Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

By MANNING MARABLE

Manning Marable, the noted historian and professor of African-American Studies atColumbia University, died on Friday, April 1—a month shy of his sixty-firstbirthday and just days before the publication of his masterful new biography ofMalcolm X. Malcolm X: A Life ofReinvention is a major reassessment of perhaps the mostmisunderstood figure of the civil rights era. It is also the crowningachievement of Marable’s illustrious career.

Malcolm X and Manning Marableare well matched as subject and author. Marable was a Marxist historian who transcendedthe boundaries of any political orthodoxy, an author or editor of more thantwenty books and hundreds of articles who saw no contradiction betweenacademics and activism. This month also marks the publication of Beyond Boundaries: The Manning MarableReader, a collection that gestures at the breadth ofMarable’s erudition and the depth of his commitment to writing—and to righting—Americanhistory. Nowhere is this revolutionary spirit more apparent than in his accountof one of the preeminent revolutionary voices of the second half of thetwentieth century.

Marable’s portrait ofMalcolm inevitably invites comparisons to 1965’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. What must it be like to write a biography in theshadow of one of the best known and most beloved autobiographies of our time? Inthe research notes that follow the biography, Marable explains that his bookwas born out of a “critical deconstruction of the Autobiography.” Drawing upon newly available archivalmaterial, including audiotapes of Malcolm’s speeches from the Nation of Islam’sprivate vaults and declassified FBI files, the biography aims to restore the “historicalMalcolm.”

As told to Haley, MalcolmX’s life has the page-turning appeal of a dime-store novel and the moral clarityof a New Testament parable. From “Satan” to “Savior,” from “Hustler”to “Minister Malcolm X,” the chapter titles alone suggest theredemptive arc of the book. The Autobiography,like the 1992 Spike Lee film that it inspired, revels as much in sin as it does in salvation.Malcolm as hustler, as Detroit Red, is wildly charismatic—an outsized anti-herowhose slick talk and street science seduce us. In the pages of the Autobiography one sees Malcolm’s myth inthe making, a myth that would finally see his complexities and contradictionsreduced to a symbol that could be emblazoned on a baseball cap or captured in acatchphrase: “By any means necessary.” 

Perhaps the mostsignificant departure that Marable’s biography offers from the Autobiography comes in the newtrajectory it suggests for Malcolm’s life. Whereas the Autobiography spends nearly half of its 500 pages on Malcolm’sdissolute youth prior to his conversion to Islam and release from prison,Marable dispatches the hustling Malcolm in just under a hundred pages, dedicatingthe balance of his 500-page book to Malcolm as he would refashion himself asactivist and organizer.

Centralto Marable’s aim of restoring the “historical Malcolm” is a reassessmentof Malcolm’s politics. Marable offers the first thorough account of theorganizations that defined Malcolm’s core beliefs after his split from ElijahMuhammad and the Nation of Islam: Muslim Mosque, Incorporated and the Organizationof Afro-American Unity. Marable rejects the facile claim that theseorganizations marked the moderation of Malcolm’s militancy. Rather, theyreflected the expansion of that militant position, driven by his growingunderstanding of power and politics. Inspired by his travels abroad and hisembrace of a more orthodox form of Islam, Malcolm made the “leap fromrace-specific ideas to broader ones about class, politics, and economics.” 

The surfeit of detailMarable and his team of researchers uncovered, including a nearly day-by-dayaccount of Malcolm’s activities in the frenetic final years of his life, couldhave made for a fact-filled but lifeless book. Fortunately, Marable nevermistakes mere incident for action. His penetrating narrative gets to the soulof his subject. The result is meticulous scholarship paired with masterfulstorytelling.

One might expect that sucha careful exegesis of Malcolm X’s life would result in the diminishment of hislegend, but just the opposite is the case. With Malcolm X: A Life in Reinvention, the man stands even taller thanthe myth. Marable provides a new architecture for understanding Malcolm X as adeeply flawed individual full of unresolved personal and philosophicalcontradictions.

Through Marable’s lens, Malcolmemerges not as a redemptive symbol but as a political theorist and tactician.Malcolm’s fate, Marable suggests, is bound up in the tension between hisconstant self-reinvention and his stubborn points of stasis. At once, Malcolmis a protean figure, morphing from street hustler to convict to minister tomartyr; through it all, though, he remains doggedly dedicated to certain corebeliefs, the most important of which Marable identifies as his “politicsof radical humanism.”

Humanism might not be thefirst philosophy one thinks of with someone famous for excoriating diatribesagainst “white devils.” But it is precisely here where Marableuncovers Malcolm’s salvific, if unachieved potential. “A deep respect for,and belief in, black humanity was at the heart of this revolutionary visionary’sfaith,” Marable observes near the book’s end. “And as his socialvision expanded to include people of divergent nationalities and racialidentities, his gentle humanism and antiracism could have become a platform fora new kind of radical, global ethnic politics.”

The poet Robert Haydenonce captured the essence of Malcolm X’s life in a paradox: “He roserenewed renamed, became / much more than there was time for him to be.”Nowhere is this more apparent than in Marable’s biography. This is history atits finest—written with passion and attention and drive. It is a fittingtestament to the lives and the legacies of both subject and author.

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