10 December 2011

Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X, by Michael Eric Dyson

I tend to find Michael Eric Dyson's work incredibly frustrating, in that he writes about topics I find interesting, and I agree with a lot of what he says, and respect him as a scholar, and yet... he annoys the hell out of me. This book started out the same way. The Preface, a highly personal account of his experience teaching a seminar on Malcolm X and the problems he had with some of the students - particularly a group of young black men - that segued into a a blend of autobiography, diatribe, and self-promotion, was pretty off-putting, even though I absolutely acknowledge that the problems he was facing were thorny ones. When I realized that the book was published in 1996 (I had thought it was pretty recent), I understood why he felt he needed all that justification of his qualifications to speak on the subject. But it still annoyed me. Dyson somehow regularly fails to be compelling to me when he gets personal. I respect the guy, but I don't especially like him. Luckily, after the first chapter, the book moves into a more strictly academic mode, and in the process, it gets a lot better. Dyson is unbelievably well read (and he makes a point of letting you know that in the copious footnotes), and his analyses are generally extremely insightful and interesting. I suspect most readers will find the book overly dry and academic - it reads like a dissertation, for the most part (especially the second chapter, which is essentially a literature review of Malcolm X biography/criticism, and while it is impressively exhaustive, it's also quite dull) - despite its many moments of high flown rhetoric. It's not exactly an entertaining read, but it's a pretty good primer, not so much on Malcolm X as critical receptions of him, and his legacy.

Dyson occasionally veers into pretty explicitly political claims that come across as extremely prescient, given the current political climate. To wit:

Black progressive intellectuals and activists must view class, gender, and sex as crucial components of a complex and insightful explanation of the problems of black America. Such an approach provides a larger range of social and cultural variables from which to choose in depicting the vast array of forces that constrain black economic, political, and social progress. It acknowledges the radical diversity of experience within black communities, offering a more realistic possibility of addressing the particular needs of a wide range of blacks: the ghetto poor, gays and lesbians, single black females, working mothers, underemployed black men, and elderly blacks, for instance. 

Black progressives must also deepen Malcolm's and Martin's [Martin Luther King Jr.'s] criticisms of capitalism and their leanings toward radical democracy. The prevailing economic policies have contributed to the persistent poverty of the poorest Americans (including great numbers of blacks) and the relative inability of most Americans to reap the real rewards of political democracy and economic empowerment. A radical democratic perspective raises questions about the accountability of the disproportionately wealthy, providing a critical platform for criticizing black capitalist and business strategies that merely replicate unjust economic practices. (101-102)

Overall, the book is at its strongest when it discusses black masculinity, and traces Malcolm's legacy in various movies like Boyz N the Hood, Juice, and Straight Outta Brooklyn. He makes some really interesting points ("The reinvention of American popular culture by young African-American cultural artists is fueled by paradox: now that they have escaped the fiercely maintained artistic ghetto that once suffocated the greatest achievements of their predecessors, black artists have reinvented the urban ghetto through a nationalist aesthetic strategy that joins racial naturalism and romantic imagination." (109)) and the argument is compelling. Also admirable is his careful criticism of the gender politics of Malcolm X, the Civil Rights movement, and black social institutions in general. Overall, it's a nuanced book: Dyson admirably manages the balancing act of celebrating Malcolm X as an inspiring figure and a hero of sorts while also critiquing his shortcomings, and acknowledging that the last year of his life was characterized by utter turmoil (moral, intellectual, and emotional), making it next to impossible to make any grand claims about the direction he would have moved in had his life not been cut short.

Overall, it's a pretty good book. I wouldn't say it's a must-read, unless you're specifically interested in Malcolm X, in which case, by all means - not just for the argument, but also for the bibliography! For the general public, not so much, but it would definitely make the short-list for anyone working on (or invested in thinking about) African American culture.

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