By Amiri Baraka
On March 30, I waited for a car that Manning Marable was supposed to send to pick me up at my house so that we could meet later that day in his office at Columbia University because he wanted to interview me as part of an oral history project. I had met with him two weeks before to discuss how Columbia would handle my papers, that is when we scheduled this last project. But the car never came. I called another driver I knew, a friend of mine, and we drove to Columbia, but Marable was not there. It seemed no one at the Africana studies department knew where he was. Finally some word got to me that Manning had gone back into the hospital. I went back home, the next day I got the news on the internet that he had died.
The strangeness of that missed appointment was weird enough, but the fact that his last work on Malcolm X was to be released two days later made the whole ending of our living relationship a frustrating incomplete denouement.
Initially, a friend of mine gave me a copy of the book at a happy discount. Taking it on one of my frequent trips out of town, I began to read. I gave that first copy to my wife when I returned because she had also, as many other people had, been clamoring to read it. As well as asking me relentlessly had I read it. I bought another copy of the book at the Chicago Airport, and I guess started to get into the book seriously.
I have known Manning for a number of years. Actually I met him while he was still teaching in Colorado. I even worked under him when I taught briefly at Columbia University, when he was chairman of the Africana Studies Dept. at Columbia. As well, I have appreciated one of his books, the Du Bois (“Black Radical Democrat”) work and at least appreciated the theme of “How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America,” as well as the entire stance of his acknowledgement of the important aspects of American (Black American) history which had to be grasped.
But as recently as a few weeks ago, I had written him a letter about his journal Souls about an essay that quoted a man* who had been accused of participating in the assassination, making some demeaning remarks about Malcolm. My letter questioned the “intelligence” of including the quote since it offered nothing significant to the piece. This was not just loose criticism; I really wanted to know just what purpose the inclusion served. ( *This man Thomas 15X is the same one quoted by Marable as saying that it was the Nation of Islam that burned Malcolm’s house down.)
But with the publication of what some have called “his magnum opus” “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” it is not just Marable’s inclusion of tidbits of presumed sexual scandal that should interest readers, that I question, but more fundamentally, what was the consciousness that created this work?
First of all I don’t think we can just bull’s-eye the writer’s intentions, we must include Marable’s consciousness as the overall shaper of his intentions, as well as his method. Originally from Ohio, Marable was a freshman in college in 1969; he did not graduate until 1971. He has been attached to academic institutions since 1974, Smith, Tuskegee , Univ. of San Francisco , Cornell, Colgate, Purdue , Ohio State, University of Colorado and Columbia. It is no denigration of his life to say that Manning was an academic, a well principled one, but an academic nevertheless.
But Marable did have a political aspect to his life, which I understood and why I think he was a very principled academic. He did understand that the “purely” academic was fabrication of the essentially unengaged. That whatever you might do, there was a conscious political stance that your political consciousness had to assume, even if you refused to take it. So his “membership” in the 1970’s National Political Assembly chaired by Richard Hatcher, Mayor of Gary, Indiana, Rep Charles Diggs, the congressman from Detroit and myself as chairman of the Congress of African Peoples, signified that he was aware and a partisan of that attempt to raise and institutionalize Black political consciousness as a way to organize Black people nationally to struggle for Black political power.
In 1974, Marable joined the Democratic Socialists of America, and for a time was even a Vice Chairman of that organization which is called “Left” but is not a Marxist and certainly not a Marxist-Leninist organization. It is one of those organizations like the group that split from Lenin’s 2nd International which he called socialists in word but chauvinists in reality. So that it is important that we recognize the specific political base upon which Manning’s “observations” may be judged. He is not simply “observing.” He is making judgments.
So that, for instance, for Marable to consistently, throughout his book, call the Nation of Islam a “sect” is a judgment not an observation. The NOI certainly has and had more influence on society than DSA, certainly on Black people. The meaning as a small breakaway group of a religious order only used now to connote a “jocular or illiterate” character (according to the OUD) is spurious. But then in relationship to revolutionary Marxism or Marxism–Leninism, DSA certainly fits the description.
My point being that Marable must be judged by what he says not by what others say he “intended.” The best thing about the book, of course, is that it raises Malcolm X to the height of our conversation again, and this is a very good thing in this Obama election period. (Post racial it ain’t!)
The very profile of Malcolm’s life, the outline of his life of struggle needs to be spread across the world again, if only to re-awaken the fiercest “blackness” in us to fight this newly packaged “same ol’ same ol'” emergence of white supremacy and racism.
Whatever Marable is saying or pointing out, in the end, is to convince us of the superiority of social democracy which he refers to as “the Left,” which is anything from DSA to the Trotskyists. The characterization of Bayard Rustin’s “superior” reasoning in a debate with Malcolm or the response of James Farmer to Malcolm’s bringing a “body guard” to Farmer’s house, “Do you think I want to kill you?” tries to render Malcolm some paranoid case when indeed there were people plotting very actively to kill him.
Ultimately, it is Marable’s own political line that renders the book weakened by his consistent attempts to “reduce” Malcolm’s known qualities and status with many largely unsubstantiated injections, many described by Marable himself as “rumors.” Is there, for instance, any real evidence of Malcolm’s or Betty’s sexual trysts. People who knew Charles Kenyatta, for example, in Harlem , will quickly recall a vainglorious fool & liar. Could much of this rumor material actually have come from Marable’s “official” sources, the FBI, CIA, BOSS, NYPD, as well as those in the NOI who hated him. About Malcolm, a sentence like Marable’s “That evening Sharon 6X may have joined him in his hotel” is inexcusable.
When I wrote the FBI asking them to release surveillance materials they had gathered on me, at first the director even denied such papers existed. It was Allen Ginsberg’s lawyer that finally got an admission that such papers existed, and that I could get them for ten cents a page. But when I got the papers, it was my wife, Amina, who said how do we know that the information they haven’t crossed out is stuff they want us to see and so confuse us about what was really going on.
[Part Two of Amiri Baraka’s commentary in the next issue of the SUN].