Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention Paperback – Dec 28 2011
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“Malcolm X is etched in the American imagination—and the American psyche—in the particular and unyielding terms of radical and militant… Marable brings a lifetime of study to this biography, which is the crowning achievement of a magnificent career.” — Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University
“Manning Marable is the exemplary black scholar of radical democracy and black freedom in our time. His long-awaited magisterial book on Malcolm X is the definitive treatment of the greatest black radical voice and figure of the mid-twentieth century. Glory Hallelujah!” — Cornel West, Princeton University
“Manning Marable’s Malcolm X is his magnum opus, a work of extraordinary rigor and intellectual beauty … This majestic and eloquent tour de force will stand for some time as the definitive work on as enigmatic and electrifying a leader as has ever sprung from American soil.” — Michael Eric Dyson, Georgetown University, author of April 4, 1968
“It will be difficult for anyone to better this book... It is a work of art, a feast that combines genres skillfully: biography, true-crime, political commentary. It gives us Malcolm X in full gallop, a man who died for his belief in freedom.” — The Washington Post
“In his revealing and prodigiously researched new biography. . . Mr. Marable artfully strips away the layers and layers of myth that have been lacquered onto his subject’s life — first by Malcolm himself in that famous memoir, and later by both supporters and opponents after his assassination.” — Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Unlike Bruce Perry’s 1991 biography, Malcolm, which entertained the most outlandish stories in an attempt to present a comprehensive portrait, Marable’s biography judiciously sifts fact from myth.” — The Atlantic
“Magisterial…Marable’s biography is an exceedingly brave as well as a major intellectual accomplishment.” — Boston Globe
“Marable has crafted an extraordinary portrait of a man and his time…A masterpiece.” — San Francisco Chronicle
“This book is a must read.” — Ebony
“Thankfully, we have Manning Marable's new biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention — which is, simply put, a stunning achievement — to help us better understand Malcolm’s complex life.” — The Philadelphia Tribune
“The book also has much to recommend it for its history of orthodox Islam, the perspective it offers on the black political movements of the 1950s and 1960s that changed America, and its insights into the development and inner workings of the Nation of Islam.” — The Financial Times
“Manning Marable’s scholarship was as provocative and profound as it was prodigious.” — Newsday
“[Marable] devoted his magnificent career—more than most scholars do—to living what he wrote and what he thought. His commitment not only to equality of opportunity but also to the exposure of falsehood and hypocrisy was a hallmark of his pathbreaking work.” — The Chronicle of Higher Education
“Marable accomplishes the difficult task of showing the bad boy of the civil rights era as an actual human being . . . Each page almost secretes the formidable research into hard facts. Marable lets the chips fall where they may because he is interested in the humanity of Malcolm X, as all true scholars should be.” — New York Daily News
“This is history at its finest—written with passion and attention and drive. It is a fitting testament to the lives and the legacies of both subject and author.” — TheBarnesandNobleReview.com
“Marable’s definitive biography is now the standard by which scholars can evaluate, not just what Malcolm X said, but what generations of others have said about him.” — The National
“This book is not the only representation of Manning's brilliance… it is a culmination of a lifetime of scholarship and activism, a larger project devoted to telling the stories of a people engaged in an epic, painful and beautiful struggle for freedom.” — BlackVoices.com
“This superbly perceptive and resolutely honest book will long endure as a definitive treatment of Malcolm’s life, if not of the actors complicit in his death.” — The Wilson Quarterly
“The book is cause for celebration . . . The book is full of revelations, big and small, and amounts to a full-on reconsideration of Malcolm’s life and death.” — VeryShortList.com
“As Malcolm lived on through his best-selling autobiography, so will Marable, through his unmatched body of writing, his educational contributions, his illuminations on Malcolm X's legacy and his devoted students.” — CNN.Com
“Manning was an unflinching and breathtakingly prolific scholar whose commitments to racial, economic, gender, and international justice were unparalleled . . . That we will have his long-anticipated, great and final work even as he leaves us is so classically, tragically appropriate.” — The Nation
“While Marable himself is irreplaceable, he has provided a foundation for future generations and will continue to shape our understanding of social change and justice.” — TheRoot.com
“A prolific scholar.” — The Columbia Record
About the Author
Manning Marable (1951-2011) was M. Moran Weston and Black Alumni Council Professor of African American Studies and professor of history and public affairs at Columbia University. He was founding director of African American Studies at Columbia from 1993 to 2003, and directed Columbia’s Center for Contemporary Black History. The author of fifteen books, Marable was also the editor of the quarterly journal Souls.
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Marable examines Malcolm's life from many angles, in many contexts, which are necessary given that he manifested himself in appearances that ranged from hustler and angry voice from the ghetto to social activist and pragmatist willing to work within the American "system." And this broad appeal largely defines Malcolm X's appeal according to Marable: "Malcolm's journey of reinvention was in many ways centered on his lifelong quest to discern the meaning and substance of faith. As a prisoner, he embraced an antiwhite quasi-Islamic sect that nevertheless validated his fragmented sense of humanity and ethnic identity. But as he traveled across the world...Malcolm came to adopt true Islam's universalism, and its belief that all could find Allah's grace regardless of race." (p.12)
To black audiences, "what made him truly original was that he presented himself as the embodiment of the two central figures of African-American folk culture, simultaneously the hustler/trickster and the preacher/minister...the trickster is unpredictable and capable of outrageous transgressions; the minister saves souls, redeems shattered lives, and promises a new world." I might add that I suspect this appeal is not limited to just black audiences.
This journey involves doing time for small time crime, developing his thoughts and voice while incarcerated, taking Elijah Muhammad as a mentor, but perhaps the greatest advancement came as a result of Malcolm's haj, after which his thinking and voice, while still strongly advocating for the oppressed, became more inclusive and more compassionate. As noted in at least one other review here, Marable's work is distinguished for understanding how the experience of the haj profoundly advanced Malcolm's thinking and his voice. It may not be too strong to say that this experience liberated him.
Marable's book also stands out for filling in gaps around Malcolm's assassination. Complicity on the part of federal and state authorities, as well as the Nation of Islam, from which Malcolm broke about a year before his death, is indicated. Ultimately, though, a conclusive picture can not be drawn from the records to which he had access.
An especially valuable context is Marable's view of Malcolm in a larger context that includes Martin Luther King. "one great gift of such remarkable individuals is the ability to seize their time, to speak to their unique moment in history. Both Martin and Malcolm were such leaders, but they expressed their pragmatic visions in different ways. King embodied the historic struggles waged by generations of African Americans for full equality...King never pitted blacks against whites, or used the atrocities committed by white extremists as a justification for condemning all whites. By contrast, throughout most of his public career Malcolm sought to place whites on the defensive in their relationship with African Americans...His constant message was black pride, self-respect, and an awareness of one's heritage."
Malcolm's influence over Eldridge Cleaver and Black Power advocates was obvious. And while it scared the hell out of many, Marable presents Malcolm as an important voice in the chorus against racial oppression. Advocating force on behalf of those slammed away in ghettos has its place.
Malcolm's voice, according to the actor Ossie Davis and quoted by Marable, was that of a "black shining prince," in his eulogy. Prince, because Malcolm's assassination did not allow him to achieve the maturity of becoming a king. Following his death, Malcolm "was pilloried and sterotyped for his racial extremism," especially in the white community. In the black community, Malcolm, in death, was seen as "an icon of black encouragement, who fearlessly challenged racism wherever he found it."
Marable notes that "Malcolm's revolutionary vision also challenged white America to think and talk differently about race...Malcolm challenged whites to examine the policies and practices of racial discrimination."
Beyond being a wonderful biography, I hope that Marable's effort here acts to amplify Malcolm's voice to make aware those too young to remember Malcolm, to reaffirm those who sympathized with his struggle, and to expand the understanding of those who were with Malcolm in the day.
The book has many strengths. It does an excellent job of situating Malcolm's life and teachings in the broader historical context of his times. I have to note that there seem to be some factual inaccuracies in his discussion of the history of Islam, but on the whole I believe it's reasonably accurate. And the book provides a fuller account of Malcolm's life and death than some of the more hagiographic works written about him. But that valuable accomplishment is overshadowed and diminished by speculation and salacious innuendo that has no place in a scholarly account. Beginning with the opening chapters of the book, Dr. Marable consistently advances speculative theories about malcolm's inner motives and state of mind. This would be reasonable if he consistently qualified his hypotheses as such, and supported them with corroborating evidence. But over and over again, Dr. Marable advances naked speculation as conclusive fact. One the most egregious and controversial examples of this tendency is Dr. Marable's claim that Malcolm was involved in homosexual prostitution as a youth. Given the circumstances of Malcolm's life at that time, that would not be particularly surprising. He would have been neither the first nor the last destitute and drug-addicted youth to prostitute himself to anyone who could offer some ready cash. However, Dr. Marable offers no evidence for the one incident of prostitution that he alleges took place other than hearsay from two of Malcolm's acquaintances that appears in secondary sources. That's far from conclusive, or even persuasive. However, Dr. Marable treats the allegation as practically incontrovertible, despite the admittedly circumstantial evidence supporting the claim. He goes so far as to assert that the alleged incident was a basic element of Malcolm's identity at the time:
"Malcolm-Detroit Red, Satan, hustler, onetime pimp, drug addict and drug dealer, homosexual lover, ladies man, numbers racketeer, burglar, Jack Carlton, and convicted thief. . ."
Whatever Malcolm's sexual habits may or may not have been, Dr. Marable's failure to convincingly support this much-hyped claim smacks of crass sensationalism. Equally troubling is Dr. Marable's habit of psychoanalyzing his subjects and ascribing to them motives that he could not possibly discern and advances no evidence for, claiming for instance that Malcolm subliminally incorporated jazz rhythms into his speaking style, and asserting that the Nation of Islam's success in converting Black prisoners was due to the fact that, "the depression caused by long confinement made inmates particularly vulnerable." Those things may very well be true. And they may very well be false. But true or not, they are without question nothing more than sheer speculation, and represent the author's own assumptions rather than historical fact, or even reasoned argumentation. What is most unfortunate about these speculative digressions is that they are almost wholly tangential to the central events and influences in Malcolm's life, and only serve to distract from the well-documented history that Dr. Marable took such pains to reconstruct.
Added to all of this is a significant amount of critical editorial comment on Malcolm's early beliefs and decisions. Malcolm himself admitted-indeed stressed-in no uncertain terms that his early beliefs were immature, destructive, and uncritically dogmatic. It is unedifying to witness his biographer harangue him nearly 50 years after his death for mistakes that he himself unreservedly confessed to and repented of during his own lifetime.
My personal impression, and it is simply my personal impression, is that out of a desire to be iconoclastic, Dr. Marable perhaps took a degree of creative and editorial license, which is distressing to see in connection with a topic of such deep historical and cultural significance. The book is very valuable as a work of history, but as a historical portrait of a life, it perhaps reflects in some respects too much of the mind of the painter, obscuring to a degree the subject being portrayed.
As an aside, it is extremely difficult to correlate the citations in the copious endnotes with the text being referenced, as the hardback first edition inexplicably omits in-text endnote numbers, which is a significant problem in and of itself.
Despite all this, on the whole the book is a fascinating and lavishly detailed account of Malcolm's meteoric rise and tragic end that deserves close attention. It is regrettable that in chronicling Malcolm's "reinvention", Dr. Marable does some reinventing of his own, but the magnitude of what he accomplished in authoring a comprehensive and meticulously documented account of the entirety of Malcolm's life has to be recognized.
Ultimately, I can only suggest what I imagine Malcolm himself would have advised. Read the book for yourself and draw your own conclusions.
Where Marable's runs into trouble is in his constant editorializing (he takes every opportunity to show exactly how much he disapproves of his subject's politics) and with some rather questionable lapses in logic and fact-gathering. I, for one, would have liked more information about the formation of the Nation of Islam's religious enforcement squads, the funding for Malcolm's foreign trips after the split with the NOI and what Marable was able to glean from police and government surveillance files. Marable makes some strong charges against those he feels were involved in the assassination and the charges are not always backed up with factual detail.
Finally, there is a remarkable dearth of photographs: none of Malcolm's wife and children and none of his family except his sister, Ella; none from the NOI temples he organized or the later MMI and OAAU groups; and only a scattershot few from his foreign travels. Considering the access Marable had and the years spent on research it's an odd, regrettable omission.
In the end, while not the definitive biography of Malcolm--it's too flawed for that designation, the research done by Marable and his team will make it valuable tool for the writer who steps forward without the religious and political biases that mar this effort.
Basically, in terms of Malcolmology, Marable picks up where Bruce Perry and Karl Evanzz left off. Marable does not get as deep into the armchair psychoanalysis of Malcolm as Bruce Perry did in his Malcolm bio, nor does he get as thick into the background of Elijah Muhammmad or Nation Of Islam founder Wallace Ford (aka W.D. Fard) as did Karl Evanzz. But Marable has the advantage of having Malcoolm's diary, actual papers, and interviews with previously untapped sources.
He somewhow managed to get Louis Farrakhan to be interviewed on Malcolm for this book. The former Calypso Gene does himself no favors. Farrakhan admits to some of the brutality of the old NOI, tells a cock-and-bull tale of a dream in which M/X supposedly spoke to him in 2007 (did he realize that no one outside of his following would believe such a convenient story?), and admits tattling the tale of Malcolm's spreading stories of Elijah Muhammad's adultery to Elijah himself, which began the downward sprial leading to M/X's murder. Farrakhan also surpringly claims that the reason M/X went buck wild over the story of Elijah's out of wedlock children was because one of Malcolm's former lovers was involved-and further alleges that M/X told him that he wanted to see this former lover behind his wife Betty's back! Given the penchant for secrecy in the NOI, why would Farrakhan publicly admit to something like this? Marable of course mentions Farrakhan's infamous statement on M/X in Dec. 1964 ("The die is set and Malcolm sould not escape-a man like Malcolm is worthy of death."). While Marable avoids further delving in the Farrakhan involvement (such as the Minister's horrifying 1993 admission "if we dealt with Malcolm like a nation deals with a traitor, what business is it of yours?"), Marable concludes that Farrakhan "had the most to gain from Malcolm's murder."
NOI leader Larry X Prescott makes a telling admission in all this-that the NOI was simply not for intellectually confident individuals who could think for themselves such as Malcolm. This is still true today!
The tale of Malcolm's supposed affair with Paul Lennon is handled in passing, and marable makes it clear that there is no evidence of this or any other such involvement happening after M/X's conversion (not mentioned are M/X's anti-gay slurs against Bayard Rustin in John Henrik Clarke's bio on M/X). However, Marable accuses Malcolm's wife Betty (who is not portrayed positively at all by her former associates in this book) of having an affair with one of M/X's henchmen and claims that M/X mentioned an affair with a Swiss woman while in Egypt in his diary (for M/X to record such a thing would make no sense).
Perhaps the most horrific exposure in the book is the biz about M/X allegedly having an affair with a teenage NOI member-the very thing that he broke with Elijah Muhammad over! Marable adds that this supposed paramour was sitting next to one of the actual assassins at the Audobon and deliberately fingered the wrong man-the actual assassin was also supposed to be this teenager's other lover! If this story is true, this needs major investigation!
This is all so disturbing (if it is true) because M/X has been held up for 40 years as proof that troubled ghetto youth-then and now-could overcome lurid temptation and could successfully transform themselves into useful citizens of moral authority as opposed to the other charlatans who have since posed as "Black leaders." Plus, this aspect is more toward the Kitty Kelly school of biography. However, what remains of Malcolm after this is the undeniable fact of, as his former honcho Benjamin 2x Karriem (one of the few people who escapes unscathed in this book), M/X's willingness to die for what he saw as truth, as well as the fact that an amoral pimp, drug dealer, and petty thug with an 8th grade education could grow up into someone who could speak intelligently and command respect at places such as Harvard and Oxford University, as well as with varying heads of state. So I will continue to share aspects of THAT Malcolm to the students that I teach.
Mr. Marable's reasonable conclusions, especially within the last chapters, are a welcome addition to this already groundbreaking work. There are however a few instances in which his opinion seem not only unsupported by the facts but come out of left field.
Malcolm's evolving views on race are well known but just as interesting were his changing views about women. By the time he returned to Harlem from the Hajj his political and social views were in a state of flux that would continue until his murder. At that point the people that followed him out of the Nation of Islam had more in common with the Nation than they had with him. One difference in particular was his belief for a more inclusive role for women. This was one of the first stumbling points he faced when trying to build a working relationship between the members of his MMI mosque and secular civil rights organizations. Marable mentions Malcolm's deep affinity for the philosophy of Georg W. F. Hegel. Understandably than he wanted to synthesize these cultural differences and devise a workable situation. His inability to do this set the stage that led to his murder.
I think it's fair to say whatever form of Islam Malcolm practiced throughout his life; it had the effect for him as a liberating consciousness. It was a medium he wanted to use to uplift people, work thorough their differences, soothe their anger and alienation with the aim of creating coherent moral and ethical societies. When traveling in the Middle East and Africa he met with groups that ran the religious and political spectrum within the Muslim community that often were openly hostile to each other. His attempt to meet with these various groups was not just for support of his goals of demanding human rights for African Americans but to replicate his American goals for synthesis but on an international scale.
The fact of the matter is though many of his positions, but in particular his views about the role of women, were far more progressive than many Sunni Islamic communities that exist today. Were he to live longer he might have come across analogous problems on the international stage as the ones he faced in Harlem.
He was very simply a man ahead of his time. This biography's disclosure of some pointed shortcomings makes his ability, as the title suggests, to continually reinvent himself all the more admirable.
While the New York City Police Department and the FBI do not come off very well despite Marable's even handed assessment, it is the the Nation of Islam that rightfully comes under the most scrutiny. If Marable's years of research and numerous interviews with formerly unwilling subjects about the Nation are true than he has brought forth a devastating indictment against the Nation. Not simply that it isn't a Islamic organization (at times the followers prayed towards Chicago instead of Mecca) and that its idiosyncratic tenants are ludicrous on its face and are tantamount to a cult. But far worse their institutionalized culture of physically, sexually and monetarily exploiting it's members while doling out severe violent penalties for even minor infractions.
It's undeniably true the Nation succeeded in instilling a sense of pride, purpose and responsibility within its members. It appears though the Nation exploited that sense of pride within its members for its own short sighted aims. Marable's research explains how the Nation's leadership is as responsible for the murder as the individual members that carried it out.
The Nation's positions have been shown repeatedly to be on the wrong side of history. What else needs to be said about an outfit that found common cause with neo-Nazi groups and the Klu Klux Klan?
Read the book. It will stay with you.
I was however disappointed with the Kindle edition. It's not just that there are no links to the footnotes/endnotes in the text, but no footnotes/endnotes at all.
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