Whether you're just getting to know this giant and enigmatic figure of the civil rights "movement" - or in Malcolm's case revolution - or you were on the street in the day, Manning Marable's biography is worth your valuable time. In addition to being a wide and deep examination of how Malcolm Little became Malcolm X and how Malcom X became a universal advocate for the oppressed, especially of African heritage, Marable fills in gaps with his singular access to records and sources, as well as his sustained effort over a decade in producing this biography. But, perhaps most importantly, the voice that Malcolm X raised in defense of those being oppressed carries a message especially important in our time. We should listen.
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.