Thursday, March 05, 2015

Notes on The Portable Malcolm X Reader

Last month was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. As I noticed people remarking on this, discussing the man and his words and legacy, I remembered that I own a copy of The Portable Malcolm X Reader, edited by Manning Marable and Garrett Felber; I pulled it down to examine its contents, and in relatively short order, ended up reading the whole thing. The following is little more than a report.

The Reader is intended as a companion to Marable's recent biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. It's divided into three sections: Documents, Oral Histories, and Articles. Documents takes up the bulk of the book (around 400 pages worth), consists of newspaper articles, semi-redacted FBI and police reports, and speeches, and as such is at times repetitive, since Marable's brief introductions to each section often cover the main points any general reader would need or want to know from the subsequent documents, including key quotations. My feeling is less that the reader should just read these introductions, but rather that some of them unnecessarily 'spoil', as it were, the documents that follow, particularly since many events are covered by multiple newspaper accounts and an FBI report. As a resource it works fine, but one does skim. Interestingly, I found Malcolm X came off surprisingly poorly in the transcripts of some of his debates with more liberal Civil Rights leaders, during his Nation of Islam (NOI) period. Some of his rhetorical gambits read as weak on the page, which of course knows nothing of charisma and presence and inflection, and I could well imagine the exasperation of some of his interlocutors. As we get closer to his break with NOI, and especially in the period after the break, the speeches are more interesting as texts. This is not surprising. 

Oral Histories is the shortest section, at just over 80 pages, containing portions of just four interviews, but they are intriguing choices, including the cop - Gerry Fulcher - who'd been in charge of the illegal wire-tap of Malcolm X's room at the Hotel Theresa in the months leading up to the assassination, and who has a lot of interesting things to say about unorthodox police work surrounding the assassination. Another is with Abdullah Abdur-Razzaq (James 67X Shabazz), a close associate who'd pledged one year of his life to Malcolm X as they both left the NOI. He (in Marable's introductory words) "locates the source of tension between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad in the 1962 shooting of Ronald Stokes by Los Angeles police. The lack of an aggressive response to the brutality of the LAPD chafed Malcolm, who had to bite his tongue and support Muhammad's stance of nonaggression." Perhaps the most interesting interview is with a man named Herman Ferguson, who had worked with Malcolm in the Organization for Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Among other things, Ferguson talks about some resentment from former NOI guys who'd followed Malcolm X to Muslim Mosque Inc, regarding the lack of discipline (from their point of view) of OAAU folks, and most intriguingly to me, the fact that women held certain important leadership positions within the OAAU.

The Articles section contains six pieces, including a simply great James Baldwin essay, "Malcolm and Martin", which originally appeared in Esquire in 1972, and very interesting essays by Robin D. G. Kelley (about Malcolm X's relationship with, and criticisms of, the Black bourgeoisie) and the previously unknown to me Farah Jasmine Griffin (whose essay critiques his views of women, and discusses the understandable reluctance with which many black women have criticized those views).

The final essay is by Marable himself and recounts some of his considerable challenges in researching and writing his biography. Of course, I'd read The Autobiography of Malcolm X many years ago, and though I'd occasionally wondered about the nature of Alex Haley's role in putting it together, and usually keep in mind the problems with autobiography and memoir when it comes to reliability, I realized recently that I'd more or less taken the book as accurate. I'd been inspired by the famous double-conversion narrative, but had never really considered the implications of things left out in Malcolm's self-presentation, or in that presentation having been framed by Haley, who I'd not realized was a much more conservative figure trying to produce Malcolm for a mainstream audience. As noted above, this Reader, then, is intended as a companion to Marable's biography, which was itself intended to be the first scholarly biography of Malcolm X, and to address many "basic questions about this dynamic yet ultimately elusive man that neither the Autobiography, nor the nine hundred-plus [! - ed.] books written about him had answered satisfactorily." For it turns out I was far from alone: "Nearly everyone writing about Malcolm X largely, 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." Taken as a whole, the Reader by itself renders such easy acceptance foolish, as might be expected, complicating our sense of Malcolm X considerably, and has made the prospect of reading Marable's biography enticing.

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