Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
For quite some time I've been eager to get into Manning Marable's Reinvention. Back in college Marable was something of a minor intellectual celebrity in our Caribbean Students' Association, and I'd always meant to take the time to explore some of his work. With the pages of Autobiography still fresh in my mind, I dove into Reinvention, ready to expand upon what I already knew.
The strength of this work lies in the breadth and depth of research. No one can deny that this book was quite thorough, and gave an impressive amount of context for what's written in Autobiography. Each chapter of Malcolm's life is placed within the greater context of racial and class struggle, and Manning did a great job of connecting Malcolm's life to the events that were occurring on the larger national and international stage.
Marable's extensive, decades-long research allowed for a treasure trove of previously unknown information that paints a very rich and compelling narrative. Marable's aim was to separate the man from the myth; he felt like the presentation of Malcolm in Autobiography was in many ways too fictive and incomplete. This is unsurprising. The fact that Haley was often left to his own devices during the writing of Autobiography, as well as the fact that it was published after Malcolm's death does call a lot into question. Indeed, Marable was very keen to point out contradictions between his research and what's written in Autobiography. Marable also did not hide the fact that he was somewhat suspicious of Haley and his motives.
I personally believe that a great biography is one that refuses to deify the subject and rather seeks to give as complete and honest as possible a portrait of who that person was. Malcolm X was notoriously complicated and undoubtedly imperfect, and this is what endears him to so many. Marable's depiction of him adheres faithfully to this fact. The Malcolm X of Autobiography is a made-for-the-masses, sanitized depiction of the man; Marable's book presents Malcolm in raw form, flaws and all.
Marable does an excellent job illustrating how the theme of reinvention characterized Malcolm's life. He shows, in no uncertain terms, that in addition to the transformation narrative that we've come to know as Malcolm X's life story, there have been a number of ways in which his persona has been reinvented over time. In the chapter entitled "The Legend of Detroit Red", for example, Marable argues that there were a lot of liberties taken in the presentation of Detroit Red in Autobiography, and that a lot of the criminal aspects of the Detroit Red persona were greatly exaggerated in an attempt to make the story of Malcolm's transformation even more extraordinary. This skeptical approach characterizes much of Marable's work, and he makes it clear that his goal is to cut through the illusion and get to the facts.
I would be lying if I said that I didn't feel at times like Marable was playing a little fast and loose with conjecture. I did find myself feeling uneasy and even questioning Marable's motives for including certain salacious bits of information regarding Malcolm's marriage and sex life. I wondered at points if I was reading too hard into what felt somewhat like the passing of moral judgment. I came into conflict with myself because while I appreciate the notion of presenting a truthful narrative, I am also sensitive to the fact that there are some things that people would prefer to keep private. There are definitely things in here that I'm sure both Malcolm and Betty would've preferred to take to their graves.
I found myself grappling with questions of ethics; since Malcolm opened the door to his life by publishing Autobiography, and because he's become such a larger than life figure in Black history, does this mean that we are entitled to know every single detail of his life? Particularly if he omitted this information in his own life story? And especially if this information is coming from word of mouth and insinuations based on sometimes vague journal entries? While unpacking these feelings I was reminded of Malcolm's own words:
“I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I'm a human being, first and foremost, and as such I'm for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
If what Marable presents to us is indeed the truth, then maybe exposing this information was for the best. For what it's worth, Marable is fairly straight-forward and honest regarding the sourcing of his information, though some internal citations would have helped tremendously. While I did have my doubts, by the end of the book I no longer questioned Marable's motives, as his undying respect for the man is evident in his dedication to this work.
At the end of the day, I've no interest in a sanitized depiction of Malcolm's life story. I personally feel that the habitual deification of Black historical figures in particular has done a disservice to the everyday people who admire them. No one is perfect, and we can all benefit from learning to see people as they truly are, rather than who we'd prefer them to be. There are many things that Malcolm did that I wholeheartedly disagree with, things that even Malcolm himself came to regret as his personal politics evolved. However, the power and impact of the core of Malcolm's teachings cannot be denied, and nothing that Marable presents to us in this work makes Malcolm or his journey any less extraordinary.
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Unbought And Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Though the term has been carelessly tossed around over the past couple years, Shirley Chisholm embodied the definition of "political outsider". A regular, Black woman schoolteacher from Brooklyn, Chisholm knew that her very presence ran counter to the political agendas within both New York & national politics, but she gathered the guts to take them to task anyways. Chisholm understood how to run a real grassroots political campaign, standing firm in her decision to be a voice for the most disenfranchised, even when - no, *especially* when it meant possible political suicide. With a keen and knowing eye, Shirley studied the ways of local and national politics in order to work both within and around their confines, to do as much work for her people as possible.
Unbought & Unbossed is quite honestly a timeless read. Shirley Chisholm's struggles in Washington under the Nixon administration provides a blueprint for working within politics today. It conjures up the old adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same. And there is much to be learned from a true political outsider's foray into the mouth of an old and unyielding political beast. Chisholm is brutally honest about the shortcomings of American politics, from the unwillingness of the old guard to yield power, to the carelessness and nauseating misbehaviors of so-called representatives in Congress. Chisholm identifies and calls out the Old Boy's club for what it is, and makes it clear that true change will come not from our local govts or Washington, but from the collective efforts of grassroots movements made up of a coalition of the disenfranchised.
It's a shame how little we discuss Shirley Chisholm's brave and tenacious political career; I admit that I didn't know much more about her than her given moniker of "first woman to run for President". It's a shame - and a testament to the strength of this nation's enduring sociopolitical structure - because that is precisely how she did *not* want to be remembered. I urge everyone to read her own words and take the time to know Shirley Chisholm the woman, the Black woman, the citizen, the insistent voice of the downtrodden and discarded. For sure, you'll find more bravery within these pages than can be found in most political spaces today. Shirley Chisholm, an underacknowledged catalyst for change, is a true unsung American hero whose use of agency, tenacity and determined, progressive action should serve as an inspiration for us all.
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Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
If you're a fan of any of Anthony Bourdain's TV shows, then you'll definitely enjoy Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain writes with unflinching honesty about his experiences in the restaurant business. He's forthcoming about his bad behavior, his missteps, and being a general "punk" as he so knowingly refers to his younger self. Bourdain is clear that this isn't the authoritative story of the dark side of the restaurant industry, but rather, that it is uniquely and quite honestly his story. I appreciate honesty, even if the things I'm being presented with aren't the most pleasant.
After reading about the antics that Bourdain experienced during his years as a chef, you absolutely will start to approach eating out with a different eye, regarding many restaurants and the meals they serve with suspicion. No doubt, Bourdain gives a no-holds-barred look into the seething "culinary underbelly", with brutal honesty and a refreshing dose of humor. You will cringe, you will squirm, you will be shocked, you will laugh. You will get just about everything you'd expect from Bourdain, and then some. If you're an aspiring chef, or simply a curious foodie, this book is definitely worth the read.
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Afeni Shakur: Evolution of a Revolutionary by Jasmine Guy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Agency is such a powerful thing. Anyone familiar with Tupac's "Dear Mama" knows the story of Afeni Shakur - or so it may seem. I can attest that it doesn't even come close to illuminating the complexities of the life of Afeni Shakur. Speaking with such profound clarity, Afeni holds no illusions about her mistakes and her imperfections. But she is so much more than her missteps, and Jasmine Guy craftily ensures that we see Afeni as a whole woman.
Afeni's story is the story of Black women in America. Her story, and that of her son and daughter shed light on the way pain is passed between generations. Indeed, it is a story of struggle, but also one of reconciliation, rebirth, and the wisdom that only comes from living through the deepest depths of despair. It is a story about womanhood, about Blackness, about injustice, about honesty, personal responsibility, and truth. There is so much to be learned from Afeni's story, way beyond being mother to one of hip-hop's most legendary names. This is a story that needed to be told and that absolutely should be read.
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Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man's Education by Mychal Denzel Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I can't remember the last time I devoured a book like this one. Probably because despite the difference in gender, Mychal Denzel Smith spoke so perfectly to me and my own struggles. In his candid, raw, and honest accounting of his short life as a young black man thus far, I saw my brother, my uncle, my absent father, my husband, and countless other men I know. But I also saw myself.
Lots of empty references to the millennial generation tend to overlook race, thereby ignoring the specific struggles that being Black and millennial in the age of Obama have brought about. Smith, though not claiming to speak as the racialized voice of a generation, still manages to do so by addressing the political problem that has characterized our lives: the cognitive dissonance of accepting the overarching notion of racial progress in the face of endless Black death.
This painful reality has given birth to a radical movement that is a purposeful detour from those that came before, and Smith champions this. All the while, still contending with the same dark issues of mental health, self-hatred, rampant misogyny, homophobia, and countless other issues that come with being Black in America. Smith leaves no stone unturned, speaking truth to power by taking everyone, including himself, to task for the ways we venture away from the very thing that has the power to save us, the very thing that should be at the heart of any radical movement for a just future: love.
This is a book about a young Black man grappling with what he's been taught is the meaning of being a young Black man in America, and with so much truth, clarity and honesty, turns it all on its head.
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Niv Mullings is a writer, poet, and plant-based health coach hailing from The Boogie Down Bronx.