Saturday, April 23, 2011

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Article first published as Book Review: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable on Blogcritics.

'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha'i Faith from 1892-1921 wrote, "Truthfulness is the foundation of all the virtues of the world of humanity. Without truthfulness, progress and success in all of the worlds of God are impossible for a soul. When this holy attribute is established in man, all the divine qualities will also become realized." (Abdu'l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha v2, p. 459)

This "holy attribute" is as essential to the process of understanding historical figures as it is to the development of the personal soul. James. W. Loewen argued this point eloquently in his "Lies My Teacher Told Me". Loewen critiques the tendency toward "heroification" of historical figures. He describes "heroification" as "a degenerative process (much like calcification) that makes people over into heroes. Through this process, our educational media turn flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or 'human interest" (pg. 11).

The late Manning Marable's "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention" provides a sterling example of a commitment to truth-telling about his subject. The book "makes it plain" as brother Malcolm would say. Marable acts as a kind of freedom fighter, in this case fighting to free Malcolm the man from Malcolm the myth. This includes myths propagated by Malcolm himself in his celebrated "Autobiography". For example, Marable argues that the "Autobiography" greatly exaggerates Malcolm's criminal history in order to emphasize the regenerative power attributed to the teachings of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

Marable takes the reader on a journey from the Garveyism of Malcolm's parents to the moment of Malcolm's murder with the concept of "reinvention" as an organizing theme. From Malcolm Little to Malcolm X, from Minister Malcolm to civil rights martyr, what emerges is the story of a man figuring out who he is and who he wants to become. Marable does a masterful job of describing the familial, social, cultural and politic contexts that influenced Malcolm's numerous reinventions as he worked and reworked his sense of self and public image. Malcolm's existential struggle is so palpable that the very pages of this book appear to perspire.

Malcolm's geographic journeys are presented as being just as significant as his spiritual one. In fact these two journeys in the book reinforce one another. Marable provides detailed information about Malcolm's travels throughout Africa and the Middle East and their impact on his process of reinvention. These sojourns in the lands of his physical and spiritual ancestors served to broaden his consciousness, globalize his struggle for the liberation of his people and provided a refuge from the encircling menace of his enemies.

Among the most implacable of these enemies proves ironically to be the Nation of Islam itself. Marable's description of Malcolm's troubled relationship with the Nation's leadership and his eventual split reads like a political thriller. A deepening atmosphere of dread wafts from the pages as the war of words escalates into outright violence and climaxes in a hail of bullets at the Audubon Ballroom.

Once the book reaches the point of Malcolm's assassination, Marable approaches the topic with a near "CSI-style" attention to reconstructing the events of that fateful day. He raises a variety of disturbing questions related to who really killed Malcolm X and the investigation that followed (or didn't).

However one ultimately answers those questions, at the end of the book I was left with a different one: "What if Malcolm had lived?" I can only imagine the wisdom and insight he might have brought to bear on some of the most challenging questions of the day. What would he say about American involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya? What role might he being playing in relations between the West and the Muslim World? What would he think about the so-called "Arab Spring"? What example might he provide of living as a Muslim in America? Thanks to his killers we will never know.