A detailed but flawed biography of Malcollm X

December 22, 1991|By Gregory P. Kane

MALCOLM: THE LIFE

OF A MAN WHO CHANGED

BLACK AMERICA.

Bruce Perry.

Station Hill Press.

542 pages. $24.95.

Before reading this book, admirers of Malcolm X had best sit down and have a stiff belt of their favorite potent potable. According to Bruce Perry, Malcolm X -- born Malcolm Little -- was considered a sissy by his boyhood companions; had serious doubts about his manhood and a streak of misogyny that drove him to at least two homosexual trysts in his teen years; and firebombed his own house the week before his assassination Feb. 21, 1965.

Although Mr. Perry's book -- which he says traces the development of the pseudo-masculine, criminal Malcolm Little to the manly, political Malcolm X -- is sure to create controversy, it must be conceded that it is the best-researched book to date about the slain black nationalist leader. Mr. Perry conducted interviews since the early 1970s, traveling as far as Grenada to interview relatives of Malcolm's mother and Guyana to track down Abdullah Abdur-Razzaq (formerly James 67X), Malcolm's closest subordinate when both were in the Nation of Islam.

Mr. Perry interviewed more than 420 people and researched police and prison records in Michigan, Massachusetts and New York. But the thoroughness of his research does not prevent his making factual errors that could lead the reader to believe he may have made errors in interpretation as well.

Former featherweight boxing champion Willie Pep becomes a lightweight champion in this narrative. Former Green Bay Packers running back Elijah Pitts becomes Elijah Potts. Those are minor errors, but there are major ones.

Hinton Johnson, the Black Muslim brutalized by New York police in 1957 in an incident that thrust Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam into the public eye, inexplicably becomes "Johnson Hinton." Malcolm X made the same error in his autobiography, but former Newsweek editor Peter Goldman corrected it in his work, "The Death and Life of Malcolm X." Mr. Perry's repetition of the error after supposedly having read Mr. Goldman's book is inexcusable.

Mr. Perry blunders again in discussing civil rights activist James Farmer's reaction to the assassination of Malcolm X. After revealing that Mr. Farmer "intimated that Malcolm . . . had been killed at the behest of drug dealers," Mr. Perry goes on to assert that "Years later, Farmer tacitly conceded that [the theory was] nonsense." He conceded no such thing. In his autobiography, "Lay Bare The Heart," published in 1985, Mr. Farmer explicitly stated that ". . . the belief that [Malcolm's] assassination was related to drug traffic and the syndicate has remained with me."

Despite such flagrant errors, Mr. Perry does offer probing insights into the childhood of Malcolm X, asserting that authoritative, unloving parents had as much to do with shaping the criminal Malcolm Little as white racism did. Some critics may think Mr. Perry spends too much time on Malcolm's childhood and early teen years, for it is in the early chapters that he makes the contentious and ultimately gratuitous charge about Malcolm's homosexual activity. The charges about his homosexuality came from two sources. As there is no way for anyone to know if the sources told the truth, skeptics should remain skeptical.

But Mr. Perry does lay the blame for Malcolm's expulsion from the Nation of Islam where it belongs -- at the feet of Malcolm X. In his autobiography, Malcolm contended that he was suspended from the Nation of Islam for making an innocent reference to President Kennedy's assassination as a case of "chickens coming home to roost."

In the question-and-answer period that followed the speech in which that quote was made, Malcolm said the question about Kennedy's assassination "inevitably" come up. The question came up because Malcolm clearly and skillfully manipulated the press into asking it by making no fewer than 10 references to Kennedy, all negative. Mr. Perry's conclusion is that Malcolm wanted out of the Nation of Islam, and subconsciously or consciously expedited his own departure.

More controversial is his allegation that Malcolm firebombed his own home Feb. 14, 1965. The author cites compelling evidence -- drawn from police and fire records -- to support his contention. (Malcolm said his home was firebombed by disgruntled Black Muslims. Mr. Perry's theory is that since Malcolm had been ordered to vacate the house as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Nation of Islam, he retaliated by firebombing the house himself. When Malcolm's father, Earl Little, was faced with eviction from a house in Lansing, Mich., in 1929, that residence also went up in flames. The parallels between the two incidents, Mr. Perry says, "were striking.")

The evidence is compelling, but not necessarily convincing. Mr. Goldman says that Malcolm had just returned from London with a severe case of jet lag. He had taken two sleeping pills to get some rest. It's not likely that he was in any shape to firebomb his own house.

Bruce Perry has described his book as a critical biography of Malcolm X. Peter Goldman's book also is a critical biography, but does not flirt with character assassination the way Mr. Perry's does and remains the best biography of Malcolm X, Mr. Perry's years of arduous research not withstanding. The line between a critical biography and a hatchet job is indeed a thin one. Bruce Perry may have crossed it.

Mr. Kane is a writer living in Baltimore.

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