Marable’s Malcolm X Book Puts Icon in Context

The controversial biography places the slain Muslim leader firmly in the black nationalist tradition -- with all its contradictions, says this reviewer.

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Manning Marable was never a dogmatist. While he had his own strong point of view, he was respectful of, and attentive to, those who disagreed. Marable’s last legacy is Malcolm X: A Life Reinvented, published just five days after he died. Marable courageously examined the contradictions and unanswered questions in the various accounts — including Malcolm’s own — of Malcolm X’s life and political agenda. 

If you are looking for a glorification of Malcolm X’s life or a straightforward narrative about his politics, you should read another book. A key aspect of what Marable does is to firmly situate Malcolm X’s politics within a long, primarily 20th-century tradition of black nationalism. Marable ascribes the foundation of his politics within the traditions established by the influential early-20th-century nationalist Marcus Garvey (founder of the largest black urban movement ever created, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA) and the black Muslim organizations, of which the Nation of Islam was neither the first nor initially the largest or most influential in urban Northern black communities. 

Indeed, Marable shows how the growth of black religious nationalism was significantly due to the slow crumbling of UNIA in the United States after Garvey’s arrest and imprisonment in the 1920s. Malcolm X, through his parents, and the Nation of Islam, through its founders, had roots in Garveyism. Marable traces the tension between a religious nationalism based on a deep faith in Islam and a commitment to a political nationalism dedicated to the liberation of African peoples in the United States and throughout the world that challenged Malcolm X up to the very time of his assassination. 

Tensions between the two organizations that Malcolm founded after his break with the NOI — the Organization of Afro-American Unity and the Muslim Mosque Inc. — represented the tensions between two related but different black nationalisms, and persisted after his death. Acerbating these tensions were developments at the end of X’s life in both his religious and political perspectives. Politically, he was seeing the struggle of Afro-Americans and other people of African descent connected to that of the other oppressed peoples of the world, especially those who were waging national liberation struggles or who had seized victory in Third World socialist countries such as Cuba and China.