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Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention


You are many people.

To your friends, you’re supportive, funny and solid. Your boss sees you as someone who gets the job done. Your kids think you’re authoritative, with a wallet. And your family knows the you with warts.

You’re a person with many faces; some public, some private, but never the same. In the new book “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” (c.2011, Viking, $30.00 / $34.50 Canada, 594 pages, includes notes) by Manning Marable, you’ll get a (supposed) peek at a complex man with several personas.

Born in 1925 in Omaha, Neb., Malcolm Little was raised with the notion that Blacks were “a mighty race.” Both his parents were fierce supporters of Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, whose “Pan-African perspective… would become… crucial for Malcolm later in life.”

Malcolm was smart, but a dropout, and his siblings remember him as lazy, with a streak of leadership. He “drifted through a series” of girlfriends and “menial jobs” as a young man, but couldn’t stay out of trouble.

In jail, he was intrigued to learn about Allah, and it wasn’t long before he joined the Nation of Islam and converted. In his single-minded zeal, Malcolm wrote daily letters to Elijah Muhammad–the NOI’s leader–and Muhammad soon accepted the earnest young man into his inner circle.

Malcolm, who changed his surname to X (to reflect NOI beliefs), quickly rose in the organization’s ranks. In less than a year, he was a full minister in the Nation of Islam, and one of the movement’s most influential figures.

But it didn’t last.

While on a trip to Egypt and a hajj to Mecca, Malcolm observed that Muslims overseas were “color-blind,” which surprised him and made him question the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the NOI. Following an inner scandal that rocked the Nation of Islam, Malcolm bluntly defied Muhammad’s orders and was banned from the NOI.

“By the fall of 1964,” says Marable, “rage against Malcolm infected every part of the Nation….”

In February, 1965, that rage spilled over….

“Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” is a doorstop of a book, more scholarly than not. If you’re willing to endure a long slog through its pages, though, you’ll be rewarded with some gasp-worthy (albeit inflammatory and contentious) moments.

Author Marable challenges Malcolm’s autobiography and claims that he was under surveillance more than he knew. His work also upends some scandalous stones in this biography, indicating that Malcolm was not entirely the man followers thought he was, and suggesting that the men arrested for his murder might not have been the killers.

Accusations have, of course, been denied, but their main subjects–Malcolm, his wife, Betty Shabazz and, indeed, the author of the book–are dead and unable to comment, which leaves things in a curious and uncomfortable state of being unfinished.

Can I recommend “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention”?

Not really, but it depends on what you want from it: Malcolm devotees will be outraged, detractors will wonder what’s true, and readers just looking for something light will want to X it off their reading list.