This Manning Marable thing, I can see as well as anyone by now, is becoming something of a tic, a bad joke with no punchline, Woody Allen fretting endlessly (while Alison Porchnik sighs) about whether Oswald was marksman enough to have hit a target the size of JFK’s head in a moving car from that distance.
This is the last thing I have to say about the matter, (at least for tonight). The book still, to my mind, conveys a three dimensional person with convincing motivations, although the research does not seem to be, in many cases, very well-sourced. In many cases there is no attribution at all for statements Marable makes with great certainty and, also troubling, no sources for direct quotes.
This is unsettling in an academic book written by a distinguished professor at one of the world’s most respected universities. The book also poses sensible arguments but seems to back them in a feeble way, particularly when they rely on a single source, or when no source is given.
Take for example Marable’s easily sensationalized and distracting claim to have “circumstantial but strong evidence, [that] Malcolm was probably describing his own homosexual encounters with Paul Lennon” (66). Does it make a real difference whether a fictionalized alter-ego for Malcolm in the Autobiography or the actual young hustler Malcolm was the man paid to sprinkle talcum powder on the kinky old naked white man?
Marable presents this purported deception as part of his case that Malcolm, a very private and very public man, brutally candid and also skilled in constructing his public image, exaggerated his criminal exploits in the Autobiography, while hiding other shameful details of his life, to heighten the story of redemptive rebirth he underwent when he converted to Islam in prison. He presents Malcolm’s arguably misleading account of the paid homosexual encounters as an example of Malcolm concealing and reinventing himself, while at the same time unable to omit the freaky details of a very odd job he once did in service to a wealthy, perverse White Devil. Surely there were equally good and less problematic examples a careful reading of the Autobiography could have produced to support Marable’s thesis.
The example also provides shaky support for the thesis, since other explanations for why Malcolm would conceal that part of his employment history spring to mind. For one thing, Malcolm or anyone else, black or white, would not in 1965, nor today, for that matter, be in a hurry to divulge details about a short stint working for a wealthy man who paid good money for his butler to strip, undress him, carry him like a baby to his bed and sprinkle talcum powder on him until he ejaculated. I can’t think of many people who would advertise this, mention it on their CV or casually reveal it. What is the relevance of it in an autobiography, a biography?
I don’t think it’s a question of being tolerant of difference, open-minded, or homophobic, particularly since nothing about Malcolm’s sexual orientation is mentioned anywhere else in Marable’s otherwise detailed biography. It’s not as though this particular hustle, whether done by “Rudy” or “Detroit Red”, provides insight into anything else about the subject’s life, except that at one point he was desperate enough to take that rather odd employment and that he may have partially concealed it in telling his Autobiography to Alex Haley.
Marable clearly concluded it was not a big deal, or any kind of character assassination, to include this detail, based on the “circumstantial but strong” evidence he’d found in a Massachusettes prison record and a Boston want ad. And he may have been right to conclude he was providing nuance, color and texture to the life of his biographical subject.
But, I mean, really, Marable, even if your circumstantial “but strong” evidence for this makes it most probably true, what? I mean, really, professor, I know you’re dead and all, but WTF?