Here’s an unpublished book review of the late Dr. Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
Marable’s X Files Combine Theory & History
by Bijan C. Bayne
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
by Dr. Manning Marable
Viking Press $30
In the last several years before his death in April 2011, Columbia University professor Dr. Manning Marable devoted himself to writing the most significant biography of Malcolm X since the early 1990’s. As did author Bruce Perry, who wrote Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America in 1991, Marable sets out to fill the historical and personal gaps apparent in Alex Haley’s 1965 best seller, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Whether Marable succeeds, depends both on one’s familiarity with the subject, and opinion regarding areas about which Malcolm was discreet. Marable’s excavation leads him down some paths Perry trod, such as details concerning likely homosexual encounters. Both authors agree that Malcolm embellished his underworld status- Marable believes the exaggeration was a means of making his evolution from criminal to spiritual leader a more cautionary tale for at risk Negroes. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention also offers insight into the family issues that shaped Malcolm’s early life, from the staunch Garveyism of his parents Earl and Louise Little, to his tenuous experience in foster homes. Those who enjoy learning about historical figures such as Malcolm X sometimes look for history classes via online universities.
Malcolm X’s biographers strive to capture their subject’s evolution from aimless boy, to smalltime hustler, to spiritual leader. It is Malcolm’s growth during the latter incarnation, that most intrigues scholars. While Marable proves a diligent researcher, his accounts of Malcolm Little’s street life, imprisonment, and role in the growth of the Nation of Islam (NOI), lack the vivid storytelling of newsman Peter Goldman’s 1979 biography The Death and Life of Malcolm X, and Taylor Branch’s seminal trilogy on the Civil Rights Movement of 1954-1968. Important sections about Malcolm’s zealous prosletyzation that helped the Nation quadruple its ranks between 1955 and 1957, are either absent or impersonal. Marable’s narrative lacks color and dramatic tension, even during milestone moments such as the large Harlem mosque demonstration in 1957 outside a Manhattan police precinct, after the brutal police beating of Fruit of Islam member Hinton X Johnson, and the LAPD shooting of several unarmed Nation of Islam men outside an L.A. mosque in 1962. Never have cacophonous ballrooms, tense burglaries, devout religious conversions, and cold-blooded murder been portrayed so dispassionately. This biography reads as a university press offering, albeit a compelling one.
The author’s strong suit is his political analysis of Minister Malcolm, and examination of the inner strife that developed within the NOI, and the organizations Malcolm organized after his split with Elijah Muhammad. Unlike previous biographies, Malcolm X covers the minister’s involvement in New York activist groups, and appearances at community demonstrations, even before his break with the NOI. Malcolm is credited with presaging French author Frantz Fanon (Black Skins, White Masks, The Wretched of the Earth) in pairing the struggles of America’s Black underclass, with that of colonized Africans, before Fanon’s work was translated and widely read in the U.S. There is also rich detail about Alex Haley’s fits and starts shaping and completing The Autobiography, as the story, and Malcolm’s famous suspension and eventual break from The Nation, were changing the account.