by People’s Minister of Information JR
El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, aka Malcolm X, is one of the most internationally well known figures of the human rights struggle from the United States, which also makes him one of the most attacked by the institutions that serve the interests of the elite. Recently the late Professor Manning Marable released a book on Malcolm – “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” – that was lauded as the “definitive” biography by progressives all over, including Democracy Now.
Interestingly, a lot of the critics of Marable’s work came from the Black community, who felt as if the book was void of scholarly research and that it made some unsubstantiated claims of Malcolm being a homosexual prostitute as well as supposedly cheating on numerous occasions on his wife, Betty.
I am happy to present the fact that Black Classic Press has just published a new book – “A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X” – edited in part by Jared Ball, who I interviewed to tell about his new literary classic that defends the legacy of Malcolm X against an attempted ivory tower assassination. Check him out.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk about the inspiration behind this new book that you edited?
Jared: I see Malcolm X as our inspiration and the fact that what we had initially hoped would be a very different book became yet another attempt at diminishing this great man and the politics, the ideas with which he worked, which he developed and which he passed on. What has come from Marable and Viking Press is a corporate product, a simple commodity to be traded, but for more than money; it is a carefully constructed ideological assault on history, on radical politics, on historical and cultural memory, on the very idea of revolution.
It really is a product meant to serve the need, as Fanon once said was necessary to a colonizer, to destroy even the idea of liberation among the colonized. So our inspiration is to offer up some kind of defense, not just of Malcolm himself, but the very idea of freedom that he still represents.
M.O.I. JR: What are some of the main issues that you and others have with Manning Marable’s book on Malcolm X?
Jared: A) Poor scholarship: Marable fails to properly cite or offer evidence to support his many wild claims, which range from accusations of infidelity, to entirely unsubstantiated claims of homosexuality or a supposed inability of Malcolm to trust all women. Marable also interviewed a scandalously low number of people, dismisses nearly all previous scholarship on Malcolm, all the while borrowing heavily from them as he builds his history of Malcolm X and recounts the assassination.
B) Ideology: What evidence Marable does cite is then distilled through his social democratic lens so that with artful semi-quotation and emphasis, all woven confusingly through 600 pages of text, he leaves the reader with a Malcolm X that would likely be a member of Barack Obama’s cabinet as opposed to having fomented a global revolution that would make even the existence of an Obama a political impossibility. That is, Marable reduces Malcolm’s anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, revolutionary nationalist/internationalist armed struggle revolutionary politics to a “race-neutral” Democrat whose worldview is manifest in our “post-racial” Obama moment. Marable actually reinterprets Malcolm X by the book’s end in a way that places Obama within the political trajectory of a Malcolm X rather than, as we argue, in direct and antithetical opposition.
C) Political: Many of our contributors note the ways in which Marable, as an elite academic from an elite Ivy League university, working closely with an elite publisher, have crafted a version of Malcolm X that serves their political interests. At a time when new generations are coming to terms with an unjust world, there is a need to cut them off from potentially radicalizing influences. Malcolm X has long been associated with revolutionizing people’s consciousness, so to offer him up in his real brilliance, complexity, foresight and militancy would be to ignite existing embers when these elite forces can only conspire to dampen them. As our contributors note, the consciousness of what produces a work must be investigated, particularly when the subject is Malcolm X. And so several of our contributors do take this question on, in a variety of ways, to challenge the perspective Marable and his colleagues applied to Malcolm.
At a time when new generations are coming to terms with an unjust world, there is a need to cut them off from potentially radicalizing influences. Malcolm X has long been associated with revolutionizing people’s consciousness.
M.O.I. JR: Why was Manning Marable’s book held up as a definitive work on Malcolm X by “progressives” like Democracy Now?
Jared: Because it is a version of Malcolm X and of world history that makes them more comfortable. It makes the scary Malcolm X palatable to affluent White audiences and petit bourgeois, wishing-they-were-affluent Black ones. Marable disrespects Black nationalism, Kwame Nkrumah, the Garvey movement, the Nation of Islam, Marxism-Leninism, armed struggle – all while making repeated and unsubstantiated claims against Malcolm’s own views of himself, against the legitimacy of Alex Haley’s “Autobiography” and that question Malcolm’s sexuality, fidelity and even ability to resist barely-legal heterosexual encounters with junior colleagues.
The mainstream called it a “masterpiece” and gave it a Pulitzer. Many “progressives” continue to measure themselves by the standards they claim to critique. So once the mainstream offers its stamp of approval and then brings in the very influential Black signatories of West, Dyson and Gates, the rest follow suit. It is also part of a persistent problem of there being tremendous gaps between Black radical thought and thinkers and White liberals and progressives, so for many West, Dyson and Gates represent the extent of Black thought, and entire radical traditions are ignored, leaving only these spokesmen to speak for all.
A full discussion of Malcolm X will inevitably lead people to very uncomfortable conversations about today and their place in the world and part of our argument is that distorting Malcolm’s history is a political tool in maintaining inequality today. If the idea of revolution can be reduced to an acceptance of the world as it currently exists or an acceptance that “progress” is being made, then the very forces that produced this reinvention of Malcolm are further protected. So few media outlets can afford to engage figures like Malcolm X in any serious manner for any prolonged period of time.
If the idea of revolution can be reduced to an acceptance of the world as it currently exists or an acceptance that “progress” is being made, then the very forces that produced this reinvention of Malcolm are further protected.
M.O.I. JR: How did you pick the writers who contributed to this excellent piece of literature? What was the process like?
Jared: We sent calls out and targeted some folks we knew had a history with Malcolm and who had actually read Marable’s book. That was key, ours was intended – overtly so – to be a hostile response to Marable but one based in sound scholarship and a close read of his book. We did not want mere reflections of Malcolm and we did not want any apologies for Marable. This criterion narrowed our field considerably but we think in a good way. We then took our time, vetted the pieces, edited, researched, extended deadlines and took our time to make sure that we reduced as best we could any errors, omissions etc. We did not want to repeat any of the mistakes we demonstrate were made by Marable despite having far less time and far fewer resources. We think we have done very well.
Jared: As I said, this is as much about managing the moment as it is the past. History impacts consciousness, which in turn impacts behavior. What we think of the past influences our future actions. Distorting Malcolm X does as much to distort today and what we might do in the future. Monuments, anthems, flags, histories all conspire to manage our behavior. Killing Malcolm physically was really only step one.
What we think of the past influences our future actions. Distorting Malcolm X does as much to distort today and what we might do in the future.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk about the significance of Manning Marable being affiliated with Columbia University? Can you also talk about Columbia’s affiliation with Malcolm X?
Jared: Several of our contributors take this up in detail. Columbia is part of an elite apparatus whose goal is defense of the state and of the established order. In other words, as an institution, it has an ideology and an ideological function as does Viking Press, a subsidiary of Penguin Publishing, one of the world’s six largest publishers, and they looked to fund and produce a version of Malcolm X that was consistent with their taking over the preservation of the Audubon Ballroom, which impacts, among other things, even the kinds of commemorative events that can take place there. It, again, is maintenance of history for the management of today.
M.O.I. JR: How have progressives responded? How have academics responded?
Jared: The book hasn’t been out long, so it’s hard to say at the moment. However, we do expect a certain level of marginalization. For reasons already stated, we don’t expect that our book will get the attention perhaps it should. Marable was a fairly large figure in academia; we are not. Penguin Press is enormous; Black Classic Press is, unfortunately, not. We take up a defense of a man who represented and represents so much of a threat to so many established institutions, ideas, inequalities. So we are clear.
But we are also attempting to take this beyond a simple academic squabble to a level that we think best reflects Malcolm’s own work, his own point, that is, to an understanding that we still need to be engaged in struggle and looking to apply as best we can the ideas of the great women and men we claim almost daily to honor. This is not simply about responding to Marable or Columbia or Viking. I, at least, think it is about returning – to the extent that it is not already – militancy, radical theory and organization to discussions of “what are we all going to do now?” And where better to start than with Malcolm X?
M.O.I. JR: What is the importance of Malcolm X’s message and legacy to the modern-day psychology of Blacks in Amerikkka?
Jared: For me, Malcolm X continues to represent the best analysis and prescriptive response to the current conditions we still all face. His image still symbolizes defiance and strength and a genuinely radical break from what is. None of the conditions he sought to eradicate went away or even weakened since his assassination. In fact, much of what he tried to get us to deal with is worse now than when he was here. So as we variously ask in our book, how in the world is anything Malcolm said out-dated? What in his analysis of the world in 1965 would be out of place today? I think very little to none at all. This is again why I see the act committed by Marable and Viking as quite a contemporary one; it is not simply a matter of history.
His image still symbolizes defiance and strength and a genuinely radical break from what is. None of the conditions he sought to eradicate went away or even weakened since his assassination. In fact, much of what he tried to get us to deal with is worse now than when he was here.
M.O.I. JR: What do you hope people get after they read this new book?
Jared: I hope people get mad, really, really, mad. I hope they get so mad that they, as Dr. Clarke used to say, also “get smart.” And then I hope they get more organized. Malcolm used to say that all Black people were angry and that he was the “angriest of them all.” Anger is underrated. So I hope they get real mad and then get real organized. If our book has anything to do with that I will be slightly less angry. Slightly.
M.O.I. JR: How can people keep up with you online?
Jared: IMixWhatILike.org. Thanks.
The People’s Minister of Information JR is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He also hosts two weekly shows on KPFA 94.1 FM and kpfa.org: The Morning Mix every Wednesday, 8-9 a.m., and The Block Report every Friday night-Saturday morning, midnight-2 a.m. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.