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Was Malcolm X gay?

April 8, 2011

I’m not entirely without sympathy for the daughters of Malcolm X, who are “unhappy” about a new biography that alleges that their parents were unfaithful. But don’t you think they might have waited to actually, you know, read the book before spouting off to the Associated Press?

Now that I think about it, though, as a card-carrying liberal secular humanist (really, I have a card right here somewhere…), I guess I should take this news as a positive sign that people of all races and faiths and cultural backgrounds are basically the same and so peace and brotherhood are at least theoretically possible.

Because if there’s one trait that seen across all populations it’s the knee-jerk impulse to condemn a book without having read it first. Born-again Christians do it. Muslims do it. Hindus do it. Hyper-sensitive politically correct progressives do it. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if birds do it and bees do it and even educated fleas do it.

According to this AP story, Ilyasah and Malaak Shabazz are upset over reports that a major new biography of their father, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, asserts that their parents were “sexually incompatible,” that their mother, Betty Shabazz, had an affair, and their father may have strayed outside the marriage, too.

Manning Marable

Ilyasah Shabazz insists her parents were “definitely faithful and devoted because my father was a man of impeccable integrity, and I think that most people, if they’re not clear on anything, they’re clear that he was moral and ethical and had impeccable character.”

The Shabazz sisters don’t address Marable’s even more inflammatory allegations that  Malcolm X had an early homosexual affair with a white businessman, and may have had other sexual encounters with men.

Unfortunately the author of the new biography, African-American studies professor Manning Marable, is not around to defend his work. He died of pneumonia last Friday at the age of 60, just a few days before publication of the book he had worked on for more than 20 years.

According to this NPR story, allegations of infidelity may be the most embarrassing thing in the book to Malcolm’s children, but they may be the least among the revelations that “could reshape the widely accepted narrative of the Muslim leader’s life.”

Malcolm X, of course, was the street hustler and drug dealer converted to Islam and radicalized in prison who became the face of the Black Muslim movement in the 1960s. His eloquent militancy place him in contrast to Martin Luther King, Jr., who advocated nonviolence and civil disobedience.

According to NPR, Marable’s book charges that The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the classic memoir written with Alex Haley, is rife with distortions. Among other things, Haley exaggerated Malcolm’s youthful criminality, Marable alleges, and softened the more radical aspects of Malcolm’s philosophy in the last years of his life, when he left the Nation of Islam and seemed to be moving toward a more orthodox Muslim faith and possibly a conciliatory stance toward whites.

Melissa Harris-Perry, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton, told NPR that “Marable’s picture of Malcolm X is of a profoundly flawed individual, a struggling human being — one who was consistently unsure of himself despite his own enormous intellect and resources.”

The Shabazz sisters did not talk with Marable, who relied on “thousands of interviews, government documents and private papers,” according to the AP.

Malcolm X was assassinated at a rally in 1965, apparently by three men loyal to the Nation of Islam. His wife Betty died in 1997 as the result of an apartment fire.

Harris-Perry told NPR that much of the book focuses on the assassination and that Marable hoped to push for a new investigation. “Had my dear friend Manning lived past Friday it was absolutely his intention to commit the process of … promoting the book primarily to the work of bringing pressure for the purpose of reopening the case,” she said.

The controversy over Marable’s book comes barely a week after James Lelyveld’s new biography of Gandhi, Great Soul, ignited furious condemnation in India, where — you guessed it — no one has read the book yet. Indians reacted to early book reviews reporting that Lelyveld portrays Gandhi as bisexual.

Again I say, if Malcolm or Gandhi or whoever was gay or bisexual or had self-doubt and anxiety — so what? Isn’t it more heroic that such people did their great work in spite of human flaws or complications?

By the way, as everyone knows, this kind of news comes in threes. So lessee…First Gandhi’s bi, now Malcolm’s gay — say, is anyone about to publish a new Nixon biography?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    April 11, 2011 8:52 am

    Regardless of questions about the accuracy of Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the man and the book made a BIG difference in America. I mean, how can you talk about racism in America without bringing up Malcolm? Of course he was complicated. That’s obvious throughout the book. Of course there were inconsistencies. That’s obvious throughout the book. But gay? Or bi? That’s a new one on me, though frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn.

    But, Chauncey, from one card carrying, liberal, secular, humanist to another, I do not consider homosexuality or bisexuality to be a flaw.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 11, 2011 9:52 am

      Me, neither, but it is a huge complication, and in the 1950s and 1960s it was an even bigger social and personal complication than it is today. What makes this aspect of Marable’s book significant is what it implies about homosexuality in America. If Malcolm was gay, I think it’s sad that he — like millions in the pre-Stonewall era — had to deny and conceal his true nature. If he wasn’t gay, but, for one reason or another, engaged in homosexual relationships, then what does that say about human sexuality? It’s a discussion worth having — and this post did spark a lively discussion on the matter. Unfortunately it took place on Facebook, not here.!/chauncey.mabe

      As for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, accusing Alex Haley (and Malcolm, too) of distortions in that book in no way lessens Malcolm’s importance. It just means Haley had a book to write and sell, and that Malcolm was guarding his image. But it’s past time for an honest corrective. I expect Marable’s book will burnish Malcolm’s historical image rather than otherwise.

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    April 11, 2011 3:36 pm

    I’ll say no more until I actually read the book, which is a huge part of your point to begin with, isn’t it?!

  3. July 1, 2011 1:04 am


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