Manning Marable’s autobiography of Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention, that was finished before Marable’s death in April of 2011 is a fascinating look into the life of the revolutionary icon and a prominent figure of the civil rights movement era. While this book has won critical acclaim, received a Pulitzer Prize in the “History” category and was listed as one of the best 10 books of 2011 by the New York Times, it also has some controversy associated with it. As I read this book, I found myself reviewing Marable’s notes and examining many of his sources.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley that was published shortly after Malcolm X’s death in 1965 is put under the magnifying glass in this book; Marable makes the claim that Malcolm X wasn’t as big of a criminal as he made himself out to be to Alex Haley, and Marable quotes many of Malcolm’s speeches post Malcolm’s initial trip to Mecca that contradict that he had reversed many of his views on race, Martin Luther King, integration, and hinted that he may not have been totally opposed to the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad. Marable’s accusations of Malcolm having a homosexual affair with a white businessman are also brought up and are all according to rumor; Marable also suggests that his wife Betty Shabazz also had an affair with one of Malcolm’s security detail, and that Malcolm’s journal entries in a couple of places during Malcolm’s trips abroad suggest he had extramarital affairs as well.
At the same time while Marable makes some strong accusations throughout the book, the life of Malcolm X aside from what you read in Alex Haley’s autobiography is well written. The problem with acquiring sources based on interviews and being on record and going through someone’s journals is that it still doesn’t paint an accurate picture, but Marable does include a lot of good information of Malcolm’s activities in and out of the Nation of Islam. He goes further into the things that we also already know about Malcolm and the Nation of Islam.
There are a lot of disputed claims from the Nation of Islam and some of Malcolm’s closest associates when it comes to this book, but a lot of the information regarding the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakan, and that fateful day of Malcolm X’s assassination is consistent with other accounts that have been documented. Elijah Muhammad definitely formed the Nation of Islam based on schemes that had nothing to do with traditional Islamic practices or philosophies, which the Nation of Islam still embraces to this day and makes traditional Islamic groups refuse to embrace the Nation of Islam. Malcolm’s conversion to traditional based Islam after Elijah Muhammad banished him were probably bound to happen—Malcolm was already questioning Elijah Muhammad’s beliefs and morality.
The problem with any book on Malcolm X is that Malcolm himself didn’t leave a lot of information about himself behind, especially in the sense that he never released any writings of his own, and he left behind several recorded speeches and media appearances. Malcolm X also died in the midst of a transformation that became very problematic for him due to his association with the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad produced Malcolm X; Malcolm X saw Elijah Muhammad as his personal savior, a prophet who could do no wrong, and Malcolm was shattered when he discovered Elijah Muhammad was a man who was having inappropriate sexual relationships with the Nation of Islam’s secretaries. The group was threatened by Malcolm’s activities in creating groups that would likely lure away members of the Nation of Islam, and while Malcolm exposed Elijah Muhammad in the process of reinventing himself.
Marable’s accusations that Malcolm never completely reinvented himself and never changed his views on race are up for debate. The more Malcolm traveled overseas to Islamic countries, the more people he met, the more that the Nation of Islam threatened him and his family are what led to his many revelations. And to be fair to Marable, he does quote an interview that Malcolm gave right before his death where he said that the infamous incident where he answered “nothing” to a white student who asked what she could do to help his cause was something that he later came to deeply regret. Had Malcolm X survived, he would have likely had more time to evolve and further his transformation.
If there’s one conclusion that this book makes well, it’s that the Nation of Islam is a dangerous organization and that Elijah Muhammad was not who he made himself out to be. Malcolm built the reputation that the Nation of Islam enjoyed, built up its membership, lived and breathed the cause, and then spent his last days trying to rediscover himself and destroy the mentality that Elijah Muhammad installed in him.