Adam Powell And Malcolm X


Even Adam Clayton Powell’s most devoted followers recognized that jaunty prevarication was part of his gaudy style. But brutal candor was said to be the stock-in-trade of Malcolm X, and the Autobiography he dictated to the late Alex Haley shortly before his assassination in 1965 has been hailed as a classic of American biography.

Now Bruce Perry’s Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America (Station Hill) suggests that much of Malcolm’s own account of his life should be reclassified as fiction. Perry’s book is more a compilation of raw data than a finished biography, and despite 148 pages of notes, it is often hard for a reader to assess all the evidence that is paraded past. Further word on Malcolm’s tortured, truncated life will have to await a biographer better able to assess the mountain of fresh material Perry has amassed, but it is already clear from the author’s 420-odd interviews with friends, acquaintances, and family members that his subject was a far more complex and troubled man than either his admirers or his critics ever knew.

There is, for example, the matter of the Autobiography ’s opening passage. “When my mother was pregnant with me…,” Malcolm begins, “a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out.” Louise Little, Malcolm’s mother, faced them down. She was alone with her three children, she told them; her husband was away preaching. “The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town,” Malcolm continues, “because ‘the good Christian white people’ were not going to stand for my father’s ‘spreading trouble’ among the ‘good’ Negroes of Omaha with the ‘back to Africa’ preachings of Marcus Garvey.” Then they smashed every window in the house with their gun butts and rode off, torches flaring.

He wasn’t the first congressman to put mistresses on his payroll and pad his expenses. But the others didn’t boast about it.

From the viewpoint of the angry nationalist Malcolm became, that incident had everything: racist intimidation, Christian hypocrisy, brutal white suppression of black self-assertion. Yet according to Perry’s interview with Malcolm’s mother, it never happened at all. Earl Little did leave Omaha hurriedly, as he had left several other cities, but no one seems to know why. Nor was he later lynched for his defiant commitment to black nationalism; he was run over by a streetcar—and evidently lived long enough to say so, just as the police said at the time.

Nor, Perry suggests, did Malcolm ever fully believe in the white-man-asdevil theory he preached with such apparent relish. And it seems to have been a straightforward struggle for power that forced his break with the Nation of Islam, not, as he claimed, his belated discovery that the Messenger had fathered half a dozen illegitimate children by as many women.

Malcolm was not the first revolutionary to transform the facts of his life into a series of parables designed to further his cause, of course, but Perry goes on to suggest something far more interesting: that it was as much the private outrages committed upon him during his formative years as it was public outrages committed by whites on blacks that turned Malcolm Little into Malcolm X.

His boyhood turns out to have been as stark and loveless as Adam Rowell’s was pampered and serene. His father was a brutal and erratic man who beat his wife and all his seven children—except Malcolm, in whose light skin he apparently delighted, even as he preached the virtues of blackness.

Malcolm’s mother, who raised him alone from the age of six, did beat him; she was openly contemptuous of the fair skin that she and he shared and that came to symbolize illegitimacy for both of them, and when she eventually retreated into madness, Malcolm and his siblings were left to fend for themselves. Bewildered, angry, mistrustful, Malcolm thereafter had to make himself up as he went along.

Bruce Perry will likely face criticism from those who insist that their heroes remain without blemish. Yet by delineating for the first time the actual distance Malcolm had to travel simply to survive, and by exploring the roots of the blind rancor he had just begun to overcome when he was struck down, Perry has provided heroism enough for any fair-minded reader.

And surely the lives of Adam Powell and Malcolm X offer other, more useful lessons, for each demonstrates again that human beings are shaped more by the other human beings who matter most to them than by the anonymous social and historical forces to which ideologues pay easy fealty, and that we are all, finally, as equal in our frailties as we are in our strengths.