"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

A Life of Reinvention

In the New Yorker, here’s David Remnick on a new Malcolm X biography:

For nearly twenty years, Manning Marable, a historian at Columbia, labored on what he hoped would be a definitive scholarly work on Malcolm X. During this period, Marable struggled with sarcoidosis, a pulmonary disease, and even underwent a double lung transplant. Recently, he completed his rigorous and evenhanded biography, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” (Viking; $30), but, in an echo of his subject’s fate, he died on the eve of publication. One of his goals was to grapple with Malcolm’s autobiography, and although he finds much to admire about Malcolm, he makes it clear that the book’s drama sometimes comes at the expense of fact. Haley wanted to write a “potboiler that would sell,” Marable observes, and Malcolm was accustomed to exaggerating his exploits—“the number of his burglaries, the amount of marijuana he sold to musicians, and the like.” Malcolm, like St. Augustine, embellished his sins in order to heighten the drama of his reform.

The literary urge outran the knowable facts even in the most crucial episode in Malcolm’s childhood. One evening, in 1931, in Lansing, Michigan, when Malcolm was six, his father, Earl Little, a part-time Garveyite teacher, went to collect “chicken money” from families who bought poultry from him. That night, he was found bleeding to death on the streetcar tracks. The authorities ruled his death an accident, but Malcolm’s mother, Louise, was sure he had been beaten by the Black Legion and laid on the tracks to be run over and killed. Perhaps he had been, but, as Marable notes, nobody knew for sure. The autobiography (and Lee’s film) presents the ostensible murder as established fact, and yet Malcolm himself, in a 1963 speech at Michigan State University, referred to the death as accidental.

[Photograph by Ricard Avedon]


1 Raf   ~  Apr 25, 2011 10:39 am

It will be interesting to compare and contrast this book with Haley's.

I wasn't concerned about the drama in Haley's book so much as the subjects covered, such as Black Nationalism, and Malcolm's trip to Mecca. What I liked about the book was that it didn't portray Malcolm X as the "angry black man" as he's often portrayed. There was much more to him than that.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Apr 25, 2011 11:35 am

1) I have only vague memories of the book, which I read--at least portions--back in college. This new one looks excellent too.

3 NoamSane   ~  Apr 25, 2011 2:12 pm

Reading The Autobiography changed my world when I read it 25 years ago. Now, I've seen that what the world wants at every turn is a riveting story. That that book lived by the Embellishment doesn't surprise me at all. Malcolm had a way with words though. Read or listen to his speeches--dude had massive VORO(rator).

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