable. “The white media generally refuses to admit that virtually all journalism is a form of ‘propaganda’ in the interests of certain political, economic and social class interests—and that Blacks’ interests never surface on that agenda,” Marable wrote, directly contradicting the so-called objectivity I had been taught to entrench in my reporting. I read on:

When we read Le Monde, does anyone doubt that we are encountering the interpretations of French journalists, with all the historical, cultural, and political baggage of that tradition? When we read Pravda and Izvestia, no one doubts that the perspectives of Soviet writers advance a particular view on society and politics. And when one reads the New York Times, everything from the selection of stories to the orientation of the editorials represents a type of bias towards the white corporate establishment…

Not surprisingly, I had a hard time absorbing Marable’s perspective. I did not see how his kind of thinking was going to get me a job in White corporate America. But something kept tugging at me, so I kept reading.

What is the social responsibility of Black journalism in the period of colorblind racial discrimination? Black writers must see themselves part of a rich historical tradition, as the latest generation in the heritage of free, democratic-oriented journalists….What is a Black journalist? As writers, as part of this tradition of Afro-American critical thought, we have a responsibility to comprehend that racism still exists, and that we should never apologize for taking an uncompromising attitude against racial inequality in our work. 

Poverty and hunger still exist, and are becoming worse. Unemployment, educational underdevelopment, and political underrepresentation have not yet been overcome. And our task and challenge, as Black writers, is to raise questions revealing these problems, and to write with a critical vision of social justice and human equality, the basic values which were embodied by the lives of previous generations of Black writers.

I clipped out the column and put it in a notebook. It took me a few years to agree with Marable’s positions, but eventually I came to terms with it and him. I even cited his work in my doctoral dissertation fifteen years later. And that is the Manning Marable I will always remember.

But that day, almost thirty years ago, has nothing to do with this day, at least not consciously, but I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. Let’s go back about a year…

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So I’m getting out of a cab across the street from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. I had decided to attend the 2011 Harlem Book Fair in general and the panel at the Schomburg on Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention in particular. The panelists were poet Sonia Sanchez, one of the legends of the Black Arts Movement; Zaheer Ali, the Columbia University graduate student who had made the talk-show rounds after Marable’s death and the almost-simultaneous release of that book, for which he served as Marable’s head researcher; Peniel E. Joseph, the Tufts University history professor whose work chronicles aspects of the Black Power Movement; and Herb Boyd, the venerable journalist, historian, and activist (and a great friend and mentor of mine). The moderator was Yohuru Williams, associate professor of African American history at Fairfield University.

The panelists collectively praised Marable for what he did do in his life and work and were polite, not harsh, in their criticism of what he did not do. It was a scene that we journalists objectively term a “marked contrast” to the torrent of often public, often private criticism that emanated from left-of-center Black scholarly and activist circles after A Life of Reinvention’s publication. I looked around in vain for what newspaper reporters would term “the veteran Black activists” to literally get in line to blast A Life of Reinvention. When they did not appear, I began to feel a sense of tension that I could only partially identify as nervousness and some dread because I knew what had to come next.

When Williams asked for questions—not comments—from the audience, I got up, knowingly breaking the rules, and started talking about the book (the one you are reading) Jared Ball and I were planning. I was only barely able to mention that the book would be coming out soon and thanking both Black Classic Press and Third World Press for committing to publish their respective essay collections critical of A Life of Reinvention before Williams abruptly thanked me for my comments and moved on to the next person. Prior to Williams lowering the boom, however, Sanchez interrupted my flow, exhorting my coeditor and me to include as many women as possible in the volume. (We tried very hard, Sister Sonia!)

Strangely, that moment at the Harlem Book Fair felt like incidents I had read about in some of the media theory and criticism books I’ve read and tried to understand. In those books, left-of-center media scholars write about how “objectivity” limits the intellectual range of information given to the public. They argue that those who own and control the media only want an “acceptable” range of criticism aired and printed, with “acceptable” being defined by the owners and controllers themselves. Were the Harlem Book Fair organizers and these panelists essential “operators” of a pre-determined, live, public, televised presentation of ideas? Were they doing to me, an openly harsh critic of Marable’s Malcolm X, what African American political and cultural activists claim Whites in power have done historically, and still do, to them? (And just where, by the way, were the veteran Black scholar-activists who were critical of Marable’s Malcolm X biography that day? The ones whose powerful, hard-hitting reviews of the book I had read online? The ones who would have pushed me out of the way both that day as well as twenty years ago to critique an equally controversial biography of Malcolm by Bruce Perry, a White man?) Or, I wondered, were the organizers of the panel, which was being blasted live around the world on C-SPAN 2 and which would be forever embedded in its online archives, trying to protect a fellow New York City activist/scholar/author, now unable to defend himself?

Frankly, I remember thinking: I’m not even close to being important enough to be “censored,” and I couldn’t discern my censor’s motives or intent for only taking questions, not comments. I could recognize, however, the results of this one public session: that no one on the panel represented “the harsh critical wing” of the reviewers of A Life of Reinvention. No harsh criticism was allowed of Marable or his controversial book on a public, televised panel at a national book fair held in Harlem, known historically as a place where Black writers, artists, activists and their audiences often speak publicly, harshly, and freely.

It all felt very (intra-racially) “objective” to me. So much for public “dialogue”!

The panel’s commentary was nuanced and, admittedly—at least to this rule-breaking, sour-grapes audience member—often penetrating. For her part, Sanchez asserted that Malcolm did not reinvent himself because that would suggest an ulterior motive such as the need to package oneself for a market. Instead, she claimed, Malcolm re-imagined himself. She questioned the rationale behind and effectiveness of Marable’s oft-cited and so-called “humanization” of Malcolm, as manifested in A Life of Reinvention by the often-scandalous information inserted throughout on Malcolm’s personal life. She also questioned how that type of insertion benefited either the scholarship on Malcolm or the book’s readers, and she chided writers and historians for being too preoccupied with voyeurism. What readers should take away from the book, Sanchez concluded, is that Marable demystified Malcolm and showed how Malcolm demystified White America by dissecting its police force, White liberal class, government, and so on. She further noted that Marable’s book offers important insights about the language of survival and resistance used by Malcolm and other leaders of his time, language she encouraged those of us in the audience to pass along to our children—and especially to President Barack Obama.

Zaheer Ali’s comments confirmed something that I had originally suspected: that Marable’s book started out as a political biography. Normally political biographies do not contain the extensive research and interviews of a full biography. Upon reading A Life of Reinvention, that point makes sense to me on many levels. It explains, for instance, why Marable only interviewed a handful of people and why he apparently did not seem to worry about why he did not interview more.

As Ali noted, Marable taught that history is “a contestation of interpretations over fact.” This is a point with which I can wholeheartedly agree, but only if one actually has all the facts and has done all the research. History, Ali added, is also corroborative, and Marable (whom Ali admitted was “a little flippant” in some parts of the book) did too little of that. Ali also contended that biographers engage in a “certainty-versus-probability” contest, and again, I agree. However, they are not supposed to sacrifice the consistency of verifiable truth for a good yarn.

Nonetheless, Ali defended his mentor’s sourcing and documentation, claiming that Marable took pains to label anything circumstantial—including Malcolm’s alleged homosexual relationship with a White man—as just that. (Huh? That statement made me think of how a great Black biographer, Arnold Rampersad, once wrote about how he got in hot water with the gay community because he found no evidence to confirm that his biographical subject of over a thousand or so pages, Langston Hughes, ever had a homosexual or any other kind of romantic relationship—so he simply concluded that Hughes was probably asexual.) At the Harlem Book Fair event, however, Ali dismissed those folks who were upset about Marable’s book reporting of Malcolm’s alleged homosexual relationship as being believers in “a ‘one-drop’ rule of gayness.” He also asserted that every controversial allegation in the book had at least three sources. I don’t know if that’s true, but he may be correct—that is, if you consider secondhand sources as legitimate ones!

Peniel Joseph, a very talented writer who has described the Black Power movement in “new” and “innovative” ways, was the next panelist to speak. He described Malcolm X as a “local organizer who transformed the Black freedom struggle” and who, along with other Black civil rights activists, kept up a “long-running dialogue” with the idea of America and changed American democracy. (Joseph has been rewarded and praised in elite White circles for his portrayal of the Black Power movement in this fashion, with glowing reviews in mainstream media and interviews on public television.) He repeated the claims I have heard from Zaheer Ali, Michael Eric Dyson, and other friends of Manning Marable since the Malcolm biography’s publication: that many critics of A Life of Reinvention had only read the parts that address Malcolm’s personal life and not those addressing his political one.

Herb Boyd was, as always, his very polite self, willing to take both sides in the debate. (Those of us who are cursed to be around journalists for any length of time have gotten used to this!) He agreed with Sanchez about squashing Marable’s use of the term reinvention to describe Malcolm’s development, and stated that he preferred instead the term political evolution. He also urged the members of the audience to read the book in its entirety and to come to their own conclusions about it with the words: “You have that responsibility.”

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Normally, I would have given some of the comments I heard at the Harlem Book Fair panel—even the ones I strongly disagree with—a pass. I would have put on my (still-trying-to-be) objective journalist’s hat and said, “Well, that’s their view. Others will have different opinions, but all will have to read the whole book and make up their own minds.” I would have taken my notes, written them up, penned an “objective” article, and moved on. However, since reading Manning Marable’s Malcolm X book in its entirety, other perspectives—ones that reveal clearly the numerous problems I personally found with the book as well as many, many others I did not find—have demanded my serious attention.

Those additional views are best captured in the exchange of ideas and perspectives that I imagine might have taken place had several of the current volume’s contributors come together to form a critical panel of their own focusing on A Life of Reinvention.  This “invented” panel would serve as an apt and appropriate counterbalance to the “objectivity” of the Harlem Book Fair discussion. Given the comments excerpted below from their compiled essays, the exchange most likely would have gone as follows:

Mumia Abu-Jamal: Marable seems to go for the sensational rather than for that which he can substantiate.

Kali Akuno: It is the contemporary weaknesses of the Black Liberation Movement as a whole, and of its Black Nationalist wings more specifically—buttressed by imperialism’s hegemonic cooptation of Afrocentrism and other liberal variants of multiculturalism into the “postracial” politics of American nationalism that define the so-called “Age of Obama”—that co-enabled the production of this work. 

Kamau Franklin: Marable’s work is the latest to attempt to remake or reinvent Malcolm X and turn him into a political football for political and moneyed interests….[Making Malcolm X] the embodiment of his own ideological viewpoints amounts to what I call an ivory tower assassination attempt on Malcolm X’s meaning as an ideological force for Black self-determination.

William Strickland: The problems…are many and multiple. They range from historical gaffes and endless nonsequitors to key historical omissions. Manning thus becomes his own authority, quoting himself as his evidentiary source!

Raymond Winbush: The arrogance of Marable oozes out in so many places throughout the book….Marable’s opinion mattered to him, just as the opinions of broadcast media journalists on Fox News and MSNBC matter to those individuals. Their listeners crave their opinions and speculations concerning contemporary political issues, and these commentators get paid, and paid well, to provide just that. Sadly, in the case of Manning Marable and his last work of speculative nonfiction on one of the great persons in the African world, opinion took precedence over originality and speculation superseded scholarship and a reliance on reliable sources and primary research.

Rosemari Mealy: This omission of women’s voices amplifies the concerns of African American womanist scholars that Marable’s book widens the gap in the existing literature about Malcolm X written by men because it fails to acknowledge the extraordinary contributions that African American women historically have made to constructing the leadership styles of progressive and revolutionary African American male leaders. 

Greg Thomas: The noncritical discourse published under the name of Manning Marable amounts to simple PR for Marable’s name brand, his specific academic signature, and thus for Viking Books and its parent company, Penguin Group—not to mention his institution of employment, Columbia University. Under these mantles, Malcolm X is absolutely questionable, in every way, while the brand of Manning Marable (i.e., his writings, motives, methods, dogmata, etc.) is absolutely unquestionable. 

Sundiata Keita 

Cha-Jua: On analytical grounds, the verdict on A Life of Reinvention is mixed. For the most part, its readers learn nothing new of significance; Marable merely provides greater detail of things already known.

Eugene Puryear: Putting aside Marable’s claims of having produced a definitive biography, A Life of Reinvention has raised more questions than answers. Some of these questions may be irresponsible and some may confuse matters that should be crystal clear, but Marable’s biography of Malcolm X has at least shown the need to study and debate Malcolm’s legacy and the movements from which he sprang.

Karl Evanzz: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is an abomination. It is a cavalcade of innuendo and logical fallacy, and is largely “reinvented” from previous works on the subject.

Amiri Baraka: Some of the characterizations in the book are simply incorrect and suffer from its author only knowing about the movement on paper.

Thus, this fictitious panel might have concurred with Peniel Joseph, who stated at the Schomburg that we (meaning Black folks, I presume) “cannot have sacred cows” and that “Malcolm had no sacred cows”; and with Zaheer Ali, who maintained that “Malcolm was not a sacred cow, and neither was Manning Marable.” Might then Joseph and Ali, in turn, also agree with the overriding reason for this volume?

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A year later, I have finally, fully identified the source of the tension I felt sitting in the Schomburg auditorium that summer afternoon. Part of it was the realization that, at every bit of age forty-four, I am now partly yet increasingly responsible for the present and future of Black history and for the propagation of commonsense and proper propaganda. When Herb Boyd asked the audience of about 150 people at the Harlem Book Fair panel, most of whom looked to be under forty years old, if they had read Marable’s book, less than a score of hands went up. Although the strength of this book’s contributors tells me that I am far from being ideologically stranded alone on an island somewhere, I recognized then how very different the second decade of the twenty-first century is going to be for many of us who were born in the later decades of the century past.

I keep thinking about how this book might not have been necessary if the media systems I grew up with in the New York tri-state area were still in play. If A Life of Reinvention had come out in, say, 1988, a Black news-talk radio station named WLIB-AM, 1190 on the New York City dial, would have featured numerous detailed discussions on the book. Other discussions would have aired on a late-night, national program called “Nighttalk with Bob Law” on WLIB’s rival, 1600 WWRL-AM, the flagship station of the National Black Network. Those programs would have been moderated by hosts who knew they would be speaking directly and almost exclusively to Black people, so they would not have bothered with “objectivity.”

I can imagine hearing John Henrik Clarke and many other Black scholars providing blistering on-air critiques of Marable’s Malcolm X biography, educating young listeners like me. I can also picture myself reading a bombastic Brooklyn weekly newspaper called The City Sun, which would have published a special section on this intellectual controversy. Those “unapologetically Black” media venues taught by example. They never had a problem criticizing Black public figures harshly and publicly if they failed Black people.

Back then there were also several local and national television shows in the New York area—Tony Brown’s Journal, Like It Is, Essence: The Television Program, Positively Black, and Black News/The McCreary Report, among others—that probably would have presented other balanced (read: critical) discussions and forums focusing on Manning Marable and his A Life of Reinvention, all for large audiences. They surely would have explored and explained the depth of Marable’s mistakes. All, however, are gone now, one way or another. (Ironically, that is why I think C-SPAN 2’s annual airing of the Harlem Book Fair on its “Book TV” program is so important. Like the fair itself, this broadcast event is one of the few mass forums left where Black perspectives can be heard and seen, live and unedited, by large numbers of people.)

In the 1980s, I would have depended on these forums and the activists who sponsored and participated in them, to do the work we, the editors and contributors to this volume, have done today. I would have remained pretty much silent, letting those elders, Black print journalists, and broadcasters take responsibility for finding and promoting my and our collective voice. I would not have even thought twice about breaking the “rules” much less about doing so in front of a national or international television audience on C-SPAN. But clearly too much time has passed. This century demands more of me. I now bear the responsibility for that collective voice.

The remaining source of my tension also became evident as I meditated about all that has occurred around Marable and A Life of Reinvention. Two diametrically opposed quotes, both previously scrolling along in a loop at the bottom of my mind’s television screen, began to assume prominence. The first was one stated quite plainly by a Presidential candidate in 2008. The candidate was making a great compromise address about some remarks made by his pastor. During the campaign, it was hailed as “The Race Speech” but now it is known as the “A More Perfect Union” address, presumably because it was crafted to allow the candidate to unify perfectly two audiences—the powerful and the powerless—at once. Here is the first quote:

The profound mistake of Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made [emphasis mine]; as if this country—a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of White and Black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know—what we have seen—is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

The second (and much shorter) quote, originating from the collective unconsciousness of struggle, contradicts the first more and more as that former candidate’s Presidency continues. It states simply the following: “All change is not progress, as all motion is not forward.” Upon reflection on that statement, how sadly appropriate it seems that Manning Marable’s creation of a presumably race-neutral Malcolm X shares the same space with the racially/culturally born-neutered, or self-neutered, Barack Obama.  There are times in which cultural history and cultural reality trumps objectivity, and this is one such time. Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X occupies the space between the heralding of a new era of Black “progress” versus the ideas and beliefs of Malcolm’s expanding ideas, including those “scary” Black Nationalist-Leftist-Pan-Africanist ones. In the new era, if the latter ideas are brought up today, they must be dismissed as intellectually stunted or as belonging to history itself.

The scholarship on Malcolm X has moved as a result of Marable’s book, but in what direction? A new generation of Black writers and scholars is finding new ways to interpret old ideas, some of which expand people and movements into new places. However, the cost of moving into these newly gentrified intellectual neighborhoods, for some, may be too high. There are Blacks who may not know what has been lost by this gentrification, and those who understand all too well what has happened will probably be politely silent and “objective,” choosing not to remember, at least not publicly.

The late Gil Scott-Heron—a great writer who lived in Harlem as did his hero, Langston Hughes—passed away about two months before the 2011 Harlem Book Fair, but Scott-Heron was crystal clear forty years ago on this problem’s consequence. In the lyrics to his song, “Winter in America,” a post-revolution lament that still resonates, he sang about how “ain’t nobody fighting/‘cause nobody knows what to save.” Intellectually and historically, that time may be coming sooner than we think.

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In many ways, this work’s contributors have chosen to argue about a book because it was a book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley, that intellectually birthed so many of us in the first place. The Autobiography was the book that allowed Malcolm to enter our minds, where he witnessed our rebirths. For many of us he is still there, advising ever since, like some sort of Race Man Sensei. It’s his legacy to us.

Manning Marable’s legacy is what it is, for good and ill, like every other human. He does not need our tribute; others will take care of that. History is more important than any biographer or biographical subject’s legacy, including El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X). The issue for us is the need to preserve accurate historical memory, and to do so in concrete words and strong deeds. As contributors to this volume, we agree that Marable made decisions that produced poor history—a history that is being absorbed by an anti-intellectual popular culture via snippets of articles, brief broadcast segments, and trending tweets—about a world-historical figure. Ultimately, the biography that Marable wrote can only be countered by another, more definitive one. For us, preserving memory is more important than preserving some sort of intellectual operational unity in deference to Manning Marable’s legacy or trying to figure out a way to use, or salvage, what he did with A Life of Reinvention for the larger Black liberation movement. The book you are reading is not that biography. Rather, we humbly offer this volume as a collection of notes for that future biography.

”A Lie of Reinvention” is harshly critical of Marable and his posthumously published work. Good! Harsh public criticism is the appropriate response to harsh public actions, harsh public cultural distortions, and harsh public accommodations to the first two. It is also necessary when there are too many voices, for whatever reason, that refuse to separate critique from tribute.

The undercurrent of what has been said, or not said, publicly about Manning Marable since his death and the publication of A Life of Reinvention has often times been predicated on the idea of not speaking ill of the dead. Bill Strickland reminds us of this in his essay in this collection, which contends that this idea was “a standard Manning did not adhere to himself.” Even if he did, however, that would be irrelevant. Still, and I have no empirical evidence to substantiate this, I believe that if Marable had been White, or if he had not been the esteemed Black pioneering scholar his Black defenders claim him to be, the public reaction of many of those defenders to our collective, harsh, public critique would be, to say the least, muted.

Manning Marable should be remembered—for all his contributions—and the quality of those contributions should be, and will continue to be, argued and debated. But it is important to note that many of the public defenders of Marable’s bad biography were in some way connected to him—personally, professionally, or both. Thus, it is important to note that the vast majority of the contributors to this volume“as writers, as part of this tradition of Afro-American critical thought”we did not go to high school or college with Marable, we were not taught by him, nor did we lecture under him at Columbia. So we do not owe him our silence or knee-jerk defense.

But we do owe history. We do owe Africana Studies. Our larger commitment to historical memory dwarfs any concerns about offending Manning Marable’s admirers, colleagues, friends, and students. History is our prime concern. Therefore, we actively and proudly choose to be intellectual squatters in the new historical neighborhoods, openly breaking the rules and happily accepting any consequences of being labeled trespassers.

From the book “A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X,” edited by Jared A. Ball and Todd Steven Burroughs. Copyright 2012, 2013 by Black Classic Press.

 

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