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The Man Behind the Myth of Malcolm X

Review of Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of
Reinvention (Viking, 2011)

By William P. Jones
April 29, 2011
Published by Portside

Few books have molded popular memory of an individual
more effectively than The Autobiography of Malcolm X,
which was co-authored by journalist Alex Haley and
published nine months after Malcolm's assassination on
February 21, 1965. An immediate best seller, the book
provided an interpretive framework adopted by numerous
writers, artists, filmmakers and songwriters in the
1960s and 1970s. Historian Max Elbaum asserts that its
impact was even greater for political activists,
calling the Autobiography "the single most widely read
and influential book among young people of all racial
backgrounds who went to their first demonstration
sometime between 1965 and 1968." That claim is
difficult to verify, but the book remains standard fare
in college courses on black history, literature and
politics and its message has been delivered to a
broader audience by countless references in popular
music and by Spike Lee's widely-acclaimed 1992 film,
Malcolm X.

Manning Marable acquired his generation's enthusiasm
for Malcolm X after reading the Autobiography as a
college student in 1969, but he grew to suspect that
the book obscured and even distorted important details
about the life it purported to recount. Those doubts
were deepened when Marable started assigning the
Autobiography in his own college courses in the 1980s
and confirmed by his initial research for a "modest
political biography of Malcolm X" in the 1990s. He put
the biography on hold after being hired to build
Columbia University's Institute for Research in African
American Studies, but revived it by directing the
institute's significant resources into a massive
documentary project on Malcolm X. The resulting
biography, which was published just days after
Marable's own death of lung disease, forces readers to
reconsider not just the details of Malcolm's life but
also important aspects of the narrative articulated by
the Autobiography.

Praising the Autobiography as a "brilliant literary
work," Marable points out that it was shaped by the
often competing objectives of its two authors. Primary
control over the final publication lay in the hands of
Alex Haley, who Marable describes as a "liberal
Republican" who cast Malcolm X's transformation from
hardened criminal to black nationalist and devout
Muslim as "a cautionary tale about human waste and the
tragedies produced by racial segregation." Malcolm also
used the narrative "to present a tale of moral uplift"
centered on his salvation by the Nation of Islam and
his later appreciation for the humanistic and
multiracial nature of orthodox Islam. As Marable
reveals, it is this "self-invention" that is most
difficult to reconcile with the facts of Malcolm's life
story.

Perhaps most startling for those familiar with the
Autobiography is the continuity, revealed in the first
few chapters of Marable's book, between Malcolm X's
leadership in the Nation of Islam and his family's long
history of political activism. The Autobiography opens
by explaining that Malcolm's father, Earl Little, was
an organizer for Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro
Improvement Association but implies that his influence
was restricted to Malcolm and cut short by Earl's
death, most likely at the hands of white supremacists,
in 1931. In contrast, Marable shows that both of
Malcolm's parents were Garveyites and that their
influence led several of Malcolm's siblings to join the
Nation of Islam in the 1940s. "We already had been
indoctrinated with Marcus Garvey's philosophy, so that
was just a good place for us," recalled Malcolm's
brother Wilfred, who recruited four other siblings to
the sect before leading what Marable calls a "family
campaign" to bring Malcolm into the fold.

Marable contends that Malcolm X downplayed his family
history in order to emphasize the influence of Nation
of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, an objective that also
led him to exaggerate his criminality in the decade
preceding his conversion. In contrast to the
Autobiography's depiction of a predatory thug, Marable
shows that Malcolm engaged in sporadic and mostly petty
crime while struggling to support himself through a
variety of legitimate jobs. Remarkably, Marable reveals
that Ella Little, who the Autobiography depicts as a
straight-laced counterpart to Malcolm, may have been a
more accomplished thief than her younger brother.

In reconstructing his alternative to the Autobiography,
Marable discovered details about Malcolm's life that
some admirers will find disturbing. Building on the
research of Bruce Perry, Marable describes a sexual
relationship between Malcolm and a wealthy white man
named William Paul Lennon. He also shows that Malcolm
developed a condescending and often abusive attitude
toward women, culminating in a marriage that was
motivated less by romance and mutual respect than the
desire to conform to the Nation of Islam's standards of
respectability. Revelations about Malcolm's private
life elicited a scathing review from Karl Evanzz, who
has written extensively on Malcolm X and the Nation of
Islam, and Malcolm X's daughters, Ilyasah and Malaak
Shabazz, have denounced Marable's account as
incompatible with their own memories of their parents'
relationship.

Malcolm's daughters admit that they did not read
Marable's book and Evanzz bases his critique on
contrary evidence in the "far superior" Autobiography,
so it would be unfortunate if readers allowed their
criticism to detract from the broader interpretive arc
of the new biography. Historians have enriched our
understanding of the non-violent civil rights movement
by examining its origins in the social democratic
radicalism of the 1930s and 1940s, but recent studies
continue to locate the "roots of Black Power" squarely
in the decades following the Second World War. This is
a valuable corrective to an older tendency to treat
Black Power as a misguided departure from the non-
violent tradition, but it overlooks the even deeper
links between postwar activists and the Black
Nationalism of the early twentieth century. More than
any other scholar, Marable reveals the continuity of
that "long Black Power movement."

At five hundred pages, Marable's scholarly work is not
likely to displace the Autobiography on best-seller
lists or even many college syllabi. Some readers may be
disappointed that Marable ends the book without
exploring the impact that Malcolm X had on radical
politics in the late 1960s. He shows that both black
and white activists were attracted to the Organization
of Afro-American Unity, which Malcolm X founded after
leaving the Nation of Islam, but tells us little about
how they implemented his ideas following his
assassination. Marable seems more interested in
following the lives of his murderers and their
accomplices, which is interesting but not clearly
linked to Malcolm's legacy or its meaning for readers
today. He addresses those questions in a brief
epilogue, but draws hasty and rather unconvincing
parallels to contemporary events ranging from Barack
Obama's electoral victory to the United States'
relations with the Islamic world. The contrast between
this ending and the rich detail and nuanced analysis of
the early chapters suggest that Marable's declining
health may have prevented him from giving full
attention to the final stages of the project.

Those complaints aside, Marable has produced a
definitive study of one of the best known and yet least
understood figures in late twentieth century American
politics. Some readers will reject his attempt to move
beyond the mythical image projected by the
Autobiography, but most will appreciate his effort to
humanize and historicize the man behind the myth.

William P. Jones is an Associate Professor of History
at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is writing
a history of the 1963 March on Washington.

___________________________________________

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