Book Review: Malcolm X: A Life Of Reinvention

Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming

Dr. Manning Marable, a professor of history at Columbia University and author of fifteen books, knew how important and controversial this book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, was going to be.  Unfortunately, the director of Columbia’s Center of Contemporary Black History died just before its publication.

As I was working on a book with Khalil Islam, aka Thomas Johnson, the alleged assassin who fired the infamous kill-shot into Malcolm X that fateful day in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, I was keeping tabs on Dr. Marable’s research. Islam, who denied any involvement in the slaying, died in 2009. Indeed, Dr. Marable’s biography sets some things about the Black Power icon straight, but it also offers several critical questions.

For the most part, the Marable biography presents a distilled, truer Malcolm than Alex Haley’s flawed collaboration with the slain leader, beginning with the slim boy from Omaha, Nebraska, his tragic family history, his early days as the hustler Detroit Red in New York and Boston, his imprisonment and conversion into a member of the Nation of Islam. The book courts debate over his alleged homosexuality during Malcolm’s hustler years, with his supporters violently questioning the inclusion of “any gay slander.”

Although this book addresses the crucial role played by Malcolm as the best ambassador of the NOI’s particular brand of religion for years, it examines completely the complex set of rifts between the fiery spokesman and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, leader of the organization. When it came to Malcolm X’s attention that Mr. Muhammad had allegedly fathered children to at least six young female members, he pulled back from his pivotal role. NOI members thought he was a traitor and was plotting against their leader.

The Marable biography, setting itself apart from some of the other biographies, reveals information from previously unavailable interviews, confidential police reports as well as FBI and CIA documents. Threats, harassment, and intimidation made life hell for Malcolm and his family.  By the time of his slaying, the ex-Black Muslim spokesman was an emotional shell of his former self, yet still defiant, bold, and unrepentant.

Look for Dr. Marable’s excellent work on Malcolm’s involvement with African leaders and their resistance to colonialism, singling out Nasser, Kenyatta, Nkrumah and Ahmed Sekou Toure. The doomed leader was determined to convince the Organization of African Unity to back a petition protesting American and South African racism, a truly revolutionary move.

While the Marable biography underlines the depth of Malcolm’s emotional and spiritual evolution and a largely accurate chronicle of the NOI as an influential movement in Black America, the book’s value appears in its startling revelations about the mystery of his murder, prompting readers to question why this neglected case is not reopened. I fully agree with critic Michael Eric Dyson that Dr. Marable was “a disciplined scholar.” Notwithstanding the sexual furor over the leader’s early years, one cannot wonder if Dr. Marable had lived, how would he answered some of the prickly questions that the book poses. Still, this remarkable book does his career proud.

Read Knopf’s description of Malcolm X: A Life Of Reinvention.

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