Myth and History

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Stanley Crouch on Manning Marable and Malcolm X:


Now, those interested in learning a substantial amount about the complexity of the world in which the vastly overrated Malcolm X actually lived may find much of interest in the final work of Manning Marable, "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention." Marable died on April 1, just days before the explosive book's publication. However much he is sympathetic to his subject, Marable accomplishes the difficult task of showing the bad boy of the civil rights era as an actual human being, quite ambitious but much smaller than the misleading myth he was made into after his death. 

Each page almost secretes the formidable research into hard facts. Marable lets the chips fall where they may because he is interested in the humanity of Malcolm X, as all true scholars should be. This will not be liked by those who prefer myth to truth, but that is nothing new. Marable reveals the layers of great sadness, desperation, frustration and self-importance underneath all of the masks that Malcolm X fashioned for himself... 

There is strong proof that the white people Malcolm X claimed would never protect black people from violence simply decided to step back and let the members of the racist cult with which he had fallen out do what they wanted. From that moment on, myth, not actual history, has dominated discussion of this complex man. Thanks to Marable, that may now be largely at an end. 

I think this is a really simplistic reading of Marable's book, and Malcolm X. It's as though Crouch wrote his column while preparing for an upcoming debate with Amiri Baraka at City College. 

That aside, it's really sad to see people receiving this book as a massive corrective for all those wrong-headed blacks who loved Malcolm. In a country that bandies about terms like "land of the free" and "greatest generation," I find lecturing over the myths that black people choose to believe rather insupportable. I don't think many of Marable's reviewers really understand why Malcolm's name still rings out. They just kinda wish it didn't. Or they don't much care.

It's sad because it feels like we're still entrenched in 1978. On one side we have people claiming that any investigation into Malcolm X's private life is unwarranted and irrelevant--like Robert Dallek never wrote An Unfinished Life. Like David Levering-Lewis didn't write W.E.B. Du Bois. And then on the other side we have people who believe rote fact to be, in every way, superior to invention, all the while blind to the inventions that animate their very being. 

History isn't important because it destroys myth. History is important because (among many other reasons) it helps you understand how, and why, myths come to be. I don't know how you begin to grapple with the myth of Malcolm X, if you don't actually understand it.

I come from a place where people scoff at the myth of Abraham Lincoln as "The Great Emancipator." I used to be one of those people. It's true that there's considerable factual information available to any anti-Lincoln partisan. But reading history, and studying Lincoln, hasn't encouraged me to scoff more, but to scoff less. Myth is human, and scoffing is for people who are blind to their own humanity, and thus blind to their own myths.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/04/myth-and-history/237614/