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]