Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 608 pages
Malcolm Little, better known to Americans in the late 1950s and 1960s as Malcolm X, was a charismatic public figure. Born in 1925, he was a provocateur who graduated from waywardness and poverty in Lansing, Michigan, to drug-use and running the troubled inner-city streets of Boston and Harlem, to performing in nightclubs, to hustling, pimping and burglarising, the last of which landed him in prison in 1946. On his release six years later, he launched himself into the limelight of the racial strife that held America in its grip.
I first learnt of Malcolm X in 1963 when I was in prison, after his highly publicised comment that President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was a case of “the chickens coming home to roost”, implying that it was retributive justice for the evils practised on blacks by the white “devils” who controlled America.
A few years later, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley). Although I did not share the activist’s religious or political views, I saw him as a powerful example of someone who had fallen low and was able to pull himself up through education and effort to remake his life into something significant and meaningful. For many black men in prison, he provided inspiration and hope that they too might rise above the worst thing they had ever done to become “somebody”.
Prison was good to Malcolm X. That’s where he discovered books, as did I, and reading changed him, as it did me. There he first learnt of the Nation of Islam, a small American sect whose core beliefs were that all whites were evil, that separation of the black and white races was imperative, and that Elijah Muhammad, the group’s leader, was chosen by God to bring this truth to the world. From prison, he wrote to Muhammad, who answered and sent him $5, thus launching a relationship that would shape the rest of his life.
Professor Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is encyclopaedic in its approach. The endnotes and bibliography indicate the staggering breadth and depth of scholarship underpinning this volume. He offers it as a corrective to the heroic image of Malcolm X presented in The Autobiography, and it certainly achieves that objective. But 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.
Perhaps the most valuable chapter in the book, in light of Marable’s untimely death aged 60 on April 1, is the epilogue, which neatly and concisely places Malcolm X in the context of black thought and culture, particularly in relation to Martin Luther King. Undoubtedly it will stand as a last lecture on the subject by one of America’s most distinguished historians.
But Marable the academic historian is sometimes at odds with Marable the biographer. The wealth of data that makes Malcolm X indispensable as a reference for scholars can also be an impediment for the general reader. Too much detail about Islamic history, for example, interrupts the narrative about Malcolm X’s development. The same is true of the treatment of the Nation of Islam: excessive detail about each new temple and infighting among persons not otherwise important to Malcolm X’s story is a distraction. Even information on Malcolm X himself can obscure the larger story, such as the nearly day-by-day accounts of his life that mark the later chapters. Some details seem like minutiae.
The Malcolm X we find in this volume is something of a riddle. Marable tells us he was a skilled debater but shows us only how he lost important debates to black activist Bayard Rustin and how he resorted to ad hominem attacks on James Farmer, head of the Congress of Racial Equality. We are likewise told that Malcolm X was a great speaker but are mainly shown the great gaffes he made when speaking off-script in interviews and Q&A sessions, such as when he described a plane crash that killed 121 white citizens of Atlanta as “a very beautiful thing, proof that God answers prayers”, or his comment on JFK’s assassination.
Malcolm X’s relationship to the Nation of Islam and Muhammad as presented here undermines the view of him as a sincere and devout minister. About midway through the book, the reader feels the need for a long, hot shower as the inner workings of the Nation become fully revealed. Marable shows that it was at the time a thoroughly corrupt organisation whose hierarchs fed off the working and lower-class members who were required to peddle quotas of its newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, and donate to fund luxury cars and a lavish lifestyle for Muhammad and some of his inner circle. The Nation of Islam, he claims, had a trained goon squad dedicated to severely punishing and even killing members who did not abide by the sect’s strict rules, which included a prohibition of speaking ill of Muhammad. It was this prohibition that Malcolm X violated when he spoke to another minister about Muhammad’s extramarital affairs with Nation of Islam secretaries and the six illegitimate children they bore him, whom he failed adequately to support. The fact that Malcolm X was aware of all of this unsavouriness and continued to praise the Nation and Muhammad as holy calls into question his own morality.
That morality is elsewhere challenged in Marable’s presentation of Malcolm X. The book is rife with examples of him as a weathervane: making interfaith gestures to African American Christians while making internal speeches at Nation of Islam mosques at which he told followers that “Christianity is evil and also America is evil”; insisting that Muslims “take not the Jews and the Christians for friends” in one breath, and in another, explaining that “Muslim … means belief in one God, Allah. Christians call him Christ, Jews call him Jehovah”; accepting money from and publicly embracing George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi party, while moderating the “all whites are devils” rhetoric when speaking before audiences of white liberals.
Whether Malcolm X really evolved in his social philosophy or merely switched his game as political winds changed is open to question; as Marable reports, it was difficult for Malcolm X to shake off his reputation as an anti-white demagogue and many doubted his sincerity. After his split from the Nation of Islam in 1964, he dropped the politics of racial separatism to take up the race-neutral religion of orthodox Islam; receiving enthusiastic support from the Socialist Workers party, he adopted some of the class-struggle language and philosophy of socialism, condemning the black bourgeoisie for turning their backs on their poorer brethren. By the time of his assassination in 1965, though, he was reaching out to the black middle class through his Organisation of Afro-American Unity; he also accepted money from whites to promote a social and political philosophy of black self-determination, black humanism, and respect for the cultural heritage of African Americans. Marable sees Malcolm X’s evolution as genuine but also reports that when asked in 1989 whether she thought her husband’s views had really changed, Betty Shabazz answered: “No.”
Most damning are his relationships with women. Marable repeatedly implies he had a lifelong love for Evelyn Williams, the woman he did not marry; and though this secretary to Muhammad is cast aside by her employer in 1964 after she bears one of his illegitimate children, Malcolm X never tries to intervene in any way to relieve her poverty or suffering. And there is Betty, presented as his sexually unsatisfied and long-suffering wife, whom he abandons after the birth of their fourth child to take a five-week trip to Mecca and tour of Africa on borrowed funds. There, he buys her a scarf in a bazaar, passing up a necklace because he can’t afford it; yet he finds money to tour more than one African city by taxi.
If The Autobiography of Malcolm X helped to calcify his iconic image, Marable’s Malcolm X shows his feet of clay. In light of the declaration on the book jacket that this volume “will stand as the definitive work” on Malcolm X, what’s missing from it is a sense of the man as a fully rounded human being: a friend, father, lover or husband. For all the mountain of invaluable and detailed information Marable has amassed, Malcolm X remains the elusive and enigmatic public figure whose politically incorrect speech gave voice to the dark and angry thoughts of an oppressed people.
Wilbert Rideau is the author of ‘In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance’ (Profile)