Malcolm X — still controversial

A recent biography stirs debate as the iconic black nationalist is honored in Detroit

Ask Herb Boyd about Malcolm X and he'll tell you about his first meeting with the man who forged a path for his political development. He'll tell you about being a young black man in late '50s Detroit enthralled by the magnetism and brilliance of the convict-turned-minister. Based at the Nation of Islam's Mosque No. 1 on Linwood, Malcolm X castigated the white man as a devil, called on the Herb Boyds of the world to rise up and embrace their blackness; the Nation of Islam's decades as an "obscure sect" were at an end, largely thanks to the dynamic proselytizing of its No. 1 spokesman.

Boyd will tell you about the power of the firebrand's handshake, the warmth of his smile — "I always remember the smile he gave me" — about seeing him a half-dozen or so times subsequently in Detroit and New York, about joining the Nation to follow Malcolm, leaving when he left ("it was over for me"). He'll tell you about once, while in the military, hitchhiking across Europe to North Africa in hopes of meeting up with Malcolm X's entourage in Casablanca. 

Ask Boyd about the late African-American scholar Manning Marable and he'll tell you that they worked together on radical causes. He'll praise Marable's seminal 1980s book How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, for instance, and his introduction to the reissue of Detroit I Do Mind Dying, about Motown radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s.

So Boyd, a noted New York-based author (and one of Metro Times' founding editors), admits to a certain discomfort about where he finds himself now, the point where the unfinished legacies of two men intersect in discord. 

"I was a member of the Nation of Islam and a member of the Black Radical Congress with Manning Marable, and I sort of have a bird's eye view on both of these individuals. I get sort of conflicted sometimes when I talk about both of them, both of whom never had a chance to enjoy the fruits of their labors."

Malcolm X died in a barrage of gunfire on the stage of the Audubon Theatre in New York in 1965. Gunmen connected to the Nation of Islam were convicted, but the identities of all the killers, plotters and possible government provocateurs are heatedly debated to this day. Also debated are Malcolm X's final positions and philosophy and the meaning of his life, notwithstanding The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the posthumously published book that has became a best-seller and a classic.

Marable died April 1, 2011, following a years-long battle with sarcoidosis, a battle that he'd lost despite undergoing a double lung transplant the year before. Three days after his death at age 60, his long-awaited biography of Malcolm X was published. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention should have been Marable's crowning achievement, and in some quarters it was received as such. It came with cover endorsements from leading African-American academicians Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson; laudatory mainstream press reviews followed, from The Boston Globe to The New Yorker. Finally, last month, Marable's Malcolm X won a Pulitizer Prize for history. The committee hailed "an exploration of the legendary life and provocative views of one of the most significant African-Americans in U.S. history, a work that separates fact from fiction and blends the heroic and the tragic."

But the reception to the book has been far more complex among African-American activists and scholars, where besides praise there've been numerous critiques and outright dismissals. Dozens of errors have been underscored, conclusions attacked, interpretations challenged. Marable's suggestions of a homosexual liaison and marital infidelities, for instance — that elsewhere may have been interpreted as "humanizing" — have been challenged on evidence and intent. 

The controversy has led to what's largely a rebuttal of Marable's work in By Any Means Necessary — Malcolm X: Real, Not Reinvented (Third World Press), with Boyd as a co-editor along with Kwanzaa founder Maulana Karenga, political scientist and strategist Ron Daniels and poet-author-publisher Haki Madhubuti. 

Like Boyd, Madhubuti, who grew up in Detroit, will be enacting his own homecoming as he joins Boyd and others for a day honoring Malcolm X at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. 

For Madhubuti, Marable's work is "an attack on [Malcolm], his family and, by extension, all conscious Black people ... white supremacist slander." 

Boyd, talking by phone from New York the other day, recalled his own initial reaction to the book as "engrossing," despite the "sins of commission and omission" that jumped out for him. But he watched the controversy grow, including attacks on things as basic as the "reinvention" in Marable's subtitle. The view of the editors, said Boyd, was that "reinvention seemed to suggest a kind of manipulative self-promotion on his part for personal gain — and Malcolm was never about any kind of personal gain." 

Boyd wonders what kind of book Marable might have written had he not been racing to finish while battling for his life. He thinks Marable may have rethought some interpretations and certainly would have caught glaring errors. 

Yet, he adds, "I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater," even suggesting that people read the book, though "with a critical and discerning eye." 

In some ways, the clash over the book echoes the reception to Spike Lee's 1992 film Malcolm X, which was slammed for its emphasis: "25 minutes of zoot suits and two-and-half-minutes to the last year of his life," as Boyd noted.

But Spike Lee, like Manning Marable, brought attention to his subject, spurred debate. 

"The more discussions we have, the closer we'll get to the truth of this," said Boyd. "Who knows how long it will take?" 

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History (315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit; 313-494-5800) observes Malcolm X Day (the 87th anniversary of his birth) with a presentation, Q&A and book signing by Herb Boyd and Dr. Haki Madhubuti, two editors of By Any Means Necessary — Malcolm X: Real Not Reinvented. The program begins at 3 p.m. and also includes the Amen Ra Drummers, saxophonist Tony Holland and poet jessica Care moore; numerous politicians are expected at the event, which has received a testimonial of support from the Detroit City Council. Through the day, the museum will display a bust of Malcolm X, related artwork and a gallery of his writing going back to his childhood in the Lansing area.

W. Kim Heron is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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