Steve Hahn: Review of Manning Marable's "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention"

Roundup: Books

Steve Hahn teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author, most recently, of The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (Harvard University Press). This article appeared in the April 19, 2012 issue of the magazine.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
By Manning Marable
(Viking Press, 594 pp., $30)


When Malcolm X died in a hail of assassin’s gunfire at the Audubon Ballroom in February 1965, the mainstream media in the United States was quick to suggest that he reaped the harvest of bloodshed he had brazenly sown. Calling him an “extremist,” “a demagogue,” a “racist,” and a “spiritual desperado,” commentators often insisted that Malcolm advocated the use of violence, regarded whites as “devils,” and was an embodiment—as a television series on the Nation of Islam had put it in 1959—of the “hate that hate produced.” At best, the press acknowledged Malcolm’s oratorical skills and razor-sharp intelligence, and found him to be personally impressive but politically misguided; at worst, they regarded him as an opportunist and religious zealot intent on stirring the cauldron of racial conflict, the polar opposite of the increasingly admired Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Several months later, with the posthumous publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (produced in collaboration with Alex Haley), a more complex portrait began to emerge. It depicted a life of major and unexpected transformations, from a young street-hustling, drug-peddling burglar to a born-again member of the Nation of Islam and finally to an activist whose simultaneous spiritual and political reawakenings tragically presaged his death. The vehicle of this veritable transubstantiation was the penitentiary to which he was confined for seven years and where, owing to the initiatives of a fellow inmate and family members, Malcolm embarked on a journey of re-education, which included his embrace of the spiritual guidance of Elijah Muhammad.

Manning Marable’s stunning and fascinating biography of Malcolm X helps us to navigate these different representations, and pays special attention to how the Autobiography was constructed and how its narrative may be viewed. But more than anything else, Marable gives us a Malcolm we have never really seen before, and makes sense of him and the world in which he lived: a figure whose deep political genealogy gave powerful shape to how he developed and what he did at various points in his life. This is an impressive study not so much of “reinvention” as of political education, and it offers profound insight into the ideas and the aspirations that would constitute African America in the modern age....

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