For serious students of Malcolm’s life, this book doesn’t offer a significant amount of new information. For the most part, the story of Malcolm’s life, originally articulated in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” released with the assistance of Alex Haley in 1965, shortly after Malcolm’s assassination, is re-presented in this bio. These authors take pains instead to attempt to provide deeper analysis on specific aspects of Malcolm’s life that have been discussed previously. Their most intriguing focuses were on Malcolm’s childhood in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S. and Lansing, Michigan, U.S. And, the most important element of this work in our view was the author’s focus on the influence of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association in the everyday lives of Malcolm’s parents Earl and Louise Little. Without dismissing the often abusive treatment Earl dished out to his wife and children, the book makes great efforts to express that pride in Africa and self-reliance and independence, staples of the Garvey movement, were widely preached and practiced in the Little household. This is important because it brings onto the surface the impact of Garveyism in Malcolm’s early development which challenges the widely held perspective that Malcolm was simply a criminal minded individual until being exposed to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (NOI). A much more balanced analysis, as is attempted in this book, portrays the willingness of Malcolm’s family (three of his brothers and his sister all joined the Nation of Islam with him) to participate in the NOI as a part and parcel of their upbringing with Garvey’s influence. This point of view is much more dialectical and material. We are all the results of all the major influences in our lives, especially our formulative years. None of us just reach adulthood independent of our youth and form all of our life philosophy at that stage although this is often what has been suggested about Malcolm after he was exposed to the NOI while in prison. These authors also do a decent job demonstrating that Malcolm Little had a stable hold on language and writing skills long before his transformation to Malcolm X. They use his cleverly worded letters to his family while in prison requesting money and his letter to the draft board as examples of his writing skills which flies in the face of the Hollywood story that Malcolm was basically illiterate before going to prison and reading the dictionary word by word. We are not saying the dictionary work didn’t happen. We are saying, that work didn’t create Malcolm’s literacy from scratch as we have been led to believe, primarily from Malcolm’s own words in the autobiography.
Another fascinating element was the focus on Malcolm’s physical abuse of the women in his life, specifically the white woman Beatrice (who was portrayed as “Sophia” in Spike Lee’s 1992 movie) and Malcolm’s distrust of women which he struggled to advance out of up to the end of his life. Finally, the last element that we found interesting was the book’s focus on the relationship developed between the NOI and the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. Much more about this was written in this book than anything else presented on the topic. Based on eye witness accounts from people like Jeremiah Shabazz (Jeremiah X Pugh) and his wife, Malcolm is depicted as fighting internally over Elijah Muhammad’s desire to establish a relationship with the klan based on Muhammad’s economic visions devoid of any realization of who these terrorists were. According to interviews the authors conducted with Mr. and Mrs. Shabazz shortly before the minister died in 1998, Malcolm was completely opposed to carrying out these meetings because he wanted to challenge, and even threaten, the klan with retaliation for their violence against Africans. Shabazz indicated that it took everything Malcolm could muster to carry out his orders from Muhammad. Meanwhile, Shabazz is depicted as the opportunist that he clearly was. Willing and able to move forward and build quite the shameful relationship with klan terrorists throughout the south despite the fact that evidence indicates the klan never did, nor ever had any intention, of carrying out its agreement with the NOI ministers. Malcolm, for his part, was removed from these “negotiations” by Muhammad because of his clear unwillingness and desire to participate the way Muhammad wanted him too. There is absolutely no reason to doubt Shabazz’s interpretation of these events. He was one of the NOI’s most powerful ministers playing a role in the lucrative crime workings of the Philadelphia, Penn, U.S. NOI mosque during his time there. A stronghold so powerful that even the Italian Mafia in Philly had to respect and negotiate with Shabazz’s people for control of crime in the city during the late 60s. Although they started out as friends, Shabazz turned into one of many enemies of Malcolm in the NOI and its more than likely that Shabazz was involved on some level with helping plan the U.S. government inspired assassination of Malcolm X.
Current day NOI members and supporters of Minister Louis Farrakhan will probably not like the way Farrakhan is portrayed in this book. He is defined as an opportunist who used the vitriol against Malcolm during 1963 to early 65 to prove his worthiness to advance within the Nation. Although the book doesn’t discuss this, we know that Farrakhan, under the argument that he was being principled, wasted no time telling Elijah Muhammad about Malcolm telling him about the babies born to Muhammad from the young secretaries. Farrakhan has spent 60 years organizing within the NOI and for that, he deserves some respect (particularly from those of us raised in the inner city who’s initial consciousness was impacted by the NOI. This is objective truth), but his treatment of Malcolm’s assassination on all levels is something he, and eventually his supporters, will always have to answer for.
What I did not like about the book was its depiction of Malcolm’s political work after leaving the Nation of Islam. Similar to how U.S. scholars discuss the work of Kwame Ture – focusing exclusively on his U.S. work in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party, ignoring is 30 year work in Africa in the All African People’s Revolutionary Party – these authors do very little work investigating Malcolm’s Pan-African work during that last eleven months of his life. The most lacking, although not surprising, element of this book was its depiction of Malcolm being disappointed after his first meeting with Kwame Nkrumah, the then president of Ghana (and later, the founder of the All African People’s Revolutionary Party). This focus is premature and unnecessary. The Paynes make a point of indicating that Nkrumah was unwilling to make a statement publicly supporting the African struggle in the U.S. like Malcolm wanted him to do because that would constitute meddling in U.S. internal affairs which would open the door for the U.S. to meddle in Ghanaian affairs. Of course, anyone who knows anything about this history knows that the U.S. was already deeply meddling in Ghanaian affairs in their efforts to overthrow Nkrumah’s Pan-African socialist government. The U.S. had sabotaged Ghanaian trade relationships, undermined Nkrumah during the Congolese crisis, and worked to sabotage Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanist allies in Guinea and Mali. Nkrumah was well aware of this sabotage and this is why he agreed to meet with Malcolm in the first place. Its important that people recognize how rare and unheard of it is for a standing president of any country to meet with an “unofficial” representative of an opposition force from another country. Especially the most powerful country on earth. At that time, Malcolm didn’t even have a strong opposition organization behind him. It was basically just him and his ideas, yet despite U.S. officials openly warning Nkrumah not to entertain Malcolm, he did, on multiple occasions. This is hardly the actions of a man who doesn’t wish to get involved as this book suggested. And, Nkrumah did much more, he asked Malcolm to stay on and live in Ghana while warning him of U.S. government efforts to assassinate Malcolm. Clearly, U.S. intelligence sources knew of this offer. And, all of this is detailed in the 1990 book of Nkrumah’s letters from Conakry, Guinea, where Nkrumah lived out his life after the U.S. illegally overthrew his government almost one year to the day after Malcolm was assassinated. These interactions between Malcolm and Nkrumah make much more sense in explaining why Malcolm would call meeting Nkrumah “the highest honor of my life” in his autobiography than the effort by the authors of this bio to suggest not much came from his interactions with Nkrumah, Sekou Ture, etc. Malcolm writes in his diary that when visiting Guinea to meet Ture he was assigned military guard, a driver, and an assistant. Not exactly the treatment provided to someone who doesn’t want to “get involved.” Just by virtue of that, Nkrumah, Ture, and others in Africa were clearly thumbing their noses at U.S. imperialism. Unfortunately, the authors of this bio, and many others, don’t get this because they have no honest focus on Malcolm’s Pan-African work. The work which we believe caused the U.S. government to instigate and encourage people within the NOI to carry out the assassination. This book struggles to connect the U.S. government directly to Malcolm’s death, but serious students have discovered these clear links long ago. As Nkrumah’s warning to Malcolm illustrates, like his poisoning in Egypt and the refusal of the French government to let him enter that country, Malcolm was on the run and he knew it. And this pressure was not strictly because he was exposing the hypocrisy of Elijah Muhammad. That may have been enough for the overzealous and committed followers of Muhammad who genuinely believed him to be the messenger of Allah, but for U.S. imperialism, Malcolm’s work in Africa, his growing influence in the U.S. civil rights movement (clearly, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s move from non-violent direct action to Black power was heavily influenced by Malcolm X), and his respect from revolutionary elements in Cuba and elsewhere, were seen as a grave threats by U.S. imperialism. This book, like so many others, completely overlooks this critical aspect of Malcolm’s legacy.
As I continue to study these materials, my position is consistently reinforced that the best works on this history come from those who actually participated in it as activists and organizers. Books, even biographies, by people like Kwame Nkrumah, Kwame Ture, Assata Shakur, etc. Everyone should always read everything, but the class perspectives of the African petti-bourgeoise – who are forever committed to upholding capitalism despite whatever topic they embrace – will forever expose you to only a slight portion of the real story of what’s needed and taking place to bring about real liberation from this backward system.