Friday evening, I read the saddening news that Columbia professor Manning Marable passed away in Manhattan. His new biography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, a project he began in 1987, is set to hit the shelves tomorrow. Marable's new biography will contest many parts of Alex Haley's collaborative work The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and this is one of the main reasons I have been looking forward to his book. Marable questions the accuracy of The Autobiography after uncovering details on the Haley-Malcolm collaboration and never published "missing chapters" from the final Haley text. Marable also consulted with archival sources not yet tapped by other historians of Malcolm X, including a selection of personal letters, transcriptions of certain speeches, and FBI files. Clicking around the website for his Columbia based Malcolm X Project is a great homework assignment for undergrads - not to mention a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Malcolm X. The project's site has government documents, interviews with Marable about his book, footage from some of Malcolm's speeches, and interviews with former acquaintances of Malcolm's. Marable was deeply invested in this project, and it is sad that he won't see the reception of this book.
Particularly since reading Marable's essay, "Rediscovering Malcolm's Life: A Historian's Adventures in Living History," in his recent 2009 co-edited volume Black Routes to Islam, in which Marable discusses the new biography project, I have been excited about this book. The essay discusses the "Americanization of Malcolm X," beginning with the 1965 printing of The Autobiography, which made Malcolm's story the "quintessential story about the ordeal of being black in America." Another significant moment in this "Americanization" process was Spike Lee's 1992 film with Malcolm X doppelganger/actor Denzel Washington. After this film, "X" was everywhere - even on President Clinton's jogging hat. As Marable so well put it, "One of America's sharpest and most unrelenting critics was now being praised and honored by the same government that had once carried out illegal harassment and surveillance against him." Malcolm had become a kind of specter, able to be appropriated by many. This ambiguity about the meaning of Malcolm and unknowns about his own life allow him to become malleable to popular culture. Marable's project aimed to find answers to the unanswered questions about Malcolm's life, his work, his theology, his politics, his appeal, and his death.
Malcolm's "Americanization" and appropriations by various groups and persons is one of the reasons why he is so fascinating to me. In his book Lives of Indian Images, Richard Davis tells the afterlives of various Indian images as they move from site of darsan in a Hindu temple to status symbol in an English colonial home to educational artifact in an American museum. For Davis, the identities and meanings of the images are not fixed, but are rather "repeatedly made and remade through interactions with humans." Malcolm's identity is like these former temple images - something than changes due to its environment and "ownership." His identity is something that has a biography of its own after his death (check out Igor Kopytoff's essay "The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as a Process" for more). Malcolm is not alone in this camp. Tecumseh, Shawnee leader and brother to prophet Tenskwatawa, has held different meanings for different groups at different times. He has been a source of pride and often exalted, and the Shawnee, Creek, and Cherokee all claim him as their own.
Complex leaders like Tecumseh and Malcolm X in socially unstable times can take on new, dynamic identities after their death. They can become more like myth than human, which is where scholars like Marable come in. Once the semester is over, I look forward to reading Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention on the Florida beach.