In the wake of Manning Marable’s biography on Malcolm X, it seems like the shining prince is almost as controversial 46 years after death as he was in life.
Marable, an esteemed professor, writer and researcher at Columbia University, died just days before Viking published his long-awaited, highly-anticipated, 20-years in the making Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Clocking in at 594 pages, the massive bio explores some startling revelations about Malcolm: that the F.B.I. and New York City police department knew about Malcolm’s assassination before it happened but did nothing to stop it; that Malcolm met with the KKK about the Nation of Islam purchasing land Blacks could live on; details about Malcolm’s mother’s stay at a mental hospital when he was a child; and that Malcolm’s mission for civil rights was on a more radical, global scale than anyone had ever believed.
Those have been talked about for years, and probably aren’t huge surprises.
Even Manning’s conclusion that The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written by Alex Haley contains some exaggerations of just how gangsta Malcolm really was during his criminal days is credible. It’s common knowledge that Haley’s magnum opus Roots contained some creative fictionalization of what was supposed to be Haley’s real-life ancestry. For Haley and for history, the overall message outweighs some of the details. And Roots remains as impactful as ever.
But it’s Manning’s exploration of other revelations that have the Shabazz family seething.
Malcolm X explores the possibility that Malcolm and his wife Betty Shabazz both engaged in extramarital affairs. That the real origin for Malcolm’s rift with the Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad was because the woman Muhammad got pregnant was a woman Malcolm had loved for years. Malcolm X even explores whether or not a young Malcolm had a homosexual affair with a white businessman, as first revealed in Bruce Perry’s Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America (1991).
It’s these revelations—some of which take up only a few pages in Marable’s book—that have imbued Malcolm’s life and legacy with a new found sense of high melodrama.
And the Shabazz family seems like they want to protect Malcolm’s legacy by any means necessary.
In an interview Malcolm X’s daughters Ilyasah and Malaak Shabaaz did with Nekesa Mumbi Moody for The Associated Press, Ilyasah said “The marriage was definitely faithful and devoted because my father was a man of impeccable integrity, and I think that most people, if they’re not clear on anything, they’re clear that he was moral and ethical and had impeccable character . . . ” Malaak Shabazz said, “[it] may have been a little bit of stress, like any marriage,” but that “there was really no times for shenanigans. She raised the children at home; he worked on a global level.’”
In fact, Malcolm’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz stopped an NPR interview over elements of the book. The Maynard Institute’s “Richard Prince’s Journal-isms” details how Ilyasah Shabazz was being interviewed by NPR’s Michel Martin for her show “Tell Me More.” Martin was in Washington DC and Shabazz was in New York. Shabazz said she was “annoyed by Martin’s questioning because it was not what she had agreed to”, and ended the interview. Martin, on the other hand, contends that she made it crystal “clear that she intended to talk with Shabazz about Manning’s book and about her life today.”
It’s a fascinating, though precarious position to be in. Is there an effective way families of famous icons can protect their relative’s image but still share them with the world? Especially when a scandal breaks.
On one hand, Malcolm X’s daughters didn’t exactly ask to be born into the famous Shabazz family. So they have every right to try to maintain at least some sense of privacy. But on the other hand, public figures are just that . . . public. So there is an element of “open book” when it comes to much of their lives. For better or for worse, that open book-ness has a trickle-down effect through the generations.
And when does truth come into play? Clearly, Ilyasah and Malaak Shabazz think their dad and mom being unfaithful to one another and their dad having a homosexual relationship as a young man is not true. So of course, they’d refute that.
But what if those relationships were proven to be true.
Take Chelsea Clinton when her dad was going through the Monica Lewinsky debacle. She was 12 years old when her dad entered the White House in 1992. She was 18 when the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998. She 28 in 2008 when she was forced to address her dad’s affair while campaigning for her mother’s presidential bid.
Toby Harnden of The Telegraph writes that Mr. Clinton’s sexual imbroglios had been off limits during Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign. But at a Butler University rally in Indiana, Chelsea Clinton was asked if she thought the Lewinsky scandal had hurt her mother’s chances and credibility as a presidential candidate. Clinton replied: “Wow, you’re the first person actually that’s ever asked me that question in the, I don’t know maybe, 70 college campuses I’ve now been to, and I do not think that is any of your business.”
Is there any difference between Chelsea’s response and the Shabazz sisters? Yes. And no. Mr. Clinton’s sexual scandals are fact since he admitted to many of them. It’s not yet proven or taken as fact if Malcolm and Betty Shabazz’s sexual relationships described in Manning’s book are fact. And no matter how much research is done, if we don’t hear it from the horse’s mouth or see photographic proof (verified as authentic), there will always be credibility issues.
When it comes to coming out about one’s famous family, does the truth matter? Chelsea refused to answer because it was private, because the topic was off limits, even though the scandal was true. The Shabazz sisters refuse to answer, even though they believe the “scandalous” conclusions are false. And Ilyasah seemed to believe that some information in Marable’s bio was off limits.
George W. Bush’s daughters probably have to endure speculation about their father’s arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol, which happened before they were born.
I feel for the children of power families. It must take years to build up a tolerance, and maybe even a small peace, with sins of the father (or mother).
But one thing I do know for sure about Malcolm X, in particular: who he may or not have engaged with sexually does not diminish his spectacular legacy.