At the outset, it is impossible to deny the vital role that the volume A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marrable’s Malcolm X (2012, Black Classics Press), edited by Drs. Jared Ball and Todd Steven Burroughs, played in the formation of this article.
In 2011, Manning Marable, a legendary Marxian African American Studies scholar at Columbia University with longstanding allegiances to social democratic projects such as Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialists of America and the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, died after a long struggle with a degenerative pulmonary condition. Three days after his passing, Viking Books, an imprint of the publishing conglomerate Penguin Random House, issued the hardcover edition of his long-awaited biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, a title that went on to earn numerous accolades and the Pulitzer Prize. This volume has now gone on to be adapted into a documentary on Netflix, Who Killed Malcolm X?
At the preliminary step, we need to be clear that there is a physical human being that existed named El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz who was murdered in February 1965 by a COINTEL-PRO operation via proxies that had been incubated from within the Nation of Islam, a matter documented by the Church Committee in 1975-76 and the COINTEL-PRO primary source documents.
Then there is a popular culture representation of this human being, a projection lacking corporeal realization, named Malcolm X. This projection has been created and deployed multiple times in the past 60+ years to serve the political whims of a number of media-generating enterprises, dating back to when the press first presented Malcolm X as a firebrand “reverse racist.” As James Baldwin, whose intimate relationship with the El-Shabazz family vaporizes claims of Malcolm’s unbending homophobia, said in his 1972 memoir No Name in the Street, this projection has far less to do with the human being’s ideas as they existed in 1965 and far more to do with their author’s own political aspirations.
But it is a very different matter to attempt to deal with the present, in the present, and with a contemporary, younger than oneself, hideously dead too soon, and one who became, furthermore, long before he died, a much disputed legend. And there is, since his death, a Malcolm, virtually, for every persuasion. People who hated him, people who despised him, people who feared him, and people who, in their various ways and degrees, according to their various lights and darknesses, loved him, all claim him now. It is easy to claim him now, just as it was easy for the church to claim Saint Joan.
The documentary’s title is the first lie of the project. The inquiry into who murdered El-Shabazz was solved conclusively decades ago. The documentary spends its first twenty minutes claiming that there is still a question, one that will be solved by the protagonist of the narrative, Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, which is simply sophistic obfuscation of a bibliographic record by government declassification disclosures, journalists, academics, and Congressional investigations. Like the Marable book, it takes at face value reports and records of the FBI, failing to articulate that Hoover’s Bureau presents a documentary record replete with falsified claims and racist accusations lacking any corroboration with reality. (The presence of smut merchant David Garrow, whose infamous 2019 article claimed Martin Luther King, Jr. was party to a rape, is itself a scandalous indication production’s dubiety.) An FBI historian is also interviewed without skepticism, implying that the COINTEL-PRO project ended and is a historical episode that is “safe” to discuss rather than an ongoing endeavor we continue to be subjected to by the military-industrial complex. The proposition that this film’s protagonist uncovers new information about one of the alleged shooters, William X. Bradley aka Al-Mustafa Shabazz, is itself a farce. There already has been a thorough exhibition of this matter by eyewitness Roland Sheppard dating back to 2011 , who included in his reporting the same still image extracted from a Cory Booker mayoral campaign commercial seen in this film. When the film reaches its climax with the death of Al-Mustafa Shabazz, one is forced to wonder how there can be such shock when the man’s identity was known for so long, meaning an interview would have been rather easy to at least propose.
There is serious and honest reason to doubt the manuscript Marable submitted to Viking was the same as what was published in 2011. In a February 2012 public address at Elmhurst College loaded with near-Freudian slips, Viking editor Wendy Wolf seemed to disclose that her interventions in the text prior to final publication were profound. Dr. Ball annotates the video thoroughly at his website ImixWhatILike :
Wolf begins by explaining her lack of expertise as a scholar and that her view of Malcolm X, up until the moment Marable “walked into [her] office,” was one driven by her experience growing up in the segregated south with her “liberal integrationist family” where reading Malcolm’s Autobiography frightened her, “he was a scary dude.” It is this distance that allows her to later refer to Malcolm’s “native intelligence” and explains her simple ignorance around the political trajectories of Malcolm X and Dr. King (to name but two)… Their approach is inherently hostile to and fearful of the revolution Malcolm represented/represents… Wolf uses “we” in describing the writing process, the style, and their book’s approach almost as much as Marable used “maybe, probably, could have, might have” to describe what they call “evidence.” Wolf even says that she merely went to Marable for his “approval” of either her severe editing or outright writing of the book… Wolf seems to practically take credit for writing those lines, she certainly endorses them and they are definitely designed to juxtapose enemies of the state against one another rather than in equal opposition to the same and truly leading source of global terrorism… And lastly, please note in the 53rd minute the very lone sister who quietly, succinctly and quite specifically points out the research flaws in the Marable book and who is then summarily ignored with a mere “thank you” and a turn of the head. After speaking for nearly an hour about the meticulously researched and comprehensive biography Wolf has no words, none at all, for the sound and reasonably asked question about the nature of that comprehensive research. Her only option is avoidance, dismissal and redirect. It was shameful and yet so fruitful in demonstrating the soundness of our own project and those like it. We do not have to eschew our politics to be sound in our research. One need not cancel out the other. Wolf was simply not up to the task of soundly defending what is clearly her very ideological reading and interpretation of Malcolm X.
Plenty of room for debate exists about whether the author imposed his own social democratic politics upon his literary rendition of Malcolm X. Patricia Reid-Merritt writes “Marable’s view of the world was framed primarily by his belief that a true democratic process trumped all other efforts for social and political unity. This view did not hold true for Malcolm X, whose social orientation and commitment to a political platform rested on a belief in undeniable Blackness—that is, a vision of racial unity among all African people. For Marable, however, Malcolm’s ideal could never be viewed as a viable, socially galvanizing political option.” That discussion cannot be divorced from a wider inquiry into what his manuscript looked like prior to editorial intervention by a white liberal woman serving as an agent of one of the largest capitalist publishing firms in the world.
On the level of scholarly and journalistic practice, the book is a travesty. It traffics in what amounts to rumors lacking any verification and sourcing in order to present a “humanized” version of Malcolm X (read: he was an adulterous bisexual cuckold). In the eyes of this queer person, it is deeply offensive and altogether villainous in my eyes to articulate such a set of claims with the vocabulary and journalistic integrity of a supermarket tabloid. Supposed allies of the LGBTQQIA+ community do us no favors by behaving in such a scandalous way.
Politically, the book claims “[Aspects of Malcolm’s public personality were] partially expressed in the unprecedented voter turnouts in black neighborhoods in Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988 and in the successful electoral bid of Barack Obama in 2008. Malcolm truly anticipated that the black electorate could potentially be the balance of power in a divided white republic.” Claiming that El-Shabazz’s politics existed within the same neoliberal spectrum as those of Obama is an absurdity. As Dr. Ball said in a recent interview , we instead need to realize that, had El-Shabazz survived, Obama’s entire conservative neoliberal political career would have been an impossibility.
El-Shabazz was developing a praxis, indebted in part to the postcolonial process after World War II, that saw solidarity with the Global South as part of a foundation of a larger revolutionary pan-African project that found certain overlap with Mao’s Third World theory, the Organization of African Unity, the Tricontinetal, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Bandung Conference. His aspirations including building a bloc of states across the Global South that would support a complaint at the United Nations charging the United States with human rights violations of African Americans. At a time when Castro’s Cuba had just ended a stand-off with the Kennedy administration first at the Bay of Pigs and then at the Missile Crisis, this was seen as a serious political threat by the CIA and FBI. They therefore executed a COINTEL-PRO operation that fostered and deepened a schism between the Nation of Islam and El-Shabazz, effectively turning the NOI militia, the Fruit of Islam, into unwitting proxies. Later revelations also show that the Fruit of Islam was itself infiltrated by New York Police Department officers. This offense, threatening the prestige of the American humanitarian edifice, a radical internationalist effort that would have augured far more serious and impacting outcomes for the imperial project in the Global South, was the reason for the murder, not some petty gossip about the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s sexual failings.
This tactic of political appropriation is not new. The first instance of it came with the publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. Haley was a liberal Black Republican writing prior to the realignment of Black electoral politics within the duopoly that was catalyzed first by the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign and then the 1968 Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon. The Autobiography includes sections that clearly articulate Haley’s integrationist politics, views quite at odds with those articulated by El-Shabazz in his final years.
Next came a round of biographies and anthologies with clear slant. Kamau Franklin describes the efforts of George Breitman of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party:
In his 1967 book, The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary, Breitman attempts to inform us of Malcolm’s stroll toward socialism during the time of the Black Power Movement… Breitman, a lifelong leading member of various communist and socialist organizations, made a very fluid attempt to broaden the ideas of Malcolm X postmortem. Breitman was given particular credit by the Socialist Workers Party for helping to edit and publish Malcolm X’s speeches. Prior to his assassination, Malcolm, who had ties to the White left through his several appearances at the Militant Labor Forum, had been approached about having his speeches published, but no actual agreement was ever reached. Breitman’s edited volume, Malcolm X Speaks, was first published in 1965, without much commentary included, because Breitman and an unidentified member of Muslim Mosque, Inc. were at odds about Breitman’s view of where Malcolm was headed. The book was stripped of Breitman’s views, but the need for another publication became imminent. The resources of the White left were instrumental in popularizing Malcolm’s ideas, but the people who controlled those resources felt that Malcolm’s ideas needed re-interpretation. Those close to Malcolm, however, did not see the intellectual changes these forces claimed he was undergoing. According to Breitman, Malcolm “had not had the opportunity to put the parts together” of his own thinking.
Breitman’s Eurocentric Trotskyism articulates the claim that Black nationalism is an ideological delusion that diverts from the revolutionary cause. This is contrary to the Marxist-Leninist view, one embraced by Cuba and China during the years El-Shabazz sought to build the bloc supporting the UN petition, that the national liberation struggles are themselves revolutionary. This claim is itself not disproven by the humanitarian failings of Soviet domestic policy under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, who wrote:
The unquestionably revolutionary character of the vast majority of national movements is as relative and peculiar as is the possible revolutionary character of certain particular national movements. The revolutionary character of a national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or a republican programme of the movement, the existence of a democratic basis of the movement. The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism… There is no need to mention the national movement in other, larger, colonial and dependent countries, such as India and China, every step of which along the road to liberation, even if it runs counter to the demands of formal democracy, is a steam-hammer blow at imperialism, i.e., is undoubtedly a revolutionary step.
Though this seems as if it is part of some sectarian contest, let me be clear, this is a matter of ideology and solidarity with the oppressed that can and does have tremendous consequences. El-Shabazz was able to find a comrade and ally in Fidel Castro, holding a summit with him in 1960 at a Harlem hotel, because Castro understood African American national liberation, in whatever form, was a struggle to stand in solidarity with, as was also the case in his solidarity with the African wars against colonialism and Boer apartheid. This logic also informed the thinking of Frantz Fanon who, while being critical of the Soviet understanding of racism, articulated a revolutionary program that the incarcerated El-Shabazz read as a young man while embracing the theology of the Nation of Islam. This is the difference between white Left paternalism towards Black liberatory struggle, which they see as misguided and petit bourgeois, and radical solidarity. It dictates whether a white radical shows up for the radical struggles of #BlackLivesMatter or instead remains an armchair revolutionary, waiting until the “conditions” meet their Eurocentric mold of what the overturning of racial capitalism “should” look like.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, American publishing entered a postmodern deconstructionist moment wherein radical thinkers were put onto a bibliographic psychologist’s couch. Franklin continues:
Bruce Perry is a less-interesting biographer of Malcolm than either Breitman or Marable. Never active in the movement himself, he enters the picture as a voyeur whose interest is in decoding Malcolm’s supposed psychological state because by the early 1990s, the media’s efforts to deconstruct iconic figures and topics as a means of drawing audiences were in full bloom. Perry, like Marable, early on informs readers of his 1992 book, Malcolm: The Life of the Man Who Changed Black America, that others have gotten it all wrong about Malcolm X’s life story and that he can correct those inaccuracies. Perry further claims that his research reveals the real Malcolm X—the one that no one knew, not even Malcolm himself. What he provides, however, is simply conjecture and a vision of Malcolm that is unrecognizable to those who knew him. Perhaps Marable, seeing the value of such titillation, decided to walk a sloppy line down a similar path. Not surprisingly, the only two books on Malcolm X that I can remember receiving both in-depth and positive reviews from the New York Times in my lifetime were Marable’s and Perry’s.
This was in contrast with important volumes that were ignored by the press, authored by Baba Zak Kondo and Karl Evanzz, that elaborated upon the revolutionary identities of the Nation of Islam, El-Shabazz, and the COINTEL-PRO op to destroy them. Even the liberal Democrat Frank Church put in the public record via his Congressional Committee a more thorough documentary account of this act of domestic espionage! What’s more, an American Experience documentary from 1994, Malcolm X: Make It Plain, goes further in articulating acknowledgement of the state’s role in the death of El-Shabazz!
Marable’s book was issued in the Obama era as a third iteration of this project, underwritten with an agenda that is certainly less rabid than Donald Trump’s white nationalism but still racialized and intending to maintain the hegemony of white supremacist racial capitalism. That is the true conclusion of the reformist project that social democracy in America aspires to. It is an ideological and political program that sees capitalism as capable of redemption, a notion imparted by the subtitle of the biography, A Life of Reinvention.
This Netflix film is furthermore not the first cinematic instance of this project. The first came with the 2014 Selma, which presents Malcolm as a softened, reformed seeker whose break with the Nation of Islam has led him to becoming a kinder man. In the 2016 I Am Not Your Negro, the selective use of Baldwin excerpts that jettisons the revolutionary praxis gives us a neutered civil libertarian lacking any radical edge. Both articulate a neoliberal praxis, devoid of the consciousness that defines the Black Radical Tradition.
We may never know how much of Marable’s book was actually published. But as an ideological project, Dr. Ball articulates a coherent and important point, writing “A fundamental turning away from the politics of resistance and revolution has left African America with the kinds of persistent inequality associated with incomplete freedom movements. The suppression of Malcolm X as he really was—politically, ideologically, and programmatically—has been equaled in the contemporary era only by the suppression of his politics within the circles of those claiming to carry on his legacy. The continuity of oppression from Malcolm’s time to now requires both the initial physical assassination of the man and the subsequent re-assassination of his ideas. In truth, those assassinations are what make today’s inequality possible. They are merely the necessary first steps. The danger represented by Malcolm X and his ideas is today as persistent as the oppression he sought to destroy in his time.”
In other words, the COINTEL-PRO operation that extinguished the life of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz continues today through the media projection of Malcolm X.