Writing about Malcolm X can feel like stepping into a whirlpool. The further one ventures beneath the currents, the more one is drawn into a vortex of pain. Born May 19, 1925, Malcolm died February 21, 1965, in a fusillade of bullets, while articulating the realities of those on the margins of society. Sooner or later, many who attempt to chronicle his life conclude that the man was doomed to embody the suffering of the most vulnerable segments of black America. Indeed, few Malcolm biographers escape the curse that afflicted their subject: the burden of bearing the trauma of generations of oppression.
If anyone seemed capable of carrying the psychic weight of Malcolm’s life, it was my late mentor Manning Marable. Marable was a prominent historian and the founding director of Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS). When I met him in 2002 he had been seriously investigating Malcolm for almost 15 years. A perceptive interpreter of black freedom struggles, Marable appeared to be the ideal candidate to craft the authoritative political biography of Malcolm. What he produced in the end was rather more complicated. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, the professor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tome, is as insightful as it is fraught and uneven. 1 Marable’s untimely death on April 1, 2011, days before the release of the long-anticipated biography, added a dimension of heartbreak. The tragedy that surrounds Malcolm’s memory seemed to have engulfed one of his most gifted interlocutors.
There was a time, however, when Marable’s exploration of Malcolm was a source of unbridled excitement for the scholar and for many of those around him. I joined the Malcolm X Project (MXP), an IRAAS initiative led by Marable, during my first year in grad school. The Project brought together students and budding scholars who were tasked with contextualizing the late leader’s autobiography, conducting oral histories with his close associates, and producing chronologies and other resources to enhance the collective study of his life and times. At the center of the MXP’s intellectual vibrancy was Marable himself, an enthusiast who saw the study of Malcolm as an essential link between IRAAS and the people, cultures, and destiny of neighboring Harlem.
Marable’s admiration for Malcolm as an exponent of the Black Radical Tradition undergirded the work of the MXP. But late in my graduate career, as Marable drafted early chapters of his biography and shared them with some of his students, a growing concern began to temper my passion for the Project. I started to notice a gap between the tenor of Marable’s prose and the great affection for Malcolm that the scholar expressed in person and in his teaching and labors as a public intellectual.
This discrepancy led to the only brief clash that Marable and I ever had. After reading a section of the professor’s manuscript in progress, including a passage recounting Malcolm’s derision of the 1963 March on Washington, I raised several objections. In a meeting with Marable, I questioned his depiction of Malcolm as a bitter detractor fuming in the shadows of the demonstration. I argued that despite the symbolic appeal of the event and the extraordinary mobilization behind it, the march had largely functioned as Malcolm predicted it would—as a pageant that validated the Kennedy Administration’s pending civil rights bill while silencing or deflecting more militant tendencies within the movement. To downplay such tendencies, I contended, was to mask the legitimate fury that erupted in Harlem in 1964 and throughout the “long hot summers” that followed. As I saw it, Marable’s chapters dismissed the politics of insurgent dissent while reifying liberal integrationism as the defining framework of black liberation. Marable, however, disagreed with my appraisal, and we discussed the matter no further.
When the Malcolm biography was released a few years later, questions immediately arose about the validity of its historical interpretations, spawning intense public debate within the field of black studies. The 2011 book received accolades from many prominent journals and intellectuals. Yet a number of scholar-activists openly criticized Marable’s conclusions. Several of the most scathing black nationalist and left-of-center critiques were anthologized in a polemical volume titled A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X. 2 The charges therein echoed in strident fashion those that critics had leveled elsewhere. According to these detractors, Marable had endeavored to belittle and distort Malcolm and to neutralize him as a radical icon. He had trafficked in speculation and salacious innuendo; failed to adequately cite or acknowledge the work of previous Malcolm historians; and served the counterrevolutionary agenda of the ruling class (as dictated by Viking Press, the biography’s publisher) by recasting Malcolm as a liberal Democrat, a rebranding for the “post-racial” Age of Obama.
To be fair, some objections to Marable’s text were based on careful analysis. Historian Sundiata Cha-Jua, for example, argued that the biography’s theme of “reinvention” constituted a cynical reframing of what countless observers had simply characterized as Malcolm’s political evolution. Other critiques were less principled. Many of the harshest condemnations depicted Marable as an “elite” Ivy League academic far removed from the sensibilities of Malcolm’s grassroots constituency, a notion that seemed to ignore the entire corpus of the scholar’s political life and work. The problem, of course, was that Marable was unable to face his accusers, whatever the merits of their claims. And his conspicuous absence encouraged the ad hominem nature of the attacks.
Marable would have relished the intellectual jousting that followed the publication of his final work. (One of his advisees, Zaheer Ali, served as a capable proxy, contextualizing the biography in many interviews and debates.) In the aftermath of Marable’s death, however, many of his former students were too grief-stricken to sift through multiple critiques of the book, and too dismayed by baseless or virulent denunciations to formulate cogent responses. Indeed, the wrangling over A Life of Reinvention deepened the pain that many Marable protégées felt in the wake of the intellectual’s passing. Shaken by the recrimination, and unprepared to face the implications of the interpretive lapses that I had detected in the text years earlier, I shelved my copy of the biography. Occasionally I perused a chapter or two, but I could not bring myself to teach or substantively engage the work.
Then April 1, 2016 arrived—the fifth anniversary of Marable’s death. I decided that the time had come to revisit A Life of Reinvention. I knew the study was not Marable’s magnum opus. (That distinction belongs either to Race, Reform, and Rebellion or to How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America.) 3 Yet as I started rereading I was struck by the biography’s strengths. Its treatment of Malcolm’s last year is particularly illuminating. A Life of Reinvention captures the competing political impulses and trajectories of those final months. Marable depicts Malcolm’s torturous escape from the dogmas of the Nation of Islam, his search for a coherent ideological framework, and his efforts to rebuild an organizational base.
The leader’s political and rhetorical contradictions in this period of rapid development are vividly revealed. We find Malcolm seeking greater influence within the centers of African-American struggle while continuing to castigate King and other figures, preaching all-black unity while honing the language of class revolt, and tacking toward then away from Third World models of socialism. We also learn new details about the political dynamics of Malcolm’s treks through the postcolonial world, from Ghana to Nigeria to Algeria to Egypt. And we get a fuller picture of his campaign to charge the United States with human rights abuses before the UN.
Yet the disparaging tone of Marable’s prose remains a distracting and at times infuriating element of the text. Malcolm is cast as a provocateur given to bluster and excess, rather than as a radical who skewered the duplicity of the American narrative of racial progress and democratic inclusion. Marable alternates between condemning Malcolm’s “stridency” and portraying him as an aspiring civil rights leader who was coming to terms with the creed of “multicultural universalism.” The depiction of integrationism and liberal reform as normative models of social change is the most disappointing aspect of A Life of Reinvention.
Nevertheless, Marable’s book will prove useful to those who wish to understand Malcolm’s later political metamorphoses, particularly his attempts to transcend the theoretical boundaries of racial thought and embrace more expansive principles of anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. Though Malcolm’s final year is endlessly fascinating, one must resist the temptation to draw sweeping conclusions based on the leader’s last pronouncements and deeds. Malcolm, like Marable, was not preparing his final testament, only struggling imperfectly toward a vision of freedom.
- Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (New York: Viking, 2011). ↩
- Jared A. Ball and Todd Steven Burroughs, eds., A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 2012). ↩
- Manning Marable, Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984); Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 1983). ↩