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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Niv Mullings is a writer, poet, and plant-based health coach hailing from The Boogie Down Bronx.