Saturday, October 27, 2012

GUEST POST: Two books about Malcolm X

The latest choice for our historical fiction/history book group was The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley. I had mixed feelings about the book. I learned quite a bit about the time period and about the man. But I found it to be slow reading, particularly the first part of the book detailing his early life and criminal past. Once he was imprisoned and began his career with the Nation of Islam, the story became more compelling. While I know that we have to understand his past in order to appreciate the path of his life, I just didn’t find the way it was narrated to be all that interesting.

So, I thought it would be a good idea to read Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable for comparison. How would a different writer present the life of this important historical figure?

Here’s what happened. We got Marable’s book out of the library and my husband read it first. Meanwhile, I started Anna Karenina for the Back-to-the-Classics challenge. And as we both worked our way through our chunky books, I had an even better idea. A guest post!

I introduce to you, historian Brad Asher, (author of Cecelia and Fanny: The Remarkable Friendship Between an Escaped Slave and her Former Mistress) to discuss two books on Malcolm X.

Sue asked me to guest blog because I read both The Autobiography of Malcolm X for our history book group and then followed it up immediately with the 2010 biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable. So I have been immersed in Malcolm X for the last few weeks, even watching on YouTube some of his old speeches and the 1959 documentary, "The Hate that Hate Produced," which first brought him wide attention outside the African American community. Despite my immersion, though, I wonder if a middle-class white guy has anything useful to say about Malcolm X.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, of course, is a modern classic, widely assigned in college classrooms to this day. It tells the story of Malcolm’s redemption from a life of criminality and drug abuse to national and international prominence as a spokesman for the ghetto-ized poor blacks of America’s northern cities. While Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders were fighting legal segregation in the Jim Crow South, Malcolm and other like-minded leaders were fighting structural racism and racist exploitation in the urban North. The vehicle for Malcolm’s redemption was the Nation of Islam, a cult-like religious and social movement led by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who was viewed as a divine messenger sent by Allah to the black masses of America.

From the vantage point of 2012, it is hard to read the Autobiography and not notice the wacky theology of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm’s retrograde views on women, his blanket condemnations of whites as "devils," and his offhand dismissals of civil rights leaders like King. The things that are so important in Malcolm’s life story and his ideology—his emphasis on black pride, black self-help, black self-respect—are in the 21st century ingrained in many aspects of American culture. It can be difficult—for whites, at least—to remember what a cultural shock such sentiments were in the early 1960s.

That’s where I found Marable’s book so helpful. He is not uncritical of Malcolm or the Nation of Islam, but he puts Malcolm’s story in the context of the larger currents of civil-rights history and African American history. Whereas Malcolm’s eventual break with the Nation has a slightly incongruous feeling in the Autobiography, given all that’s come before, Marable is able to integrate the break into the larger story of Malcolm’s evolution as an activist, a leader, and a Muslim. Marable also makes clear that American culture’s domestication of Malcolm—the tendency to view him as someone who was moving toward the civil rights mainstream by the time of his assassination—is a misreading of the man’s life and legacy.

I don’t think I would have enjoyed Marable as much if I hadn’t read the Autobiography, but I also think I "get" the Autobiography better as a result of Marable’s book.

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