Having read a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., I wanted to explore the other current in 1960s movement for African American freedom. While MLK represented an attempt to work within the system to reform the U.S. democracy, Malcolm X spoke to a different spirit. Malcolm was an expert on the psychological damage to the black man’s self esteem, inflicted by hundreds of years of racism and slavery. It would take more than civil rights legislation, jobs, etc. to really save the black man, and traditional black organizations could not do what needed to be done. In fact, for a good deal of Malcolm’s life, he advocated for a separation of blacks from white society.
The contrast between King’s philosophy and Malcolm’s is found in their backgrounds. King grew up in a comfortable middle class family and was well educated. Malcolm’s father was killed by white supremacists, the family then was poor and often hungry, Malcolm’s mother went insane from the trauma and hardships, and and Malcolm eventually wound up on the streets working as a hustler and petty criminal. “Malcolm’s great strength was to speak on behalf of those that society and state had denied a voice due to racial prejudice. He understood their yearnings and anticipated their actions.” Marable Manning succeeds brilliantly in weaving together Malcolm’s personal history together the historical context that informed his worldview and also the worldview of a significant number of northern blacks living in ghettos and urban centers.
Like Bearing the Cross, the aforementioned biography on MLK, I appreciated that Manning, an accomplished historian, tried to present the historical Malcolm, to demythologize the Malcolm X found in Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X and the Malcolm of Spike Lee’s film. As such, there is plenty of controversial material, from a troubled marriage and allegations of infidelity on behalf of both Malcolm and his wife Betty, to the allegation that Malcolm may have had a gay sexual relationship. But these more sensational details aside, the historical Malcolm that Manning presents is that of a man who grapples with the oppression of modern society. There is no easy way forward for those born into a society that hates and oppresses them. All of the forces of anger, fear, pride, love, and beauty all emerge in various forms as Malcolm evolves and becomes not only a victim of violence but a spokesman on behalf of those who have suffered.
The theme that Marable Manning chooses for the biography is “reinvention.” Malcolm’s strength was his ability to reinvent himself. As a youth, Malcolm was the hustler and trickster, a product of the streets. After spending time in prison, he converted to Islam and eventually became a minister, an important and deeply esteemed position within African American society. Later in his life, after his break from Islam, he began to forge a new path, a global and internationalist approach that sought to unite those of all races who suffered from imperialism and colonialism. Intellectually gifted, personally charming and disarming, and a passionate and influential public speaker, Malcolm X’s startling reinventions and dedication made him one of the most influential and controversial figures of the 20th century.
I definitely recommend this biography to anyone intrigued by the life of Malcolm X, as well as those interested in the struggle for black power and dignity that rocked the society of the 1960s. It is also of interest to anyone interested in voices from the 20th century that struggled against imperialism and colonialism. Manning’s biography is well-written, historically detailed and thorough, and there are few persons who lived a more engaging life. I give it 5 stars, and I feel as though I am a deeper person after having read Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.