Living Black History How Re-Imagining the African-American Past Can Remake America’s Racial Future, by Manning Marable (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2006), 266p., $26.:
Living Black History How Re-Imagining the African-American Past Can Remake America’s Racial Future, was written by Manning Marable, who is one of America’s most influential and widely read scholars. He is Professor of History and Political Science and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and founding Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies. His latest books include “The Great Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of Race in American Life” and “Freedom on My Mind: The Columbia Documentary History of the African American Experience.” Marable also has a long history as a political activist in Black and reform-oriented socialist organizations. He has been a member of the New American Movement, a member of the executive committee of the National Black Political Assembly, an associate of the journal Socialist Review, national vice-chairperson of the Democratic Socialists of America, a leader of the National Black Independent Political Party, and finally, co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence.
Manning Marble’s new book, is supposed to be about “How Reimagining the African-American Past Can Remake America’s Racial Future.”
In the book’s preface, Marable states “Too often the study of history is an exercise in nostalgia or political myth-making rather than an honest interaction with the raw materials of the past” (p. xiv). His aim is to provide a corrective by treating African-American history both honestly and critically.
Unfortunately the book fails to live up to his goals.
Marable, to his credit, does point out the exceptional contributions of W.E.B. Dubois and C.L.R. James to Black history and thought. He goes into depth about the significance of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. But he fails to point out that the public schools have become resegregated (separate and unequal) as the consequence of bipartisan political action, by both the Democrats and Republicans, during the decade from 1988 to 1998.
He points out the decline of affirmative action and even quotes President Clinton “who in his re-election campaign of 1996 declared that he had ‘done more to eliminate affirmative action programs I didn’t think were fair and tighten others up than my predecessors have since affirmative action has been around.’”
But he does not state the history of the Black Democrats like Jesse Jackson who opposed the implementation of affirmative action quotas in the 1980s, helping to make affirmative action more difficult. From my own experience, as a former union official, the only way to effectively enforce affirmative action is when there are affirmative action quotas for employment in the workplace.
When reading non-fiction, I always try to find an answer as to why the author wrote it. I was particularly perplexed by the book’s style of unsubstantiated pontifications, and self-adulation. (Which were very boring to this reader.)
When he describes the gentrification of Harlem by Columbia University, he neglects to mention that it is one of the largest landlords in New York City. He describes his own role in making a memorial of the Audubon Ball Room, the hall in which Malcolm X was assassinated.
He then says that Columbia by agreeing to the Malcolm X Memorial site and “Malcolm X scholarships” for minorities enrolled in its medical school, made the deal that “didn’t silence the critics, but it effectively ended popular resistance to Columbia’s gentrification plans.”
He goes on to explain:
(Malcolm X’s) family’s interest in isolating Malcolm X from both his black nationalist phase and from his later connection with revolutionary socialism, along with Columbia’s interest in burying the burden of its local history of public relations blunders and predatory behavior in Harlem, made an honest reckoning with the past impossible. Still, the greatest casualty in this process of accumulation by dispossession is Malcolm X, who is presently being ‘dispossessed’ of the actual content of his words, ideas, and actual history. What has been preserved at the Audubon Memorial Center still remains largely an intellectually empty space, without meaningful political content or analysis. Malcolm’s mesmerizing visage as displayed in a life-sized statue diverts us from pursuing hard questions about his relevance to contemporary struggles being waged about racism and power-questions that he himself would have asked. The contestation over the meaning of Malcolm X’s life, and the cooptation of his historic legacy, began almost immediately after his assassination.
I agree with the attempt to co-opt Malcolm X after his assassination. In my essay on the Assassinations Martin Luther King of and Malcolm X I wrote:
A second assassination of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. has been the attempt to distort what they really stood for in their last years of life. This is a process that Lenin described in the opening to his book The State and Revolution:
. . .what in the course of history, has happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation. During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the consolation of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it. . . .
As one who was politically active at that time, I believe that it is important to tell the truth about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in order to help keep their ideas alive and prevent them from being reduced to harmless icons.
One of Marabele’s credentials is that he is co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence. A grouplet that was formed by members of the Communist Party (USA) after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. While preaching against the vulgarization of history, he takes a page from the Stalinist School of the Falsification and repeats the slander that Trotskyists are anti-communist and were therefore opposed to W.E.B. Dubois writings!
What the Trotskyists did oppose was the policy of subordinating the struggle in this country to the needs of the Soviet Union. Especially during World War II, when the Communist Party USA told black people to subordinate their struggle for equality to the needs of the war movement.
To give an example, at the “Liberty Ship” Marine Shipyards, in Sausalito, black workers paid full dues to the union, but were not allowed to become full union members. The Communist Party told these workers, who were threatening to strike, not to fight this injustice, but to wait till after the war. (The shipyard closed up after the war.) They supported the internment of the Japanese during the war, and their west coast paper, The Peoples World, was among the first companies to fire its Japanese workers! They even went so far as to call John L. Lewis a fascist, when he opposed the wage freeze imposed during the war!
At the time of the emergence of Malcolm X the Communist Party considered Malcolm to be a ‘Black Fascist’, But Marable praises Herbert Apthecker, a long-time Communist Party leader and prominent historian who wrote, Afro-American History-The Modern Era in 1971. A book which was purported to cover all of the major modern Black leaders up to Martin Luther King and Huey P. Newton. But out of 324 pages, there is not one word, not one whisper of Malcolm X!
Marable then goes on to charge that the Troskyists, who were the only organization that defended Malcolm X while he was alive, distorted what Malcolm X said during the last years of his life!
On page 163 he states:
. . . Texts of the actual transcripts of the majority of his speeches went unpublished for decades and many still remain unpublished. The major edited collections of Malcolm X’s speeches, including Malcolm X Speaks and By Any Means Necessary, were published by Pathfinder Press and Merit Publications, which are affiliated with the Trotskyist Socialists Workers Party (SWP). The SWP, following the Marxist theories of Leon Trotsky, believed (As did C.L.R. James – R.S.) that the “revolutionary black nationalism” of militants like Malcolm X was a necessary precursor to the staging of a socialist revolution in the United States. The Trotskyists went out of their way to court and promote Malcolm X after his break from the Nation of Islam, and in many respects interpreted his ideals and goals as part of an “evolution” toward a revolutionary Marxist position. . . .
This statement by Marable is an outright lie! For example, in his May 29, 1964 speech, “Harlem ‘Hate Gang’ Scare”, given at the Militant Labor Forum in New York City , Malcolm X stated:
.. . . It’s impossible for a chicken to produce a duck egg… The system in this country cannot produce freedom for an Afro-American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, period . . . . And if ever a chicken did produce a duck egg, I’m certain you would say it was certainly a revolutionary chicken.” He then made the very same remarks in his February 16, 1965 speech. . . .
When I became a member of the SWP in 1961, contrary to Marable’s assertions, I was encouraged to read the works of W.E.B. Dubois and also the writings of C.L.R. James and James’s contributions to the Trotskyist movement, during the 1940s, which expanded the outlook and the Socialist Workers Party’s understanding of the struggle for Black equality. I learned quite a bit from their teachings.
I attended all but two meetings that Malcolm X spoke at in Harlem in the last year of his life. I was in charge of Malcolm X’s defense the three times that he spoke at the Militant Labor Forum. He respected us because we accurately printed what he said and stood for. He even told the audience at the Audubon Ballroom to read our paper, The Militant, because it told the truth about him. He said you would think that it had been written ‘uptown’ and that the ‘uptown’ newspapers had been written downtown.
We reprinted his speeches that were previously printed in The Militant, precisely so that there would be a living history of what Malcolm X stood for at the time of his untimely death.
As Marable is a respected historian, I was surprised at his reversion of old Stalinist slanders and his unfounded accusations. The only reason is to put doubt on what Malcolm X said in order to deny Malcolm X’s last year, and turn Malcolm X into a harmless icon. He refuses to acknowledge what Malcolm X stood for at the time of his death. Malcolm X very clearly stated the course that he was going to follow in his March 12, 1964 Press Statement, when he said:
. . . The Muslim Mosque, Inc., will remain wide-open for ideas and financial aid from all quarters.
- Whites can help us, but they can’t Join us.
- There can be no black-white unity until there is first some’ black unity.
- There can be no workers solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity.
- We cannot think of uniting with others, until after we have first united among ourselves.
- We cannot think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves.
- One can’t unite bananas with scattered leaves. . . .
Manning Marable also fails to mention that history would have been different if he had remained alive. Malcolm X was the first mass leader in the United States to oppose the war in Vietnam and to identify the oppression of African Americans in this country with the struggles of the oppressed throughout the world. Malcolm X would have spoken to a special conference in Bandung scheduled to begin on March 3, 1965 and, in all probability, would have spoke at the first mass demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1965. Which is why the government orchestrated his assassination. (See my essay on The Assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X .
In order to make a “Living Black History” of the Civil Right’s Movement and struggle for Black Liberation, we must at least explain what Malcolm X and also Martin Luther King Jr. stood for at the time of their assassinations.
What the mass media distorts is that both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, through the course of their experiences and struggles, had come to the conclusion that freedom is not possible under the nightmare of capitalism.
At Frogmore, S.C. November 14, 1966 King echoed Malcolm X when he said:
You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums …. we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong …. with capitalism …. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.
But Marable did mention some of them his February 21, 1992 speech, at Metro State College, Denver, Colorado: By Any Means Necessary: The Life and Legacy of Malcolm X. In that speech Marable stated: “Malcolm said: ‘You can’t have racism without capitalism. If you find antiracists, usually they’re socialists or their political philosophy is that of socialism.’”
Why aren’t statements like this a part of Marable’s Living Black History written in 2006? In fact Marable’s entire February 2, 1992 speech is a far better example of maintaining a living history than his book.
The most important thing that those that are partisans of the Black Liberation struggles, is to tell the truth so that future generations can renew the struggle — that the past can remake America’s racial future. Living Black History unfortunately fails to live up to its premise.
Roland Sheppard is a retired Business Representative of Painters District Council #8 in San Francisco. He has been a life long social/civil rights activist and socialist. He regularly attended Malcolm X’s meetings in Harlem and was present at the meeting when Malcolm X was assassinated. He was in charge of defense whenever Malcolm X spoke at the Militant Labor Forum in New York City from 1964 to 1965.
He has recently written two articles for Counterpunch: 50 Years Later: Lessons from the Montgomery Bus Boycott www.counterpunch.org/sheppard11112005.html and Where Will Blacks Find Justice? The Civil Rights Movement is Dead and So is the Democratic Party at www.counterpunch.org/sheppard09052006.html .