The Myth, The Man: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

A great, detailed and fascinating book, Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is a biography worthy of its subject. In just over 400 pages, he strips away the myths and misconceptions of X’s complex life and sorts through reams of information to try to illuminate the man and why he’s still important nearly 50 years after his assassination.

In looking at X’s life, Marable leaves few stones unturned. He’s researched everything from obscure newspapers to FBI files and spoken to everyone from Louis Farrakhan to a NYPD agent who listened in on X’s wiretapped phone. It’s as complete a picture of the man as we can likely hope for any time soon.

And what a picture is it: Malcolm X leaps off the page here, someone who was continually re-inventing himself while still staying true to his core beliefs, someone who carefully created his own image for maximum impact but was labeled by the media, was a close reader of men, but unable to see how the people he trusted turned on him. And more importantly, Marable never ignores X’s flaws: his occasional anti-Semitism, a less-than-supportive relationship with his wife, etc.

Marable deconstructs X’s famed Autobiography as a well-written book and a good memoir, but as one marred with inconsistencies and self-invention. He carefully explains X’s criminal past, which was not as bad as the Autobiography claims, and tries to shine a light on the major players in those early years. When he gets to the Nation of Islam years, he’s just as detailed: he lays bare a history of the group that points out its many flaws while explaining its strong appeal.

And as the book builds towards X’s final reinvention and conversion to orthodox Islam, his trip to Mecca and frantic rush towards death, he builds up the tension like a novelist, introducing a wide cast of characters and multiple storylines all of which converge in a Harlem ballroom in February 1965.

The end leaves us left with X in all his changes and contradictions: a strong advocate of Pan-Africanism and self-empowerment who was starting to argue for people to make active change in the existing system. But could he have seen where society has gone in the past 50 years? Could he have seen how he would be interpreted and reinterpreted by everyone from Public Enemy to Fox News to the United States Postal System?

Although Marable spoke to a range of opposed sources, most have conflicting ideas on X’s life and ideas. He remains detached from their attitudes, but sometimes cuts through with his own interpretations. This often leads supposition on his part, ranging from who was involved in the assassination to who was a FBI informant to what Malcolm X would be preaching today. While his ideas follow the same logic as the ample evidence from the last years of X’s life, it’s still a nagging concern from someone who points out how the Autobiography occasionally misleads readers.

Which is an interesting topic in itself. Marable often refers to it and it’s inconsistencies with X’s life, but I wished he delved more into it’s relationship with X’s ongoing legacy and how Alex Haley (and to a lesser extent, Spike Lee) became the primary shaper of how most people perceive X.

Rating: 8/10. On the whole, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is a remarkable biography, one that’s both as detailed (over 60 pages of footnotes!) as you could want while being a fluid and engrossing read. I wouldn’t read it instead of Haley’s book, but it’s definitely worth reading.




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