The late author Manning Marabel. (Philippe Cheng / Penguin…)
A Life of Reinvention
Viking: 594 pp., $30
Malcolm X never died. While his contemporary Martin Luther King Jr. lives on in the noble but fixed ideal of a racially unified and enlightened America, Malcolm lives on in the fluid black discontent with the ongoing lack of justice. Forty-six years after his assassination, it is Malcolm who looks like the prophet. Though the black middle class has made spectacular gains, the struggles of the black urban working- and underclass from which Malcolm came and that still describe much of black America are substantially what they were in the '60s. The self-confidence and skepticism Malcolm voiced that were once deemed so toxic have become common sense, even among the most successful of us. Blacks still live in an age of exceptionalism, not integration, and Malcolm's warnings about the fallibility of them pinning all their hopes on an idea that Americans had resisted for centuries — often violently — look not radical or hateful now but self-evident.
"Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention" by Columbia University professor Manning Marable is therefore timely. The death of the author a few days before the publication of an oeuvre that was 20 years in the making is utterly unfortunate: Marable is not around to defend the work from his many critics who charge him with needlessly deconstructing and distorting the legacy of a genuine black hero and revolutionary of the modern age. I disagree with the opposition.
"Reinvention" is absorbing and well-written, passionate but painstakingly evenhanded in its explication of a figure who was evolving when he was cut down by assassins at age 39. Most importantly, Marable gives Brother Malcolm the scholarly, almost Shakespearean consideration that's long overdue. Like all good biographies, this means getting behind the myths both good and bad — the stalwart black Muslim warrior who sacrificed himself for his people, the raging anti-white demagogue. The only comprehensive narrative we've really had to go on until now is the memoir "The Autobiography of Malcolm X"; this new book fills in the blanks with information gleaned from research and government files (like King, he was wiretapped and followed mercilessly) and extensive interviews with people close to Malcolm, including longtime Nation of Islam chief Louis Farrakhan. The resulting portrait is that of a man not distorted but more dynamic than we realized, in evolution at every point in his brief but exceptional public life.
Logging details almost like a journal, "Reinvention's" most revealing moments are not necessarily dramatic but more day-to-day. Malcolm struggled to be a good husband on a hectic speaking schedule; he worried about money; he grew increasingly uncertain about how to synthesize his changing views of the civil rights movement that challenged his more facile beliefs about it. Most affecting is how at every point he tried to live up to the black strongman image that outgrew even him. His followers weren't necessarily interested in the epiphanies he was experiencing toward the end of his life; epiphanies were fine, but not if they softened the views that had electrified audiences and made him such a folk hero. Malcolm understood these expectations well, but he wanted to be true to himself, and his attempts to negotiate between the two is the real story here.
Reexamining the hugely popular "Autobiography" is one way in which Marable alarms the Malcolm faithful. For instance, he asserts that Malcolm exaggerated many of his criminal exploits in his street-hustler days when he was known as Detroit Red to better dramatize his later rehabilitation by the Nation of Islam. But that doesn't make his transformation from ex-con to Muslim minister and political activist any less real or compelling. (That Malcolm was a bad character rather than a despicable one hardly seems like something to complain about.) Another controversial assertion is something that Malcolm does mention in the "Autobiography" but attributes to someone else. Marable says that in his hustler days, Malcolm had sexual encounters with a wealthy white gay man. Marable does not believe that Malcolm was homosexual, as some critics have overheatedly charged.
There is a great anxiety among many that this scrutiny might take down or tarnish one of the few black leaders with a valuable reputation of being straight-talking, disciplined and incorruptible. The irony is that while Malcolm X emerges from this book much more human, those qualities emerge more clearly than ever — remarkable given all the pressure he was under.