Like most college-educated black men my age, reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X was like having my eyes pried open for the first time. So when I heard that Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention was finally to be released–just three days after author Manning Marable passed away–I wasn’t quite sure what I’d get. I had and have a great deal of respect for Marable–he was a public intellectual in the truest sense of the word long before most of us were barely out of grade school, and was a first-order institution builder (creating or enhancing black studies programs at UC Boulder, Ohio State, and Columbia University). But I didn’t know if he’d be able to pull the work off for two reasons–he’d never written a book this long and rich before, and Marable is a staunch (radical) integrationist. I thought I’d wait to see what the critics said, but when Marc Steiner suggested I appear on a panel on the book alongside Michael Eric Dyson, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Sherrilyn Ifill, my decision was made. I didn’t know how the hell we’d be able to dig into the book with only one mic and two hours in between the five of us, but I figured something good would come of it.
Having read the book, I believe it to be the work scholars of the fifties and sixties will have to wrestle with if they want to understand Malcolm X and his legacy. And I commend Marable for his work. But I’ll be damned if I wish he were here to deal with the critics…and I count myself among them. From reading the book we get a sense of some of the struggles Malcolm had as an acolyte, as a father and a husband, as a leader of men, as a hustler, as a black man. We also get a sense of the struggles the Nation of Islam faced as it grew. But what we never get a sense of is why black people supported the Nation as they did. Nor do we get a sense of how Malcolm’s own ideas about black nationalism grew and changed. And this is where Marable’s own biases loom large.
We talked about this and other aspects of the book in our two-hour discussion. There were a couple of things that I’d expand on–there’s an assumption that black nationalism is inherently patriarchal and conservative, and this is an assumption that begs the question (patriarchal and conservative compared to what??). There’s also an assumption that political organizing and cultural nationalism are diametrically opposed. Finally I talk about the “black box of cultural production” at the beginning.
The one and only conversation I ever had with Manning Marable was at Michigan right after he’d gotten the resources to create the African American studies program at Columbia. I told him I was much more interested in hearing him talk about how he went about building that institution than the subject he DID talk about…and he responded by stating he didn’t think anyone would be interested in that. If there’s value in “deconstructing Malcolm” and making him more human, surely there’s value in deconstructing the various institutions and projects we build in the name of creating a better world?
Anyway, the podcast is broken up into two one hour slots. I’ll put the video up when it becomes available: