I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X around the release of the Spike Lee movie. And either right before or after that, James Cone’s Martin and Malcolm and America, but that has been a while ago.
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is the first biography of Malcolm X I have read. Manning Marble passed away after the book was completed, but before it was published. He posthumously received a Pulitzer Prize in History for the biography in 2012.
Marable is presenting a complex picture of Malcolm X. There is no shying away from his power of his personality or his tendency toward being a demagogue. There is some controversy about the book because enviably, there has to be a comparison with the historical accuracy of his ‘autobiography’. Marable contends that Alex Haley was far more than just a ghostwriter, but the shaper of the story. He also contends that Malcolm X exaggerated his early life of crime to better show his transformation as a result of his conversion.
Malcolm’s life really was a full one. He spent a ton of time traveling, far more outside the US than I would have guessed. You cannot help but wonder what his life would have been like had he not been killed. Thematically, Marable is pointing out how frequently Malcolm X changed over time. But he also is careful to not grab on to the end of his life as an ideal or final position. The early part of his life and his time in the Nation of Islam was also important.
Like many great men, Malcolm X was fairly distant from his family. His marriage to Betty was troubled. She did not fit into his perception of how women should act. Her independence and his frequent travels did not lead a simple relationship, and Marable concludes that both likely had affairs. Ironically it was Elijah Muhammed’s affairs and many illegitimate children that seems to have started Malcolm X’s leaving the Nation of Islam, but it wasn’t until near the end of his life, after he left NOI that Marable thinks he first had an affair.
The patriarchy and authoritarianism of NOI mattered even when Malcolm X left. Independent initiative and responsibility was not encouraged. From the point when he left NOI until his death, much of the time Malcolm X was out of the country and not encouraging the development of the leaders around him so they could manage the work without him. There was a limitation of the growth of his vision because so much of it was about his own experience. The rest of the leaders around him did not go on the Hajj with him. Or on the long trips to Africa later where his orientation toward pan-Africanism matured. That lack of shared vision, and the speed with which Malcolm X’s views were changing toward the end of his life mattered to the development of the organization. If he had had another 10 years to develop both his theological/political vision and develop an organization around him, his legacy would likely be significantly different.