Friday, January 27, 2012
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
There are two basic approaches to biographies. The first is the "Great Man," the tome, the multi-volume approach. The idea behind this approach is that readers will be better suited to understand the life of a person if they have all the facts--all the facts. The second model is a more focused approach. Gone are the superfluous details. Gone are the tangents that often lead readers into the proverbial weeds. What remains is a carefully crafted story of a life.
Both of these models serve a purpose. And it is true that the streamlined biographies frequently rely on the tomes that have come before them. They also often highlight a certain aspect--albeit usually rather broad--of a person's life. This is the case with Manning Marable's excellent Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.
In 1988, Marable was teaching a course in African-American politics that included The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He states, "A close reading of the text revealed numerous inconsistencies, errors, and fictive characters at odds with Malcolm's actual life." Marable didn't begin working on this book in earnest until the early 2000s. According to Marable, his initial breakthrough came when he "finally realized that critical deconstruction of the Autobiography held the key to reinterpreting Malcolm's life." The Malcolm X Project began in 2001 at Columbia University. At one point, more than twenty graduate and undergraduate students were employed by the Malcolm X Project, writing hundreds of profiles and abstracts of important individuals, institutions, and groups that were mentioned in the Autobiography. Much of their work is available at http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/malcolmx and the subsequent more multimedia-rich website http://mxp.manningmarable.com.
The next major element in the writing of this biography was the construction of a detailed chronological grid of Malcolm X's life. Each entry on this grid would indicate the source or sources of the information. It took Marable and his team of historians six years to construct the massive chronology that would form the foundation for this biography.
Marable's writing is clear, straightforward and very readable. He includes a great amount of detail about Malcolm's life without getting in to the aforementioned weeds. The parts I enjoyed the most were those that dealt with the periods in Malcolm's life that the Autobiography glossed over or skipped altogether. I found particularly interesting the odd beliefs and historical traditions of the Nation of Islam and the extremely complicated relationship between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. Marable handles the convoluted events surrounding Malcolm's death exceptionally well.
I would recommend this book to anyone. Marable and his team of researchers do an excellent job reconstructing and portraying the life of one of America's most enigmatic political and cultural figures. If you don't think you want to commit the time to reading this book, I seriously recommend the nine-page epilogue "Reflections on a Revolutionary Vision."
For further reading on the relationship between Malcom X, Elijah Muhammad, Muhammad Ali, I recommend Gerald Early's "Muhammad Ali as Third World Hero" in his book This is Where I Came In.