Malcolm X -- The Icon, The Man

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[Op-Ed: Malcolm]

Manning Marable, author of the biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention did not live to see the flurry of criticism that met his recently published work. He died three days before the book was available. While this twist of fate or history is truly tragic, Marable’s passing spared him the sometimes vitriolic critiques that have dominated on-line forums, radio broadcasts, and panel discussions since the book’s publication.

Many of the criticisms tell us more about African Americans’ perspectives on sexuality than they do about the accuracy or value of this new depiction of Malcolm X.

In Malcolm X Marable proposes to breathe life into Malcolm X the icon and restore his humanity by demonstrating the complexity of his life or lives. He succeeds in this task by retelling Malcolm’s well known transformation from wayward youth to criminal to religious figure, illustrating the range of influences that inspired the various transformations. As in his life, Malcolm’s work with the Nation of Islam is central to the story. The Nation was critical to his transformation from convict to national and eventually international figure. His stormy departure from the Nation occurred in the midst of, and led to additional reinventions as Marable chronicles. While Malcolm’s work with the Nation is the centerpiece of the biography, some of the heated criticism of the book has focused on an issue related to Malcolm X as a person rather than as a political or religious figure. Marable’s suggestion that before joining the Nation, Malcolm Little was involved in a sexual arrangement for pay with an older white man has generated heated criticism.

Marable quotes from The Autobiography of Malcolm X in which Malcolm describes a hustle that a friend “Rudy” had in which he was paid to undress an older white man and himself “then pick up the old man like a baby, lay him on his bed, then stand over him and sprinkle him all over with talcum powder.” Marable suggests that “Based on circumstantial but strong evidence, Malcolm was probably describing his own homosexual encounters with Paul Lennon” a wealthy white man in whose home he worked.  Later in the book when Malcolm is imprisoned in Massachusetts, Marable notes that Malcolm continued to communicate with Lennon, hoping that he could assist in his release. As his release became more of a reality, even though he had by then joined the Nation of Islam, he wrote to his brother that  a wealthy white man who had visited him “can give me a home and a job…” upon his release. Instead, when Malcolm left prison in 1952 he went to live with his brother in Detroit, and Marable suggests that communication with Lennon seems to have ended at that point.

Critics of this depiction have suggested that Marable took a great leap of logic in reaching his conclusion. He does note that the evidence he considered was “circumstantial, ” using the qualifier “probably” in assuming that the encounters described in  The Autobiography of Malcolm X were really Malcolm’s encounters. We may never know why Marable felt confident enough to suggest the existence of a relationship of some sort, but he notes that in addition to the continued communication with Lennon after Malcolm’s imprisonment, including a visit, that Malcolm’s reference to Lennon’s ability to provide him with a “home” “implies more than a business association.”

One could argue that without definitive information on a matter as sensitive as this, the author should have declined to speculate. The process of attempting to reconstruct and provide an interpretation of a person’s life or of events is as much an art as a science. For many situations definitive information is not available or does not exist. Historians look at the weight of evidence, the context of an event, and the likelihood that their interpretations are accurate in reaching conclusions. They may make hundreds of decisions such as this in the course of writing a book.

Marable undoubtedly did in writing Malcolm X. It is natural that people will question some of those decisions. But the fact that critiques of Malcolm X have been dominated by severe criticisms of Marable’s suggestion that Malcolm at one point participated in homosexual activity confirms the iconic stature of Malcolm X but also illustrates the fragile nature of our image of Black masculinity.

Some critics have suggested that Marable’s agenda was to destroy the image of Malcolm X. Others have suggested “What could be expected from an African American scholar practiced in the Eurocentric tradition?” implying that an African American willing to make such a suggestion could not really be part of the race.

These responses are painful but understandable. In his famous eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral, actor Ossie Davis described what Malcolm X represented to Black people: “Malcolm was our manhood, our living black manhood!” Malcolm X transformed his life to become the symbol described by Davis. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X  he described his previous activity with drugs, steering prostitutes, and burglary, all activities that he left behind when he joined the Nation of Islam, which was respected for its ability to inspire similar transformations in others. But while these pursuits were viewed negatively by many, they were all pursuits identified with masculinity, and even celebrated by segments of the African American community then and now. Homosexuality activity does not fit into this calculation of either masculinity or transformation.

Until recently Americans adhered to the “one drop rule” to determine racial identity: anyone with one drop of Black blood was considered black. We have adopted an equivalent to the “one drop rule” when it comes to homosexuality. We believe that anyone who engages in homosexual activity is a homosexual. Sexuality is much more complicated than this rule suggests. The use of the term sexual orientation over the last thirty years was meant to acknowledge the gender to which a person’s attraction is primarily oriented regardless of the behavior that person might engage in at a given time. Sex research has concluded that there is a spectrum of sexual orientations ranging from people who are only attracted to the opposite sex, people who are predominantly attracted to the opposite sex, people who are attracted to both sexes, people who are predominantly attracted to the same sex, and people who are only attracted to the same sex.

Even given this spectrum, people may occasionally or frequently engage in sexual activity with someone of the gender different from their sexual orientation, often motivated by what is sometimes called “situational sex.” A heterosexually oriented man engaging in homosexual activity in prison because he does not have access to women is an example of situational sex. A homosexually oriented man engaging in sex with a woman in order maintain a marriage is another example. In this construct the homosexual activity that Manning Marable suggests that Malcolm X engaged in during his years of criminal activity would be described as situational sex, in this case for pay, by a person whose previous and later known sexual activities suggest that he was predominantly heterosexual.

Because the concept of sexuality in popular culture does not accommodate the complexity of sexuality that really exists, we come to the conclusion that the suggestion that someone engaged in homosexual activity is a suggestion that the person is homosexual. This is what Marable’s critics imply he was saying about Malcolm X, which he did not say.  He noted that after his release from prison Malcolm X did not seem to have further communication with Paul Lennon the man for whom he had worked.  Marable’s later references to Malcolm’s sexual relationships all involve women.

But the fragile status of black masculinity, the result of centuries of limited power during slavery, oppression in the decades following, assaults on the Black male’s image ranging from depictions as creatures of lust to characterizations as criminals, has resulted in a belief that homosexuality is another assault on the image of the Black man.  This belief has led to a hyper vigilance of the definition of Blackness and Black masculinity that requires an exclusion of homosexuality. In addition to confirming Malcolm X’s iconic stature, the visceral responses to Marable’s  brief suggestion of homosexual activity in Malcolm X provide us with a gauge of the opinions regarding Black, male homosexuals by at least one fairly vocal segment of the African American community. To suggest that Malcolm engaged in such activity is clearly considered the ultimate insult. Why is this opinion regarding the activity of a man who has been dead for over forty-five years important to African Americans living today? The opinions expressed regarding Malcolm X do tell us something about our opinions today. If we believe that a suggestion of homosexuality was an insult when applied to Malcolm, does that mean that we believe it is also an insult when applied to Black men today? Derogatory terms suggesting that a Black man is a homosexual are still the ultimate insult on the basketball court or in the street.

While Malcolm was the image of “our manhood” we can learn about ourselves from our responses to Manning Marable's account of his life. The unwillingness of some African Americans to find an acknowledged place in the definition of Black manhood and within the Black community for men who are not heterosexual is weakening us as a people and as a community. It is not a coincidence that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender African American youth are over-represented among homeless youth. Many are cast out of their homes by parents who sincerely believe they are protecting the image of Black manhood or Black womanhood as well as the Black family. Other segments of the population have been able to dramatically reduce the impact of HIV and AIDS, through provision of support, but Black men who have sex with men continue to be over-represented among those infected with HIV and those living with AIDS.  Although some resources such as funding and social services have improved for this group, many continue to lack the family and community support as individuals that is essential to developing a mindset that would enable them to value their health and futures enough to protect themselves to prevent infection.

If Malcolm X were still living, he would have turned eighty-six years old in May of this year. One of the most fascinating elements of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is the realization that with so many things pulling him in various directions over his life, in the last years of his life Malcolm X was so successful at maintaining his focus on improving the status of people of African descent, and that in his thirty-nine years of life he made substantial progress at least in highlighting the important issues and strategies to be followed. If Marable is correct in his conclusion, Malcolm probably would have preferred that the nature of his relationship with Paul Lennon were not mentioned in his biography.

On the broader issue of homosexuality and Black masculinity it would be interesting to know what he would have said. He would have continued to read, to question, to debate, and this topic may have been a subject on which he would have had something to say. During his years in prison, Marable notes that Malcolm made disparaging comments regarding fellow inmates who engaged in homosexual activity. But a few years later as Malcolm X he was cordial with civil rights activist and known homosexual, Bayard Rustin, with whom he debated the value of integration. He was also friendly to James Baldwin whose 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room, about a homosexual relationship made clear for some Baldwin’s own sexual orientation. Perhaps this was just a matter of common courtesy between public figures. While we will never know whether his opinion of homosexuals would have changed, that should not prevent African Americans from examining our own conceptions of Black masculinity and questioning whether they are really resulting in stronger men and a stronger Black community.

Kevin McGruder, Ph.D.  is Adjunct Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies at Lehman College (CUNY). From 1997 to 2001 he was Executive Director of Gay Men of African Descent.

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