Book review – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

by britishmisk

Malcolm X. The name on its own conjures many ideas and emotions for many different people, and it is for this reason Marable decided to write this biography. His endeavour arguably began around 20 years ago when teaching Malcolm X’s autobiography he found inconsistencies and gaps which he felt needed to be investigated and addressed, what resulted is the piece of work now presented to us. Regrettably he passed away three days before he could see the fruition of his labours. Marable’s objective in his work is to break down the myth that has been built up around Malcolm X and enable the reader to see how the man really was so that he can be appreciated from a completely new level.

Malcolm X, (or El Hajj Malik El-Shabbaz for Muslims), was arguably not appreciated to the full extent he deserved to be during his lifetime. For most of his career as a minister in the heretical Nation of Islam he preached a racist message of black nationalism that was doomed to inevitably fail. It was when he came into the fold of Orthodox Islam were his energies concentrated for the Glory of the One Eternal Lord, and thus did he find his true calling. Unfortunately this time did not last long as he was blessed with a martyr’s death on February 21st 1965. It was only after the publication of his autobiography that people truly came to see Malcolm for who he really was, outlining a vision for the emancipation for the black man in America, that offered a balance between the pacifistic ‘Turn the other cheek’ movement of Dr King, and the black nationalism of the NOI. It for this reason that when it comes to ‘choosing the favourite’ between Dr King and Malcolm, most African Americans have chosen Malcolm. Even Barack Obama in his autobiography praises Malcolm as his inspiration more so than Dr King. Unfortunately many outside of America, including Afro-Carribeans of Britain, do not know about the profound nature of the man that was Malcolm X. Possibly because of the pseudo-Christian culture of the west preferring the Baptist preacher over Muslim revolutionary, or perhaps the status quo preferred ethnic minorities to look to a man who taught complete pacifism rather than someone who taught “if someone lays a hand on you, you send him to the cemetery”. Allah knows best.

However despite all of his immense qualities, the untimely death of Malcolm resulted in his mission being cut abruptly short, and his utmost potential to never be realised. It’s since then been left to the autobiography, numerous rap songs, and a certain movie by Spike Lee to build up the reputation of the man who would have become so much greater. However these things have dramatised, looked over, or just completely ignored certain truths and realities about the life of Malcolm. For example as Sheikh Abu Ja’far explains very well, while Malcolm was an inspiration for some, he was never really a leader in the sense of the word. His organisations post-NOI, the OAAU and Muslim Mosque Inc. fell apart his death. His education and tenure as the ‘Imam of America’ never really got off the ground. It’s been his perpetuation of him as a mythical sort of legend which has led to people wrongly understanding his ideas and taking him as their own personal muse. (It would seem very strange for west coast weed smoking hippies, or commercialised hip hop stars to agree with Malcolm’s direct statement that the “only real solution for the race problem in America is Sunni Islam”.

And so Marable’s book attempts to break down the legend and leave the man to be judged for who he really was. The book is very thorough and detailed, while Marable attempts to present many ideas in an impartial way, he is at his very core one of Malcolm’s greatest admirers, and so presents points of fact in a way that helps the reader to also appreciate Malcolm for who he was. Finer points about certain ideas and opinions Malcolm had are presented in the greater context of Black American history, which the author uses in a way to show the kind of insight and understanding Malcolm had about the current climate of race relations in the US at the time.

However for all of the book’s positive points, it has a number of negatives. Very quickly after the book was released, Lamppost Productions posted up a review of the book by Karl Evanzz (Himself an expert on Malcolm X), who completely slated it for a number of inaccuracies. Most of the complaints centre around claims made about Malcolm’s personal life and the lives of those around with him. Manning states both Betty Shabbaz and Malcolm had extra marital affairs, yet provides no sources. He also claims Malcolm drunk alcohol on his third tour of Africa, it seems strange that for someone who had an overly stringent diet while in the NOI, and then having his faith confirmed in orthodoxy, and was also taking lessons in fiqh on his stops in Egypt would do such a thing. Ominously the quote Manning apparently puts from Malcolm’s own travel diaries is missing in the references section. Evanzz’s article posted above is thorough and should be read either in tandem or afterwards if one chooses to read this book.

I haven’t ready any other books on Malcolm X aside from the autobiography, so whether or not I can recommend this would be dependent on me reading a few others and deciding how this stands in comparison. Manning’s selling point was the opportunity he received in being able to gain access to sources that were severely restricted in the past, such as recordings of Malcolm’s early speeches held by the NOI, and even some of the FBI and NYPD files, as well as unpublished sections of Alex Haley’s autobiography. It reads well and certainly presents Malcolm in a new and understanding light. For the lack of knowledge people have about the man, anything will do for the ignorant masses.

And to Allah is our return.