Thoughts on Finishing Manning Marable’s Malcolm X

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Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable, published by Viking

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable, published by Viking

On my train commute home tonight I finished Manning Marable‘s sizable (500 pages) recent (2011) biography of Malcolm X. The book’s title is Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. I definitely learned a lot about Malcolm X – who has been a hero of mine for quite a while.

I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a few other Malcolm X books, saw the Spike Lee movie, and heard talks by and about Malcolm on KPFK radio and elsewhere. Back in the 1990s for about a half-dozen years I would host an annual party on Malcolm X’s birthday – May 19th (1925.) The glasses I wear I think of as Malcolm X glasses – though my father and many other folks wore similar retro-style frames. I’d hear Manning Marable speak on Democracy Now, so I was looking forward to reading the book… but it’s big, so it took me a bit of time to get into it and to finish it.

Marable’s book is very good. It humanizes Malcolm a bit. While it portrays him squarely as hero, Manning doesn’t idealize him as much as I think I had. He didn’t get along with his wife. He exaggerated some things about his criminal past – to make himself sound more badass than he was. Marable draws a useful distinction between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Where King’s movement work came out of a relatively well-off college-educated black middle class, Malcolm X’s movement work came out of a very street-level urban poor black working class. 

I am not going to recapitulate or critique the book – I thought I’d just pass along a sweet anecdote that Marable ends the book with – featuring James Baldwin, another hero of mine.

James Baldwin’s first real encounter with Malcolm occurred in 1961, when he was asked to moderate a radio program panel that included the Nation of Islam leader. Malcolm had been invited to debate a young civil rights activist who had just returned from desegregation protests in the South. Baldwin feared that the celebrated firebrand would take the young protestor apart. Baldwin later wrote that he had come “to throw out the lifeline whenever Malcolm should seem to be carrying the child beyond his depth.” To Baldwin’s amazement, Malcolm “understood that child and talked to him as though he was talking to a younger brother.” Baldwin was profoundly moved. “I will never forget Malcolm and that child facing each other, and Malcolm’s extraordinary gentleness. And that’s the truth about Malcolm: he was one of the gentlest people I have ever met.”

Read Marable’s book! And check out Marable’s The Malcolm X Project website for lots of X resources.

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