That a book about his life has just won a Pulitzer is surely proof that Malcolm X's redemption in mainstream America is near complete.
It’s rather unfortunate that American historian Manning Marable, author of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, isn’t around to enjoy his moment of triumph.
Marable, this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in the history category, died last year on the eve of the publication of his masterpiece. The work, researched and written over nearly two decades, was published last year to both acclaim and controversy. Marable argued that the parts in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (collaboratively written with Malcolm) in which the icon describes a friend’s homosexual experiences were in fact about Malcolm’s own gay past.
The contentious passage reads: “He paid Rudy to undress them both, then pick up the old man like a baby, lay him on his bed, then stand over him, and sprinkle him all over with talcum powder. Rudy said the old man would actually reach his climax from that.”
While Malcolm felt the need to obfuscate his gay past, he was quite open about some of his “misdemeanors” before his conversion to the Elijah Muhammad-led Nation of Islam (NOI). In fact, he often exaggerated his criminal exploits to show the extent of his salvation. Not that the transformation was minor, something to be scoffed at; when Louis Farrakhan—who would later fall out with Malcolm and succeed Muhammad as head of NOI—met Malcolm years after his conversion he was struck by the icon’s metronomic personality. Farakhan told Marable: “I never saw Malcolm smoke. I never saw Malcolm curse. I never saw Malcolm wink at a woman. I never saw Malcolm eat in-between meals. He ate one meal a day. He got up at 5 o’clock in the morning to say his prayers. I never saw Malcolm late for an appointment. Malcolm was like a clock.”
Into the storm
The Malcolm of the Nation of Islam period is of little interest to me; the Malcolm I readily identify with is the later Malcolm, after he had been expelled from the nation. Then he was itinerant and world-wise, always mutating and interrogating long held views. This was the man who, upon his assassination on February 21 1965, aged 39, would be claimed by a clutch of diverse interests that include Trotskyists, black cultural nationalists, Sunni Muslims, even conservatives. After the race riots of Los Angeles in the 1990s, for instance, former Republican vice president Dan Quayle said he had understood the reasons for the riots by reading Malcolm’s autobiography. He wasn’t allowed to bluff his way through the storm. Spike Lee, who directed Malcolm X, a movie based on the black leader’s life, quipped: “Every time Malcolm X talked about ‘blue-eyed devils’ Quayle should think he’s talking about him.”
The fact that a conservative spoke so approvingly about the militant and that a book about his life has just won a Pulitzer is surely proof that the icon’s fortunes are on the rise; that his redemption in mainstream America is near complete. It took White America decades to cast away its prejudices even though the preacher was a “historical figure”, in the sense that “more than any of his contemporaries, he embodied the spirit, vitality and political mood of an entire population - black urban mid-twentieth century America”.
It’s not just Americans who continue to glean meaning from Malcolm’s richly textured life. In many ways, Malcolm’s very life—the fact that he is a “product of the modern ghetto”—will find resonances in South Africa’s (former) labour reserves of Alexandra and Soweto in Johannesburg, Gugulethu and Khayelitsha in Cape Town and many other townships strewn across South Africa cities.
Malcolm once worked on the railroad: “The sounds of the trains have been woven into the fabric of jazz, blues, and even rhythm and blues.” (Malcolm himself spoke in the “cadence and percussive sounds of jazz music”). Trains and jazz; there is an obvious connection to Malcolm there.
No song in South Africa’s extensive discography evokes the train and the migrant labour system as plaintively and beautifully as Hugh Masekela did in his iconic jazz composition, Stimela. The 1974 song begins: “There’s a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi/ there’s a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe/ from Angola and Mozambique/ from Lesotho, from Botswana, from Swaziland ...” Celebrating the song, jazz critic Gwen Ansell argued: “Stimela is a powerful indictment of the migrant labour system with its ‘stinking, funky, filthy, flea-ridden barracks and hostels’ where miners ‘think about the loved ones they may never see again’—”
In significant ways, Malcolm represents the gamut of black thought and experience in South Africa. Just about every major black South African leader of the last 50 years (Mandela, Hani, Sobukwe, Mbeki, Tambo, Biko—) would find something in Malcolm and, in turn, Malcolm would recognise a kindred spirit in them. I mean almost every one: those on the ultra-left and the conservatives, the black nationalists and the black separatists, even the democrats and the liberals.
Malcolm knew what was going on in Africa, he read widely and visited several countries including Ghana and Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania, Algeria and Egypt, even meeting some of Africa’s leaders (not that his upbringing had no solid ideological foundations; Earl Little, Malcolm’s father, was a local leader of the Marcus Garvey’s organisation led Pan Africanist Universal Negro Improvement Association in Omaha, Nebraska). That made Malcolm discard the freakish, science-fiction origins of the Negro that he had been taught in the Nation of Islam. Using his newfound Garvey-inspired knowledge, acquired from reading and extensive travel, he would declare: “The man that you call Negro is nothing but an African himself. The unity of Africans abroad and the unity of Africans here in this country can bring about practically any kind of achievement or accomplishment that black people want.”
After his travels in Africa Malcolm could move away from the Negro problems in the United States to talk about “the painful case of the Congo, unique in modern history, that shows how the rights of the people can be thwarted with utmost impunity”, he said, asking pointedly: “Who committed those crimes? Belgian paratroopers, brought in by US planes, which left from English bases — All free men in the world should prepare to avenge the crime in the Congo.” And then, on another occasion, putting the places perpetrating injustice on a continuum that stretched from southern Africa to the United States, Malcolm added: “We believe that it is one struggle in South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, and Alabama. They are all the same.”
When Malcolm formed his own movement, Organisation of Afro-American Unity, he made a declaration (that has echoes of Biko) that whites could make contributions but were not allowed to join because “when whites join an organization they usually take control of it”. Even though he had been taught that the white man is a “blue-eyed devil”, yet in correspondence with Haley he was already demurring: “I began to perceive that ‘white man’, as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it describes attitudes and actions.”
And even though for years he had championed segregationist policies, he would do a volte-face and declare: “Separation is not the goal of the Afro-American, nor is integration his goal. They are merely methods toward his real end-respect as a human being.” This has echoes of Sobukwe’s declaration: “There is only one race to which we all belong, and that is the human race.”
Malcolm was trying to find links between slavery and discrimination and the dysfunctional societies of the mid-twentieth century. There is an obvious parallel with South Africa, whose people still live in societies scarred by violent crime. Malcolm is especially relevant so soon after a video surfaced in which several boys are alleged to have gang-raped a minor. I know it’s easy to blame criminality in South Africa on the centuries of apartheid and colonialism. Let us be clear: crime is everywhere in Africa but what’s disturbing about its manifestation here is its violent aspect. What should, for instance, be a straightforward mugging in South Africa is so violent and sadistic that you actually fear for the sanity of the perpetrator of the crime. One then begins to wonder whether we are dealing with something that’s deeper and more pathological.
American actor and playwright Ossie Davis, Malcolm’s friend, said: “Malcolm was an expert on the damage that slavery and racism had done to the black man’s image of himself. He was equally expert in what had to be done to remedy that egregious lack of self-esteem. He knew it would take more than civil rights legislation, jobs and education to really save the black man— He felt, as did some of us, that to ask a man who had already been beaten up and beaten down to be nonviolent was only to change black pathology into another religion.” Elsewhere, Malcolm argued with chilling perspicacity that “victims of racism are created in the image of the racists.”
In an interview with South Africa’s Sunday Express in 1965, after the Sharpeville Massacres and the Rivonia trials that had all but snuffed out opposition to apartheid, he urged blacks to use violence “all the way— I don’t give the [South African] blacks credit in any way— for restraining themselves or confining themselves to ground rules that limit the scope of their activity.”
Even though, in Malcolm’s worldview, the range of tools of struggle available to the oppressed blacks had widened, he still had no time for people like Chief Albert Luthuli, whom he dismissed as “just another Martin Luther King, used to keep the oppressed people in check.”
Malcolm considered the forgotten Sobukwe and the iconic Mandela the country’s “real leaders”. Both Mandela and Malcolm have undergone metamorphoses. Some of the people who adore Mandela today are the very same who considered him a terrorist yesterday. Marable argues that “although today Mandela is perceived as a racial reconciliator, much like King, a half a century ago the future president of South Africa largely shared Malcolm’s views about the necessity of armed struggle in Africa”.
In the concluding chapter, Marable argues that the UN’s World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban in 2001, “was in many ways a fulfillment of Malcolm’s international vision”. Of the 11500 delegates, about 3000 were Americans, and two-thirds of those were black. “Malcolm believed that black freedom in the United States depended on internationalist geopolitical strategy.”
Marable’s biography, written in a style that’s mid way between an academic work and fiction, is extremely compelling and exhaustive, one of the best works of non-fiction I have read in a long time