Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

The genesis of Manning Marable’s biography of the slain civil rights leader began in 1969 when he first read Malcolm’s own take on his life as a teenaged undergraduate. Co-written by Roots author Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X had already become a best seller, thrilling Marable as it did others with its extraordinary story of a criminal’s behind-bars redemption.

Twenty years down the line Marable, by now on his way to becoming one of the US’ most distinguished scholars, began teaching a course in African American politics that included the study of The Autobiography. Praising it as a “brilliant literary work” that helped turn Malcolm X into an icon in the early years of hip hop, spawning Spike Lee’s three-hour biopic, he was nevertheless aware of a number of glaring inconsistencies and omissions.

It seemed that Malcolm had exaggerated his criminal past and downplayed his family’s history of political activism in order to emphasise his salvation; while Haley, a “liberal Republican”, was keen to sell Macolm X to a wider public following his break with the Nation of Islam. As a result, he did not elaborate on his new-found internationalism following his three trips to Africa, and deleted chapters outlining his vision for radical social change.

Marable launched a research project into Malcolm’s life to discover the man behind the myth, a labour of love that took another 20 years as he scoured thousands of pages of recently released FBI, CIA and New York Police Department files, interviewed Malcolm X’s previously silent confidants and security detail, as well as witnesses to his 1965 assassination.

Using reinvention as a recurring theme, Marable details Malcolm X’s spiritual and political journey that saw him transforming the Nation of Islam from a fringe, quasi Muslim group to a national organisation of hundreds of thousands members in little more than a decade before dramatically breaking with it and seeing his role as part of the wider civil rights and pan-African struggle using orthodox Islam as a moral platform.

In doing so he is also keen to present his gifted and charismatic protagonist as a complex human being, with strengths and flaws like the rest of us. “The great temptation for the biographer of an iconic figure is to present him or her as a virtual saint, without the normal contradictions and blemishes that all human beings have,” he writes.

This humanised version of Malcolm X throws up claims of rent boy encounters during his hustler days as a youth and of a less than ideal marriage with Betty Shabazz, together with assertions that he made major errors of judgment.

This has led to an acrimonious debate among black US academics, with the likes of poet and playwright Amiri Baraka accusing Marable of playing fast and loose with “unproven non facts”, so undermining X’s status as a black hero. Heading the defence is no less a respected figure than Princeton University’s Cornell West, who argues that Marable has returned Malcolm to the public discourse “in the age of Obama”.

It is a debate that  Marable would have surely relished but, sadly, was unable to take part in as he died on the eve of the book’s publication from lung disease aged only 60.

Whatever his critics may say, there is no doubt that Marable intended his encylopaedic 400 page-plus opus, serialised last week on Radio 4, to be a tribute to the man he describes as one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th century, one who more than any of his contemporaries, embodied the spirit, vitality and political mood of   an entire generation before he was felled by an assassin’s bullet at the age of 39.

He manages to locate Malcolm X in an historical context to illustrate his particular journey was a product of his times, rendering his initial devotion to the separatist Nation of Islam a logical response to the de facto of apartheid of much of America.  Harlem as a centre of black imagination, bebop and, later, the heady spirit of African independence all came to inform his view of the African American struggle.

As a “truth teller” and a man courageous enough to change his mind on more than one occasion, Malcolm X’s split from the narrow confines of the Nation was inevitable, even though he knew he was effectively signing his death warrant. Marable, who also made a film about aspects of Malcolm X’s life titled Malcolmology, names those he claims conspired to kill him, saying they were aided and abetted by the FBI and the NYPD, and are still at large. He also calls for the case to be reopened.

Those who fear the revelations about Malcolm X’s private life have sullied him can rest assured. They are a small part of a far bigger picture fastidiously painted by Marable from which Malcolm re-emerges as impressive as ever. We can only wonder what more Malcolm X would have gone on to achieve had he lived.

Published: 16 June, 2011

Malcolm X: A life of reinvention

Manning Marable


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