Necessary Means: “The Diary of Malcolm X” and the Fight for an American Legacy

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Photo: Marion S. Trikosko, 1964

Photo: Marion S. Trikosko, 1964

By Jeff Gilliland

On April 15, 1964, a passenger jet touched down in Cairo and a tall, lean black man stepped out into the glaring sun. His travel documents read “Malik El-Shabazz,” but to many of those who glimpsed their reflection in his horn-rimmed glasses that day, he was known by another name: Malcolm X. The famed black nationalist and civil rights leader was fresh off his contentious split with the Nation of Islam, which he had helped grow from a small religious sect headquartered in Chicago to a nationwide movement for economic and social empowerment. Now he was on his way to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that marks one of the five pillars of Islam. Though he may not have known it at the time, the voyage Malcolm began that day would profoundly alter his religious beliefs and racial philosophy—bringing him out of the shadow of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and establishing a legacy that continues to this day.

For years, that legacy went unchanged and unquestioned. Enshrined in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and repopularized in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, Malcolm’s journey from Harlem street hustler to international human rights advocate was generally considered a closed case. His resonant calls for black liberation and pan-African unity inspired movements from Black Arts to the Black Panthers, and his influence even fifty years after his death bespeaks the enduring power of the leader once called, “Our living, black manhood.” But since 2011, a heated debate has sprung up among Malcolm’s critics and supporters about how accurate the image of him has been, and how “living” he truly remains in the midst of his own cultural heritage.

Into this debate steps a new expert on the life and times of Malcolm X: Malcolm himself. On November 15, independent Chicago publisher Third World Press will release “The Diary of Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz”—Malcolm’s personal journal from two trips he took to Africa and the Middle East in 1964. This essential work represents the first time since his death that Malcolm’s own words will be released to the public, unrefracted by interpretation or bias. But does the book truly represent a filterless view of the man who became a cultural icon? Newcity got a first look at the diary, and a first crack at working through its many layers of representation from the inside out.

Diary of Malcolm X coverLAYER ONE: THE DIARY

There is perhaps no better way to penetrate the mind of a public figure than to read his or her personal writings. Daily notes and journals offer a vision of a person as they are for themselves: of-the-moment, unpolished, reacting and responding to new situations. Their values and priorities are laid bare, foregrounded by the simple fact that the author bothered to write them down. “The Diary of Malcolm X” is no different, and what is important to Malcolm shines through from the very first pages. “UAR [United Arab Republic, now called Egypt] can lead West out of social chaos,” he writes in his second entry. “Perfect blending of all races (complexions) hospitable.” These lines introduce two of the major threads in the “Diary”: Malcolm’s quest to use African liberation as a model for worldwide social change, and his discovery that true dedication to Islam erases all barriers of race and class.

The latter marks a particularly profound transformation for Malcolm: as a leader of the Nation of Islam, his position was so vehemently anti-white that he was branded a racist, even by fellow civil rights leaders. On the Hajj, however, Malcolm sees for the first time “people white, black, brown, red & yellow, all act[ing] alike, as one…bowing in complete submission to Allah.” Moreover, he joins them, and notes that he is “not conscious of color (race) around whites for 1st time in [his] life.” Malcolm’s repeated allusions to the borderless unity of the Hajj suggest that this revelation is not merely academic for him, but embodied and spiritual: a lifelong burden partially lifted, a peripheral tension erased by the power of God. So fundamental is the shift Malcolm undergoes that he writes to his followers in America about it, sharing the “sincere and true brotherhood” of all Muslims with devotees who had only ever heard him speak about the brotherhood of blacks.

Malcolm’s spiritual epiphany thus brings him face-to-face with the image that had been built up around him. “You may be shocked to hear these words [of reconciliation] coming from me,” he writes in his “Letter from Mecca,” acknowledging that his philosophical transition may be harder for others to take than it is for him. Similarly, throughout the “Diary” Malcolm finds himself at odds with being pigeonholed as one thing or another. “Everywhere I turned, someone was offering to help me… American Muslim,” he writes time and again during his 1964 trips. As Malik El-Shabazz, novice Hajji, he comes to stand-in for what was then a tiny population of Muslims in the United States. Among the African dignitaries and black expatriates with whom he spends much of the “Diary”, however, he reverts to being Malcolm X, representative of black liberation in America. At times, Malcolm seems to capitalize on the political weight of his famous name; at others, he revels in the freedom of anonymity. Torn between the man he once was and the new self emerging, he writes almost nightly of a deep loneliness—the loneliness, perhaps, of being truly himself for no one but himself.

Complicating Malcolm’s journey of self-discovery even further—or, at least, its representation in the “Diary”—is a note from the book’s editors and publisher. “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm X, intended to publish his travel journal as a second book.” Even in the midst of his travels, Malcolm was already in communication with his agent, and planned to release his notes as a gateway to understanding his new human rights agenda. One has to wonder, then, if that may have impacted what information he chose to include in the “Diary.” Though the text contains few glaring omissions, small moments hint that Malcolm is not revealing everything he could.

The most striking of these comes on his second trip, when Malcolm is once again in the UAR (Egypt). “I was delighted that we’d leave tomorrow for Alex[andria] and an important appointment,” he writes. He goes on to summarize the preparations for the appointment, and later reflects that “it was interesting, enlightening, and inspiring.” However, at no point does Malcolm mention whom the appointment was with, nor what was discussed. The meeting may have been entirely innocuous. But Malcolm’s seeming reluctance to include the details in his own diary suggests that he was already considering what he wanted people to know and not know—in other words, what image he wanted to portray when his scattered writings were consolidated into a static form.

Ultimately, the Malcolm X who emerges from the “Diary” is complex and contradictory: aware of his own evolution, yet eager to project an air of consistency and conviction. He is a self-proclaimed “leader of Islam in [the] USA” who finds he knows next to nothing about Islam. A separatist demagogue learning that what he truly wants is human unity; the standard-bearer for a generation of angry black people who suddenly realizes that the mantle he took up years before no longer fits. No wonder, then, that wave after wave of artists and activists have sought to understand who Malcolm X “really was,” and what kind of world he could have created had he not met his tragic end on February 21, 1965—gunned down by specters of the man he used to be.

LAYER TWO: THE PRESS

Haki Madhubuti/Photo: Jeff Sciortino

Haki Madhubuti/Photo: Jeff Sciortino

Third World Press was born the day Malcolm X died. “I was…one of the architects of the Black Arts movement,” says founder and publisher Dr. Haki R. Madhubuti, “and I had been influenced heavily by Malcolm X.” Then a twenty-one-year-old poet by the name of Don L. Lee, Madhubuti was searching for a way to respond to Malcolm’s death, and found it in a growing community of black artists celebrating and mourning their hero. One such artist was Dudley Randall, a Detroit poet who founded the influential Broadside Press in 1965. “I met [Dudley] after Malcolm had been assassinated: he had come to Chicago to confer with Margaret Burroughs around an anthology on Malcolm,” Madhubuti says. The anthology, entitled “For Malcolm,” was one of the first major works of the Black Arts movement, and inspired Don Lee to start a press of his own.

With the $400 he made from a poetry reading, Lee and his friends started publishing chapbooks out of his basement apartment in Chicago. Their works quickly garnered acclaim, and soon the fledgling press branched out into scholarly papers and books focusing on the continuing struggle for black liberation. “If I’m serious about my community, my people,” Madhubuti remembers thinking, “it’s easy to talk, but what can you do?” The answer was to publish, and to use the money from publishing to establish what he calls “independent black institutions”: schools and other organizations designed by the black community, for the black community. It is an idea deeply rooted in Malcolm X’s central vision, for black people worldwide to take control of their economic and social livelihoods. “He was about building independent black institutions [too]!” Madhubuti notes. As Malcolm’s avowed “cultural son,” Madhubuti followed the path he laid out, to seek true freedom and unity for all black people.

When “Diary of Malcolm X” co-editors Herb Boyd and Ilyasah Al-Shabazz (Malcolm’s third daughter) approached him with the manuscript, then, he knew just what to say. “Of course I said yes—I said absolutely yes!” But publishing the “Diary” would not prove quite so simple. “There were some other members of the extended family who wanted to go to one of the major, white publishers,” whose nationwide reach they believed would help bring in “a goldmine.” To convince them that his press was right for the job, Madhubuti promised to get the “Diary” nationwide distribution—but to do so, he had to cut ties with Third World Press’ previous distributor and sign with a new company. During the six-month transition period, from January to June, 2013, the press “had no real revenue coming in,” and burned through much of its savings converting its library to e-books. “We’re hanging on by our fingernails, in terms of what we had to do to make this transition,” he sighs.

Now that the contract is signed, “The Diary of Malcolm X” will be released both online and in print, through booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million. But Third World Press barely had enough money left to print a first run of the book, and has next to nothing for marketing or publicity. Like many artistic ventures facing the same hurdles, the press has turned to crowdfunding website Indiegogo to raise money for its final push. The site allows organizations to finance projects through rewards-based private donations; in exchange for such gifts, Third World Press is offering everything from a copy of the “Diary” to dinner with the editors in New York City. So far, the campaign has raised more than $16,000, which Madhubuti takes as a sign of a deep and abiding love for Malcolm. “I consider…the ‘Diary of Malcolm X’ one of the most important books that we’ve published,” he says. “We’re gonna do it—and with your help, we’ll make this work.”

LAYER THREE: THE BATTLE

There is a not-so-secret reason why Madhubuti, Boyd and Al-Shabazz have chosen to publish “The Diary of Malcolm X” now. That reason is about 600 pages long, was twenty years in the making, and sparked a firestorm of controversy among black scholars when it was released in 2011. Entitled “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” the biography of Malcolm X written by historian Dr. Manning Marable seeks to “go beyond the legend” and unearth the truth about the man. The book, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History, notes that Malcolm never really generated his own legacy: though he coauthored his “Autobiography,” the actual text was written by “Roots” author Alex Haley, and published nine months after Malcolm was killed. It also indicts those cultural groups that stemmed from Malcolm’s vision—such as the Black Arts movement—for taking the “Autobiography” at face value, and clinging to an image of Malcolm that was “permanently frozen” as they wanted to remember him. “This story, told and retold to various ends…captures only a snapshot,” Marable claims. “To truly understand Malcolm, we need to go deeper.”

MarableTo go as deep as he wanted, however, Marable seems to have gone beyond scholarship. Many of his boldest claims—including that Malcolm performed homoerotic acts as a young man—are based solely on “circumstantial but strong evidence,” which Marable never cites directly. Furthermore, despite the book’s concern with effacing monolithic representations of Malcolm, it is rife with declarative statements about the kind of person he was, and indicates that Malcolm actively “reinvented” himself in order to appeal to different groups of people. Strangely, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” seems to fly in the face of its own core argument—rather than asserting that a constellation of views is required to fully encompass a human being, it seems only to attempt to replace the prevailing opinion with Marable’s own. Substantiated or not, true to life or not, Marable’s opinion is just as subject to his own beliefs and ends as anyone else’s opinion is.

Unsurprisingly, the community of Malcolm’s supporters did not take the biography lightly. Within months, black scholars from all over the country published excoriating critiques of the work, calling it “an attack on [Malcolm]” and a piece of “white supremacist slander.” Marable’s defenders retorted that their anger only proved his point, that Malcolm’s cultural children were so attached to their collective formation of him that even the slightest dissent caused an uproar. (Marable, sadly, could not defend himself, as he died three days before his life’s work was published.)

Seeing the need for a reasoned, balanced response to the biography, Madhubuti and Boyd teamed up with two others to publish a collection of articles approaching the issue from multiple sides. Entitled “By Any Means Necessary, Malcolm X: Real, Not Reinvented,” the book was released in 2012 by Third World Press. Many of the articles make excellent points, but even in response to Marable can’t seem to extricate themselves from their entrenched positions nor avoid putting words in Malcolm’s mouth. “Malcolm X never believed an honest discussion could be held with imperialists,” writes UIUC professor Abdul Alkalimat. “Rather than give us…the Malcolm X we love and respect, Marable tries to cut him down to size.” Based as it is in admitted bias, “By Any Means Necessary” has not quelled the debate.

This, then, is the context into which “The Diary of Malcolm X” will soon emerge. To scholars and interested laypeople, it is more needed than ever: after decades of speculation, what Malcolm really (once) thought about issues as far-ranging as world peace and the price of 16mm film can finally come to light. “Malcolm needs to speak and have his own words said,” Herb Boyd notes, “without any kind of intervention, without any kind of interference.” Only then can those communities impacted by his words have a truly informed conversation about their meaning, and how they ought to be carried out in a twenty-first century world with twenty-first century problems.

LAYERS UPON LAYERS UPON LAYERS

Shabazz Ilyasah

Shabazz Ilyasah

Surely even the publication of “The Diary” will not end the furor over who can lay claim to Malcolm’s life and legacy. Surely, somebody opposed to Madhubuti and Boyd, et al, will point out that they can in no way claim to be objective editors or publishers of Malcolm’s personal thoughts. As true as this is, it may be less problematic than it appears: their publishing team’s commitment to defend Malcolm seems actually to have compelled them to remove themselves from the equation as much as possible. Though the “Diary” is full of clarifying notes and educated guesses from the editors, these are almost exclusively limited to factual information such as names and dates. There are even moments in the “Diary” in which more editorial input would be welcome, but is not forthcoming. To their credit, Herb Boyd, Ilyasah Al-Shabazz, Haki Madhubuti and the rest of the Third World Press team have done an excellent job of getting out of Malcolm’s way and letting him speak for himself.

Herb Boyd

Herb Boyd

All that remains, then, is for people to read the “Diary” and draw their own conclusions about the man and the myth. For too many years the discourse on Malcolm X has been encased in the shell of who people wanted him to be and what they wanted him to stand for. That is not a true legacy. That is no “living, black manhood.” A legacy cannot be contingent upon one idea or another, nor can it live or die according to what details happen to be true. A legacy breathes, evolves and takes infinite shapes as it is asserted by those around it—just as a man breathes, evolves, and takes shape as he is asserted by those around him. Malcolm X knew that (or so it seems). He knew that his life was not one of reinvention, but of dialectical interplay, moving in and through the gazes cast upon him and the one he cast upon himself. Perhaps the first step to a true awareness of Malcolm, then, is to release his life of any perceived meaning at all, and to meet him back down on Layer One, where he has been waiting all along.

To support Third World Press in its effort to publicize the “The Diary of Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz,” visit indiegogo.com/projects/the-diary-of-malcolm-x–3

One Response to “Necessary Means: “The Diary of Malcolm X” and the Fight for an American Legacy”

  1. Diary Duel: Malcolm X Interests Sue on Publishing’s Eve | Newcity Lit Says:

    […] wrinkle has emerged in the twisted tale of “The Diary of Malcolm X.” Shortly after our November 14 cover article—“Necessary Means: ‘The Diary of Malcolm X’ and the Fight for an Am…—went to print, attorneys for some of Malcolm’s heirs brought a copyright infringement lawsuit […]

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