Dr. Ben Carson, Thug Life, and Malcolm X

BEN CARSON just ain’t the phenomenon he was a few weeks ago. Still, at this moment in America, he’s both more and less than history. The credibility crisis occasioned by allegations that the neurosurgeon and presidential candidate embellished, even fabricated, many of the violent childhood episodes he claims turned him away from the Thug Life (circa Detroit 1960-something) and toward the Lord is just one reason why he’s sinking in the polls. But there is more to consider than the familiar spectacle of an arrogant, ambitious man trying to save his own skin.

Dr. Carson’s claims, first published in his autobiography Gifted Hands, came under increased scrutiny as his poll numbers improved, bringing him for a time into dead xenophobic heat with Donald Trump. Dr. Carson’s childhood friends and acquaintances questioned certain incidents that he recounts in his life story — specifically his aggravated assault of a family member with a camping knife, his aggravated assault of his mother with a hammer, and his aggravated assault of somebody else with a metal lock; they don’t recall the violent temperament Dr. Carson claims characterized his youth prior to his Christian conversion. He has been compelled to perform complex narrative gymnastics ever since. To be fair, one of Dr. Carson’s convoluted claims involving a sham exam at Yale that resulted in his collecting $10 for not acceding to temptation was verified by his classmates as a sham that fooled the gullible Carson himself. O, the irony — and score one for the Almighty Truth right there.

This issue of autobiographical truth is probably relevant to one’s fitness to lead the free world. However, given Dr. Carson has almost zero chance of becoming our next president, the lens through which we can gauge its actual import is not a conventionally political one.

Manning Marable’s 2011 biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention stirred controversy, particularly in old-guard Black Nationalist and Black Power circles, when it was published. The furor centered primarily around backlash against Marable’s disclosure that Malcolm had a long-running homosexual relationship with a wealthy white benefactor during his drug-fueled years as a petty street criminal and addict. This alarm seems especially anachronistic in the wake of the galvanizing Black Lives Matter movement, headed and founded as it is by three lesbian women. But even at the time of the book’s publication, these nationalist and chauvinist concerns quite obviously missed the main point of Marable’s scholarly intervention. Marable’s contribution to Malcolm scholarship was not in revealing Malcolm as a subject of LGBTQ discourse; it was in exploring the strategic adjustments Malcolm and Alex Haley made to his life story in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. These strategic adjustments were not limited to Malcolm’s forays into a homoerotic hustler lifestyle. In fact, Haley and Malcolm refashioned many aspects of Malcolm’s backstory to manufacture narrative simplicity and author-audience identification, and to inspire wayward souls. For example, Malcolm downplayed his physical frailty (he was, his whole life, unusually thin and rather unathletic) in order to project a persona of prototypical manhood. He also downplayed his parents’ Garveyite ideology and Universal Negro Improvement Association activism work in order that he be imagined as an ideological blank slate prior to his prison-yard conversion to Nation of Islam doctrine when, in fact, he had been steeped in Black Nationalist and Black Power ideology beginning in his youth.

Similar to Dr. Carson in one respect, Malcolm played up his credentials as a young thug. In Malcolm’s case, this was in order that the men who formed the base of his audience, men transitioning from lifetimes of fitful employment, scant education, and frequent incarceration, could feel kinship, shared struggle, and the same enlightenment that animated Malcolm. Malcolm, Marable asserts, committed petty crimes to satiate the ceaseless beast of drug addiction, not because he was some hardcore gangster. Even Malcolm’s eventual arrest for selling stolen jewelry and watches and his consequent prison bid are recast as primarily the result of his junkie desperation, not his status as a street thug. For example, Malcolm, Marable reports, gets hooked on nutmeg during his initial days in prison because it acts as a substitute in place of the dope that’s no longer available to him inside prison walls.

All this, along with other selective recollections, now complicates our understanding of Malcolm’s iconic autobiography. Returning to Dr. Carson, one sees a similarity: an autobiography shaded and in places fictionalized for specific effect. Malcolm wanted his followers to see in his story of degradation and redemption a reflection of their struggle and their potential resurrection. Malcolm’s omissions, embellishments, and fabrications had everything to do with presenting himself as an example of ghetto depravity and reformed, right black masculinity. Dr. Carson’s audience is, presumably, the Republican voting base, which is, in the main, white and of average and above average wealth. It is a very different demographic than Malcolm ministered to. As such, the motives behind Dr. Carson’s insistence on his Thug Life adolescence are difficult to divine. Perhaps conservative whites are consoled by the narrative Dr. Carson presents of a young black man naturally inclined to violence and ignorance who is only saved by his embrace of Christianity. Or perhaps his motivation is, like Malcolm’s, to dramatize his story of spiritual awakening. By establishing himself among the wretched, his rise and redemption becomes all the more compelling. Or, more likely, Dr. Carson’s presidential run has little to do with actually wanting to be the president of the United States, and his intended audience is far smaller and more elite than is dreamt of in our simple populist imaginings. Perhaps the brain of a man capable of separating conjoined twins and believing that the Egyptian pyramids primarily stored grain must remain a mystery to the masses.

Autobiography trades on simplistic notions of authenticity and eye-witness reliability. It leverages the reader’s innocent and false notion that recollection can be perfected. Memoir is less than the truth and yet more than the product of memory; it is produced from forgetting, and social and political designs, ego and pride and reticence, and the reimagining of that which has been lost to time. Any attempt to faithfully recollect and represent the past is fraught on multiple levels, not least of which being that memory is inherently fallible not only because we forget much but also because we are, all of us, the heroes of our own insular dramas, and filter everything through this altering, aggrandizing frame. This is a fact of the mind, of memory and forgetting and the human condition that is as true of the master memoirists, from St. Augustine to Count Tolstoy, President Obama to Patti Smith, as it is of the Ben Carsons and James Freys of the world. In part, what marks the questionable autobiographical claims of Gifted Hands is a certain clumsiness and indelicacy of approach (not to mention, inability to plausibly deny) — ironic qualities to come of a surgeon’s touch, though less so from a politician’s tongue.


Keenan Norris’s novel Brother and the Dancer is the winner of the 2012 James D. Houston award. His short work, both fiction and nonfiction, has appeared in numerous forums, including Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity After Civil Rights, BOOM: A Journal of California, New California Writing 2013, and Connotation Press.