Morphing Malcolm

Change was the one constant in a complicated life

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
By Manning Marable
New York, Viking, 594 pages
Reviewed by Kevin C. Peterson

during the final weeks of his life, Malcolm X, the voluble and acerbic American Muslim evangelist, was in a veritable tailspin. No longer tethered to the Nation of Islam and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm’s tragic end was attended with much trouble: He was being accused of adultery by his wife, Betty Shabazz; men whom he had mentored now openly reviled him; mainstream Civil Rights Movement leaders eschewed him; he was homeless after his house was firebombed; he was mired in financial difficulties; and he was being hotly pursued by a coterie of religious zealots determined to see his death.

These extraordinary details form just one slice of the most extensive and fact-rich biography to date of Malcolm X’s life since his assassination more than four decades ago. In Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Man­ning Marable gives readers an intimate and honest assessment of a man who, at the height of his popularity, still found himself in the daily struggle of constructing a full political and moral identity.

While serving as a leading social protest voice, especially among a disaffected, northern, urban, and increasingly cynical generation of blacks, Mal­colm X, in his final days, was searching for new intellectual and spiritual foundations. He was pursuing pathways from his former role as a racially conservative Islamic minister to a human rights leader who embraced pluralism and full democratic engagement.

A work in progress for more than two decades, this latest biography on Malcolm X is the final, masterful expression of Marable, the venerable Col­umbia University scholar who had long been recognized as perhaps the leading academic interpreter of black leftist political movements. Marable, who died just three days before the book was released due to complications related to a double lung transplant, has produced a distinctive and honest biographical portrait of the leader whose improbable life led him from humble beginnings in Nebraska, to stints in Detroit, Boston, and then New York, where, at his demise, he was one of the most recognized people on the planet.

The book alters our understanding of Malcolm, whom generations of high school and college students have come to know mainly through reading the highly glossy Autobiography of Malcolm X, on which he collaborated with Alex Haley, the future author of Roots. Compared to the Auto­bio­graphy and even Spike Lee’s movie treatment of Malcolm in 1992, A Life of Reinvention is an act of deconstruction wherein Marable objectively strips the subject of all romantic patina. Marable portrays a man with a calm, steadfast humanity, exposing his great inclinations along with his vanity and many foibles.

The book is supported by healthy doses of previously unreleased FBI files, previous scholarship, and more recent interviews of people who worked closely with Malcolm, including the current Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan. That access allow­ed Marable to produce a book of intellectual sophistication and previously un­achieved detail regarding Malcolm’s highly complicated life and his sometimes chameleon-like and constantly morphing identity.

Malcolm Little was born under humble circumstances in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents, followers of the black separatist Marcus Garvey, suffered the pangs of poverty as well as the stings of the racial terrorism being propagated by the Ku Klux Klan, which was then at the height of its influence. Malcolm’s boyhood home was firebombed at least once by the Klan. And there exists some evidence that yet another racist group, called the Grand Legion, murdered Malcolm’s father.

Having his family dispersed by unforgiving state agencies after his mother suffered a nervous breakdown, Malcolm was transformed by his circumstances and settings as he crisscrossed the country, surviving with siblings and sympathetic relatives. In Michigan, Malcolm was called Red for the bright, attractive color of his hair as well as his hot temperament. In New York, he became the accomplished street hustler, a cocaine and reefer user, and a pimp. While serving time in jail in Boston, and perhaps under the hallucinogenic sway of intense highs induced by a nutmeg-sniffing habit, he was called Satan for his misanthropic and anti-Christian views.

It was while serving jail time in Massachusetts that Mal­colm transformed himself yet again. This time he morphed into a committed Muslim, a tireless autodidact, and a racialist firebrand ready for service in Elijah Muham­mad’s little noticed Nation of Islam. For 12 years he lived an austere Muslim lifestyle, eating only one meal a day, marrying, fathering four children, and transforming an inauspicious urban Islamic sect founded in Detroit into a nationally recognized religious hotbed. During the final arc of his life, he transformed himself from Malcolm X to El Hajj Malik Shabazz, a sign that he was adapting to a more traditional form of Islam. He had also begun to shed much of the racial separatist doctrine taught to him by his Garveyite parents and the American Muslim sect.

The different reincarnations Malcolm experienced during the course of his life are the theme at the center of Marable’s book. Marable prompts his readers to marvel at the tenacious ambition that fueled his subject’s search to transcend the racial constraints that characterized America’s apartheid culture.

Malcolm’s impact was felt keenly within the mainstream political and social establishment. His strident and accusatory nationalist positions on race relations, and his boasting about engaging in retaliatory violence, often stood in stark contrast to Rev. Martin Luther King’s moderate stances, causing the broader white community to sympathize with King as the lesser of two evils. In these instances, Malcolm provided the moral and political leverage that King needed as he attempted to accelerate the integrationist policies emanating from Washing­ton, DC, during the Johnson administration. In this light, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act may belong as much to Malcolm as they do to Martin.

In some way, Marable suggests, Malcolm’s successive personas, which he describes in greater detail than one finds in the Autobiography, were the distinct products of his incessant need to make sense of the vast racial landscape that boiled around him and sometimes inside him. Amer­ica defined Malcolm as much as he defined it and its values.

Describing Malcolm’s protean nature, Marable asks that we take note of Malcolm’s “ability to reinvent himself in order to function and thrive in a wide variety of environments. He carefully crafted his physical presentation, the manner in which he approached others, drawing upon the past experiences from his own life as well as from African-American folklore and culture.”

Marable’s work is not without its shortcomings. There are instances where the author makes sweeping statements but fails to back them up. He refers to one of Malcolm’s last speeches as one of his greatest, but fails to explain why. And then there are what seem to be attempts to grab headlines with the author’s speculation that Malcolm was bisexual, an effort that proved successful if measured by press reports on the book. Marable’s slim evidence rests only on veiled disclosures that Malcolm enjoyed a friendship with a wealthy, white Boston socialite named Paul Lennon and that his “coolness” toward his wife was indicative of lack of interest in women.

Towards the end of his life, Malcolm had rejected the coarse version of black racial separatism he had assumed as an American Muslim under Elijah Muhammad’s tutelage. He repudiated the concept that non-whites stood on a natural spiritual high ground. He also rejected such ideas as black Americans founding their own country within the confines of the American Northwest. Moreover, Mal­colm was inclined toward a moral salubrity and expressed regrets of all kinds. To Boston-born Louis Farrakhan, he lamented that he had not married a woman whom his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, would eventually impregnate as Muhammad led the sect into a full-blown sexual scandal. He would also regret his racist jeremiads with the Nation of Islam, when he often described whites as “devils” who could play “no role” in ending American racism.

Relentless in the days leading to his assassination, Malcolm was constantly on the road speaking and crafting a highly integrated world view which Marable details with extraordinary clarity. To Alex Haley, Malcolm one night admitted his evolving social philosophy and theology: “I believe in religion, but a religion that includes political, economic, and social action designed to eliminate some of the [world’s suffering] and make a paradise here on earth while we are waiting for the other.”

Meet the Author

Days after uttering these words, the harried Malcolm X would be dead.

Kevin C. Peterson is founder and director of the New Democracy Coalition, a Boston-based organization promoting civic literacy, civic policy and electoral justice.