Robert E. Terrill, ed.: The Cambridge Companion to Malcolm X.
With the recent publication of Manning Marable's important and controversial biography of Malcolm X, the politics of representation in work about Malcolm X is a crucial part of the national nonconversation about cross-racial communication and the retreat from racial equity. The opening page of this book describes itself as presenting "new perspectives on Malcolm X's life and legacy in a series of specially commissioned essays by prominent scholars from a range of disciplines." The book's intention is to be "a source of information on his life, career and influence and as an innovative substantive scholarly contribution in its own right, the book also includes an introduction, a chronology of the life of Malcolm X, and a guide to further reading." Contributor and editor Robert Terrill, in his Introduction to the volume's fourteen individually authored chapters, after summarizing each, ends by insisting on several crucial points: in spite of many transformations, Malcolm "never abandoned his commitment to Islam, a religion that has been denigrated repeatedly since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon"; Malcolm "never endorsed simple assimilation"; he "never described the political system in the United States as anything other than thoroughly and institutionally corrupt"; finally, "as long as there remains a racial hierarchy, the model of personal and political development that Malcolm X presents will remain relevant" (9).
In Claude Clegg's dynamic first chapter of the book, "Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad," he explains the deep fictive kinship of the two men and the crucial ways in which each required the other's influence to do his work. What finally broke the relationship was not simply the jealousy toward Malcolm of the Nation of Islam's inner circle in Chicago, however deep, or the surveillance and misinformation campaign of the FBI, however effective, and Elijah's "creeping conservatism" (20), as Malcolm's militant transnational commitments strengthened. What finally and fully broke the relationship was Malcolm's embracing of Sunni Islam, since Elijah Muhammad feared that his groomed successor--seventh son Wallace--was moving in the same direction, a path that would discredit the Nation of Islam as a "Muslim" group, and make Elijah's claim to being the "Messenger of Allah" false, in the eyes of the thereby expanding international and orthodox Islam.
In chapter eight, "Malcolm X and youth culture," Richard Brent Turner explores the "progressive political and religious legacy that Malcolm X created in the last year of his life" (101). Turner pursues this analysis by exploring the antiracist rapping of the "transnational Pan-African 'hip hop umma,' a version of the Muslim umma--the global community of Islam that Malcolm experienced during his hajj" (103). Often, the raps focus on the international and multiracial elements of Malcolm's experience of the hajj. The pan-African hip hop umma is transnational in its focus and commitment, and so, not surprisingly, it demonstrates the "ascendancy of Sunni Islam in black youth culture" (102), rather than the race-based theology of the Nation of Islam, or its splinter group, the Five Percenters.
In "Womanizing Malcolm X," Sheila Radford-Hill does a fascinating job of helping us see the "impact of women's agency on his life and work" (64) and "gender as a unit of analysis in the politics of black radicalism" (65). The Nation of Islam's ideal of women as "nurturers practicing virtue, modesty, and humility" (67) became increasingly complicated in Malcolm's consciousness in the last years of his life, especially through his visits to Africa where he met women "whose leadership skills gave them professional opportunities and influence in African affairs of state" (67). Radford-Hill insists that Malcolm "remade his masculine subjectivity in ways that allowed him to see women as agents of social change" (68). One powerful piece of evidence for this claim of Malcolm's moving toward gender equality, is that two months before his murder, he introduced Fannie Lou Hamer as "one of the world's greatest freedom fighters" (68). Radford-Hill sees Malcolm's overcoming of the merely protective male orientation toward women of the Nation of Islam as conditioned by Malcolm's Pan-Africanist experiences and commitments, and Malcolm's embracing of orthodox Islam in the last two years of his life. Radford-Hill puts it this way: because of Malcolm's "desire to practice the Sunni Islamic faith, he was compelled to restructure his thinking about the role of both men and women in the struggle for human dignity" (69). Malcolm was able to make this transition toward seeing women as full equals "because his faith gave him the moral clarity he needed to discern the transnational nature of black cultural and political movements" (69).
Kevin Gaines's "Malcolm X in Global Perspective," affirms, like Sheila Radford-Hill's essay, the "importance of his Islamic faith to his rejection of the Nation of Islam's antiwhite doctrine" (158). Malcolm's orthodox Islamic antiracism also strengthened his anti-imperialism by the same rhetoric of equality. Gaines shows how through Malcolm's crucial May 1964 trip to Ghana, and "through the novelty of his travels, and with his cultural immersion into orthodox Islam and the hajj, Malcolm was strongly compelled to rethink his political convictions" (165). Malcolm's antiracism and anti-imperialism became unified as the heart of his ideological critique of both the U.S. political-economic system, and that of the West generally. In the final part of the chapter in which Gaines analyzes Malcolm's influence on the generations in the U.S. since his murder, he reminds us that Malcolm is a main reason for the "spread of Islam among African-Americans" (168).
The final chapter of the book, "The Legacy of Malcolm X," by William W. Sales, Jr., supports Radford-Hill's position that Malcolm was moving toward operational commitment to gender equality. Clear evidence of this promise is that Malcolm asked women to assume "leadership roles in the Organization of Afro-American Unity" (174). Sales also corroborates the suggestions of Turner and Radford-Hill that Malcolm's embracing of orthodox Islam was as much a political as a religious commitment (172). Citing the chapter "Fighting in the Way of God" from Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.'s On the Side of My People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X, Sales makes the point that in the last months of his life especially, Malcolm was committed to Sunni Islam as a "religion that would help him fight back against oppression" (172), unlike the Nation of Islam, which attempted quite successfully to be completely apolitical. Malcolm saw international Islam as the key political and religious focus of the "international anti-imperialist, antiracist struggle for national liberation and human rights" (172). Malcolm considered this transnational focus as necessary to challenge, and here Sales quotes Omi and Winant, the "'racial dictatorship' in America" (181).
What, then, is the project of The Cambridge Companion to Malcolm X? The first paragraph of this review quotes key elements of Terrill's introduction and front inside-cover overviews. The book ably keeps its promise to provide "new perspectives on Malcolm X's life and legacy" from a number of disciplines, and is an admirable and substantive addition to scholarship on Malcolm X, for new as well as experienced scholars in this field. Yes, the chronology and guide to further reading are especially aimed at scholars new to the study of Malcolm X, but they also function for more experienced scholars as a way to think about what pieces of scholarship belong in such a selective listing, to notice what is omitted, and to invite reflection about how he or she would construct such a key and short document. The project of this book or what it does well, in an anthology that has no weak chapters, is to provide critical analyses of appropriate elements of Malcolm's life and work: his autobiography, his relationships with key figures, his representation in rap and in Hollywood, his gender dynamics, his rhetorical ways, his Afrocentricity, transnationalism, and black radical politics. Each of these is done well in a brief space and in complex fashion. But what does the book occlude, minimize or omit? Although there are references, as this review in part documents, to the importance of Malcolm's embracing of orthodox Islam not only as a crucial religious commitment but also as a political-economic implementation of an antiracism and anti-imperialism project, there is no separate chapter on Malcolm X as orthodox Muslim. Why? In an important book on Malcolm in post-9/11 Islamophobic America, this is an especially indefensible omission, and is arguably an erasure of what Malcolm X died trying to implement in the United States--a choice he made over staying safe by remaining outside its borders. If only there could be a second edition of an otherwise excellent book.
Reviewed by Robert Eddy, Washington State University
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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