Thursday, May 19, 2011

Manning Marable's Biography of Malcolm X Explores His Work as a Social Activist

The late Manning Marable’s new biography A Life of Reinvention: Malcom X is a dense, well-researched, and thoroughly engaging examination of the life of Malcolm X and his reinvention as an important social activist in the 1960s. Marable, who passed away at the publication of his latest work, spent over a decade researching and writing it, and the breadth in which he covers the span of Malcolm X’s brief and extraordinary life is compelling (there’s nearly a hundred pages of research notes and bibliography). What emerges in this examination is less hagiography, as Malcolm X was positioned in many accounts following his assassination, but a complex portrait of a man reinventing himself, his style, and his religious and political beliefs.

In A Life of Reinvention, Marable covers the familiar terrain of Malcolm X’s life: his childhood, the death of his father, his rise to petty crime in Boston and Harlem, his subsequent imprisonment, his conversion to the Nation of Islam where, after his release from prison, he becomes a minister; then later his conversion to orthodox Islam following a hajj to mecca; his acrimonious break from the NOI, and of course his brutal and untimely death. As a historian, however, Marable is less interested in the personal aspects of Malcolm’s life (though he does include new and somewhat titillating information regarding his sexual exploits during his youth and his marriage to Betty Shabazz), but more concerned with his political activism. It is here that A Life of Reinvention pays its dues.

As early as the mid-fifties, Malcolm X’s interest in political and social activism began, much earlier than one might think following his break from the Nation of Islam. After a 1957 altercation between NOI members and the police, when one of the members was brutally beaten by the police and taken to a local precinct station house, Malcolm X mobilized a team of NOI members to attend to the injured Muslim. The police beating also attracted the attention of angry Harlemites who immediately aligned themselves with the Muslims, prompting one harried police officer to state “No one man should have that much power.” (This scene was depicted in the 1992 Spike Lee film Malcolm X). Marable reveals how this encounter led Malcolm X on a life-long journey toward a political maturity that would take him away from the black nationalist rhetoric of the NOI and toward civil rights, human rights, and Pan-Africanism. As the title of the biography reveals, Malcolm X’s life was one of reinvention and, as Marable quotes civil rights activist and Malcolm X’s good friend and debate opponent Bayard Rustin, that his life was “the odyssey of an American Negro in search of his identity and place in society.” But much of that identity, as Marable aptly reveals, involves Malcolm X’s search for a political voice that would speak to the largely voiceless African Americans trapped in northern ghettoes.

Malcolm X was a work-in-progress at the time of his death, still struggling to find the right voice to reconcile his beliefs in black nationalism, orthodox Islam, and Pan-Africanism. Had he lived longer, he perhaps would have found that voice, and we can only speculate what force it would have had on the international scene.

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