Manning Marable, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” (2011) – Malcolm X emerges as an elusive figure in this biography of the iconic militant. Manning Marable, in his last work before he died, spends some time riffing on Malcolm’s various names — Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, Malcolm X, Malik el-Shabazz — to show a consistent pattern of reinvention. In Marable’s telling, Malcolm X was the political avatar of the northern black urban experience, in the same way MLK Jr. could be seen as that of the pro-civil rights black bourgeoisie. Marable admires Malcolm without sugarcoating him, and makes clear that at core, his subject was always dedicated to black pride and welfare.
Do I need to rehearse the details of Malcolm X’s life? Raised by poor followers of Marcus Garvey, young Malcolm Little dropped out and became a hustler in New York and Boston before being imprisoned for theft. In prison, he discovers the Nation of Islam, a conservative black nationalist group by way of a (profoundly heretical) take on the Islamic religion. He becomes a preacher and catapults the Nation to a degree of prominence unheard of previously. Famously vociferous in his condemnation of whites as devils and calling for complete separation of black and white society, Malcolm becomes a national figure, an inspiration to his following, a challenge to the civil rights movement, a bogey-man to whites.
Here, the conventional story gets a little foggier, and Marable isn’t that much help. Some combination of factors alienate Malcolm from the Nation. Part of it is knowledge of serial abusive sexual infidelity on the part of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation’s leader. Part was due to Muhammad severely disciplining him for making flippant remarks about the Kennedy assassination. And part was due to the legendary journey to Mecca, where he both witnesses people of all races praying together, and perhaps got the hint from his new Egyptian and Saudi friends that the Nation, with its extra prophet and insistence a substantial part of the human race was of demonic origin, was not exactly orthodox Islam. Either way, in the last year of his life, Malcolm quits the Nation, renounces hatred of whites, starts some new black freedom organizations, and is then murdered in public in Harlem.
Of course, Marable is writing in the shadow of the efforts of Malcolm himself to define himself, and competing with the efforts of Alex Haley, coauthor and writer of the final word in Malcolm X’s autobiography. It must be hard to compete with one of the few books that college and high school students will read when assigned. Marable argues that the Autobiography was consistently sensationalized, to make Malcolm’s rise from the gutter that much more dramatic, and that Haley intervened to soft-pedal Malcolm’s message in the end. In short, Malcolm made it more of a movie and Haley edited it for white audiences. This seems to scan. Malcolm was above all else a public pedagogue (he was certainly called a demagogue often enough) and knew how to shape a story to engage an audience.
One thing that the Autobiography can’t promise is the identity of Malcolm X’s killers, which Marable claims to know. I can’t speak to his reconstruction of the crime, but the bottom line is: the Nation did it. This is believable enough, though I bet the FBI and/or NYPD intelligence knew about it and let it happen. They had infiltrated the Nation to a fare-thee-well and Malcolm’s charisma turning towards multiracial organizing was the stuff of J. Edgar Hoover’s nightmares. But the Nation had enough of an established pattern of intimidation and physical punishment of dissenters to think that they didn’t need to get the idea from someone else.
There’s also a focus on Malcolm’s family life that is missing in the Autobiography, which can be seen as a symptom of what Marable sees as Malcolm’s serious lack of interest in his wife and children. If Marable is right, Malcolm was a lousy husband. The book also details Malcolm’s financial woes- everything he had, at a certain point, belonged to the Nation, and when it got cut off… only the posthumous publication of the Autobiography saved Betty, his wife, and their children from penury.
I remember when this book came out and there was a lot of controversy about it, along with waves of praise and awards. I wish I knew enough to meaningfully weigh in. I will say that Manning Marable did indeed take some liberties. I’ll also say the liberties the critics zero in sometimes show their own biases. For instance, they get really mad when Marable implied Malcolm’s early hustling days extended to male prostitution, which admittedly Marable seemed to pull out of nowhere. They also object to Marable making Malcolm seem more socialist, which sounds like nationalist red-baiting to me but also just inaccurate. He doesn’t come off as consistently socialist or anti-socialist at all.
In fact, a troubling part of the picture of Malcolm that emerges from Marable’s telling is one of inconsistency. He changed up his ideas on violence, a black state, the role of whites, capitalism and socialism, not just over time but from speech to speech. I agree there’s a consistent throughline — what he thinks will allow the black race to live on its own terms — but the inconsistencies on major issues is jarring. I wonder if a greater consistency would emerge if his rhetoric was more closely analyzed, but this is a popular work and there isn’t too much of that. All in all, this highly readable work is a good read if read critically, and raises more questions than it definitively answers. I guess that’s what happens when you try to biographize an icon. ****