Malcolm X, Gandhi, And Accepting Our Leaders For Who They Really Were

April 7, 2011  |  

In a New York Times book review of Manning Marable’s just released biography on Malcolm X, it is revealed that Marable’s quintessential work is embedded with a Trojan horse that, once installed and released, will eviscerate the long held – and mostly cosmetic –representation of one of our most beloved civil rights leaders.  The review reads as follows:

“Malcolm X himself contributed to many of the fictions, Mr. Marable argues, by exaggerating, glossing over or omitting important incidents in his life. These episodes include a criminal career far more modest than he claimed, an early homosexual relationship with a white businessman…”

The claim – that Malcolm X took, or was taken with, a white male lover- is now perfectly poised to ignite a firestorm of debate in the African American community. But just as Marable’s biography affords us the opportunity to reexamine the inner workings of a leader who offered the ultimatum of “the bullet or the ballot box” as the only alternative to a pacifist movement, it also offers African Americans the unique opportunity to examine ourselves and our progress post Malcolm and Martin. Just as we are now peering into the most intimate details of Malcolm’s life, so must we examine our own psychological progress.

And if African-Americans had truly absorbed the historical lessons of race hatred, many of which are drawn directly from the experience of being outsiders in one’s own country, we would demonstrate an inclination toward embracing human complexity.  Instead, however, our tendency is to judge those who deviate outside the bounds of archetypical expressions of manhood, womanhood, and even humankind.

We were shocked at revelations about M. L. King’s extramarital affairs and in the 21st century, Malcolm X is not alone in the category of deceased and deified exemplars that have had their celestial status come crashing down amid claims that their behavior was inconsistent with their ideals.  In the recently released biography, “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India”, author Joseph Lelyveld recalls Gahndi’s particularly disparaging view of black South Africans:

“We could understand not being classed with whites, but to be placed on the same level as the ­Natives seemed too much to put up with. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized—the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals.”

I don’t dispute that Gandhi’s feeling of being a bit higher up on the totem pole than black South Africans, and Malcolm X’s homosexual tryst (or love affair, not sure which since I haven’t read the book), are, if true, revelatory on many levels. However, my reaction to both is the same:  big shrug.

In response to who we are as humans, our individual psychology, our connections, and our desire for connection, we express our humanity in a variety of ways, none of which are identical in their manifestations.  If Malcolm expressed his affection with a man, so be it.

And I’m even less surprised that Gandhi would adopt some of the same traits as his white colonizers. When insults and degrading classifications are heaped upon you, projecting those insults onto another class of people is a neat – albeit destructive- psychological trick.

Gandhi and Malcolm X were–first and foremost–human.  All humans are allowed their own particular incarnation and do not require our approval or acceptance to exist. In fact, any person who requires the approval of another is owned by that person or group. I for one am happy that Gandhi and Malcolm X weren’t owned by anyone. Could they really have accomplished what they did had they been preoccupied with the reactions and petty assessments of others?

In a letter to her husband John Adams, Abigail Adams said that “all men would be tyrants if they could.” Most men, and increasingly many women, gravitate toward tyrannical leadership models once they are in a place of entrenched power.  We should be forever grateful for the few men and women who chose to answer the call to serve.  And we should appreciate the full portrait that biographers like Marable are painting since they teach us that our leaders aren’t gods, but human like us. And what they can do, so can we. An honest portrait empowers us while a dishonest portrait deifies our leaders while caricaturing the masses as weak.

Instead of igniting debate, the new insights into the lives of Malcolm X and Gandhi should inspire us all to apply our talents and embrace the grandest idea of ourselves. These insights actually aren’t a Trojan horse at all, but a gift for the benefit of humanity–but we’ll only reap these benefits if we’re evolved enough to receive them.  Standing around the water cooler discussing the details of Malcolm’s sexuality or Gandhi’s view of blacks doesn’t move us forward in the least.

Yvette Carnell is a former Capitol Hill Staffer turned political blogger. She currently publishes two blogs, and

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