Monday, May 9, 2011

Malcolm X and Black Studies

Malcolm X and the Manning Marable biography have been the big news this year in black studies. Marable and his Malcolm book, in fact, might be among the most centrally discussed topics in the field in a while.

Many key figures in or closely associated with black studies have chimed in, including Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Michael Eric Dyson, Julianne Malveaux, Cornel West, and others. A newer generation of fairly prominent scholars and commentators associated with African American Studies, including Farah Jasmine Griffin, Melissa Harris-Perry, Russell Rickford, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Imani Perry, Adam Bradley, and many more contributed reflections on Marable and reviews of the book on Malcolm.

[Related: The Coverage of Manning Marable and Malcolm X]

Aside from a passing, dismissive comment about ethnic studies that Stanley Crouch made in the process of praising Marable's book, there's been little mention of how this Malcolm X biography connects to the larger field and histories of black studies (also known as African American Studies, Africana Studies, Black Diasporan Studies, etc.).

But even a cursory look at the coverage on Marable reveals that black studies is there lurking in the shadows.

For instance, several commentators have mentioned that Marable's book took 20 years of research. Marable began working at Columbia in 1993 where he was the director of Institute for Research in African-American Studies. Marable notes in the acknowledgments of his book that he put the Malcolm project on hold for 10 years while he carried out duties for the Institute.

It's my thinking (which in this instance is based on research on innovation and expertise, especially the idea of the "slow hunch" most recently popularized by Steven Johnson) that lead me to believe that even though he put the research "on hold" for 10 years, Marable was likely spending that time thinking about Malcolm and his relationship to a range of various other black studies projects. Putting the project "on hold" while directing black studies may have helped the later results when he returned to the project.

At a time when funding for black studies programs and projects are limited and threatened, it's worth noting that African-American Studies played a major role in facilitating Marable's work. Without the funding support and scholarly context of black studies, it's unlikely that Marable could have pursued the kind of idea development and research that he did over a 20 year period.

The grassroots appeal of Malcolm, which becomes quite evident when we consider the expansive discussion of Malcolm/Marable in news outlets, on facebook, on twitter, and in conversations all over the place reminds us of how those folks involved in the early developments of black studies were like that: trying to establish some serious connections with black folks across a wide range of different cultural spaces.

Notwithstanding the more vitriolic critiques of the biography circulating out there, I am fascinated that some people are unsettled that the Malcolm that Marable presents is not their version of Malcolm. Some of the critiques are off-base, but I like that so many folks feel invested in Malcolm and they are not prepared to leave Malcolm only in the hands of academics.

Although the reviews and commentary published in mainstream, high-profile venues are typically by scholars, the conversations about the meaning of Malcolm and the Marable book are taking place among a broader group of folks, which is hinted at by statements and exchanges on facebook, twitter, and privately owned web-sites and blogs, is useful for getting a grasp on some of the broader implications of what Malcolm means and how folks continually struggle over who he belongs to and how he's represented.

[Interestingly enough right after writing that sentence, I tuned in to twitter to and stumbled onto a conversation about a recent essay on Malcolm/Marable by poet Amiri Baraka, where among other things Baraka raises questions academics' motives and assumptions.]

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