The OF Blog: 2011 National Book Award non-fiction nominee: Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

2011 National Book Award non-fiction nominee: Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

On March 17, 1945, Malcolm was arrested and turned over to the Detroit Police Department, charged with grand larceny.  Wilfred posted a bond of a thousand dollars, and for a short time Malcolm found menial jobs at a Lansing mattress maker and then a truck factory.  When his trial was postponed, he decided that his best move was to get out of town.  Sometime in August 1945, he fled the jurisdiction; a warrant was issued for his arrest.

The Autobiography is completely silent about these events.  Undoubtedly, Malcolm was profoundly ashamed about this phase of his past.  He likely felt that the deepest violation he had committed was the humiliation he inflicted on his family through his career as a pretty criminal.  But he may have also dropped these incidents from his history as part of the attempt to shape his legend.  His amateurish efforts at gangsterism in Boston and Lansing – the clumsy theft of his aunt's coat, the ridiculous armed robbery of an acquaintance – undermined the credibility of his supposed criminal exploits in New York, and even he must have realized that the Michigan arrest warrant, combined with his parole violation from Massachusetts, would follow him across the country.  If he was ever arrested again for even a minor crime, these other violations would be brought against him.

He first returned to New York City and subsequently to Boston, desperately trying to survive through a variety of hustles.  It was during this time that Malcolm encountered a man named William Paul Lennon, and the uncertain particulars of their intimate relationship would generate much controversy and speculation in the years following Malcolm's death. (Ch. 2, e-book edition)

Even forty-six years after his assassination in February 1965, Malcolm X still remains one of the most controversial figures in 20th century American history.  One of the leaders of the Nation of Islam before his 1963 ouster and subsequent conversion to orthodox Sunni Islam, Malcolm X has sparked all sorts of outrage over his racially-charged speeches decrying integration and his diatribes against the "blue-eyed devils."  Some see him as a prophet of freedom, others as a vile race-baiting firebrand whose words worsened the racial violence of the late 1950s and 1960s.  Even the Autobiography of Malcolm X, published just after his death and "told to" Alex Haley (of Roots fame), provokes more questions than it answers.  Just who in the world was Malcolm Little/X and why does he spark such diametrically opposite opinions from Americans of all walks of life?

Marable's biography attempts to fill in the gaps found in The Autobiography of Malcolm X; it also is a critical look at how Malcolm X and his supporters may have distorted his pre-Nation of Islam and NoI time in order to cast him in a more positive light.  Marable's history of Malcolm Little/X cites extensively from several recent biographies written about him, some of which raise contentious points such as the case of Malcolm's rumored homosexual acts for pay during his street hustler days in the mid-to-late-1940s.

The passage quoted above is indicative of Marable's approach.  Marable often begins discussion of important episodes of Malcolm's life by first concisely presenting the known facts.  He then refers to The Autobiography of Malcolm X to see if such episodes are mentioned before then analyzing these events based not just on the available evidence but also on commentary with former associates and family members whenever possible.  At times, Marable feels compelled to rely upon conjecture, such as the case of Malcolm's rumored acts with William Paul Lennon.  This approach does open Marable up to criticism from those who either believe what Malcolm told Alex Haley or those who believe rumor and innuendo about Malcolm's sexual past are calculated attempts to destroy the myth surrounding Malcolm X that has been built up during the 46 years since his assassination.

Reinvention certainly is the focus of Marable's biography.  He posits that Malcolm was conscious of his legacy and that during the last two years of his life, he made conscious efforts to sanitize certain parts of his life, mostly through omission of facts or details, or, conversely, he set out to create more striking differences between his pre- and post-conversion lives.  The Malcolm X of legend was a gangster who did a complete 180° after he was exposed to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad while he was serving a prison sentence for robbery.  The Malcolm that appears in Marable's biography is more of a small-timer who hustled in order to live and whose outlook on the world and on race relations did not as much shift radically during his time in prison and his subsequent joining of the Nation of Islam as it gradually shifted over time while maintaining a continuity of outlook that stretched back to his youth in Michigan being raised by parents who were supporters of Marcus Garvey.  Much of Marable's book is a welcome fact checking and questioning of the Malcolm X legend and this marks an important transition in Malcolm's life going from a near-hagiography (as found in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and a few subsequent biographies and bio-pics released by admirers such as Spike Lee) or demonized individual (as found in several news articles of the times; see The New York Times' obituary article on him) to a more balanced look at a person whose internal conflicts manifested themselves during the most contentious decade of the Civil Rights Movement.

Yet while Marable's biography is a welcome addition to the conversation about Malcolm X's life and his influence on others, it is not a perfect book.  There were too many times during the course of the book where Marable took opinion or supposition and stated it, similar to what he did in the passage quoted above, as if it were fact.  Malcolm's sexuality receives an inordinate amount of time, as the most the tenuous evidence (namely, Malcolm's telling of a possible fictional friend who did certain acts for pay for Lennon that sounded too much like the creation of an alter ego to stand in place of his actual deeds) hints that he was desperate for money, as the issue is mostly dropped after that single period in his life.  Malcolm's wife, Betty Shabazz, comes under harsh scrutiny during the book, with lots of descriptions about Malcolm's apparent fleeing from his wife's bedside immediately after their children were born and the rumored sexual dysfunction that he suffered while with her.  This information is jarring not just because it feels as though the private life of the biographical subject is being explored in too much detail, but also because these passages do not connect well with what is known of Malcolm's private and public statements regarding his wife.  This is the weakest part of Marable's book, as he just does not provide enough supporting evidence to confirm his arguments on an issue that is at best peripheral to the biography.

Malcolm X:  A Life of Reinvention is a well-researched biography, yet its occasional reliance on rumor and hearsay, especially when it comes to Malcolm's sex life as well as the possible "real murderers," weaken the biography considerably.  Malcolm X continues to be a fascinating, controversial character and while Marable's book certainly underscores the difficulties in writing a balanced account of his life and importance, it contains enough flaws in its presentation to leave the door open for more substantive biographies to be written in the future.  It is worth reading, provided one has an interest in the subject, warts and all.


Brian Lindenmuth said...

TNC wrote briefly about the sex acts (or not) Malcolm X here. You may find it interesting.

Lsrry said...

I'll look at that shortly, as I am curious to see what others made of this particular rumor.

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