“This collection of essays by Black scholars and activists, edited by Jared Ball and Todd Steven Burroughs, is a critical response to Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Though lauded by many, Marable’s book was debated and denounced by others as a flawed biography, full of conjecture and errors and lacking in new factual context.” – W. Paul Coates, Black Classic Press
On November 27, 2012 the editors and some contributors to A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X gathered to discuss their work. Here are portions of two presentations, an intro from Jared Ball and an important presentation from A. Peter Bailey.
1. Wolf begins by explaining her lack of expertise as a scholar and that her view of Malcolm X, up until the moment Marable “walked into [her] office,” was one driven by her experience growing up in the segregated south with her “liberal integrationist family” where reading Malcolm’s Autobiography frightened her, “he was a scary dude.” It is this distance that allows her to later refer to Malcolm’s “native intelligence” and explains her simple ignorance around the political trajectories of Malcolm X and Dr. King (to name but two). I’ll come back to that point, but this is why our volume’s contributors seek to dislodge Wolf, Viking, Columbia University and Marable as being capable, certainly not solely capable, of interpreting the life and politics of Malcolm X. Their approach is inherently hostile to and fearful of the revolution Malcolm represented/represents.
2. Wolf assumes authority over Alex Haley, Spike Lee and Malcolm himself by dismissing each as best able to tell and interpret Malcolm’s life and politics. Wolf says Lee’s film was nice but was just “Betty’s story” which cleaned up the realities of their love life. Wolf also goes on to joke that “… and no, Betty didn’t look like Angela Basset.” Is that relevant? No more than my sincere belief that Betty Shabazz was indeed more physically attractive than Angela Basset. But authority is authority. Again, we wanted to make some attempt, or to join those making similar attempts, to directly challenge their claim to being definitive and all-supplanting when it comes to life of Malcolm X or to the ways in which his ideas are to be distilled.
3. Wolf uses “we” in describing the writing process, the style, and their book’s approach almost as much as Marable used “maybe, probably, could have, might have” to describe what they call “evidence.” Wolf even says that she merely went to Marable for his “approval” of either her severe editing or outright writing of the book. She says, for instance, “We set out to rebuild an era” in which to describe Marcus Garvey and the ideas and world that would influence Malcolm X and then says that to do that she referred back to her experience talking with White students who, like Freedom Riders, went down south to register voters. She says nothing of what Marable brought to bear when interpreting the era she was rebuilding but shares with us a lot about the worldview that influenced her own.
4. Wolf then is apparently reluctant to bring up the infamous “page 66″ and the claim of Malcolm’s homosexuality. She says this as if to say that she cannot avoid doing so because so much has been made of it but says nothing of the coincidence of this – and other salacious and unsupported claims – helping to promote her book or situate it politically. And once again, there is absolutely no evidence to support these claims or even an attempt to define the alleged acts as “homosexual.” In fact, on that very page they simply say – and with no footnote or citation – that Malcolm “was probably describing his own homosexual encounters with Paul Lennon” (emphasis mine). To say that pouring talcum powder on a man for money is gay is to deny the existence of a continuum that might include this as a business transaction on one end and on another, for example, full blown (pun intended) homosexual intercourse between consenting adults. Or is this just the sexuality version of not being a little pregnant? Wolf proceeds to perform just that denial and then says that though the initial claim by Malcolm was that this was the act of a friend “we” now know that he confided to his brother and sister that it indeed was him. Wolf is also misleading in that these claims are repeated, beyond her “page 66,” where later “homosexual” is simply listed with several other applied labels as a now-established-taken-for-granted-fact, “Detroit Red… pimp, drug addict… homosexual…” (p. 78). But, much like Marable’s book, she offers no proof of this and says nothing of the fact that their book too has not one citation supporting this allegation. More importantly, Wolf says nothing of how this falsely-dropped titillating morsel allows for mass distraction and the necessary – plus beneficial – opposing claim by Wolf and Marable that they are “humanizing” Malcolm. Now critics can be dismissed as childishly incapable of handling the reality of a man for whom they have too much unbridled respect.
5. Wolf then lays down the trump card and the ultimate ideological-defining purpose of their book. She explains, by quoting Marable, how Malcolm would have condemned the “terrorist attacks of 9/11″ and had “his social vision expanded to include people of divergent nationalities and racial identities, his gentle humanism and antiracism could have become a platform for a new kind of radical, global ethnic politics. Instead of the fiery symbol of ethnic violence and religious hatred, as al-Qaeda might project him, Malcolm X should become a representative for hope and human dignity.” Wolf seems to practically take credit for writing those lines, she certainly endorses them and they are definitely designed to juxtapose enemies of the state against one another rather than in equal opposition to the same and truly leading source of global terrorism.
6. And lastly, please note in the 53rd minute the very lone sister who quietly, succinctly and quite specifically points out the research flaws in the Marable book and who is then summarily ignored with a mere “thank you” and a turn of the head. After speaking for nearly an hour about the meticulously researched and comprehensive biography Wolf has no words, none at all, for the sound and reasonably asked question about the nature of that comprehensive research. Her only option is avoidance, dismissal and redirect. It was shameful and yet so fruitful in demonstrating the soundness of our own project and those like it. We do not have to eschew our politics to be sound in our research. One need not cancel out the other. Wolf was simply not up to the task of soundly defending what is clearly her very ideological reading and interpretation of Malcolm X.