The Judas Factor: The Life and Death of Malcolm Shabazz
Limited 25th Anniversary Edition.
Xis Books, 541 pp., $25.99.
Reviewed by Todd Steven Burroughs
Context can be a witch, to be polite. Yesterday, May 19, Malcolm X would have been 93. The fact that that day is marked solemnly around the country by those who believe in radical struggle shows how Malcolm X has lived with us, and is still carried around with us now, through generations. Fifty-three years from his assassination in that ballroom, and we still listen for the gunshots. Karl Evannz understands this, and he has re-written a book, originally 1992’s “The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X,” that attempts to be more than a political biography. He wants it to be the boldest, broadest statement about American and world political history he can make through the eyes of Malcolm X and his radical contemporaries, those who sought to overthrow all status quos that unapologetically oppressed them. He wants the reader to understand, say, the killing of Malcolm’s father within the context of the history and development of the Garvey movement, and the surveillance of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad within the framework of the decades of demonic work of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to destroy any socio-political movement led by dark people not chosen by them—which was, at that point in time, practically nil. Whew.
This approach is very ambitious, and, in many ways, it succeeds. “Judas” tells a clear and pointed story, balancing the blame of Malcolm’s death between the Nation of Islam and the United States intelligence community, presenting document after document illustrating the cancerous growth of the invisible, deadly marriage. Evanzz showers the reader with external and internal historical detail within a gripping narrative. Even an Africana Studies scholar might not know, for example, that Muhammad Speaks—the Nation of Islam newspaper that Malcolm created that was taken from him by the NOI’s grand poohbahs in Chicago—carried the most coverage of Congo leader Patrice Lumumba’s 1961 assassination of any newspaper, white or Black. Examples like that, Evanzz said, show that Muhammad Speaks surpassed Marcus Garvey’s Negro World in power and reach. The COINTEL-PRO documents, those organized and indexed works of human rights violation, are the evidential thread that shows the daily conflicts that destroyed Malcolm X’s relationship with one Nation but, ultimately, midwifed him to a Black world filled with decolonized minds. This revised book could be shorter and tighter, but it attempts one-stop-shop status for Malcolm X’s life, work, and death, all within the story of 20th century pre- and post-World War II (racial) America.
Historians often say you need 50 to 100 years before phenomena can be correctly studied. What, then, does Malcolm X mean to those who struggle now that he has passed that 50-year history mark, becoming a mid-20th century marker in the soon-to-be mid-21st century? Although his analysis still seems current, he has long sat a table next to Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey in the Realm of the Ancestors now, with only YouTube uploads returning him to Earth–into direct, sighted motion, forever in time-frozen focus. But although it often seems to come close, the audio-video sensation of the YouTube clip is not a substitute for the disciplined and knowledgeable absorbing of the (history of the) political messages of 20th century revolutionaries, and that includes Malcolm X. What Evanzz has done, and now done again, is to make the reader confront the open rebellions that dark people had against their (former?) captors—the possibilities of true freedom, and the naked brutality and evil employed by the Western powers, particularly and especially the United States of America, to curtail that freedom. If history is indeed circular, these revolutionary ideas will resurface, again and again, until the word meets blood. At that juncture, we will find Malcolm X, Tubman and other members of the de-colony there, waiting for us to arrive.
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J. He is the co-editor, with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X, published by Black Classic Press. He also is the author of Warrior Princess: A People’s Biography of Ida B. Wells, and Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates, both published by Diasporic Africa Press. His 2014 audiobook, Son-Shine On Cracked Sidewalks, deals with the first mayoral election of Ras Baraka, the son of the late activist and writer Amiri Baraka, in Newark.