Recall that, in The Portable Malcolm X Reader, Manning Marable wrote that the 900-plus books written about Malcolm X, "with remarkably few exceptions, accepted as fact most if not all of the chronology of events and personal experiences depicted in the Autobiography's narrative." One book Marable mentioned positively is a short collection of essays titled Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, edited by Joe Wood, who had been a columnist for the Village Voice. (I'd not heard of Wood prior to reading the book, and only just looked him up as I began writing this post. He disappeared in 1999 hiking on Mt. Rainier and was never seen again. He was 34.)
It's on balance a good collection, certainly worth reading if you're especially interested either in Malcolm X or the black intellectual tradition, or, you know, what the fuck's the matter with this country. It was published in 1992, and appears to be out of print, though used and library copies are probably not hard to come by (if you're local, Enoch Pratt has several). The "our own image" of the title, it perhaps should be made clear, is that of black American writers. Several well known black writers have essays in the book, including Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, Cornel West, Patricia Hill Collins, John Edgar Wideman, Greg Tate, Adolph Reed.
The various writers here are much concerned with the nature of Malcolm X's legacy and influence, and by no means is his Autobiography taken as anything like the last word. This, too, was the time of the proliferation of the X imagery and merchandise, and rappers, such as Public Enemy, explicitly invoking him as an icon, as well as the Spike Lee biopic, about which few who mention it have much nice to say. Published the same year was Bruce Perry's biography, Malcolm, which is frequently criticized in these pages for its psychoanalytical approach, in isolation of politics and historical events and forces. There's interesting stuff on Alex Haley and the Autobiography (Wideman), gender (Hill Collins), the effect of Malcolm's "zoot suit" years in shaping his later political outlook and style (Robin D. G. Kelley), and so on.
I'd like to briefly highlight two essays in particular. The first is by the poet Hilton Als, previously completely unknown to me. His essay is called "Philosopher or Dog?" and it begins in a manner that I initially found off-putting. But it finds a groove (or I found its groove) and by the
end, I felt it was brilliant. It's a poetic meditation, if you will, on Malcolm X's mother,
and the unfair uses he puts her to in his Autobiography. For example, he describes his mother, who was from Granada, as looking
like a white woman, being more educated than his father, and even
inviting occasional abuse for that reason. Als
a) calls bullshit on all of that, but b) also tries to imagine her
life, her politics. . . Among other things, it's a
fascinating riff on the uses and distortions of autobiography and memoir. (Interestingly enough, the piece also appeared later in Als' book White Girls.)
The other essay I want to highlight is Adolph Reed's excellent and depressing "The Allure of Malcolm X and the Changing Character of Black Politics". Reed is critical of the continuing usefulness of Malcolm X
as a political symbol, given the changed political circumstances. Then he describes what those changed circumstances are, by tracing the
course of insider-oriented accommodationist politics that took hold
after Malcolm's death, and especially after Black Power. This move, as Reed describes it, is less cynical than that short-hand makes it sounds, but just as defeatist. He's talking about a)
people who are less radical anyway but who b) use the threat of 'deal with
us or you'll have those scary radicals to deal with' - who are insider-oriented in that they believe incremental changes within the system are a better
approach. But of course this threat only works if the possibility of mass
revolt exists. Whereas this process ended up helping to demobilize the mass of
black people, thus neutralizing the effectiveness of the threat.
Though it worked well enough for their purposes through the 1970s, in the 1980s, Reagan called their bluff, and they were revealed as meaningless. Surprisingly left
out of Reed's essay altogether are the drug war and mass incarceration, which at first glance appear to be a glaring oversights. Perhaps in 1992 those particular long-term trends
there were not as obvious to everyone as they have since become, though they seem from this vantage point to be crucial neutralizing factors.