The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Alex Haley, is the most stolen book in American libraries, according to an attendee at a recent symposium on Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. That declaration of the popularity of Haley’s book, and the iconic status of the book and its subject, was reportedly based on a factoid from the New York Public Library. True or not, it was greeted with knowing applause and laughter and backed up later by another participant who thanked the Cincinnati Public Library for his first copy of the work.
Some 50 or 60 people, mostly middle aged and older with a sprinkling of younger people, came to a public library on the South Side of Chicago on a recent Saturday morning for an all-day symposium on Marable’s work, which if it is to achieve a similar popularity as Haley’s – has a long way to go. Among the areas of contention among those in the room and in the blogosphere are Marable’s weakening of Malcolm X’s street credibility, assertion of homosexual encounters, and the image of a man who reinvented himself to suit his purposes.
Criticism ranged from charges of inadequate footnoting to questionable adherence to black studies traditions. Listening to observations by two panels of distinguished scholars, journalists, and historians, the bottom line was that however a reader might feel about Marable’s book, it had reignited interest in Malcolm X, black studies scholarship, and social justice issues. It also inspired some interesting commentary on collective wisdom about Malcolm X the man and the black nationalist movement. There were lamentations about the commodification of Malcolm X and his image from t-shirts to caps to postage stamps. There were challenges to homophobia in the black community that makes unpalatable the very idea of any homosexual activity by a major icon of black masculinity. There were confessions of the blatant sexism of the civil rights and black nationalist era. There were cogent arguments about the absurdity of expecting “unity” among black people that would include a single certified view on anything.
And there was a deep and abiding appreciation of Malcolm X that cannot be threatened by any written work, an appreciation that Malcolm X challenged notions of the “Negro problem” by reframing the context of race issues as a problem of white privilege. In the midst of the Marable bashing, many of the academics came to his rescue, asserting his strong scholarship and commitment to black consciousness, one even reminding everyone that Marable was near death as he completed the controversial book.
I can’t do justice to the range and passion of the discussion about Marable’s book and Malcolm X. And, not having read Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, I have no opinion on it. But having read at least one of Marable’s other works, I have similar respect for his research and writing and I particularly like the observation by one of the panelists that it may have been Marable’s intention by writing such a controversial book to re-energize the conversation about race consciousness in what is widely touted as a “post racial” age.