Book review – Malcolm X: the man beyond myth

2011-11-25 11:05

If Malcolm X, the historical American civil rights warrior and martyr, lost his humanity to the awe and myths that have piled themselves up around his story, he will regain it in this new, significant biography.

The book unfolds like a driven and rigorous enigma-breaking process. It is the result of a laborious journey that took Manning Marable two decades to complete. He died just days before the book’s publication.

No other Afro-American leader has exercised as electrifying a hold on the world as the man born Malcolm Little, who grew up to become Malcolm X and died Malik El-Shabazz.

The book astutely traces the multiple metamorphic moments in Malcolm’s charmed life.

The “layers of personality [that] were even expressed as a series of names, some of which he [Malcolm] created, while others were bestowed upon him: Malcom Little, Homeboy, Jack Carlaton, Detroit Red, Big Red, Satan, Malachi Shabazz, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. No single personality ever captured him fully. In this sense, his narrative is a brilliant series of reinventions”.

Hence the chosen title of this book.

As a historical text, of course, Marable’s book benefits from the luxury of hindsight and research, which wasn’t enjoyed by earlier books on Malcolm X.

The most seminal work with which this book is going to be compared is the autobiography co-written by Malcolm X himself and journalist Alex Haley.

It’s a necessary comparison in order to appreciate the depth and intensity which Marable brings to this new work.

The main flaw in the autobiography, which doesn’t plague this book, is the divergence of purpose between Malcolm and his co-writer.

“At first, Malcolm sought to use the book as a tale of moral uplift, to praise the power of the Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Mohammad. After his departure from the religious sect, he used his autobiography to explain his break from black separatism. Haley’s purpose was quite different, for him the autobiography was a cautionary tale about human waste and the tragedy produced by racial segregation.”

Apart from this variance of purpose between the collaborators, add that Malcolm was murdered before he could see the project through.

So he had absolutely no input in some of Haley’s definitive decisions, which ultimately frame Malcolm “firmly within mainstream civil rights respectability at the end of his life”.

A situation which arises from Haley’s liberal Republican prejudices.

Marable’s book also fills in other gaps which marked earlier writing on Malcolm X, speaking to people who had historically refused to be interviewed, including the current Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan.

He explores controversial themes like Malcolm X’s contested homosexuality, and details around the Organisation of Afro-American Unity, an organ Malcolm X set upon after leaving the Nation of Islam.

In the end, Marable’s version stands loftier among other accounts of Malcolm X’s life, the man described by actor and activist Ossie Davis as “our living black manhood, our own shinning black prince who didn’t hesitate to die because he loved us so”.

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