Published by Viking on April 2011
Genres: Nonfiction, Biography
Source: my shelves
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As stated in the acknowledgments and research notes for his book, the idea for Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention came to Manning Marable in 1988 while he was teaching a course in African-American politics at Ohio State University. Part of the required reading for this course was The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Marable realized that “the text revealed numerous inconsistencies, errors, and fictive characters at odds with Malcolm’s actual life history.” It was also missing large sections of Malcolm’s life. In 1989, Marable started working on what he planned on being a “modest political biography” of Malcolm X. More than two decades later Marable has given us Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, which I would say is the definitive account of Malcolm’s life to date, and might just prove to remain so in the future.
I learned so much from this book. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention begins with a brief history of the lives of Malcolm’s parents before he was born, then goes on to detail Malcolm’s life from the time of his birth until his assassination in 1965. In addition to Malcolm’s personal story and his relationship with his family, this book also dives deep into the Civil Rights Movement, the Nation of Islam, the stories of other civil rights leaders, and certain aspects of the United States government. I am sure that I learned something new from each and every page of this book.
Of the great figures in twentieth-century American history perhaps none is more complex and controversial than Malcolm X. Constantly rewriting his own story, he became a criminal, a minister, a leader, and an icon, all before being felled by assassins’ bullets at age thirty-nine. Through his tireless work and countless speeches he empowered hundreds of thousands of black Americans to create better lives and stronger communities while establishing the template for the self-actualized, independent African American man. In death he became a broad symbol of both resistance and reconciliation for millions around the world.
Manning Marable’s new biography of Malcolm is a stunning achievement. Filled with new information and shocking revelations that go beyond the Autobiography, Malcolm X unfolds a sweeping story of race and class in America, from the rise of Marcus Garvey and the Ku Klux Klan to the struggles of the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties. Reaching into Malcolm’s troubled youth, it traces a path from his parents’ activism through his own engagement with the Nation of Islam, charting his astronomical rise in the world of Black Nationalism and culminating in the never-before-told true story of his assassination. Malcolm X will stand as the definitive work on one of the most singular forces for social change, capturing with revelatory clarity a man who constantly strove, in the great American tradition, to remake himself anew.
I have to admit that I harbored a few misconceptions about Malcolm X before reading Marable’s biography. I can’t pinpoint exactly where these misconceptions originated, but all of them were dispelled by this book. Not only that, but the book made me realize just how little I actually knew about this man and what he stood for. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X years ago, but A Life of Reinvention blows that book out of the water, as far as solid information goes. I really had no idea what the NOI was all about, besides being taught a long time ago that it really had nothing to do with the actual Islamic religion while under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad. I had no idea—or recollection of—why the split happened between Malcolm and the NOI. Beyond it being detailed from Maya Angelou’s point of view in one of her memoirs, I had no real idea of the extent of Malcolm’s trips to Africa and what he hoped to accomplish there. And the details that have surfaced concerning Malcolm’s assassination are fascinating and heartbreaking. Marable’s biography of Malcolm provided me will all of this information and more; it continued to surprise me and educate me from beginning to end.
Now, biographies of this size and magnitude have the potential to get boring or to bog the reader down with information overflow. That is not the case with Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. The information is put together in a way that keeps the reader interested, it is well-written, and Malcolm’s life in itself was very intriguing. Marable was very good at objectively detailing events from the point of view of everyone involved; he made sure to give as many sides of the story as he was able. In some instances—those in which there was a lack of solid evidence or information—Marable had to make educated guesses about the reasons for people’s actions, but he was always straightforward with the reader about this. When Marable had to interject his personal impressions of people or circumstances into the biography, he made that plain to the reader and gave as much evidence as he could to back up those impressions.
I enjoyed reading this book very much. I really was amazed at how much this one book taught me about so many different people and aspects of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Malcolm led a very complex life, but Marable did an excellent job of deconstructing it and making it easier to understand. I would recommend Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention to anyone who is interested in learning more about Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam (including Elijah Muhammad and its other leaders), the Civil Rights Movement, or the FBI’s tracking of individuals and groups that were important to the Civil Rights Movement. Even if you haven’t been interested in these subjects before, I would recommend Marable’s book to anyone who enjoys reading biographies, no matter whom they’re about. It is very well-written, consistently interesting, and highly informative.
Manning Marable was an incredible historian and writer and it is unfortunate that he didn’t live to see the success of the book that took up such a major portion of his life’s work. To learn more about Manning Marable, please see his Columbia University faculty bio, or his Wikipedia page.