It is not an easy matter to know another life. Even in the modern technological era, much of what constitutes the totality of a human being is unvoiced and unrecorded, and what is visible may not be true, or only partly true. Thus, there are always gaps and inconsistencies when attempting to assess a life and into these gaps the historian, the biographer, the journalist and the propagandist inserts speculation, extrapolation, interpretation and/or distortion.
Malcolm X was one of the most famous figures of the 20th century, but despite the fact that his own writings and speeches are easily available and a huge amount of material has been written about him, it is not a simple task to understand the man.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the usual place to start. But despite being a candid and inspiring account, the book is problematic — as film director Spike Lee discovered when preparing for his 1992 film Malcolm X. In a book he co-wrote with Ralph Wiley on the film’s production titled By Any Means Necessary: Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X, Lee wrote: “In my research, people — [such as] Malcolm’s brothers and sisters — said they knew the autobiography was not 100 percent accurate, and from my research I’m sure it wasn’t, with assumed names, and some hyperbole here and there.” Of course, Lee’s own film contains numerous scenes of invention. Unbelieving of Malcolm’s widow Betty Shabazz’s claim that she and her husband never fought, Lee inserted into his film a scene of them doing just that. But whereas Lee’s intention was to “approximate the truth”, and the end credits state that “dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purpose of dramatisation”, the ostensibly non-fictional books and articles on Malcolm carry no such disclaimer.
Malcolm X remains an enigma despite — or because of — what is written on him. Frequently speculative and often contradictory, these sources provide insight into the construction of history itself
Many prominent reviews of Malcolm X did not care to delineate in detail the discrepancies between Lee’s film and the historical record — partly, one suspects, because the writers of such pieces had little knowledge of the subject. Scott Tobias’s review for The A.V. Club of the film’s 2005 DVD release describes the film as “faithful to the letter if not the spirit of its source material.” However, the complete opposite is true: Lee altered facts to suit his film’s pacing and narrative, but was faithful to the spirit of what Malcolm was about.
No less than three different contemporary articles from The New York Times propagate rather basic errors. Vincent Canby’s ‘Malcolm X as Complex as Its Subject’ claims that Elijah Muhammad founded the Nation of Islam (it was founded by W.D. Fard, also known as Wallace Fard Muhammad). Lena Williams’s ‘Playing with Fire’ and Sheila Rule’s ‘Malcolm X: The Facts, the Fictions, the Film’ suggest that Malcolm returned from Haj in 1964 with the new name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. A similar claim is made in Hisham Aidi’s otherwise insightful 2016 piece for The Nation titled ‘The Political Uses of Malcolm X’s Image’. And the pictorial biography Malcolm X: Make it Plain makes the same claim twice.
‘El-Hajj’ is an honorific bestowed on someone who has performed the Haj; the name ‘Malik El-Shabazz’ had been legally adopted by Malcolm in the late 1950s, as Malcolm himself states in Arnold Perl’s 1972 documentary Malcolm X. Therefore, while it is technically correct to say that the name ‘El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’ was not used until after the Haj, the implication in these various sources is that Malcolm changed his name to a more Islamic one as a result of the Haj, which is incorrect.
The Diary of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz),1964 is another problematic primary source. Edited by Malcolm’s daughter Ilyasah Al-Shabazz and the writer Herb Boyd, the text of this book is supplemented with useful footnotes, annotations, photographs and documents. But the editors have also omitted several pages of names and addresses, in addition to Arabic transliterations of greetings and prayers that aided Malcolm’s study of the language. Perhaps they felt that these lists and notes would be of little interest to the general reader. But there is other, more important content that is not transcribed here; in the ‘Mecca’ chapter of the Autobiography, for instance, Malcolm quotes from his “notebook” (presumably the same as the diary), but these passages are not found in the published version of the diary. The aforementioned article by Aidi mentions several other omissions.
Malcolm X: Speeches at Harvard is a collection of addresses edited and introduced by Archie Epps, first published in 1968. Unfortunately, Epps saw fit to unnecessarily rearrange paragraphs of some of the speeches and omit segments from a question and answer session. His introductory essay seems unduly antagonistic towards Malcolm, claiming that Malcolm was “befuddled”, lacked “clarity of vision and moral courage”, and was “inwardly starved” in his final days. These descriptions do not take into account the transitional period of Malcolm’s last year and fail to recognise the bravery with which Malcolm continued on his quest to understand and evolve despite a hostile media and constant death threats. Epps also makes insupportable extrapolations in order to present his own doubtful theories. The Autobiography briefly describes how Malcolm’s father Earl Little’s final communication with his family was a wave back towards his wife as he walked towards town. Epps writes: “To Louise Little this gesture was a final tender moment shared with her husband. To Malcolm it meant his father went to his death with the courage of a man … this gesture contained an ironic mixture of bravado and independence.” How does Epps know this? He later speculates on the nature of jokes that were exchanged at Little family gatherings, but provides no supporting evidence.
Similarly questionable assertions can be found in Louis A. DeCaro Jr.’s Malcolm and the Cross: The Nation of Islam, Malcolm X and Christianity. While informative and scholarly overall, DeCaro’s book nevertheless tries to imagine what Malcolm was thinking during one of his speeches, predictably linking his oratorical style to Earl Little’s. Comparing Malcolm to his father seems to be a frequent theme in biographical material about Malcolm. But whereas Lee used juxtapositioning techniques to merely comment on some parallel aspects of their lives, books such as this occasionally diverge from the facts and begin to engage in unwarranted psychobabble.
Perhaps the greatest differences of opinion revolve around Malcolm’s apparent philosophical change in the last year of his life. Malcolm X: The Man and His Times, edited by John Henrik Clarke, is instructive in this respect. The book collects essays about Malcolm by almost two dozen different writers, most of whom knew him, and many of whom cannot agree with each other. Reverend Albert Cleage’s essay ‘Myths about Malcolm’, for example, denies that Malcolm wanted to internationalise the struggle for black rights and denies that Malcolm’s Haj was a transformative experience that altered his views on whites. This flies in the face of other essays in the volume and books such as George Breitman’s The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary, not to mention statements by Malcolm himself.
The assassination of Malcolm X is also prone to different interpretations. In a book edited by James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease titled The Assassinations: Probe Magazine on JFK, MLK, RFK and Malcolm X, an essay by James W. Douglass outlines Malcolm’s threat to the power structure and describes the careful monitoring of him by various United States government agencies. But to read Michael Friedly’s Malcolm X: The Assassination, one would think that the New York Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency not only had no involvement in the assassination, but had little interest in Malcolm at all. Friedly also states that while Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm were breaking down the barriers between them, “the obstacles were too great to overcome.” Friedly has no way of knowing what would have happened had King and Malcolm not been assassinated before they had had time to work with each other. He is right to criticise the unnecessary romanticisation of the Civil Rights struggle, but his own conclusions are equally unjustifiable.
These are only a few examples from a literature that is frequently wrought with simplification, exaggeration, error and delusion, yet all of the books mentioned above provide important information regarding Malcolm X and should be studied by anyone with an interest in the subject. Few of them are as well-known as Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, but fame is no guide: at least two different teams of scholars have published numerous essays rebutting Marable’s rendition of history.
To outright avoid books that contain errors or unsubstantiated claims is nigh impossible. Because of Malcolm’s evolution of thought, and because many people have tried to coopt him for their own purposes, those who wish to understand Malcolm must read diligently, survey a wide variety of sources and impartially evaluate conflicting data. Doing so not only enhances one’s understanding of history, but provides insight into the construction of history itself.
The essayist is an antiquarian and freelance writer
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 10th, 2017