By Tony Lindsay
Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention
By Manning Marable
Viking Books Ltd., London, England 2011, $30 (Cloth).
There has not been a biography to date that so clearly illustrates the reinvention of the life of Malcolm Little as Manning Marable’s Malcolm X.
The choice to reinvent one’s life is offered to most, but only a minority has need to make such an extreme life decision. Marable’s Malcolm Little was one of the few who made the decision.
In Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention, the reader witnesses Detroit Red, a petty thief and street hustler, become Malcolm X, “a serious political, intellectual and Black Muslim.” He then rises from an evangelical Black Muslim to a Nation of Islam (NOI) Minister.
From Brother Minister, he evolved into Brother Malcolm, an international public speaker and founder of the Muslim Mosque Incorporated (MMI), and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).
Marable does not give the reader a step-by-step chronologically ordered life of Malcolm X. What is given are chronologically ordered chapters that go to-and-fro through Malcolm’s and his family’s past.
Readers witness multiple moments of Malcolm’s life during the chaptered eras: Malcolm Little’s childhood traumas, Detroit Red’s incarceration, and Malcolm X emerging through the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.
Marable starts this defining work with a detailed history of the Audubon Ballroom, where Brother Malcolm was assassinated. The inclusive-historian skill that Marable employs here is prevalent throughout the work; if he is discussing a single event in time such as the NOI and the American Nazi Party meeting, or a national movement such as Garveyism, he is meticulous in his recollection of facts.
Due to this exactness, the work will garner poignant reviews in response to his portrayals of Elijah Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan, Alex Haley, Betty Shabazz, the FBI, NYPD, and The Nation of Islam.
In Marable’s work, there are no divine or mystical individuals; there are leaders and those who follow them. Elijah Muhammad was a leader and The Nation of Islam followed him.
Leaders are human and they have flaws, some tragic. Human flaws and the flaws of organizations ran by humans are not hidden in this work; they are openly displayed, allowing readers to form their own opinions.
Malcolm was flawed as a leader within NOI and within the MMI and the OAAU. Marable throws no cloak over Malcolm’s organizational weaknesses or his weakness as father and husband.
A good biographer discovers the people and the situations that surrounded and constructed the subject of the biography. A reader would not accurately gain knowledge of Malcolm X the leader without information concerning the relationships of Malcolm X the man.
Malcolm Little was greatly affected by his parents’ Black Nationalist views and by his siblings rejections and acceptance. Detroit Red was affected by drugs and the life that they produce. Malcolm X was affected by the teachings Elijah Muhammad and the discipline of The Nation of Islam. Minister Malcolm was affected by the shunning of Elijah Muhammad and his followers.
The relationships that the biographer’s subjects are involved in must be discussed in the text to add clarity to the subject’s life. What is exposed will not always be comfortable to those who have elevated the biographer’s subject to iconic status. However, the knowledge gained in Marable’s work is worth some discomfort.
What Marable does within this work is to illustrate the life of an actual leader, not a leader held up by thoughtless praising or made wealthy through mindless tithing, but a human being who directs the thoughts and actions of other people.
The ends gained by this direction determine a good or bad leader. This factual account of Malcolm’s life is plainly written by Marable –– what is interpreted is always up to the reader.
Marable concludes the work with Brother Malcolm becoming a true world-speaker with worldwide influence. The text argues the potential of Malcolm’s words to make a global impact.
But, it is sad to realize that the petty desires of people from one country stopped the world from benefiting from Malcolm’s influence.
Brother Malcolm strategically aligned himself with African and Middle Eastern powers, and he was re-establishing control over his organizations when his life was taken.
Marable leaves little to the imagination in the recounting of the assassination; names are named and plans are espoused. Evidence was documented, transcripts were read, and tapes were listened to, and the accumulation of the information sends disappointed shudders through a reader’s mind; a legendary icon was murdered by less than iconic people.
Hopefully, Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention will rapidly become a required text in the study of American history.
Marable, a renowned scholar of Black studies, died from complications of pneumonia in April 2011, the same month the book was released, after 10 years of researching and writing it.
(N’DIGO book critic Tony Lindsay is the author of seven novels and two short story collections and is an adjunct professor of English composition and African-American literature.)