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Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention Hardcover – 4 Apr 2011
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[A] groundbreaking piece of work. ...The result is not just a biography, but also a history of Muslims in America and a sweeping account of one man's transformation... It will be difficult for anyone to better this book. ... a work of art, a feast that combines genres skillfully: biography, true-crime, political commentary. It gives us Malcolm X in full gallop. (Wil Haygood Washington Post )
[L]ucid, hugely researched and surely definitive...an extraordinary story. (Sunday Times )
[A]n incredibly detailed account of Malcolm's life (and an investigation of his murder) and it is, of course, completely riveting....it is inevitably much more than a biography of one man... Marable is intensely and intimately sympathetic. (Geoff Dyer New Yorker )
In the pantheon of black American protest figures only Martin Luther King occupies a more exalted position, but it is Malcolm X whose legend has the greater street credibility and aura of cool...Now, almost a half century [after his assassination], Malcolm has finally received the biography that his unique role in black culture demands...A meticulous, comprehensive, and fair-minded portrait. (Andrew Anthony Observer )
Professor Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is encyclopaedic in its approach. The endnotes and bibliography indicate the staggering breadth and depth of scholarship underpinning this volume....Undoubtedly it will stand as a last lecture on the subject by one of America's most distinguished historians. (Wilbert Rideau Financial Times )
[A] wealth of detail, some of it new, some of it old stories confirmed...At the end of it all, Malcolm X remains Malcolm X, for good or ill, one of the most fascinating historical figures of the 20th Century...a labour of love...a courageous endeavour. (Hugh Muir Guardian )
Malcolm's short life (he was slain at 39) makes a fascinating story...Mr Marable has scoured contemporary press clippings in America, Europe and Africa...and benefitted...from the recent release to the public of hundreds of Malcolm's letters, photographs and texts of speeches. (The Economist )
Marable gives us all the raw material for a harshly critical appraisal... Marable's is very far from the first biography of Malcolm, but it is undoubtedly the most penetrating and thoroughly researched. It clearly surpasses the best previous effort, Bruce Perry's 1991 study (Stephen Howe The Independent )
By the end of the 1960s, Malcolm's disciples had elevated him to what Manning Marable, in this weighty biography, calls 'secular sainthood'; in death, his image was quickly refashioned to 'embody the very ideal of blackness for an entire generation'... But Marable... resists the temptation of hagiography and fills in the gaps left by previous books. Where the autobiography, carefully organised by the NOI-sceptic Haley, presents an idealised vision of a man's growth as a thinker, Marable gives us Malcolm in all his self-contradiction and self-doubt... By refusing to pin him down, he offers glimpses of the human being behind the legend. (Yo Zushi New Statesman )
Striking... Marable is intensely sympathetic but always conscious of the contradictions of his subject...the fulfilment of a life's work (Geoff Dyer, Books Of The Year Prospect )
From petty criminal to drug user to prisoner to minister to separatist to humanist to martyr. Marable, who worked for more than a decade on the book and died earlier this year, offers a more complete and unvarnished portrait of Malcolm X than the one found in his autobiography. The story remains inspiring (10 Best Books Of 2011 New York Times )
Selected by the New York Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2011 (New York Times )
About the Author
Manning Marable was Professor of History and Political Science at Columbia University and director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies. He was the founding director of the Center for Contemporary Black History, established in 2002 and the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, where he served from 1993 to 2003. He died as the hardback of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention was published. The book was a Finalist for the National Book Award 2011.
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In his time Malcolm X was viewed by mainstream America as the worse kind of subversive, an ex convict and petty criminal, a man prone for preaching incendiary ideology, littered with derogatory statements not only about "white devils" but the more moderate civil rights leaders and most importantly a fierce champion for self-respect and self-help for African Americans. The passage of time however has seen Malcolm X become a much more mainstream popular figure whose cultural legacy has possibly been stronger than Martin Luther King's. Just take the movement around black hip hop, think "Public Enemy" and especially his wider impact on Black American popular culture and politics.
Key to this biography are Malcolm's grounding within Harlem where he came to admire Adam Clayton Powell Jr the Harlem Congressman, the impact of prison on his radicalization and the drift towards the Nation of Islam led by the problematic figure of Elijah Muhammad. With the sheer charisma of Malcolm X and his increasing media profile it was inevitable that his role as a Minister would be questioned within this rigid organisation. Two incidents in particular led to his break from NOI, firstly the repercussions of the police battle over Mosque 27 in California which led to the shooting of Ronald Stokes. It was clear that Malcolm was enraged by this event and led him to preach revenge at the New York Mosque No 7 where witnesses accept that Malcolm X intended to "send somebody to Los Angeles to kill [the police] as sure as God made green apples,". This caused a huge row with Elijah Muhammad who intervened to halt such action. The final fissure was Malcolm's infamous comments on the Kennedy assassination where in response to a reporter he answered that "Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they've always made me glad." This finally broke the relationship with the NOI and led Malcolm to more radical forms of black nationalism.
It may have also signed his death warrant since Marable looks again in great detail at Malcolm's assassination with its links to the NOI but also possible FBI and other state agencies involvement, He also makes in effect calls for the case to be reopened and had he lived he intended to follow up this accusation. In particular he argues that it was allegedly Al-Mustafa Shabazz, who was once known as William Bradley, who fired the first, fatal shot at Malcolm X in the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965. Shabbazz/Bradley is still alive and has never been tried for this and whether he is guilty or innocent Marable's case will need answering. What is sure is that even if Dr Manning Marable had lived to a 100 years of age it is very unlikely that anyone will ever write a book quite this comprehensive on this seminal American political and cultural figure.
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.
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