A Life of Reinvention – Malcolm X: Book review


Is America a ‘melting pot’ today? Has Martin Luther King’s dream of a post-racial society come true? Or are we still closer to the America that Malcom X saw, one that is segregated, racist and inherently unequal? While the answers to these are not simple and certainly not easy, looking closely at the inequality in our society, the demographic shifts taking place and the real problems that Blacks face, one is forced to acknowledge that despite coming across as abrasive and at times hostile, Malcom’s ideas did have relevance in his time and still do. A Life of Reinvention by the late Dr. Manning Marable, professor at Columbia University adds to the literature on Malcom X’s fascinating but short life and offers us a perspective that is missing. With new sources drawn from his letters, FBI documents that were recently de-classified; Marable offers new insights into his character. The book provides a detailed account of his troubled childhood, delinquent youth and eventual imprisonment that led to his discovery of the Nation of Islam (NOI), a remarkable turn of events that was to be life-changing.

Photo credit : Malcolmx.com
Photo credit : Malcolmx.com

                The title of the book is a reference to the various transformations that Malcom X’s life underwent. If life before prison made him a hustler, pimp and a petty criminal, who learnt to survive; life after prison opened his mind to the possibilities that lay before him – as an enlightened black man. This was a phase that brought him great fame and reach. This was followed by the final phase, when he broke from the NOI to found his own organization. Marable devotes quite many pages outlining the split as resulting from the corruption that he saw, including Elijah Muhammad’s illicit relationships with many of his secretaries that resulted in many illegitimate children being born.

One of the most striking things that I found in this study is that Malcom X’s diagnosis of the problems of African-Americans was not too off the mark. While there were problems with his polemic and solutions to ending the racial problems- he did propose a separate state for the Blacks- his views moved towards more mainstream ones, later on. After the pilgrimage to Mecca, he seems to have become a ‘reformed’ man, not to say that he fully embraced multi-racialism. But his views on racism (within the context of Islam) were altered profoundly and he started seeing ‘beyond the skin color’. Proof that Malcom X was not entirely wrong about stressing on Black solidarity to improve their lot is another theory that was propounded around the same time was that by New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathaniel Glazer, who argued in their book Beyond the Melting Pot, where the authors studied New York city and pointed out that the ethnic identities played a large part in the solidarity and eventual uplift of the communities. While Moynihan and Glazer were for assimilation, they realized that the ‘melting pot’ hypothesis had not worked. It was a myth at best and profoundly flawed at worst. They stressed the importance of ethnic (and racial) identities and its importance in ensuring that the minorities are not forced to give up their identities in the rush to ‘improve their lot’.

The arguments for segregation may seem simplistic, but it seems to be occurring, as we speak. As this article in The Atlantic points out, our schools are more segregated than they were ever. “In the 1968-69 school year, when the U.S. Department of Education started to enforce Brown, about 77 percent of black students and 55 percent of Latino students attended public schools that were more than half-minority. By the 2009-2010 school year, the picture wasn’t much better for black students, and it was far worse for Latinos: 74 percent of black students and 80 percent of Latino students went to schools that were more than half-minority. More than 40 percent of black and Latino students attended schools that were 90 percent to 100 percent minority.” While the rhetoric of integration has been dominant, economic forces and other social factors have played a critical part in separating people – perhaps on the basis of their class, more than race. With the influx of immigrants, say from Mexico and other relatively poorer countries, this situation has just exacerbated. I witnessed this during my recent trip to Southern California, where schools in Rialto, CA are almost 90 percent Hispanic. The challenges to these schools are similar to those that face any other schools in downtowns of major American cities – less resources, crime, unstable families and dropout rates of almost 50 percent.

                Marable’s book also brings into focus the differing discourses of Black Nationalism within the African American community. While King stood on the side of integration, Malcom was clearly opposed to it and clearly attracted a sizeable number of organizations to align with him – though not fully – these included the CORE, progressives in several Christian denominations, labor unions, Northern inner-city communities.

                Another aspect that the book throws light on is the apolitical nature of the early Muslims. Given that the NOI was not active politically and Elijah Muhammad made sure that they would stay that way, Malcom X’s increasing involvement in politics can be seen as a the precursor to the growth of political involvement of Muslims in America. While this is not too well known, another Muslim group formed during that time, the Muslim Students Association, that exists today and morphed into Islamic Society of North America also did not participate in politics. There is a striking similarity in their positions, though they were drawn from two different ideologies. The MSA group believed that since the American government did not function in an Islamic state, they should not participate in politics. This has since then changed and today, both MSA and ISNA are very active politically. But this is an important fact we must remember.

                There is also an interesting documentation between Malcom X’s and Muhammad Ali’s relationship. The turning point between their relationship was the fight between Ali and Sonny Liston. Malcom rightly predicted that Ali would win this fight and would go onto become a great spokesperson for Muslims, throughout the world. This was a well thought out strategy that paid off, at least for a while. But when Malcolm officially left the Nation, Ali would stay with the organization.

                 Malcom’s involvement and interest in tying Black Nationalism with struggles in Africa and the third world were the final phase of his own reinvention. The Hajj and subsequent trip to the Middle East, where he met leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, heads of states from African countries was significant in shaping his ideas. His ideas of race seem to have moved beyond that of the NOI, and the concept of ‘Asiatic man’, and he recognized that the ‘white man’ was not just about skin color, but rather about attitudes and ways of thinking. Witnessing white Muslims during the Hajj, performing their duties as sincerely as other Blacks reinforced this belief in him. His words “I have eaten from the same plate, drank from the same glass, slept on the same bed or rug, while praying to the same god…with fellow Muslims whose skins was the whitest of the white, whose eyes were the bluest of blue…(for) the first time in my life…I didn’t see them as ‘white’ men.” Came to define his new outlook, a total turn about from NOI’s philosophy.

                His subsequent assassination was the handiwork of the NOI, Marable points out and FBI’s documents also point in this direction. While Malcom X is no more with us, his ideas, passion and insights into the condition of the Blacks in America and perhaps world over remain as relevant today as they were in his time. Marable does a good job bringing this complex character to life and this book is definitely worth your time.

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