The Kingpin of Harlem

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

From The Times' review of Manning Marable's new biography of Malcolm X:


Mr. Marable argues that Malcolm X was a gifted performer, adept at presenting himself to black audiences "as the embodiment of the two central figures of African-American folk culture, simultaneously the hustler/trickster and the preacher/minister." He also suggests that Malcolm exaggerated his criminal youth in his "Autobiography" to create "an allegory documenting the destructive consequences of racism within the U.S. criminal justice and penal system," and to underscore the transformative power that the Nation of Islam brought to his own life while in prison.

 I think that the power of Marable's book as a corrective is a bit overstated if only because memoir is an inherently subjective genre. The fact the you remember something one way is no assurance that it actually happened that way. Moreover, many of the most important moments of the Autobiography--for instance the "niggers can't be lawyers" episode--stand up fairly well. The Autobiography is  a collaborative account by two parties with their own interests, in which one of the parties died. It should be read skeptically, but I don't know that I'd call it fiction.

With that said, I was really heartened by Marable's objective documentation of Malcolm's criminal past. What emerges is something of a bumbling criminal, who's sort of lost and immature. Many of his crimes are just stupid--like robbing an old friend from Lansing, who promptly recognizes and reports him. One of the unfortunate aspects of the Black Power movement was the way some of its leader valorized the criminal element in the black community as some sort of slumbering revolutionary army. I think a lot of that comes out of this notion of Malcolm (perpetrated by Malcolm) going from hardened criminal to revolutionary. 

What Marable shows is that Malcolm was much more young punk than hardened criminal. I like the young punk a lot more. I could see myself there. I could see friends there. I could even see my father there. It also makes the leap to activist, given Malcolm's Garveyite father, much more plausible. 

More next week.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/04/the-kingpin-of-harlem/237005/