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Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

This is the story of Malcolm X – a man who was in turns hustler, criminal, convict, convert, and finally, a martyr for his cause.

By Geoff Wisner / April 26, 2011

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention By Manning Marable Viking 594 pp.

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On February 21, 1965, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, formerly known as Malcolm X, rose to address a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which he had founded less than a year before. The weekly meetings were held in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. As two men staged a disturbance in the audience, a third man strode toward the stage, pulled a sawed-off shotgun from under his coat, and fired into Malcolm’s chest. Two more assassins shot handguns at him, but the job was done.

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Three weeks later, Doubleday canceled its contact with Alex Haley for the publication of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” on which Haley and Malcolm X had been collaborating since 1963. Manning Marable, the author of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, an excellent new biography, called it the “most disastrous decision in corporate publishing history.” The book was published later that year by Grove Press, and by 1977 more than six million copies had been sold.

The life story Marable presents is essentially the same as the one that Malcolm and Haley told. It is the dramatic tale of a man who was born in Nebraska and became a hustler, a criminal, a convict, a highly effective organizer for the Nation of Islam, a convert to orthodox Islam, a spokesman for pan-Africanism, and finally a martyr to the organization he helped to build. It is a tale of transformation, self-sacrifice, and betrayal, punctuated by memorable, almost Shakespearean turns of phrase: “By any means necessary.” “Such a man is worthy of death.” “Our own black shining prince.”

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What, then, does this biography offer that is unavailable from the “Autobiography?”

Quite a lot, as it turns out. It draws on interviews with friends, colleagues, and family members to offer a variety of viewpoints on the man and his work. It details the social and political context in which Malcolm lived, shedding light on the extraordinary power of the Ku Klux Klan during Malcolm’s childhood, describing the quasi-Islamic organizations that preceded the Nation of Islam, and explaining the beliefs and inner workings of the Nation and of the two organizations that Malcolm founded toward the end of his short life: the Islamic group Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the pan-African Organization for Afro-American Unity. (Malcolm’s political views and plans for the future were to have appeared in three chapters at the end of the Autobiography, which Haley cut before publication.)

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