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REVIEWING

Too Smart for His Own Good
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention


by Manning Marable

Viking | 2011 | 594 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford


Manning Marable

  “To be a Negro living in America, and to be consciously aware, is to be in a state of constant outrage.”  James Baldwin

   As I look back on the history of this country, no one fits Baldwin’s observation better than Malcolm Little (aka Malcolm X).

As he slowly emerges in Manning Marable’s sometimes overwhelming, richly researched, 594 page book, he is an often perplexing combination of incredibly high intelligence, abject ignorance, a profound awareness and an unbending anger at America’s mistreatment of blacks; all of which guide him, and tears him apart, leading him to become one of the most famous of Americans, the angry, revenge seeking  Malcolm X.

   The seeds for this transformation, which Professor Marable outlines with considerable skill and scholarship--were planted early.

     Both of Malcolm’s parents were dedicated followers of the Jamaican immigrant, Marcus Garvey. Professor Marable points out that Garvey and his followers believed that “Racial separation…was essential…people of African descent were all part of a transnational “nation.” A global race with a common destiny.”

   This was during the time that one of the greatest human migrations in modern history was set into motion, as blacks started fleeing the fascist south, first in small trickles, and then in droves, in search of the democracy they had heard so much about.

   Also, something just as motivating and whose importance continues until this day, was buried deep in Malcolm’s parents’ psyche, as well as most African Americans:

Who am I? Who was I before I was dragged unwillingly to this horrendous place called America?

   Newly formed black communities in the urban north, in cities like Detroit, New York’s Harlem, Cleveland and Chicago, were rife with exploitative religious charlatans and deeply sincere individuals like Garvey, all with the same compelling answer to the confused blacks trying mightily to find an answer to the two tormenting, overwhelming questions that constantly haunted them: you are not who the slave master said you were and here is who you really are.

   Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, and his second wife Louise, Malcolm’s mother, threw themselves into Garvey’s organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).

***

    Malcolm’s mother grew up in St. Andrew, Grenada. His dark-skinned, American born father lived most of his life in the Great Lakes region, the Midwest and even Canada, where he first met Malcolm’s mother.

     “Unlike Earl,” writes Marable, “she had received an excellent Anglican elementary-level education, becoming a capable writer as well as fluent in French…had a fair complexion and dark, flowing hair; in everyday encounters she was often mistaken for white.”

   Despite such strong differences in background and physical appearances, what united them was a passionate commitment to Garvey’s famous dictum: “Up you mighty race. You can be what you will!”

Misfortune soon overwhelmed Malcolm’s family, however, and the bare outline of what happened next has been well documented, with additional, tantalizing and controversial nuggets sprinkled throughout the narrative of Professor Marable’s biography.

After the suspicious death of his father, his mother confined to a mental hospital, foster homes, crime, jail; and ultimately, the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm Little finally becomes Malcolm X.  

It was here, as a young, uneducated man in his twenties, that his barely noticed towering intellect, and his inner self-discipline, came to center stage. As an organizer, public speaker and debater, Malcolm X excelled and began to attract much attention, including local police, as well as the Feds, and he soon began to be watched wherever he went.

Although he knew the FBI was on his tail, this did nothing to deter him, and he kept up a punishing schedule, traveling to Los Angeles, to Detroit, to Chicago, and to Boston, all the while serving as the Minster of the Harlem temple.

Marable points out that, “Although Malcolm usually spoke at Muslim temples (later changed to mosque after growing heat from orthodox Muslin). his audiences increasingly consisted of both Muslim and non-Muslim blacks. In his language and style, Malcolm reached out to recruit black Christians to his cause.”

His growing popularity “generated a financial windfall for the Nation. Between five hundred and one thousand African Americans were joining almost every month…much of the new revenue went into commercial ventures…the economic success of these ventures may have been responsible for Elijah Muhammad’s decision to stop mentioning some of the original tenets of Wallace D. Fard’s Islam—in particular the bizarre Yacub’s history—and give greater emphasis to the Garveyite thesis that a self-sustainable, all-black capitalist economy was a viable strategy,” writes Professor Marable.

Malcolm X was blessed with a trademark “bitter wit,” and was a powerful public speaker ( How many books I have read that pointed out that the real history of us humans is how we react to the spoken word. It seems that the speech is mightier than the pen, or the sword ).

Media and universities, including Howard, Cornell and Harvard soon sought him out to speak before students and faculty, or provide a quote. This interest was fueled by the very real drama of the growing Civil Rights Movement in the south.

They all knew by now, that Malcolm was a great orator, and a provocative and confident lecturer.

Combined with the television screen suddenly being filled with brilliant black thinkers like James Baldwin, Bayard Ruskin, and now this guy who called himself Malcolm X, it provided an interesting, intellectual public face to the African American struggle, with more than merely black clerics from the south having visibility and the only voice.

It is easy to see, in the 20/20 hindsight of history, why he was in such demand.

Malcolm X would perhaps turn over in his grave at my reference to his being an intellectual, but how else to account for the rapid learning experiences he had to face and master, time after time?

Herb Boyd points out, in his insightful review of the book in the Amsterdam News, that “It wasn’t a reinvention; rather an evolution.”

***

You hardcore eggheads out there reading this, please hold your nose, and forgive me, but reading this book brought back to mind an old Star Trek episode. In it, Captain Kirk is put on a strange planet, the likes of which he had rarely encountered, with a far greater physical reptilian adversary, by forces unknown.

The unknowns explained to both of them that everything they needed to defeat one another was right in front of them.

Captain Kirk, as well as Malcolm X, were both forced to quickly make use of whatever they found immediately around them; and their intelligence, and quick thinking were their main weapons against their opponents.

Kirk survived because of his intensive back knowledge, and even sternly lectured the powerful unknowns who had placed him there in the first place.

For Malcolm X, we all know what happened next. He did not survive, because he had little back knowledge when he embarked upon a journey that made him one of the most recognizable names to come out of the long struggle for freedom for African Americans.

He had to learn everything he needed to rise to such heights, as he went along in his remarkable journey.

His early ignorance, in spite of his being smart, ultimately caused jealousy and hatred and leading him down and trapped in a world that finally caught up with him, and bit him.

To me, this explains Malcolm X, and why, in the end, he just may have been too smart for his own good.

***

Another note concerning Malcolm X: Gene Roberts, the undercover NYPD officer that had infiltrated his organization and tried to revive him after he was shot down before his wife and children, was once a friend of mine, and one of the few black students at Olinville Junior High, and grew up near me in the Gunhill Houses.

***

Professor Manning Marable, a longtime member of the faculty of Columbia University, died the same day that his book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention was released.

We all must go sometime, but I can’t think of a better way to do it. This is a great book.



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