Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Notes on Malcolm X: In Our Own Image

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.


davidly said...

A used copy just arrived from Thriftbooks in Washington. The inscription:

Monk [Mark?] — To a staunch believer,
and political ally !
Rev. "Al" Sharpton

Thanks for the tip. —davidly

davidly said...

There is retrospectively prescient situational irony in Rev. Al's having inscribed & gifted this book to "a staunch believer", particularly with regard to Adolph Reed, Jr.'s contribution.

(assuming the inscription is authentic)

His essay, in my view, explains Coates' current popularity. Basically, hero worship laying the ground for commodification.

It also illustrates how Sanders' candidacy does not force Clinton to address anything specific, rather allows her to concede that vote to him and then buy the electoral support down the road from that one shepherd.

Re. the absence of the drug war & mass incarceration: I think it's because he doesn't really get into the specifics of the Black issues, but instead focuses on how the concerns in toto had been channeled into the newly established Black elites, the likes of Jackson, whose only real demand was insider access.

Also of note is that Clinton's policy of prison privatization and three-strikes, etc. exacerbated that particular Black concern immensely. Like NAFTA, Iraq, and Gram-Leach-Bliley, Bush-Clinton-Bush could be seen as a mere twenty year segment of the ongoing project for a new American century.

davidly said...

Oh. Thanks again for the tip. It was well worth the read.

Richard said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

I think you make an excellent point, with respect to the Clinton-etc years. The book is published in 1992, before Clinton was elected. His administration's policies definitely exacerbated already existing problems, so while some of them were already in place by then, they got worse and much more visible under Clinton-Bush(es).

Thanks again.