By Alice McCutcheon
For students of the life of Malcolm X, Manning Marable’s acclaimed yet controversial 2011 publication titled Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is undoubtedly a must-read. Lauded by critics as a major literary and historical achievement, Marable’s biography of Malcolm X was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012. The book is based on extensive scholarly research that includes information from personal interviews with Malcolm’s associates, Nation of Islam recordings, archived collections, and government files. Chronicling the life of Malcolm X from birth to death against the backdrop of early black activism and the civil rights movement, this book provides insight into both Malcolm’s life and the social forces that shaped him.
As a professor of African-American Studies, Marable is highly regarded as a historian and as an authority on black history. In addition to having published fifteen books, he edited thirteen books and published more than four hundred articles in academic journals and related publications. Utilizing over one thousand documents, Marable’s biography of Malcolm X is well written and well researched, providing an objective, historical look at a highly controversial figure in twentieth century American history. In this work, the author primarily presents events as they occurred, inserting commentary only where facts differ from information in Malcolm X’s autobiography and where documented information (by implication) points to a logical conclusion. By limiting commentary and personal observations mainly to the Prologue and Epilogue, Marible allows readers to formulate their own opinions about the many topics in this book. If A Life of Reinvention has any drawbacks, it is in the amount of time required to read such an extensive text and in the fact that it has some redundancy. Being chronologically structured, however, redundancy cannot be avoided. The author would have been remiss had he glossed over certain events simply because they repeated themselves.
As the title of this book indicates, Marable views Malcolm X’s life as one of repeated reinvention. In chronological sequence, he details the early years of Malcolm Little’s life and the events that later transformed him from Malcolm Little to Malcolm X and ultimately to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. This book’s structure is based on specific time periods with some chapters spanning several years and other chapters limited to either months or days. The text provides a comprehensive look at Malcolm’s early years with his family, his teenage years of petty crime, his conversion to the Nation of Islam (NOI) while in prison, and his subsequent impact on the NOI as its National Minister. It additionally details major events in his later adult life, including his trips to Africa and the Middle East; his relationships with important Muslim officials; his break with the Nation of Islam and his conversion to orthodox Islam; his influence on dogmatic changes within the NOI; and events leading up to and including his assassination.
In this work, Marable seeks to separate the iconic Malcolm from the historical Malcolm, asserting that the latter has been “strangled by the iconic legend that has been constructed around him.” In order to achieve this separation, Marable first critically deconstructed The Autobiography of Malcolm X and subsequently historically reconstructed the details of Malcolm’s life. During this process, Marable came to view Malcolm’s autobiography as “a brilliant literary work, but more of a memoir than a factual and objective reconstruction” of his life. Marable addresses Malcolm’s relationship with his co-author Alex Haley and reveals previously unknown information regarding the book’s format, structure, and publication. He additionally explores the book’s trajectory and its role in shaping Malcolm’s iconographic status.
Comparing and contrasting Malcolm’s autobiography with historical documents, Marable notes an absence of information regarding the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) in the autobiography and inconsistencies in names, dates, and facts. Of special note are Marable’s assertions that Malcolm inflated certain aspects of his past as Detroit Red in order to shape his public image while simultaneously omitting information that, had it been known, would have resulted in his arrest on an old warrant. More controversial are Marable’s assertions that Malcolm was involved in an extra-marital affair immediately prior to his death and that Malcolm’s description of Rudy’s homosexual relationship with William Paul Lennon was actually a description of his own relationship with Lennon. Based in part on these last two statements, Marable’s book was severely criticized by members of the black community and provoked many rebuttals. In 2012, the same year in which Marable posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize, A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X was published. This book is a compilation of critical essays of Marable’s biography of Malcolm X, some of which go so far as to challenge Marable’s credibility as a historian, alleging flaws in accuracy, scholarship, and citations.
Because Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is structured as it is, readers wanting to know about the Nation of Islam will have to read most of the book. Information on the Nation of Islam is not fully described in a discreet section of the text, being presented instead as pieces of information contextually woven into the events of Malcolm’s life. While this can be a bit cumbersome and confusing for readers, it is not unmanageable. Information on orthodox Islam is more easily accessible as it is presented in relation to Malcolm’s conversion. However, this information is primarily focused on the Islamic tenets regarding equality among races, required prayer practice, and the mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj. Readers wanting to compare NOI dogma with the teachings of orthodox Islam are compelled to read the entire book and do their own comparison. Readers who are looking for information on Islam are advised to seek out reputable books that present a more thorough picture of Islam’s history and traditions.
One of the most intriguing sections of this book revolves around the period of Malcolm’s life following his conversion to orthodox Islam and his break with the Nation of Islam. Although this section of the book is relatively brief, Marable provides ample information that Malcolm was undergoing a significant psychological and personal transition at the time of his assassination. This period of his life certainly invites further study.
As a post-script to Malcolm’s life, this book provides follow-ups on a diverse collection of people who figured in Malcolm’s life and/or in his death. Referring to the years following his assassination, Marable discloses information on Malcolm’s wife and family members, close associates, and prominent figures such as Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan. Among others, he additionally reports on lesser known figures including both the alleged and convicted assassins and the NYPD detective who surveilled Malcolm X for the last two years of his life. In this section, Marable also recounts the series of murders and violent events that occurred after Malcolm’s death and changes to the NOI following Elijah Muhammad’s death.
Although this period of history may be deemed closed by many, this is not the end of Malcolm’s story. Part of the information disclosed in the latter part of this book points to possible connections between the NOI and law enforcement agencies, with implications regarding Malcolm’s death. Having relied heavily on information that became available only years after Malcolm’s death for the writing of this book, Marable points out that in the future “more definitive judgments will be made” about various connections between key individuals when additional law enforcement files are made available years from now. Until such time as history is again rewritten, however, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention presents a well-documented and fascinating portrayal of a man whose life, ideology, and political vision continue to impact diverse peoples not only in America but around the world.
. Manning Marable. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. New York: Viking, Published by the Penguin Group, 2011. 593-594.
. Ibid., 490.
. Malcolm X and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine, 1999.
. Marable, 491.
. Ibid., 11, 63-65.
. Ibid., 394.
. Ibid., 66. A successful businessman, Lennon often hired male secretaries to work at his home. Malcolm worked for Lennon in 1944 as a “butler and occasional house worker”. He also corresponded with Lennon from prison.
. Jared A. Ball, “An Introduction to a Lie,” in A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X, ed. Jared A. Ball and Todd Steven Burroughs. (Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press, 2012). Kindle version, no page number given, accessed April 4, 2014, at http://www.amazon.com/Lie-Reinvention-Correcting-Manning-Marables/dp/1574780492/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1396638046&sr=1-1&keywords=a+lie+of+reinvention+correcting+manning+marable%E2%80%99s+malcolm+x
. Marable, 478.