New Bio Raises Provocative Questions About Malcolm X

A new controversial biography of Malcolm X offers fresh insights into the life and death of the Black leader. The book, entitled "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention," is being released this week and was written by prominent African American scholar Manning Marable. Marable died last week, just days before his seminal work was released. The biography touches on sensitive aspects of the activist's life, including his sexuality and assassination. Host Michel Martin discusses the book with one of the author's lead researchers, Zaheer Ali.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

One of the country's most important African-American scholars died this past Friday, just days before his seminal work on the life of Malcolm X was published. Manning Marable was professor of history and political science at Columbia University. He talked about his fascination with Malcolm X on public radio's "Democracy Now" in this interview in 2005.

(Soundbite of radio show, "Democracy Now")

Professor MANNING MARABLE (Columbia University): I think that Malcolm X was the most remarkable historical figure produced by black America in the 20th century. That's a heavy statement, but I think that in his 39 short years of life, Malcolm came to symbolize black urban America, its culture, its politics, its militancy, its outrage against structural racism.

MARTIN: That's the late Manning Marable, who died Friday at the age of 60 after complications from pneumonia. His comprehensive biography on Malcolm X was published this week. It's called "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention" and it examines a time of great unrest in this country, especially for African Americans, from the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to the struggle for civil rights.

We are pleased to be joined by Zaheer Ali, a doctoral student in history at Columbia University. He was one of the lead researchers who worked with the late Manning Marable on his biography. And Zaheer Ali is with us now. Welcome to the program. And may I just say, we are so sorry for the loss of this dear colleague.

Mr. ZAHEER ALI (Researcher): Thank you so much, and thank you for focusing on his work.

MARTIN: I just want to talk about the title of the work, "A Life of Reinvention." And he wrote that Malcolm X was constantly rewriting his own story, from his early years as a vagabond in Boston and New York to his conversion to Islam and subsequent rise to prominence as a militant advocate for black separatism. Malcolm X is a mythic figure to many people, and many people will have read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

And one of Dr. Marable's insights is that there was a lot of reinvention in that work. So I wanted to just ask you, first of all, what was most surprising to you in the research that emerged over the course of this work?

Mr. ALI: Well, I think you're absolutely right. You know, the autobiography began for Malcolm as a text to bear witness to the transformative teachings of the Nation of Islam. And so in doing that he highlighted the contrast of his life prior to being in the Nation and then after. And there were of course embellishments and exaggerations. One was, the Detroit Red era of Malcolm's life is exaggerated. He was not really that hardcore of a hustler as he portrayed. The other aspect that...

MARTIN: Perhaps like some rap stars today...

Mr. ALI: Yes, exactly. Exactly. So he also was very skilled in how to relate to his audiences. And so he would frequently draw on a kind of larger truth of the black experience to appeal to his audience and to illustrate the kind of hope that they should have for transformation. He wanted to present himself as an example. And that was probably one of most striking things.

The other was the political evolution does not really come across in the autobiography, in part because his life was cut so short. And in part because by 1963, Alex Haley believed that he had all the material he needed to complete the autobiography. He had not, of courses, anticipated that Malcolm would be, you know, silenced in the Nation and then leave the Nation.

MARTIN: There are some provocative allegations in this book, both about the beginning of Malcolm X's life, or his early years, and his ultimate end. One of the provocative pieces of information that's in the book is that - the suggestion that Malcolm X had a homosexual relationship in his early years with an employer named Paul Lennon. At the time he was a butler, you know, a house man, you know, for him. What is the basis of this allegation and why do you think it was important to bring up?

Mr. ALI: Well, I think that Professor Marable wanted to present the totality of Malcolm for who he was. The evidence for Malcolm's relationship with Lennon actually is drawn from several sources.

Actually, Ella Collins's son, Rodnell Collins, who wrote "The Seventh Son," his account of his experiences with Malcolm - of course Malcolm lived with Ella in Boston for a period of time during his Detroit Red days, and in Rodnell Collins's book he talks about Malcolm and Shorty, which was Malcolm's running partner, having this hustle where they would, you know, visit this white businessman and powder him down and, you know, massage - give him a massage.

Basically that's one piece of it. And the other piece is looking at the autobiography. Malcolm describes this very same scenario but ascribes it to a figure named Rudy. And we've known by looking through the autobiography that several characters are either renamed or invented in this, you know, to kind of displace what Malcolm was talking about himself.

I think the key thing, though, about this is that this was during a time in Malcolm's life where he was known to be economically desperate, and also just kind of seeking out a footing, you know, because of the kind of life that he was living.

MARTIN: Well, no, there are shades of this that we've seen, you know, contemporary shades of this in the Ted Haggard story, for example. There have been a number of sort of powerful figures who have, you know, reported these kinds of - perhaps it just points again how sexuality is fluid, isn't it? And so why should it be any different for people who happen to be famous, you know?

Mr. ALI: Well, and that's the second thing, you know. That's the second thing. You know, I think that the reaction to this says more than the actual historical fact of this. I think the way people are reacting is telling in terms of how much they have vested in a kind of hetero-normative notion of masculinity. And I think it's important for us to ask ourselves questions about how we determine who a strong figure is and what makes a strong figure.

MARTIN: If you've just joined us, I'm speaking with Zaheer Ali. He's a doctoral student in history at Columbia University. He's one of the lead researchers who worked with the late Professor Manning Marable on his epic biography "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention." Manning Marable died this past Friday at the age of 60, just before this piece of work was published.

Let's talk about the other allegation in the biography that has gotten quite a lot of attention. It's about the assassination of Malcolm X. Professor Marable says that the FBI and NYPD's bureau of special services had advanced knowledge of the assassination plot, that they did not take it seriously, and that in fact that they were, you could make an argument that enabled it, that they wished for it or did nothing to stop it, even though they had advanced knowledge of it.

Also, Professor Manning points to a man who he says was allegedly involved and has managed to escape justice to this day.

Mr. ALI: Uh-huh. Right.

MARTIN: I did want to ask your thoughts about airing this now. There is no statute of limitations on murder. Was it Professor Marable's hope that perhaps individuals who had not been brought to account would be?

Mr. ALI: Absolutely. We know that three people were arrested and convicted and found guilty of Malcolm's assassination based on the research. I think Professor Marable quite persuasively argues that two of those men were, in fact, innocent and that there were many who were guilty of this crime who were never brought to justice.

FBI had been following Malcolm. They were in some of his earliest meetings when he was in Boston, for example, in 1954, holding small meetings in people's homes to begin building temples for the Nation of Islam. In one of those first meetings, one of those people was an informant. This is how deeply imbedded the FBI was in not only the Nation of Islam, but of course Malcolm.

And when he left, they sent, you know, J. Edgar Hoover sent a memo to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy covering all of the nuances of this split. And, you know, much of these files have been declassified, which include many redacted documents.

And I think, you know, what Professor Marable is saying raises important questions in terms of what did the law enforcement agencies and the federal government know about the threats to Malcolm's life? And he was very excited. He wanted to frame this whole project around the call to reopen the case.

MARTIN: Finally, Mr. Ali, before we let you go - and we've been talking about this throughout our conversation - is what Professor Marable hoped, what did he hope most would be learned about Malcolm X from this prodigious work?

Mr. ALI: He wanted - you know, I think that Professor Marable, all of his academic work was always tied to activist work. So discussing Malcolm or writing about Malcolm, this project is tied to a social justice project. And for Professor Marable, that was getting justice for the people who killed Malcolm, getting that case reopened.

But he also wanted to examine the life of Malcolm - and I think it's done in this book - as a global figure. And especially using the diaries of his travels when he was in Africa, how Malcolm was becoming and positioning himself and understanding the relationship of the struggle of black people in America to that of the diaspora. And also connecting that and framing that within a spiritual context of Islam. And I think that's something that should get more notice as people begin to really delve into this book.

What's really interesting about the way Professor Marable unfolds Malcolm's life is the way he interweaves the global tradition of Islam throughout. And I think in this critical moment, as we look at, you know, our ongoing relationship with several Muslim countries and the way we're looking at the issues of - at Muslims in America, I think Malcolm's story is very critical to that.

In terms of his, Professor Marable's overall legacy, you know, reading this book for me is - kind of has a double meaning, because not only am I reading about Malcolm's past, but I'm being reminded of past conversations Manning and I would have about Malcolm. And he was an incredibly devoted scholar. He was, you know, committed to social justice.

He taught his students that your work in the academy should not be isolated from your work in the community. And I think, you know, he was the best of the progressive politics of W.E.B. Du Bois, along with the best of the institution-building of Booker T. Washington. He sought to leave sustainable institutions that could produce the kind of knowledge that would be in service to his community.

MARTIN: We've been speaking with Zaheer Ali, a doctoral student in history at Columbia University and one of the lead researchers who worked with the late professor Manning Marable on his biography, "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention," which was just published this week. Manning Marable died this past Friday at the age of 60. He was the founding director of African-American studies at Columbia University, and since 2002 he was the director of Columbia Center for Contemporary Black History. Zaheer Ali, thank you so much for joining us once again.

Mr. ALI: Thank you so much.

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