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Was Malcolm X really bisexual?

The publication of a controversial new book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by the respected African-American academic and activist manning Marable, who died days before his book was released in May, has put a new twist on the legacy of one of America's most revered black figures. As Leslie Goffe reports, some will find the book-which has become an overnight bestseller-liberating while others will find it disturbing.

MALCOLM X WAS ONCE THE most feared black man in America. A leader of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm dared tell whites they were inferior to blacks and that they were a "race of devils" created by an evil scientist. Malcolm X dared, too, to tell blacks they should use "any means necessary" to achieve equal rights and justice, including picking up the gun.

At a time in the 1960s when Martin Luther King was preaching nonviolence and telling black people to turn the other cheek, Malcolm X was telling black people to use the bullet, if the ballot didn't work.

Assassinated in 1965, aged just 39, allegedly by members of the Nation of Islam angry that he left the group and exposed corruption in its ranks, Malcolm X was remembered at his Harlem funeral as "our living, black manhood" and as "our own black shining Prince."

But the way Malcolm X will be viewed in the future has been complicated by the publication of a controversial new book, which has quickly become a bestseller, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. The book, published days before its author, the respected African-American academic and activist Manning Marable, died aged 60, offers complex new twists to the portrait of Malcolm X's political and personal life.

Marable alleges that Malcolm X was bisexual, that early in his teens and twenties, when he was a street hustler and drug dealer, he engaged in sex acts with men for money and formed a longstanding sexual relationship with a wealthy white man.

The claims that Malcolm X had same-sex relations and worked for a time as a male prostitute "servicing queers", are allegations that have long been rumoured and written about in other books.

But in Marable's book, it appears this is the first time the rumours have been substantiated and endorsed by a highly regarded figure and someone respected in all quarters. To his death, Marable was considered one of America's leading scholars of African-American history and race relations. A radical academic and activist, Marable, founder of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University in New York, was once described as "the most dangerous black professor in America" because of his advocacy and activism on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.

In this book, Marable, who was able to gain access to a private archive of Malcolm X correspondence and able to examine more than 5,000 pages of FBI and other US government documents, claims that when Malcolm rose to prominence as a black leader, sexual problems in his marriage to Betty Shabazz, mother of his six daughters, threatened and complicated his stature and place in the Nation of Islam.

Seeking help in fixing his dysfunctional marriage, Malcolm X wrote a desperate letter to Elijah Muhammad, the head of the Nation of Islam. In it he admitted he was sexually "incompatible" with his wife Betty and revealed that she had complained he had never given her "any real satisfaction" and that she was going to "seek satisfaction elsewhere". It is alleged she began an affair with her husband's best friend and Malcolm began a relationship with his secretary in the Nation of Islam. Though some have questioned the value of such revelations, it is clear Marable wanted to present Malcolm X as a complex, conflicted figure who was much more than the macho archetype beloved by black men for talking tough to whites and telling black people, "If someone puts their hands on you make sure they never put their hands on anybody again."

Predictably, the revelations in Marable's book concerning Malcolm's sexual orientation and identity have caused outrage and sparked an outcry in the United States. Black newspapers and black radio talk shows have been swamped with complaints from African-Americans who claim the book was designed to "divide and conquer" and "take the focus off of international Pan-African liberation worldwide."

Marable has been accused of having "sold out" and allowing himself to be "a puppet of those who have been trying to discredit Malcolm for years".

These sentiments are shared, too, by MalcoLm's six daughters, who drew up a statement protesting against findings in the Marable book: "Despite false reports and misdeeds of those in and out of the media seeking to divide and conquer, the bond and spirit of this family and community will not be broken," the statement said.

Malcolm X's third child, Ilyasah Shabazz, a motivational speaker and author of the book Growing Up X: A Memoir by the Daughter of Malcolm X, walked out on a New York radio talk show in protest when asked about alleged homosexual relationships mentioned in the Marable book. "I take issue with the fact that he said my father engaged in a bisexual relationship, a homo...--[that,] you know, he had a gay lover who was an elder white businessman," said Ilyasah Shabazz, 48, before walking out. "You know, my father was an open book ... And, you know, he is very clear in his activities [...] nothing included being gay."

Malcolm X's grandson, Malcolm Shabazz, 27, also condemned the Marable book. "This is an assassination of his character," said Shabazz, who is working on a book of his own on Malcolm X. "They can't apply homosexuality to my grandfather at all. To try and do so does not humanise him, it dehumanises him."

But Marable would have argued that he tried to humanise Malcolm X and liberate him from what Professor Marina Josefina Saldana-Portillo of New York University describes as "public and private performances of Malcolm X's masculinity for the black community and the white community." These performances, Marable would argue, show Malcolm X, who some consider one of the greatest and most influential African-Americans in history, as a mere representative of black masculinity, but as little else.

But Marable knew Malcolm X was so much more than this and says so in his book. Marable questions how significant Malcolm's early, criminal life as a street hustler, burglar and drug dealer was and wonders whether he did not deliberately exaggerate his exploits to burnish his reputation as a black man lost to crime and materialism and saved and redeemed by Islam and the Black Power movement.

Malcolm X, Marable says, was a myth-maker who remade and reinvented himself to suit his political ends. But many African-Americans are too angry and unhappy with what is revealed in Marable's book to accept that he intended to burnish not batter Malcolm's reputation and standing in history.

To register their protest at the book, hundreds of African-Americans recently attended a forum in Harlem at which one of its panellists, Monifa Bandele, a community activist, was cheered by the audience when she said "people do not want those who do not love him [Malcolm X] to expose him and his faults."

Another panellist, Viola Plummer, said she was disappointed in the Marable book and dismissed it as irresponsible. "If you are going to recount the history of one of the greatest black men, it is to be useful, you have a responsibility to teach."

But Rev Irene Monroe, an African-American minister of religion who describes herself as a "queer theologian", thinks much can be learned from the Marable book and the outcry it has caused. Monroe, who recently published an essay on homophobia and the Nation of Islam, says the book offers African-Americans an opportunity to rethink their views on homosexuality.

Monroe says African-Americans who "flatly dismiss these assertions as part and parcel of a racist conspiratorial propaganda machine that is out to discredit our brother Malcolm" are misguided. She also warns those in the black gay community that they would be foolish to "laud Malcolm X as our new gay icon."

Because Malcolm X has been for so long a "pop-culture hero to young black males" and the "quintessential representation of black manhood", Rev Monroe says African-Americans will continue to resist the evidence of Malcolm's sexual orientation, no matter what. Though what Marable wrote about Malcolm's sexual life has received most of the attention, many will find what the book reveals about Malcolm's political life just as surprising.

Just as he kept strange bedfellows in his private life, Malcolm X also kept company with unlikely companions in his political life, too. While a leader in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X tried, at the urging of the Nation's head, Elijah Muhammad, to forge an alliance between the Nation and the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan.

This has been revealed elsewhere, however. But because Marable had access to files previously unavailable from the Nation of Islam and from the FBI and uses them to great effect in his book, it makes what he says about meeting the Ku Klux Klan compelling.

In the hope of striking a deal with the Klan, Malcolm X met secretly with leading members of the racist group in Atlanta, Georgia in January 1961, a time when the Klan had been implicated in the murder of several civil rights workers. The Nation discussed purchasing land from the Klan in the American South to create an independent nation for Black muslims, separate and apart from whites. Malcolm X also asked the Klan not to bomb the Nation's temples in the South or attack their members there as the Klan had bombed black churches and attacked black churchgoers there. It was a deal made with the devil.

While Malcolm X's meeting with the KKK in Georgia was secret, his meeting with the head of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, was very public. Rockwell, who said black people were subhuman and called them "niggers", was a keynote speaker at a Nation rally in Washington DC on 25 June 1961.

On stage in front of Malcolm X and an estimated 8,000 black muslims was Rockwell, the American Nazi Party leader. Beside him were 10 of his Storm Troopers dressed in Nazi uniforms with swastikas on them. Rockwell applauded the Nation of Islam for sharing the Nazi Party's racist philosophy and its commitment to keeping the races separate and apart. Marable describes Malcolm's decision to meet with the Klan and the Nazis as unforeiveable.

"To sit down with white supremacists to negotiate common interests, at a moment in black history when the KKK was harassing, victimising and even killing civil rights workers and ordinary black citizens, was despicable," he writes. Malcolm had arrived, in his "uncritical adoption" of the Nation's conservative black separatist philosophy, at an "ugly dead end," says Marable.

Shortly before his death, when he was no longer a member of the Nation and had reinvented himself as a socialist and a Pan-Africanist, Malcolm X expressed deep regret and shame over his meetings with the KKK and the American Nazi Party.


A lot has changed in the United States since Malcolm X was assassinated 46 years ago. Once the most feared black man in America, today dozens of streets and boulevards have been named after him and dozens of schools, too, bear his name. His bestselling autobiography, which has sold more than 10 million copies, and which outlines his views on race, religion and revolution, is on the curriculum at hundreds of colleges and universities in America.

Two cities-Washington DC and Berkeley, in California-hold a "Malcolm X Day" each year. Even the US government, which tried to destroy him and his message, has honoured him. The US Postal Service issued a special commemorative Black Heritage postage stamp in 1999 with Malcolm X's face on it.


Indeed, Malcolm has been rehabilitated and reinvented by America. "Malcolm X's strength was his ability to reinvent himself," says Marable in his book. "He wove a narrative of suffering and resistance, of tragedy and triumph that captured the imagination of black people throughout the world."

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Author:Goffe, Leslie
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2011
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