Beyond ‘The Autobiography’

Over the decades, Malcolm X’s own book defined the popular view of his life but a new biography offers a more complete look and may supplant it

(Eddie Adams/ Associated Press/ File 1964)
By Nell Irvin Painter
Globe Correspondent / May 8, 2011

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Violence begets anger, the two a tragic combination in African-American life. Until relatively recently, non-black Americans ignored the facts of racially motivated violence, from the beatings essential to the preservation of slavery to the lynchings and rapes that preserved white supremacy. As late as 2000, for example, “Without Sanctuary,’’ an exhibition of postcards of lynchings, took masses of Americans utterly by surprise.

More than racial violence went largely unseen. African-Americans were rarely visible in American culture until the mid-20th century, and when a black face appeared, it had better be grinning — a happy darky or at least a comforting Louis Armstrong. The fact of violence and the prohibition against anger warped African-American life until things began to change when Malcolm X burst into view.

Malcolm first appeared in the 1950s as an angry black man equally proud of his anger and his blackness. His was a singular presence in the era of “Satchmo.’’ Instead of comforting white people, Malcolm faced them down, decried police brutality, and demanded black men’s right to armed self-defense. Whether attraction to his outspokenness outweighed the weirdness of his religion, thousands flocked to his message of black nationalism and nascent black power and pride.

Since his death in 1965, Malcolm has become a cultural icon, defined largely by “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’’ which was published in the same year. While many an author has probed the phenomenon of Malcolm X, his own version of his life, expressed in his own words, has dominated his bibliography.

That is until now. With the publication of “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,’’ Manning Marable offers a fuller portrait of the minister, the activist, and the man, beautifully advancing our understanding of the accomplishments of this pioneering leader within his own time.

Malcolm Little was born in 1925 in Omaha, Neb., to a couple united by Marcus Garvey’s black nationalism, a source of inspiration throughout Malcolm’s life. After the father’s death the mother tried but failed to provide for the family and was committed to an insane asylum in 1939. Ella Little, Malcolm’s half-sister, brought the children emotional and financial support, and remained Malcolm’s sustainer throughout his life.

Ella Little lived in Boston in 1941, where nearly 16-year-old Malcolm joined her. City life became a life of crime, landing Malcolm behind bars in 1946. There he educated himself in the prison library and, under the influence of his siblings, converted to the Nation of Islam.

After his release in 1952, Malcolm visited Elijah Muhammad, leader of the religious movement, and, as Malcolm X, began the evangelical career that made him famous. By 1953 he was working for the organization full time, and the FBI had begun its surveillance. By 1954 he was leading Harlem’s Temple No. 7, sparking a remarkable expansion.

During Malcolm’s 12 years as the religion’s most prominent minister, he came to question its founding beliefs that African-Americans were the “original Asiatic black man,’’ that all white people were “devils’’ created by the evil black genius Yakub, that blacks should separate from whites, that an imminent racial apocalypse would end “the white man’s’’ reign, and that in the meanwhile, Nation members should refuse to vote or undertake political action.

That apolitical creed might have worked during the 1950s, when antiracist protest attracted little attention nationally, but not later, when an overwhelming number of black people favored demanding the right to vote. With blacks on the move with notable white support, Malcolm found it difficult to remain apolitical and implacably antiwhite.

It was only a matter of time before his surging popularity and departure from Nation of Islam doctrine cost him his position. The organization first attempted to silence him and later expelled him.

But much more determined the break. Malcolm’s travel outside the United States during the Third World ferment in the era of postcolonial pan-Africanism helped him conclude that the group’s race-obsessed parochialism was out of touch.

Malcolm visited Egypt and Saudi Arabia in 1960, a trip that spurred the international orientation and orthodox Islam that marked the last years of his life. Although the trip was a turning point intellectually, it is not mentioned in “The Autobiography.’’ Marable, however, presents a full description of the journey as part of his thorough examination of both the Nation of Islam’s and Malcolm’s changing relations to orthodox Islam.

The fruit of decades of careful research in older and newly opened archives, Marable’s magisterial work provides a more complete view of Malcolm X within broader historical contexts. Marable describes a life unfolding and the people and institutions around Malcolm who counted in his life, for good and for ill.

His religion’s financial support and organizational infrastructure facilitated Malcolm’s rise to prominence, just as its increasing reliance on violence as a disciplinary tool cost him his life. Marable investigates the planning and execution of Malcolm’s assassination, naming the Newark killers and following their lives after the attack. Malcolm’s wife, Betty Shabazz, receives sensitive treatment throughout, as a dutiful (if independent-minded) Muslim wife trapped in a miserable marriage, a widow embracing new opportunities, and, ultimately, the victim of a fatal family tragedy. Malcolm’s right-hand man, James 67X Warden (Shabazz), emerges as the worker who makes it possible for Malcolm to function publicly.

Given the fervor of Malcolm X’s fans, Marable’s biography is an exceedingly brave as well as a major intellectual accomplishment. Scholarly biography demands detachment, and Marable (who died on April 1) was a scholar (politically engaged, yes, but a distinguished scholar). Marable’s thorough, sensitive, deeply researched biography admires Malcolm X’s commitment to his people without diminishing his humanity. Like the “The Autobiography’’ it supersedes, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention’’ is deservedly a bestseller, one that helps us understand the development of a leading American struck down before he could help us understand our world in which Islam plays so crucial a role.

Nell Irvin Painter, author of “The History of White People,’’ can be contacted through her website,

MALCOLM X: A Life of Reinvention
By Manning Marable
Viking, 594 pp., illustrated, $30