Last month Russell Rickford published this commemoration of his late mentor Manning Marable. In it Rickford makes mention of our anthology which criticizes the final work attributed to Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. i understand that Rickford’s is more of a short essay and is part of a wider reflection by that journal on the life and work of Marable and that it is not a focused critique of our work (a point to which i will return). But Rickford, like so many who defend the Viking Press product, does do much of what we felt required our response. We felt it necessary then, and i certainly still feel it is now, to try somehow to fill the tremendous void created by the subsidiary of Penguin Group and its largely unquestioned welcoming by not only the establishment from which the book so clearly comes but also by so many activists, academics, journalists and lay readers alike. It was the force of Marable’s well-established (and deserved) brand that propelled then and now a defense of the final work carrying his name that i continue to think exists mostly (only) to distort Malcolm X as a symbol himself of ideas which still inspire fear among those who claim now to know best how to present him/them to us.
What i see in Rickford’s essay is a re-presentation of so much of what we were challenging. As i attempted to clarify with him via email, Rickford repeated a common approach, as many defenders of the final work attributed to Marable were/are prone to do, most notably, the use of references to critics as straw arguments to defend their friend, mentor or ideological compatriot. There is no real interest or attempt to truly engage criticism which for Marable’s defenders only exists to invalidate their ally. In fact, what often presents itself as a defense of the book is indeed a defense of the man. Understandably, Manning Marable’s long and distinguished career has left many who would not want a man who can no longer defend himself to suffer any posthumous criticism. However, we remain left with a woefully flawed document which purports to be the “definitive” biography and, therefore, must be subject to principled and sound examination.
As for Rickford’s passing reference to and deployment of our work in his essay, the ignored or unmentioned substance, reasoning, research or logic of my colleagues’ work can speak for itself. For me and my unmentioned argument against the final work on Malcolm X attributed to Marable, it has always been the same and based on what i argue is the book’s political function to distort, diminish and discourage the updated implementation of the radical ideas with which Malcolm was most grappling at the end of his life; pan-Africanism, nationalism, socialism, anti-imperialism/colonialism, anti-capitalism, anti-White supremacy and armed struggle. i feel that the final book attributed to Marable is a departure from Marable’s own previous work on Malcolm X and the Black Radical Tradition more broadly speaking and that it should be critiqued as a state/corporate attempt to re-brand Malcolm X, a man and symbol that looms too large for full erasure, as one more palatable to White capital (even beyond what is in my introduction is what i’ve said here about this last point). And while i offer several detailed and cited examples as to why i reached those conclusions nowhere have i seen, certainly not in Rickford’s essay, any specific reference to my argument, its logic or quality of scholarship. What i have seen time and again are essays like Rickford’s that will use diminishing language to describe my/our conclusions but nothing about how they were reached. And no one, including Rickford, has yet been willing to engage, debate, or put name to print in substantive criticism of our own.
It is precisely this inattention to the specifics of the political and ideological arguments made by me and my co-authors that most exposes their value. It is the suppression, even in what should/could be reasonable debate among those readers of the final book attributed to Marable, of even discussion of revolutionary ideas that suggests our critiques of the book regarding its approach to those politics that most fully demonstrates the political, intellectual and organizational emptiness among so many of us who claim to value Malcolm X or even the career of Manning Marable.
Therefore, being offered no space in the journal to respond to Rickford and our email exchange being just that, here are just a few points of response i’d like to offer:
- Our book is only mentioned really to play the role of a kind of straw antithesis to Marable as the sound, reasonable, true people’s scholar (which he largely was and why his final book should be seen as the departure i/we claim it to be and then critiqued as such). So there is no substantive engagement with our arguments, no references to specific statements to either confirm or deny their veracity. Only one of our contributors is mentioned by name as worthy of some praise and even then there is no detail as to why his is the only valuable contribution.
- Not one word is said specifically detailing, citing or referencing any of the critiques in our book that Rickford dismisses with skillful use of words/phrases like “polemical” and “ad hominem.”
- The straw nature of our presence is furthered by Rickford in his revival of what comes across as disingenuous lamentations over Marable’s inability to face his detractors – considering Malcolm could not face his – and worse that few (none?) of the defenders of the final book on Malcolm attributed to Marable demonstrate a willingness to debate principled critics of the product (a point which we have made repeatedly for some time now). For example, Rickford goes so far as to claim that Marable’s former lead researcher Zaheer Ali has appeared in multiple “debates” and with prowess defended the merits of the book. But as i pointed out to Rickford, not only is this entirely false but the closest to debate Ali has come was one with us where he was not alerted by an Al-Jazeera producer that we would be there (and to be clear, we did not know this was the case either). Ali refused several invitations to my then radio show where i invited him and the entire Marable research staff to appear to answer questions i would furnish weeks in advance. Actually, it may be that he has canceled more debates than he has taken up since at least twice he canceled planned appearances to university debates upon hearing i was among those invited, once at Ithaca College and another at The University of Maryland at College Park. This would be fine if he had debated anyone else. It has never had to be me. i am unaware of any debate on this book in which Ali has engaged with anyone, anywhere, at any time and i made that point clear in my emails to Rickford. In fact, i asked Rickford more than once during our exchange of emails to cite even one example of the “debates” he says Ali took up. He offered none. My point here is that while claims are repeatedly made about Marable’s inability to defend himself (a point we lament as well) and how he would have treasured the opportunity to engage his critics, it is his defenders who routinely stifle sound debate.
Finally, and again, for me the argument here is mostly about the radical ideas with which Malcolm worked and that i still think today need more attention, infusion and implementation. The final book on Malcolm X attributed to Manning Marable assaults these ideas and does more to contort Malcolm X into a figure who would have somehow found reconciliation with the world today and its leadership – a point i made specifically about the book’s epilogue. Intellectual products like Viking Press’ Malcolm X are an integral part of attempts to prevent us and successive generations from taking up revolutionary concepts and to the extent successful we are weakened going forward and we are certainly not served well by those who deny debate under the guise of individual praise or reverence for scholarship.