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Manning Marable’s New Malcolm X Biography Investigates Conflicted Reality of the Civil Rights Leader

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Two decades in the making, Manning Marable’s nearly 600-page biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, is described as a reevaluation of Malcolm X’s life, providing new insights into the circumstances of his assassination, as well as raising questions about Malcolm X’s autobiography. Manning passed away on Friday, just days before his life’s work was published. To discuss his legacy, we’re joined by Michael Eric Dyson, sociology professor at Georgetown University and author of Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X, and also by Bill Fletcher, Jr., a friend of Marable and a longtime labor and racial justice activist. “There were three different sources that had an interest in Malcolm’s death, and that’s where [the book] becomes very, very important,” Fletcher says. “It was the police and the FBI, it was the Nation of Islam, but there were also people in his own organization who resented the trajectory that he was moving. And so, there was this confluence of forces that led to a situation where he was permitted to be killed. And I think that when people read this, it’s going to be an incredible eye opener.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryMay 19, 2011Manning Marable’s Controversial New Biography Refuels Debate on Life and Legacy of Malcolm X
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On Friday, renowned African American historian Manning Marable passed away at the age of 60, days before the publication of his monumental biography of Malcolm X. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is published today by Viking. Two decades in the making, the nearly 600-page biography is described as a reevaluation of Malcolm’s life, providing new insights into the circumstances of his assassination, as well as raising questions about the Malcolm X’s original autobiography.

To discuss the legacy of Manning Marable, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Michael Eric Dyson, university professor of sociology at Georgetown University. He was named by Ebony as one of the hundred most influential black Americans. He has written 16 books, most recently, Can You Hear Me Now?: The Inspiration, Wisdom, and Insight of Michael Eric Dyson. He’s also the author of Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X.

We’re also joined on the phone by Bill Fletcher, Jr., longtime labor, racial and justice and international activist. He’s an editorial board member and columnist for blackcommentator.com, and he’s a founder of the Black Radical Congress.

Welcome to you both. I’d like to start with Michael Eric Dyson. First, your reaction on hearing of the death of this giant of scholarship and activism in America, and also a colleague of yours?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Absolutely. I was deeply and profoundly saddened by the loss of this intellectual giant, this man whose scholarly ambition and achievement were remarkable and set a pace, a tone and a standard that had been rarely equaled in our history. Manning Marable was the perfect fusion of the scholar who engaged in the most serious forms of critical scrutiny for the development of ideas that would help free black people and all progressive people, on the one hand, and on the other hand, as an activist who was concerned about the most salient means by which black people and other progressive peoples could enact the very ideas that he studied.

So, he studied as a scholar. He put forth books, articles, newspaper columns, that constantly engaged the American public and the world, if you will, public, about the means toward radical democracy, about the prohibition of it in our own culture, about the obstacles and impediments that had to be overcome, as well as speaking about the inspiring sources for critical reflection upon our condition, and then what we must do to make sure that especially poor and working peoples could be equitably represented in the broader American and, indeed, international court. So, Manning Marable’s loss is a huge loss, both in terms of scholarship and in terms of activism.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And his direct influence on you? When did you first discover him, and how did he influence your development?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: My goodness. I was a student at Knoxville College. I had, for four years, from 18 to 21, taken an alternate path, so to speak. I had gone to night school; after being kicked out of a private school, I was at night school. I had a child. I hustled in the streets, worked on — you know, in a couple of jobs, lived on welfare and the like, and then decided to go back to school. So, in 1979, I went down to Knoxville College, and in 1980, I was in the library stacks and discovered a set of essays by a young brilliant scholar. And his picture on the back of that book was of an — you know, a handsome-faced Afroed African American who was very young and very brilliant and who used serious analytical prisms drawn from European social theory, especially from Marxism, but then applying them to African American culture, baptizing them in the nuance and the idiom of our own expression. I said, “Man, if Karl Marx was a brother, this is what he’d talk like. This is what he’d speak like. This is how he’d think.” And so, I began reading him and was immediately impressed with the depth of his analysis, the range of his brilliance, but also his inspiring identification with vulnerable masses, especially African American people. So, from that point on, I became a huge fan of Manning Marable.

Years later, when I met him, of course I was in awe and told him that story. And Manning, with his characteristic humility, deflected my appreciation for his genius and said, you know, he was happy to help a young, budding scholar find his own way. But he did much more than that. He was a friend of mine. I loved him very greatly. He encouraged me throughout my career, invited me in the late '90s, in 1997, to become a visiting distinguished professor at Columbia for a couple of years. And that's when my wife and I, Marcia, became very close to Manning and his now-widow, his wife, Leith Mullings, the noted anthropologist. And we spent many an evening talking in each other’s apartments, going out to dinner, even went to a fight at Madison Square Garden, and shared an enormous amount of time thinking and reflecting and having fun and talking. And Manning Marable was the best of who we are as a race. He was the best of who we are as Americans. He was the best of who we are as a human being, attempting to use critical analysis in defense of vulnerable populations and to articulate a broadly multiracial, multicultural democratic ideal that continues to be a goal that many of us who fight for such ideals can embrace.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Bill Fletcher, you are also a longtime friend of Manning Marable. And, of course, you’ve been long active in the labor movement, and Manning Marable was one of those African American intellectuals who was not only a giant of scholarship but also a Marxist and an activist in his own right. Could you talk about the meaning of his death to you?

BILL FLETCHER: Well, thanks, Juan. I guess I have to start by just saying, when I heard the news, it felt like someone with a very big fist had hit me in my stomach. And it took me a while to recover from that, and I actually haven’t. I mean, this is very, very painful. Much like Michael, I was very inspired by Manning. Manning and I became very close. He became one of two people that I know that are — essentially, have been like big brothers to me, for a very long time. And we worked very closely together in the construction of this thing called the Black Radical Congress.

And one of the things that Michael was saying that really resonates is that, as opposed to many academics, one of the things that Manning did — it was actually two things. One is that he worked on both sides of the line, in terms of scholarship as well as activism. But the other piece, Juan, was that he promoted actively the importance of organization. That was one of the things that I loved about Manning, that it wasn’t just about Manning, and it wasn’t just about ideas, but it was about the necessity to have organization to implement ideas. And so, whether he was himself involved in an organization, which he was in many cases — Democratic Socialists of America, National Black Independent Political Party, the Black Radical Congress — or whether he was standing back, he was nevertheless supporting the building of organization. And I loved him. He was incredible.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Michael Eric Dyson, the book now that has come out today, this monumental work, which really reinterprets large segments of the life of Malcolm X, from his assassination to his personal struggles, to his relationship to the Nation of Islam. Could you talk about some of the key contributions that have been made in this book into understanding and reinterpreting the life of Malcolm X?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, we can talk about specific things, of course. You can speak about, you know, Manning grappling with the fact that the autobiographical narrative, as he talked about in the excerpts that you played earlier today on your show — the autobiographical narrative, of course, contrasts with and indeed outright contradicts some of the more appealing and vigorous aspects of Malcolm’s organizational life — the OAAU, the Muslim Mosque Incorporated — and his ideas, that were literally excised from the text for political and ideological purposes. So, you know, Malcolm is restored to the full grandeur of his vision early on, in his independent career, from the Nation of Islam, through Manning’s text.

Also, Manning gives us a fuller, more complicated vision of the perilous journey toward selfhood that, you know, Malcolm undertook, whether in terms of his own personal life — he’s not a solo gunslinger, so to speak. He’s not a lone ranger out there on the plains fighting against the odds as a child who has, you know, in one sense, raised himself, reared himself. You know, Manning gives us a more complete and complicated understanding of the domestic sphere in which he emerged. He gives us a sense of his hustling life; it wasn’t as big as has been exaggerated. But he gives us a reason for the exaggeration, that Malcolm X wanted to prove that the Nation of Islam and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad could overcome even the worst sort of criminal and turn him or her into a converted being who believed in Allah and who could serve his community. So, you know, Manning deals with this in a brilliant way.

He also speaks honestly and openly about the complicated domestic arrangement between Malcolm and his beloved wife, Dr. Betty Shabazz, later on, and about the disaffection that might have occurred there, and the sexual dissatisfaction that existed for a variety of reasons, and Malcolm’s own distance from her, and his complicated relationship to women and the like. So, all of that stuff is there.

But even more broadly, the beauty of this portrait is that it exhaustively deals with the private diaries of Malcolm X, the FBI records. You heard him — his visit to Gregory Reed in Detroit. Manning went anywhere and everywhere that any — even an iota of evidence existed, to help tell the more complete, complicated, complex and nuanced, colorful story of Malcolm X, to rescue him, on the one hand, from the vice grip of hagiographers who uncritically valorized and celebrated Malcolm, on the one hand, but dismissed contradictory evidence that suggested his complicated, conflicted reality, and on the other hand, he rescues him from the vicious demonization of those who would assault Malcolm X as the perpetrator and perpetuator of violent mythologies — and that’s just not true.

So he gives us a beautiful, complicated, full-flown Malcolm X, who, as Manning Marable in his own words said, was the greatest figure to emerge, in his view, in African American culture in the 20th century. That’s a remarkable statement. So, those who would take issue with Manning Marable about this revelation or that revelation or dealing with some of the unsavory realities he had to confront, the broader picture of Malcolm X is of a remarkable human being in constant transformation and process, whose ultimate goal was the liberation of, first of all, African American people who had been victimized by white supremacy in America, but more broadly, to understand the human rights arc into which African American people fit.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Bill Fletcher, for so many decades now, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with Alex Haley, has been sort of the textbook on Malcolm X in so many colleges and across the country. Your sense of how this biography, this last testament of Manning Marable — its importance for scholarship and for understanding of the development of the African American liberation struggle?

BILL FLETCHER: This book humanizes Malcolm. After reading this book and after reading the manuscript, I can tell you that you feel like you know Malcolm as a human being, someone that you could literally have sat down with, you know, on the block and had a discussion with, as opposed to a Saint Malcolm, you know, some sort of icon. And so, I think what’s going to happen is that there will be many people, Juan, who are going to be very upset in reading this, because, to build on what Michael was saying, this brings him back to earth. It shows the confusion that he had at certain points. But the other part, why I think this is going to be so valuable, is that the actual research that Manning did was itself remarkable and itself was exemplary, that he demonstrates to students of history what you need to do if you’re going to take this seriously, and that it’s not enough to rely on myths and secondary sources, no matter how compelling they may be. And so, it is a really — it’s a remarkable book.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, I’d like to ask you, in the vein of his being not only a scholar, but an activist, the fact that right now, today, on the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, there are protests, labor protests, across the country, the “We Are One” labor protests. And your sense of how Marable would be reacting to these protests occurring on this day?

BILL FLETCHER: Oh, well, he was always one that was encouraging agitation and encouraging mobilization. He was not standing back. He was — whether he was going to be there himself, and particularly in the last year or so of his life, he had to be very, very careful physically, but he was someone that absolutely saw the importance of this. And he saw the importance of the labor movement in terms of what it could be. He was never pollyannaish about the labor movement. He was very critical of the limitations of the labor movement, while at the same time recognizing the necessity for unions and other forms of labor organization to raise struggle. And so, I think that he would have been extremely excited about this, as I think all of us should be. This is a very, very important day, Juan. The only other thing I would say is that these demonstrations can’t be a one-shot deal. They can’t just be “rah, rah, let’s do it today” and then go back to everything as usual. This country is in a different place, and we’re going to have to keep the pressure on. And I think that that would be a tribute to Manning.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Bill, if we can, we just have 30 seconds, but I just wanted to ask you one last question about —


JUAN GONZALEZ: — the book’s view of the assassination of Malcolm, that two of the — of those who were convicted really had nothing to do with it, and that the Police Department of New York had much more knowledge about what was going on that day beforehand.

BILL FLETCHER: It was not even — it was — in addition to that, Juan, it was that there were three different sources that had an interest in Malcolm’s death, and that’s where it becomes very, very important. It was the police and the FBI, it was the Nation of Islam, but there were also people in his own organization who resented the trajectory that he was moving. And so, there was this confluence of forces that led to a situation where he was permitted to be killed. And I think that when people read this, it’s going to be an incredible eye opener.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank both of you very much. We’ve been joined by Bill Fletcher, Jr., a longtime labor, racial justice and international activist. He’s an editorial board member and columnist for blackcommentator.com. We’ve been joined in Washington, D.C., by Michael Eric Dyson, university professor of sociology at Georgetown University. He’s also the author of Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X. You can go to our website to read, watch or listen to Democracy Now!’s complete interviews with Manning Marable, democracynow.org.

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