Quest of the Historical Malcolm X

Cross-posted from my newly-formed and post-Union blog Radical Religion.

Irene Monroe has a good take on Manning Marable’s new biography of Malcolm X up at her Huffington Post blog. I will leave her comments for you to read, but please do. She is an excellent writer with a much-needed perspective on race and sexuality in American culture. It doesn’t hurt that she’s a Union alumna either.

More to the point of this posting’s title, I began to wonder upon reading Rev. Monroe’s piece whether we might be on the brink of some kind of Schweitzer-esque quest for the “Historical Malcolm X.” Schweitzer’s 1906 volume The Quest of the Historical Jesus is a great introduction to the field of historical Jesus studies. In a nutshell, the central question here is what new light might be shed on faith claims to Jesus based on historical research into the person Jesus of Nazareth.

With Marable’s new book shedding new light on the person of Malcom X, do we need a similar re-evaluation of the claims we can make to his legacy as well? Do we need to consider a “Malcolm of History” versus a “Malcolm of Faith” as we do with Jesus? I do not wish to draw a soteriological parallel between these two figures. Rather, I want to raise again the question of whether the facts-that-happened version of history is more important than the usable past. I don’t have a solid answer, but I do have my sympathies for Martin Marty’s view of history and Michel Foucault’s view of discourse and narrative here.


In my own estimation, new historical evidence might shed light on a figure’s past in terms of the facts-that-happened. Such evidence, however, may or may not have much bearing on the usable past version of history as a story we tell ourselves about a particular figure or event. Malcolm X remains simultaneously the person described in his autobiography and the person described by Marable. He was always both, just as we are all both the people we believe ourselves to be and the people who match our self-perceptions.