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Essential -- but deeply flawed.
on 18 July 2011
Marable's work is a labour of love -- he has collected an extraordinary array of interviews with Malcolm's friends, family and enemies, as well as sifting though prison, hospital, military and psychiatric records and the records kept by government bodies spying on the Nation of Islam. Not only that, but he has collected private letters, and also gone through the media coverage of the period, from the mainstream, to the tabloids to minor newspapers and radical underground press copy. He also presents interviews with Farrakhan, so we gain insight into his trajectory within the NOI, and we also understand more fully how impressive Malcolm X was to him in the early days of the movement.
However, the text disappoints on a number of levels -- firstly, Manning is trying to appeal to an academic, as well as a tabloid audience, and it is sad to see him spending page after page on Malcolm and Betty's sex life, and also spreading rumour and innuendo about Malcolm's sexuality. Such cheap slander has little place in a book that advertises itself as being the definitive study of an extremely important and iconic historical figure such as Malcolm X. It is not scholarly ( Marable mainly depends on rumour ) and besides, it tarnishes Malcolm memory -- these are private matters, and should not be paraded for voyeuristic purposes, or to hype sales to a 21st century public, greedy for such details.
Secondly, Marable frequently makes sweeping statements about Islam, which seem to show an arrogant, contemptuous,condescending and dismissive attitude towards Orthodox Shia and Sunni culture, history and ethics -- he sums up centuries of Shia and Sunni cultural development in a few throw away generalisations, usually negative, for example, he mentions the 'fact' that Muslims 'beat their wives', or he portrays Islamic culture as 'intolerant of other faiths', or as a 'slave culture','racist',( the latter two slurs made in the chapters on Saudi ) and 'harsh', with very little contextual detail, evidence, or scholarly objectivity and detachment. Frankly, it looks poor, and lacking in academic seriousness too. (The perspectives on Islam Marable offers are also contradictory -- in other places in his book, he makes it clear that Orthodox Islam is in no way a racist religion.)
One has to wonder why Marable tends to portray Orthodox Islam in such a negative light in his book -- after all, if Orthodox Islam was indeed, such a hostile,intolerant religion, why is it that Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in relative harmony and peace, for many hundreds of years, all over the Middle East ( until the founding of Israel and US/UK meddling in the region that is, and with the exception of Saudi Arabia.) One should reflect that it was actually Europe that showed little or no tolerance for other religions, right up until the post WW2 period.
And, the book should have had a good editor and proof readers -- it has more than a few glaring errors of spelling, syntax and punctuation.
Overall though, it is a very reasonable book, and a rewarding read, and I would say, it is pretty much essential to have on your shelf if you are interested in Malcolm X -- but, it is flawed and infuriating too, for the above listed reasons.
Especially, I re iterate, the speculation about Malcolm's sexuality and his private life really have no place at all in a serious academic study, and should be relegated to cheap B movies and the worst of the gutter press.
If Marable's publishers reissue the book, they should seriously consider removing those pages, not as an act of censorship, but simply because it would be the decent thing to do.