Malcolm X: A life of Reinvention
by Manning Marable
Published by Viking Penguin
Reviewed by Steve Halpern
Manning Marable has spent his entire life studying African American history. He was the founding director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University. According to his biography, this institute became one of the most respected African American Studies programs in the country.
Marable has collected a significant amount of biographical information about Malcolm X that has become available since his assassination. While much of this information is useful in gaining a further appreciation for Malcolm’s life, there is a striking flaw to this book. We can see this flaw in the epilogue where Marable argues that, “At the end of his life he (Malcolm X) realized that blacks could receive representation and even power under the American constitutional system.” This review will attempt to show how a careful study of the life of Malcolm X makes it perfectly clear that Malcolm was adamantly opposed to this view.
Capitalism and discrimination
Before we look at the arguments of Manning Marable, I believe it is useful to look at a few facts that are rarely mentioned in the educational system in this country. Malcolm X had this to say about the limits of the educational system in an interview with the Young Socialist Magazine a few weeks before his assassination. “The colleges and universities in the American educational system are skillfully used to miseducate.”
John Locke, who lived most of his life in the 17th century, made a statement that is usually ignored on the university campuses. Locke argued that, “All wealth is the product of labor.” This means that human beings transform materials taken from the environment into goods and services that we all need and want.
If we believe that John Locke was right, then the following controversial conclusion reflects the reality we live with. The political economic system of capitalism takes the lion’s share of the wealth working people create, and gives it to a tiny percentage of the population that, for the most part, have no intention of doing productive work. Black people have always done some of the least desirable work during slavery, Jim Crow segregation, as well as in the present reality. This work has been rewarded with systematic discrimination with respect to housing, employment, education, as well as the so-called enforcement of the law.
In other words, the so-called American constitutional system has, almost always, operated in opposition to the interests of all working people. Malcolm X was well aware of this reality throughout his life.
Malcolm's family background
Malcolm’s parents, Earl and Louise Little, were members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The central leader of the U.N.I.A. was Marcus Garvey. Earl and Louise were assigned to move from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Omaha, Nebraska in order to build a base for the U.N.I.A. in Omaha.
During Malcolm’s life and the lives of his parents African Americans did not have full citizenship rights in the United States. Thousands of Black people were lynched and the government rarely attempted to prosecute those responsible for these murders. Discrimination was the law in the Jim Crow states, while the government pretended to support the ideals of, “liberty and justice for all.”
Marcus Garvey argued that Black people have the capacity to run their own communities in this country and around the world. Given the racism of his age, Garvey didn’t see the possibility of a movement of Black and Caucasian workers engaged in a struggle that would liberate humanity from the routine brutality of the capitalist system.
Malcolm X’s father was one of the thousands of Black people who were lynched by racists in this country. The government compromised the entire legal system by refusing to make any serious attempt to apprehend those responsible for these lynchings. In fact, politicians were known to give campaign speeches where Black people were lynched.
While the government refused to find those responsible for the murder of Malcolm’s father, this same government worked to separate Malcolm, as well as his brothers and sisters, from their mother. They argued that this was for the good of the children.
When Malcolm attended school, one of his teachers, Mr. Ostrowski, questioned Malcolm about his career plans. When Malcolm responded that he was thinking about becoming a lawyer, Ostrowski responded:
“Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, and you know that. A lawyer, that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. . . You’re good with your hands--making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry?”
If we view the essential feature of the capitalist system as the theft of wealth from workers to a tiny minority who own capital, then we can draw a few conclusions. That would be to explain how corporate lawyers aid in the theft of wealth from working people. Malcolm, because he was denied many employment opportunities because of his skin color, became something like a corporate lawyer. He became a thief.
While some forms of theft are apparently legal in the capitalist system, the police apprehended Malcolm for an act of theft that is not seen as legal. Malcolm received a longer prison term for this offence because his companion at that time was a Caucasian woman.
All of this information gives us part of the story as to why Malcolm believed that the government in this country could not be reformed. The idea that the same government that had committed these acts would change and somehow liberate Black people, to Malcolm, was absurd.
The house slave and the field slave
There is another aspect of Malcolm’s character that, I believe, needs to be understood.
Early in his life Malcolm moved to Boston, Massachusetts to live with his sister-in-law Ella. They lived in the Hill section of Boston where Black people who had a bit of money lived. Ella wanted Malcolm to become a part of this Hill section of town. This is what Malcolm said about that experience in his autobiography:
“I didn’t want to disappoint or upset Ella, but despite her advice, I began going down to the ghetto section of town. That world of grocery stores, walk up flats, cheap restaurants, poolrooms, bars, storefront churches, and pawnshops seemed to hold a natural lure for me.
“Not only was that part of Roxbury much more exciting, but I felt more relaxed among Negroes who were being their natural selves and not putting on airs. Even though I did live on the Hill, my instincts were never--and still aren’t--to feel myself better than any other Negro.”
When Malcolm Little became Malcolm X and joined the Nation of Islam he recruited thousands of Black people. Most of his recruits did not have much money and might have been unemployed, or had served in the military, or spent time in jail. These recruits understood Malcolm when he argued that the government in this country could not be reformed and that Black people needed to take control of their communities.
In Malcolm’s speech, Message to the Grass Roots, he talked about the difference in attitudes during slavery between the house Negro and the field Negro. Malcolm said that,
“If the master got sick, the house Negro would say, ‘What’s the matter, boss, we sick? We sick!’ He identified himself with the master, more than his master identified with himself.”
This is what Malcolm had to say about the “field Negro.”
“The field Negro was beaten from morning to night; he lived in a shack, in a hut; he wore old, cast off clothes. He hated the master. I say he hated the master. He was intelligent. That house Negro loved his master, but that field Negro¾ remember, they were the majority, and they hated the master. When the house caught on fire he didn’t try to put it out; that field Negro prayed for a wind, for a breeze. When the master got sick, the field Negro prayed that he’d die.”
Malcolm concluded that, “You’ve got field Negroes in America today. I’m a field Negro. The masses are field Negroes. When they see this man’s house on fire, you don’t hear the little Negroes talking about ‘our government is in trouble.’ They say, The government is in trouble.’ Imagine a Negro: ‘Our government’! I even heard one say ‘our astronauts.’ They won’t even let him near the plant--and ‘our astronauts’! ‘Our Navy--that’s a Negro that is out of his mind, a negro that is out of his mind.”
In Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm he argues that,
“Given the election of Barack Obama, it now raises the question of whether blacks have a separate political destiny from their white fellow citizens. If legal segregation was permanently in America’s past, Malcolm’s vision today would have to radically redefine self-determination and the meaning of black power in a political environment that appeared to be ‘post-racial.’”
In my opinion there are several problems with this statement. First, this statement lacks any class understanding of society. There are Caucasian and Black individuals who actively manage capitalist interests. Corporations profit off of discrimination by paying some people less than others. Caucasian and Black workers and farmers do not have the same “political destiny” as the people who profit off of discrimination.
A core weakness of Marable’s book is that he fails to show how institutionalized discrimination against Black people continues in the United States. Only by ignoring these facts can he make the argument that we are living in an environment that is “post racial.”
Today anyone living in the United States has a better chance to go to prison than citizens of any other nation in the world. Yet, Black people have a much better chance of serving time in prison than Caucasians.
According to a recent study by the Urban League, the financial assets of Black people are twenty times less than the assets of Caucasians.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as in many urban areas, the percentage of students who are Black and Latino is about 90%. City Line Avenue separates Philadelphia from the Lower Merion School District, where the student population is about 90% white. Per student funding in Lower Merion is double of what it is in Philadelphia. Currently, the Philadelphia School District has plans to cut $629 million from its budget, making the disparity in funding even greater.
On another topic, recently President Barack Obama interrupted his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to meet the Chief Executive Officer of Comcast, Brian Roberts, at his multi-million dollar mansion on the island.
Comcast’s headquarters are located in Philadelphia in a recently completed billion dollar office building. Philadelphia has a tax abatement program that allows the owners of newly constructed buildings to avoid paying taxes for ten years. This means that Comcast avoids paying real estate taxes to the city for ten years while the Philadelphia School District is cutting $629 million from its budget.
Understanding these facts I couldn’t help thinking of Malcolm X’s statement about the “house Negro.” No, Malcolm would not need to “radically redefine” his message as Manning Marable might argue. Malcolm’s words ring just as true today as they did in the 1960’s.
Malcolm and Che
There is a sentence in Marable’s book that I do agree with. Marable argued that Malcolm and Ernesto Che Guevara “were kindred spirits politically, a bond revealed not only by the similarity of their worldviews but by Guevara’s subsequent travels” in Africa during the 1960’s.
Yet Marable also argues that Malcolm was a Pan-Africanist. No one would argue that Che Guevara was a Pan-Africanist.
Clearly Malcolm felt that Black people needed to understand that they came from Africa and have common interests with the people of that continent. Malcolm reiterated this in many of his speeches. However, Malcolm was also moving in a direction where he supported the interests of working people from around the world. Malcolm’s support of Che Guevara was a clear example of this thinking.
Malcolm invents the idea of Black power
Manning Marable also wrote about debates that Malcolm had with Bayard Rustin and James Farmer while he was a leader of the Nation of Islam. At that time, Rustin and Farmer both were allied with the politics of Martin Luther King and had a specific program. That program relied on the U.S. government to advance the cause of Black people in this country. Since Malcolm did not have a specific political program at that time, Manning argued that Rustin and Farmer won those debates.
Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the civil rights as well as the black power movements viewed Bayard Rustin at the time of one of these debates as his “mentor.” Carmichael expected Rustin to dominate the debate in 1961. Carmichael apparently was transformed by this debate and argued that,
“What Malcolm demonstrated that night . . .was the raw power, the visceral potency, of the grip of our unarticulated collective blackness held over us. I’ll never forget it.”
I believe that Marable elaborated on what Carmichael was saying in the following passage:
He (Malcolm X) keenly felt, and expressed, the varied emotions and frustrations of the black poor and working class. His constant message was black pride, self-respect, and awareness of one’s heritage. At a time when American society stigmatized or excluded people of African descent, Malcolm’s militant advocacy was stunning. He gave millions of younger African Americans newfound confidence. These expressions were at the foundation of what in 1966 became Black Power, and Malcolm was its fountainhead.”
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King
Marable also compared the contributions of Malcolm to those of Martin Luther King. Clearly King felt that liberation for Black people could come within the framework of the constitutional system of the United States. However, when we look at the last year of King’s life it also become clear that he was beginning to question that point of view. In King’s speech against the war in Vietnam he talked about conversations he had with people who questioned his non-violent approach in the face of the U.S. government’s atrocities in Vietnam. This is how King answered that question:
“Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today--my own government.”
Since the U.S. government, in point of fact, continues to be the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world” this statement by King can also be taken as a criticism of the administration of President Barack Obama.
In his speech “Where do we go from here?” King had this to say:
“Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
In his interview with the Young Socialist Malcolm X gave a stronger critique of the capitalist system. When asked about his opinion about the worldwide struggle against capitalism and socialism, this is how Malcolm responded:
“It is impossible for capitalism to survive, primarily because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck. Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture. It used to be strong enough to go and suck anybody’s blood whether they were strong or not. But now it has become cowardly, like the vulture, and it can only suck the blood of the helpless. As the nations of the world free themselves, then capitalism has less victims, less to suck, it becomes weaker and weaker. It is only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely.”
This statement completely contradicts Manning Marable’s opinion that Malcolm X felt that Black people “could receive representation and even power under the American constitutional system.”
The transformation of Malcolm
With all of it’s weaknesses, there was a considerable amount of information about Malcolm’s life that I learned from Marable’s book. Malcolm clearly felt that the political economic system of the United States needs to be replaced and he attempted to organize a movement that had this as its goal. For anyone who has this point of view there needs to be a personal transformation. Few of us are raised with this point of view and we must transform ourselves in order to advance it.
Yet Malcolm transformed himself twice. Once when he joined the Nation of Islam and then when he broke from the NOI to form his own organization advancing his own political agenda.
Malcolm’s point of view was so compelling that thousands of people from all over the world came to hear him speak. Heads of state, who had participated in anti-imperialist struggles, also appreciated his ideas and treated him as a dignitary.
For a better view of Malcolm’s political legacy, I recommend the book Malcolm X, Black liberation, and the road to workers power by Jack Barnes. This book looks at the history of Black people in the United States and shows how they have been in the forefront of all struggles for human dignity. The book also shows how Malcolm was a product of this history and how he was the most important leader this country has seen.