The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson

THE ART OF
KEVIN BLYTHE SAMPSON

4/6/11

Why questions about Malcolm X's sexuality are irrelevant

Why questions about Malcolm X's sexuality are irrelevant

Why questions about Malcolm X's sexuality are irrelevant


Why questions about Malcolm X's sexuality are irrelevant

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Malcolm X during a press conference in Chicago, May 22, 1964 (AP Photo/Edward Kitch)

Among all of history's prominent black figures - and there are many - that have captured the public's imagination, perhaps none have inspired quite as much controversy as El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, otherwise known as Malcolm X. Just as he did in life, the fiery orator and devout Muslim generates fierce debate, even in death. Early details of Malcolm's life, as outlined in a new scholarly tome, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by recently deceased Columbia University scholar Manning Marable, appear ready to herald a new polemic about Malcolm's legacy.

WATCH MSNBC COVERAGE OF THIS STORY HERE

Marable's life-defining biography is a mesmerizing read that illuminates a figure that continues to fascinate and confound nearly five decades after his demise. While A Life of Reinvention covers much of familiar territory readers encountered in the national bestseller The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the book sheds new light on areas of Malcolm's life that were previously unknown, due to both circumstance and design.

As the Columbia University professor prolifically illustrates, Malcolm X was a complex figure who demonstrated a penchant for perpetual reinvention. His lack of formal education belied a verbal and intellectual agility that he commanded with ease, and helped him rival many of his more urbane civil rights era peers - particularly Martin Luther King Jr. As a result of his carefully-crafted public persona, much of what he didn't like - or simply didn't want people to know - was discarded on the cutting room floor of the selectively edited parts of his protean life.

Marable's book is a near-masterpiece, detailing events that transpired throughout Malcolm's life that were previously shrouded in mystery. Some of the more eyebrow-raising revelations found in A Life of Reinvention include Malcolm's extensive drug use prior to his conversion to Islam, which may have included cocaine; an alleged cover-up of the plot to assassinate Malcolm by the New York Police Department; and that a Newark man may have played a key role in his slaying. But the book breathes new life into one element in particular of Malcolm's early years - his alleged bisexuality - which has long provided a subtext to the gripping narrative of the civil rights activist's life.

According to Marable's research, Malcolm spent much of his late teens and early 20s wending his way through a "variety of hustles" that included work as a "steerer" where he connected a network of prostitutes with willing johns. That line of work led him to be linked with one Paul Lemmon, a well-to-do Boston resident that may have been one of Malcolm's sexual conquests.

It should be said outright that this area of Malcolm's life is neither new nor novel. Speculation about his sexuality soared after the publication of a 1992 book, "Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America." The novel's author, Bruce Perry, alleges Malcolm had sporadic same-sex encounters throughout his hustling years, claims which have yet to be independently verified. However, Marable's scholarly research in A Life of Reinvention discounts the idea that Malcolm was a practicing bisexual. The rather amorphous claim, based exclusively on Malcolm's employment by Lennon as his personal butler, barely takes up one full page of the 600-plus behemoth. The professor even goes out of his way to explain that there was "no evidence from his prison record in Massachusetts or from his personal life after 1952 that he was actively homosexual."

For someone who was less than athletic in his adolescence, Malcolm X cut an imposing figure when he reached adulthood. Such was his raw power that none other than the Nation of Islam's firebrand Louis Farrakhan, upon encountering Malcolm for the first time in 1954, was quoted in Marable's book as saying the fallen civil rights hero could be so intimidating "I was scared of him." Malcolm X's unapologetic message of black self-actualization gets lost in historical accounts of his often strident rhetoric, but without question much of his mystique lay in his preternatural poise and unquestioned masculinity.

All the more reason why posthumous conjecture about Malcolm's sexual orientation is spurious at best, and utterly irrelevant at its worst. A Life of Reinvention makes clear that Malcolm's relationship with Lennon was limited at best: on its face the arrangement appeared much more financial than romantic. Much of the available literature about his life makes clear that Malcolm's early years were a blur of dissolute behavior and endless hustles that he probably regretted with age. Upon his release from prison, Malcolm devoted himself full-bore to civil rights activism and religious conversion. No verifiable claims of male liaisons have surfaced since.

The possibility of Malcolm X's bisexuality begs the obvious question: so what? In the current environment, there seems to be a prurient temptation to refract the legacies of historical figures through a prism of modern-day sexual mores. Such notions, however, are devoid of the necessary context. Although his biography can polarize, Malcolm continues to be a world-bestriding historical figure, and by all accounts was a devoted husband and father. The example that he set, as a family man and a person of deeply held principle, is one that can be emulated by anyone, regardless of their race, creed or sexuality.

Should the revelations about Malcolm's past magically transform him into some sort of black gay icon'? I think not. To be frank, Malcolm's sexuality is irrelevant to his overall historical contributions, as well they should be. Therefore, efforts in some quarters to redefine or claim a man who never openly identified as gay or bisexual are woefully misguided. Malcolm's legacy is inextricably bound to all of history, not a narrowly-defined demographic.