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Solving for X: Malcolm X and White Readers

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Think of classic books by black Americans, particularly those written before the Civil Rights Movement, and you’ll come up with a lot of autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Richard Wright’s Black Boy; and James Baldwin’s lightly fictionalized Go Tell It on the Mountain. There’s a good reason for this. From Frederick Douglass to Barack Obama, African Americans wanting to enter a national literary conversation dominated by white writers have first had to make the more basic assertion that their voices deserve to be heard, and for much of American history they have done that by telling their life stories. But for almost as long as African Americans have been writing autobiographies, white critics have been claiming the black authors didn’t write the books that bear their names. Early slave narratives often included phrases like “written by him/herself” in the title to reassure readers they were getting the straight story, and in the case of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, some scholars mistook Jacobs’ memoir for a polemical novel written by her white editor, Lydia Maria Child.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X presents quite the opposite problem. The cover of the book states clearly that someone else – namely, Alex Haley – wrote the text, but since it was published in 1965, most readers have naturally assumed they were hearing the unfiltered voice of Malcolm X. In his new biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, the late Manning Marable argues that “[i]n many ways, the published book is more Haley’s than its author’s.” Marable claims that Haley, a liberal Republican who favored racial integration, tempered Malcolm’s more extreme positions, particularly his anti-Semitism. In addition, Marable argues, Haley helped to idealize Malcolm, smoothing over the bumps in his sometimes rocky marriage to Betty Shabazz and skirting possible homosexual behavior in Malcolm’s past as well as an adulterous affair Marable contends may have continued right up until the last night of Malcolm’s life.

This is potent stuff for those who care about Malcolm X and his legacy. Marable’s biography, which has earned largely positive reviews from the mainstream press, has drawn blistering attacks from critics like Karl Evanzz, author of The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad, whose review calling the Marable book “an abomination” was so incendiary it had be withdrawn from the journal that commissioned it. But whether The Autobiography represents the true testament of a martyred black icon or a sly act of ventriloquism by his more moderate collaborator, the book presents, to my mind, a more puzzling literary conundrum: how did the story of a man who for most of his adult life considered white people “devils” become a classic beloved as much by the very white readers it attacks as by the black readers it champions?

The answer no doubt has something to do with Haley, who wrote for white-owned mainstream magazines and knew how to shape his subject’s story for a white audience. But I would argue that the book’s enduring transracial appeal has far more to do with the singular journey Malcolm X takes in the Autobiography from fiery black separatist minister who describes himself as “the angriest black man in America” to a profoundly religious man gunned down by his former followers for, among other things, daring to profess that white people are not devils. This narrative arc soothes the conscience of white readers laboring under the weight of historical guilt, putting them in the novel position of rooting for a black martyr against the forces of intolerance, and more subtly, offering them a route to racial absolution. If the “angriest black man in America” no longer hates you, the book seems to say to white people, then maybe you’re not all bad.

Whoever wrote it, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a hell of a book. First, there is the story itself, which remains in its broad outlines unscathed by Marable’s scholarly sleuthing. Malcolm Little’s father, Earl, was a Baptist minister and committed black separatist in Lansing, Michigan who was cut almost in half by a runaway streetcar – whether by accident or at the hands of racist whites, no one can say for sure. After his father’s death, Malcolm’s overwhelmed mother slowly lost her grip on reality and landed in a mental institution, causing young Malcolm to quit school after the eighth grade and strike out for the East Coast, first to Boston, and then to New York’s Harlem, where he became a pimp, drug dealer, and burglar. The memoir paints an indelible portrait of 1940s Harlem where Malcolm seemed to know everyone, from musicians Sonny Greer and Billie Holiday, to colorful hustlers like West Indian Archie, a mathematical prodigy and numbers runner capable of keeping hundreds of his customers’ lottery picks in his head without resorting to pen and paper.

Ultimately, though, the most fascinating character is Malcolm himself. By his own admission, he was a feral figure during his Harlem days, operating with “a jungle mind,” scamming everyone he met to get what he needed:

I believed a man should do anything he was slick enough, or bad or bold enough, to do, and that a woman was nothing but another commodity. Every word I spoke was hip or profane. I would bet that my working vocabulary wasn’t two hundred words. 

It is this attitude, borne out by the book’s descriptions of Malcolm’s hustler persona, that makes his later prison transformation so riveting. When he first arrives in prison, Malcolm is so angry and violent his fellow inmates call him “Satan,” but within months of his introduction to the Nation of Islam, he discovers both a deep religious faith and a latent intellectual passion. These passages, the famous scenes of Malcolm in his cell reading Spinoza by the dim light coming through the bars, are among the most memorable in the book – and, I would argue, offer clues to the enduring appeal of the book for educated white readers. For one thing, his metamorphosis from functional illiterate to world-class intellectual seems to confirm the liberal white piety that all poor black people lack is education, while at the same time taking the onus for providing this education away from white society. After all, the man was in prison. No special program was required, no tax dollars had to be expended to send him to college. All Malcolm needed – and in a certain kind of white reader’s mind, all any poor black man needs – is some time and a little self-motivation.

More subtly, though, the prison section draws educated readers because it offers them an unexpected emotional connection to an angry, uneducated black felon. I’m sure this is true for readers of all races, but it seems to me it’s uniquely true for whites, who, if they are anything like me, first encounter The Autobiography in college. The first time I read it, between my junior and senior years at NYU, I was myself awakening to a deep hunger for books and knowledge. I still remember sitting on the fire escape of my squalid shared apartment in Hoboken, reading the passage in which, discovering he can barely read, Malcolm assigns himself the task of copying the entire dictionary word for word. “I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened,” he writes,

I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from the until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of a book with a wedge. 

This was deeply moving to me. This former ghetto hustler and thief could not have been more different from me, but he was experiencing the same intellectual transformation and feeling the same intellectual excitement that I was. It wasn’t just that I admired Malcolm in these passages. I wanted to be him. For fifty-odd pages, this white college kid from the California suburbs identified with – idealized, even – the angriest black man in America, and I’m going to guess I wasn’t alone.

There is, of course, a fundamental callowness in this. Malcolm was reading to save his very life, whereas I was reading to finish college and follow my parents into a secure white-collar profession. Still, the primal power of this emotional identification with Malcolm can’t be underestimated, because from the prison section onward readers like me aren’t just following the interesting adventures of a historical figure – we’re traveling with him. We feel his triumph as he races around the country establishing mosques for the Nation of Islam. We relish his public jousting matches against racist whites and “Uncle Thomases Ph.D.” Most importantly, we begin to see the world through his eyes. We go with him back to the Harlem streets he once knew and meet the ruin that West Indian Archie has become, a ghostly figure “in rumpled pajamas and barefooted” living a cheap rented room. And because we have come to trust Malcolm’s razor-sharp mind, we begin to draw the same conclusions that he does, that white people are to blame for this tragedy, and for the wider tragedy of black poverty in Harlem and around the nation. That most illogical of propositions – I am evil – begins, in the pages of Malcolm X’s memoir, to seem the only rational conclusion one could draw.

This is why the ending, both Malcolm’s abandonment of his black separatist ideology and his eventual martyrdom, is so crucial to the story’s appeal. The great enigma of the book is Malcolm’s attachment to Elijah Muhammad, the quiet, gnomic nonentity at the head of the Nation of Islam. If Malcolm is so smart, the reader wants to know, how can he be taken in by this obvious charlatan with his cockamamie racial origin theories and his sad parade of pregnant secretaries? There is, I think, a deeply personal answer to this question. The memoir begins with the death of Earl Little, whom Malcolm both feared and idealized, and Elijah Muhammad, for all his flaws, serves as the proud black father figure Malcolm lost when he was six. But it is also true that Muhammad spoke to the darkest side of Malcolm’s rage. Muhammad’s theology, with its slapdash mix of ersatz sharia law and tent-show hokum, makes no sense at all, and his political philosophy of total disengagement from white society is a dead end. But what makes sense to Inmate “Satan” locked away in a Massachusetts state prison, is the image of white people as “blue-eyed devils” bent on destroying a once proud race of black people.

If the book had ended there, with Malcolm fulminating about “blue-eyed devils” and “so-called Negroes,” The Autobiography likely would have shared the fate of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, another popular 1960s memoir by a radicalized former convict, which is now little more than a museum piece. Instead, The Autobiography has sold millions of copies, inspired a major Hollywood film starring Denzel Washington, and remains even now, 46 years after its publication, a staple of college syllabi. All this, I would argue, is due to Malcolm’s final separation from the Nation of Islam.

The break with Elijah Muhammad officially followed Malcolm’s public comment that the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy was a case of “chickens coming home to roost,” but really it turned on a far more intimate matter: Muhammad, the great moral arbiter of the Nation of Islam, had impregnated a string of secretaries, including, Marable claims, one of Malcolm’s former girlfriends. Once unseated from his powerful perch in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm became The Man Who Knew Too Much, and was marked for death by his former co-religionists. His response to this betrayal displayed an almost superhuman moral courage. First, he organized a group to carry on his fight against discrimination in America, and second, he decided to take his Islamic faith seriously and make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Malcolm X’s journey to Mecca is the stuff of legend. He completed the Hajj, the ritual visit to the most holy sites in Islamic culture, and in the days leading up to it, he was treated with respect by Arabs who, had they been Americans, would have been considered white.

That morning was when I first began to reappraise the “white man.” It was when I first began to perceive that “white man,” as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it described attitudes and actions. In America, “white man” meant specific attitudes and actions toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men. But in the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been.

It is odd, to say the least, for an American in 2011 to read of devout Islam as a bastion of tolerance, and Malcolm, who knew little about the Middle East, vastly underestimates the seething tensions that have riven that part of the world for centuries. But for a white reader pre-9/11, Malcolm’s about-face on the moral capacity of white people offered an escape from the bind presented by the rest of the book. White people are not evil by nature, Malcolm now says, but become evil through social conditioning, which means that a white person can choose not to be evil.

In its content, this message is no different than the teachings of Martin Luther King and other black leaders of the period, but here it is the source that matters. Just a hundred pages earlier, when a young white woman sought Malcolm out after a speech to ask what she could do, he told her flatly, “Nothing.” Now, he says he wishes he could find that girl again and tell her what she can do, which, he emphasizes, is not to join hands with black people in the ghetto for a few rousing choruses of “We Shall Overcome.” Instead, he calls on white people to go “out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is – and that’s in their own home communities.” This, finally, is what is so potent in the story of Malcolm X for white readers: he grants us our moral agency. He is not asking for our pity. He is not asking for our money. He is asking us, in the plainest way possible, to exercise moral courage in our own lives just as he has done in his. A few dozen pages later, when he is gunned down by Nation of Islam thugs during a speech at the Audubon Ballroom, he is, in one sense, dying in the defense of the proposition that people of all races possess that moral courage, and that if they exercise it they can change the world.

Modern Library Revue: #95 Under the Net

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I think it’s a symptom of the internet age, or my impending old age, or doom, that while I used to amble into a used book shop with no particular book in mind and leave satisfied with a bulging grocery bag, now I find myself a slave to a roster.  Before, I would keep a vague running list of books I wanted to read, which basically encompassed the whole of literature as I understood it, so that any pile of two dollar books was bound to yield several items of interest.   And now I want what I want when I want it.  

Under the Net was a long-time bee in my bonnet.  There are so many Iris Murdoch novels, in so many printings; they are a fixture in secondhand book shops.  When I realized that this one, her first, was on the Modern Library list, I thought I was bound to come across it before too long.  For nine months it eluded me, although in pursuit of that title I managed to read five other Murdoch novels.  In the same way, I read Black Boy instead of Native Son, and Young Torless instead of The Man Without Qualities, and loathsome Henderson the Rain King instead of Herzog.  Which is a good thing!  I’m better for having read them all.  But every year that goes by finds me less happy to cast the net in this haphazard fashion (hence my summer of discontent).  I require specific titles now.  I’ve undergone a paradigm shift.  It’s kind of a bummer, actually.

(I do know all about libraries, and I cherish them.  But I like to own the books that I read, and I like to read books that I own.  In case there is an emergency.  It’s a thing about me.)

Anyway, I wanted to read Under the Net, and I got sick of looking in vain and reading things other than Under the Net, and I finally outsourced the job to the internet.  I felt sort of guilty about this, like buying a pet instead of adopting.  I did it media mail, which seemed more virtuous, in the manner of hard church pews and wooden teeth.   After eight days, the novel arrived.  All things considered, the experience was obscenely convenient.

Someone once said (it was me) that Iris Murdoch wrote so many novels that if you are in the mood to read something by her, there is probably a fresh one available.  It’s like having a harem wherein all the inmates are related to one another and look alike, yet retain sterling qualities of their own.  I quote myself not because I’m the last word on Iris Murdoch, but because the metaphor has useful application here.  If Murdoch’s huge oeuvre is a harem of related women, then reading Under the Net is like going in back in time to meet their matriarch, coltish and sepia-toned on the day she was plucked from her village. 

I have always thought that The Sea, The Sea stands apart from the other Murdoch novels I’ve read, largely because of the spicy and pitch-perfect first person narrative.  I thought, perhaps, that it was a prime example of late-ish Murdoch at the height of her powers.  So I was surprised to discover find that her first novel, published in 1954, has more in common with The Sea² (1978), than any of the works published between (that I’ve read, of course).  Like The Sea², Under the Net is written in the first person.  The earlier novel’s narrator, translator and occasional writer Jack Donoghue, is kind of a feckless, easier-going, impoverished prototype of Charles Arrowby, who came a quarter century later.  I suppose they really don’t have much in common, since Arrowby’s whole being is centered on being the opposite of feckless and easy-going and impoverished.  But they are both educated, afraid of commitment, and very funny.  They are memorable, varying somewhat from the stock cast of awful aesthetes and academes who populate the majority of her novels.  Not that Donoghue isn’t one of those, but his way with words is considerably more amusing.  Here, kicked out of one rent-free situation, he ponders the future:
It was certainly something of a problem to know where to go next.  I wondered if Dave Gellman would harbour us.  I fondled the idea, though I suspected it was no good.  Dave is an old friend, but he’s a philosopher, not the kind that tells you about your horoscope and the number of the beast, but a real one like Kant and Plato, so of course he has no money.
The whole experience of Under the Net was surprising.  Unless one has made a pointed effort to study them, one can have only a hazy sense of the zeitgeist of decades and places in which one hasn’t lived.  That said, Iris Murdoch is so relentlessly urbane and modern that Under the Net seemed to me much younger than its 55 years.  I’m aware that drinking and being feckless and running around was not unheard of in the 1950s–I did read Lucky Jim (also published 1954.  In fact, I think Jim Dixon could conceivably have enjoyed a matey bender with Jack Donaghue and company).  But the people of Under the Net seemed very hip, or at least as though they could have easily populated a later novel.  Perhaps it’s not that Murdoch was cutting-edge, but that her eternal engagement with the pedantic, the bachanalian, and the emotionally stunted will never go out of style.

The plot of Under the Net doesn’t bear summarizing.  It is farcical and, I dare say, “rollicking;” there’s even a dog who stars in movies.  I am unused to feeling so little feminist rage during a Murdoch novel; this one was light-hearted and lacked the sinister undertones present in, for example, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine and Message to the Planet.  Under the Net could even be called a buddy novel; Donoghue and his Irish familiar, Finn, reminded me not a little of my favorite John Irving book, The Water Method Man, and the adventures of Bogus Trumper (also a translator), and Merrill Overturf described therein.

I find it odd that this novel would make it onto the Modern Library list over TS².  It’s a little fluffy.  But, as we’ve been hearing so much recently, lists are problematic, and the Modern Library list is so problematic on so many levels that its defects no longer shock.  Pluralities are weird.  Still, Under the Net’s presence on the list caused me to hunt it down and read it, which not only caused me to have a nice Sunday afternoon (it’s short), but freed up a spot on the roster.  That’s one for the list.  Then again, the existence of a list only serves to codify things and thus intensify the need for a roster, which causes me to have fewer pleasant afternoons digging through bookshops, and more neurotic episodes on the internet.  That’s one against. 

 Anyway, Under the Net was fun and I liked it.  I’ll leave you with a word from Jack, who has troubles of his own: 
I glanced hastily through the manuscripts.  Once before, in a rage, Magdalen had torn up the first sixty stanzas of an epic poem called And Mr Oppenheim Shall Inherit the Earth. This dated from the time when I had ideals.  At that time too it had not yet become clear to me that the present age was not one in which it was impossible to write an epic. At that time I naively imagined that there was no reason why one should not attempt to write anything that one felt inclined to write.  But nothing is more paralyzing than a sense of historical perspective, especially in literary matters . . . But to return to Mr Oppenheim; my friends had criticized the title because it sounded anti-Semitic, though of course Mr Oppenheim simply symbolized big business, but Madge didn’t tear it up for that, but out of pique, because I broke a lunch date with her to meet a woman novelist.  The latter was a dead loss, but I can back to find Mr Oppenheim in pieces.  This was in the old days, but I feared that the performance might have been repeated. Who knows what thoughts were passing through that girl’s mind while she was deciding to throw me out?  There’s nothing like a woman’s doing you an injury for making her incensed against you.  I know myself how exasperating it is of other people to put themselves in positions where you have to injure them. 

Modern Library Revue: #20 Native Son

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I think I was the last of my age peers to read Native Son; I feel like most of us read it in school. Either I never had it in a course, or I did, but it was during one of my bouts of absenteeism from class and scholastic responsibility. So I got it from the library a few years ago. I had no idea what it was about, but I knew that it was a book about race and a Huge Deal.

I started the novel, and I had a feeling of dread from the page one, and when I got to the severed head I quit, feeling dispirited. There is a moment in the (completely unrelated) Fitzgerald novel The Beautiful and the Damned, wherein three elite gentleman make plans to see a show: “The thing is tersely called ‘The Woman,'” says one character. “I presume that she will pay.” Stripped entirely of its context, I have always felt that this remark is an elegant statement of life’s facts. At the time of my first reading, Richard Wright’s novel seemed to reaffirm my conviction that this is true (and this, mind you, was before I had even got to poor Bessie). This particular woman, severed-headed Mary, was pretty awful, but I didn’t want to read about her getting stuffed in the furnace. And things seemed so inevitable for Bigger Thomas; the only place for the story to go was down. Talking of tropes, we all know what happened when a black man was suspected to have looked sideways a white woman. Bigger Thomas’ goose was cooked long before he put a pillow over Mary’s face.

Much later it occurred to me what a fraud I am. How, I thought, am I going to go crazy for 2666, happily slogging through 100 pages of murdered women, while this crucial American work offends my delicate sensibilities? So I returned to the novel with my nerves steeled. I gave it another chance, and it knocked my everloving socks off.

In retrospect, I am discomfited that I took Bigger so personally the first time I picked up the novel, and that I actually to an extent, failed to separate the author from his creation. I have never assumed that John Fowles sympathized with men who hold women hostage in their basements, so why would I think Richard Wright was holding up this crapbag Bigger as a delightful specimen of humanity? Why did it suddenly matter that the woman always pays? Surely a book so lauded wouldn’t deal in pointless female victimization (okay, one might, especially if it was by Norman Mailer, but that’s a story for another day).

Wright’s novel begins with Bigger Thomas doing a series of hateful things. Mean to his sister, mean to his long-suffering, hard-working mother, mean to his friends, prone to violent rages. Starting the novel, I admit I had that ignoble instinct I so hate when I hear it from the mouths of right-wing reactionaries; the sentiment that basically goes “Do what your parents did, Sir. Get a job, Sir.” When I got near the end of the book, to read basically the same words come out of the miserable dickhead State’s Attorney’s mouth during Bigger’s (sham) trial, that hurt.
No! He cursed his mother! He said that he did not want to work! He wanted to loaf about the streets, steal from newsstands, rob stores, meddle with women, frequent dives, attend cheap movies, and chase prostitutes!
It’s a shocking sensation, to see yourself partially mirrored in the novel’s villainous bigot. That’s good art, friends! Especially because by the time you’ve made it to the State’s Attorney you, (I, that is) do feel pretty terrible for Bigger. And also just terrible.

Wright’s pacing is brilliant. It starts hard. It’s a realistic sort of pace. It doesn’t get easier as the novel goes on, but things get explained. They start to make more sense. In life, when you hear about something terrible, you usually haven’t prepared for it by reading a treatise on human behavior and motivations beforehand. And, unfortunately, often you don’t want to take the time to reflect on said behavior and motivations. You just want to say, “Do what your parents, did, Sir. Get a job, sir.” You want to put the book down.

I think I really quit the novel that first time because I had a premonition that it was going to be hard, and possibly even hard on me. I suspected that it wouldn’t let me walk the easy, feel-good path with regard to racism – the Newbery Medal kind of way, where even though terrible things happen, humanity mostly prevails and, ideally, a triumph or two of the human spirit takes place. The kind of book, additionally, that lets me, as a white person, feel confident that I would have been friends with Cassie Logan even if the town disapproved.

But Native Son is not a novel that wants to hold anybody’s hand. Native Son does not want to tuck you into bed at night and reassure you that you are with it. Wright, starting as he did with a hugely unlovable character, dares you to face certain realities. Namely, that discussions of oppression are infinitely more comfortable when members of the oppressed race in question are doing things like passively resisting, writing monumental novels, and being elected president by a majority of the country so that one can say “My goodness, we’ve come a long way!” But that’s stupid. The reason that institutionalized racism is despicable is because it takes away humanity. Obviously it makes the oppressor ugly; but it can make its victims ugly too. Ugliness breeds ugliness. Why should a book about something ugly be made palatable so that I, a white lady, can feel uplifted?

Normally I don’t read authors’ explanations of their work, because I prefer the author to not be tiresome and talk about himself all the time, when he could be working hard to create more entertainment for me. However, I found Wright’s essay “How ‘Bigger’ was born” (included in some editions of Native Son) fascinating. I’m not crazy about the writing style in Native Son, although it more than serves its purpose in the novel, but I love Richard Wright’s prose in the Bigger essay (and in Black Boy). I enjoy the prose, and it was illuminating to learn why Wright sat down to write this novel. But the essay mainly struck me as impressive proof positive that the author set out to do a very specific something, and, in fact, did that very thing.
I had written a book of short stories which was published under the title of Uncle Tom’s Children. When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naive mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. It was this that made me get to work in earnest.
Well, I’m hear to say that this is hard and deep, and that I faced it without the consolation of tears. The man did what he wanted. And, I would add, did in spite of “the fears which a Negro feels from living in America – standing over me, draped in white, warning me not to write.”

Post Script: A twisted coincidence: lest you think this book and its indictment of American society is no longer relevant, consider this: as I was writing this Revue, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is fucking quoted on my copy of this novel, was arrested for, it would seems, entering his home while black.

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