A Man for Many Seasons

A Man for Many Seasons

Malcolm X:
A Life of Reinvention

by Manning Marable
Viking Adult, 2001, 608 pp.

Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention hit the book stands last spring with considerable buzz, given the allure that accompanied Malcolm X’s life story, as well as the drama of Marable’s personal tragedy. Marable died of complications resulting from pneumonia at age sixty a few days before the publication of his magnum opus. His sudden demise heightened the impression that his Malcolm—the product of ten years of work—would be definitive.

The man euphemistically known as “the Brother X” has become iconic. He has been the subject of a major Hollywood biopic. But his legacy remains contested. Critics and admirers alike pick and choose from among the images of Malcolm X. There is the majestic freedom fighter, admired by Spike Lee and Barack Obama. There is the Brother X associated with parochial-minded anti-Americanism; the race-baiting Malcolm X recently denounced by Stanley Crouch as “a maskmaker from his days as a hustler to the moment at which he was shot to death”; Malcolm the global humanitarian, the symbol of world brotherhood; Malcolm the sectarian, the divisive influence. There is the religious Malcolm, potentially the new face of Black Islamic America.

But there is another Malcolm, the male chauvinist, who bragged in his autobiography of never having trusted a woman, and whose image reified ugly strains of Islamic sexism, as well as its capacity for radical violence. Marable notes, “An al-Qaeda video released following the election of Barack Obama described the president as a ‘race traitor’ and ‘hypocrite’ when compared to Malcolm X.”

Martin Luther King’s career fits easily into the mold of a martyred civil rights hero. He promoted social integrationism and was murdered by a white racist. For most of his public life, Malcolm X belittled social integrationism and was murdered by other blacks in a sectarian feud. Malcolm X’s break with the Nation of Islam defined the final period of his career. But after he put aside the NOI’s half-baked philosophy of “white devils” he still extolled the power behind a collective racial identity. He ultimately “changed,” but to what? There is not a clear version of what the final Malcolm X represented.

Malcolm’s legacy has been interpreted to be culturally black nationalist or capitalist (in the Marcus Garvey tradition of black entrepreneurship) or socialist. His last phase coincided with the period of anticolonialist socialist revolutions in Africa. He identified strongly with Pan-Africanism. But Pan-Africanism has come and gone; where does this leave Malcolm X in history?

A Life of Reinvention is heavy on particulars, or minutiae—a narrative retelling by a zealous researcher. Isn’t this a biographer’s task? Yes, and yet for all that Marable accomplishes, a certain disappointment haun...

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