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Malcolm X: The Prince of Faces : MALCOLM: A Life of the Man Who Changed Black America, <i> By Bruce Perry (Station Hill Press: $24.95; xxx pp.)</i>

<i> A professor of English and African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Early is the author of "Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture" (Ecco)</i>

“A language is like a chunk of meat,” Celine once wrote. “You wave your tail and circle around it, you’re intimidated . . . then zoom! you dive in! you’ve got the heart of it!”

It should come as no surprise, then, that so many African-Americans historically have been denied language, for it is rare for the establishment to let its outcasts latch on to something so empowering. Occasionally, though, outcasts will succeed regardless of the discouragement, as one learns in two of the most significant black male memoirs in American literary history: “Black Boy,” the 1945 autobiography of the black Southern writer Richard Wright, and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” the posthumously published 1965 work by a firebrand black Muslim minister.

Here is Wright’s account of how his boyish ambitions were almost dashed by the white woman for whom he worked:

“What grade are you in school?”

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“Seventh, ma’am.”

“Then why are you going to school?” she asked in surprise.

“Well, I want to be a writer,” I mumbled, unsure of myself; I had not planned to tell her that, but she had made me feel so utterly wrong and of no account that I needed to bolster myself.

“A what?” she demanded.

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“A writer,” I mumbled.

“For what?”

“To write stories,” I mumbled defensively.

“You’ll never be a writer,” she said. “Who on earth put such ideas into your nigger head?”

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“Nobody,” I said.

It’s a scene reminiscent of the one in Malcolm’s autobiography when he confesses his ambition of becoming a lawyer to his white teacher. “Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic,” the teacher replies, half-smiling as he leans back in his chair. “Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer--that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be . . . “

In the end, of course, both Wright and Malcolm became the very entities that they were told they could not become: Wright a writer and Malcolm, as Bruce Perry makes clear in his fine new biography, an advocate for his people; both men consumed with the passion of words as weapons and, in some real sense, consumed by the exigencies of the rebellion that their careers symbolized. For Malcolm, however, much more so than for Wright, the acquisition of language and letters was to be a mixed blessing, a paradox, that liberated and imprisoned simultaneously.

Malcolm related his life in his autobiography as a series of conversions: from a boy with two parents to an orphan; from a black boy who wanted to please whites to a street hustler, gigolo, and ne’er do well; from an incorrigible prison inmate to a reformed black Muslim; from racist firebrand to savvy, respectable political radical. Each of these conversions was accompanied by changes in name or fashion (from zoot suit to glasses to goatee) that became part of the incredible labyrinth of self-mythologizing that makes Malcolm’s autobiography a coherently powerful and dramatic (if predictable) American narrative of self-improvement and self-realization.

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Malcolm passes through every Northern, urban black male identity that is attainable for someone of his class and temperament. As he says in the autobiography, “I am a creation of the Northern white man and of his hypocritical attitude toward the Negro.” This of course raises the question whether any Malcolm, including the last one, is truly the real Malcolm. The true American is a person of many faces who seeks his or her one authentic and inevitable face.

Like most biographers, Perry has been influenced by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, and though “A Life of the Man Who Changed Black America” is no Young Man Malcolm in the sense that it tries to interpret Malcolm’s life on the basis of one pivotal event in his early manhood, it does focus on Malcolm’s youth and on his relationship with his family, particularly his parents, about whom Malcolm was insufficiently revealing.

The home of Malcolm’s parents in Lansing, Michigan, was not torched by a white hate group called the Black Legion, Perry reports; it was probably set afire by Malcolm’s father because the family was about to be evicted. The KKK probably never threatened the family in Omaha because Malcolm’s father was a Garveyite; and Malcolm’s father was not murdered by whites. These all seem to be stories that Malcolm’s mother told the children to make the father a race hero and to disguise the fact that he actually was a wife beater, an adulterer, a poor provider, and generally a very unhappy and frustrated failure.

Clearly, though, religious fanaticism, or intense ideological or theological orthodoxy attracted both his parents. Malcolm’s father was a staunch follower of early black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey while his mother, after the father’s death, became an overbearing member of Seventh Day Church of God. In short, Malcolm was inculcated in the atmosphere of the cult and so his late membership in the Black Muslims and his attraction to the black criminal underground (essentially a cult-like gathering of immoral insiders) is certainly not surprising. It is also not surprising that he should join a cult that would erase some of his criminal past and become the lover of a white woman, a relationship that would allow him to reinvent his life.

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As Perry makes clear, Malcolm always had pretensions to leadership. Like a good many talented but restless young black men in search of a vocation, he was interested in a career that would permit him to be glib, persuasive, and inspirational. This the Nation of Islam gave him--but at a tremendous cost, for he eventually woke to the profound horror that he had joined little more than a store-front cult, with a good many of the same provincial restrictions as James Baldwin’s Holiness Church or Father Divine’s Peace Mission or other such homemade messianic establishments that dot the black community.

And yet, through his brilliant organizing and his voice, he had managed, not unlike Joseph Smith with the Mormons, to make the cult seem far more important and threatening to the white political establishment than it really was. (The Nation of Islam was nothing more than a very unoriginal pastiche of theological thefts: Its messianic nationalism was taken from Garvey, its dietetic pretensions from the Christian Scientists, and its cooperative economics from Booker T. Washington and Father Divine.)

What thwarted Malcolm’s career as a political thinker, in the end, was that he came of age as a leader during the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Trapped in an organization that had no interest in political engagement, Malcolm felt alienated from the age of direct confrontation--imprisoned in his talk and in his speech. This, no doubt, is what fueled the fire in Malcolm’s general condemnation of militant nonviolence as a tactic and selfless Christian love as a principle to provoke social change. But even here Malcolm’s logic betrayed him and revealed the complex inner turmoil of the man. First, as the accounts of the Montgomery bus boycott make undeniably clear, militant nonviolence probably did more for the self-esteem and dignity of blacks in confronting and actively protesting a racist America than all the violence of the northern riots in the middle and late 1960s. Second, as Perry notes in his chapter “The Politics of Manhood”: “Malcolm’s characterization of the proponents of nonviolence as womanish and “cowardly” was typical of his tendency to accuse his political enemies of the very things he had been accused of.”

As a boy Malcolm had been called a sissy, as a young hustler he apparently had some homosexual liaisons of which he refused to speak in later life. By accusing the civil rights leaders of being less than men, Malcolm was able to conceal his own inability to find a suitable ideology which could challenge the white power structure. Much of the Civil Rights movement was in fact driven by black men’s struggle with their masculinity, and for many young men, Malcolm was the model of manhood.

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Bruce Perry’s book paints a rich, full, and fair portrait of the man, from his relationship with his siblings to his obsessive, puritanical posturing in his black Muslim days. The story of his street hustling years as well as his meteoric rise a a Muslim leader is recounted with power and detail. And for the first time, we are told the complete story of the dramatic and moving friendship between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm.

What Perry’s biography gives us is not a diminished Malcolm, for his heroism, his brilliance, his charm, his wit, his necessity has never been as sympathetically or absorbingly rendered. What we have is a fine biography that can stand as a fine complement to one of the most magnificent autobiographies of our time.

BOOKMARK: For an excerpt from “Malcolm,” see the Opinion section, Page 3.


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