Elmhurst College: A Fresh Look at Malcolm X

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A Fresh Look at Malcolm X

For most of his momentous, turbulent life, Malcolm X was in a constant state of reinvention – much like America.

Before he was assassinated at age 39 in New York City in 1965, Malcolm X had transformed himself from petty small-time criminal and hustler known as “Detroit Red’’ to black separatist to international human rights advocate to orthodox Muslim and finally to the 1960’s icon we know today–or thought we did until the publication last spring of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, a controversial, nuanced biography that has been hailed as one of the 10 best books of 2011.

“Malcolm was a profoundly American figure in his ability to remake himself and in his belief that we could remake society,’’ said Wendy Wolf, the Viking Books editor who helped scholar Manning Marable prune and shape 20 years of research and interviews into the 594-page book that was published three days after the author died of pneumonia.

On February 7, Wolf talked about Marable, Malcolm and the struggle to remake America when she delivered Malcolm X:  A Life of Reinvention, the 20th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Guestship Lecture.

“For someone who spent a lifetime studying a very angry, very outspoken, very driven man, Manning was stunningly upbeat, generous and open-minded,’’ she told about 225 people at the Frick Center. “If he were here addressing you today you’d know at once that you were in the presence of not just a dedicated scholar but an activist devoted to the cause of social justice.’’

One scary dude
Malcolm X was the national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. He spoke on college campuses and in huge convention halls, his every word recorded by the FBI. He was a constant voice and presence on radio and television public affairs shows. “The camera loved him,’’ Wolf said. “And he loved it.’’

Wolf said she thought she knew all there was to know about Malcolm X because she had read his autobiography when she was in high school in the segregated south of the 1960s. In reading that book she came away thinking “he was one scary dude.’’

Then in 2004 she began working with Marable on his book–“his life’s work’’–and realized that the Autobiography of Malcolm X, co-written by Alex Haley, had failed to tell the whole sweeping, complex, flawed, inspiring story of a man who was angry, kind, funny, incredibly smart, courageous but most of all human.  

“The real punch line of this book,’’ she said, “is it’s restoring Malcolm’s humanity. Human beings are always more interesting than either saints or devils.’’

Marable, who was a professor of history and public affairs at Columbia University, wrote 15 books but none more controversial than his last.

“When you take an icon and you make him human some folks are going to be let down,’’ Wolf said. “We’ve had our share of push back.’’

Filmmakers, artists and rappers
The book contains a sharply questioned but brief passage about Malcolm X performing sexual favors for a rich white man when he was a petty hustler and criminal in Boston. The book also talks about what Wolf described as Malcolm X’s “rocky relationship’’ with his wife, Betty.
Wolf said the “Malcolm faithful rose up to attack the book,’’ condemning it for mudding the icon’s image with “tawdry details.’’

“The afterlife of an icon is probably the biggest challenge for any biographer,’’ Wolf said. “When Malcolm died so many claimed him,’’ including filmmakers, artists, rappers, writers and recently and more darkly, she added, Muslim extremists.

In 1999, the United States Post Office even put his picture on a stamp.

Malcolm’s America was dominated by the long struggle for human and civil rights that he and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. waged in such different ways.

Wolf called them “the two great poles of black identity and activism,’’ and the “biggest what-ifs of the 20th century.’’

In introducing Wolf, Rev. Dr. Ronald Beauchamp, director of the Niebuhr Center for Faith and Action, said the two African-American giants may have had different philosophies and styles but they were united in their commitment to social and economic justice for all–a struggle that continues to this day.

“If America was going to come to terms with how they were going to deal with the black experience, we needed both Martin and Malcolm,’’ Beauchamp said. “To have one would have only been a half truth and thus a distortion of the black reality in America.’’

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