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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.

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Marable emphasizes the importance of Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement in the development of Malcolm’s thought. His father, killed in a suspicious streetcar accident when Malcolm was six years old, had been a staunch Garveyite, and Garvey’s followers proved to be fertile ground for conversion to the Nation of Islam. Garvey was an essential source for Malcolm’s doctrine of black pride and self-sufficiency, and for his later belief in the solidarity of people of color worldwide.

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The biography includes considerable detail on Malcolm’s 19-week visit to Africa in 1964, during which he met with several heads of state and prepared to bring the case of America’s blacks to the United Nations as a matter of human rights. Marable recounts Haley’s efforts to convince Malcolm to put his story on paper and to make it personal rather than polemic. He describes the years of surveillance by FBI and police, noting that one NYPD wiretapper was so impressed by Malcolm’s views on jobs and education that he tried to get his superiors to change their policy toward him.

Finally, Marable tells the story of Malcolm’s assassination and its aftermath in a way that Malcolm himself obviously could not. The threat of imminent death hangs over nearly half of the narrative, beginning with an order given to a Fruit of Islam officer to plant a bomb in Malcolm’s 1963 Oldsmobile. That plot may have been part of an elaborate ruse to determine whether Malcolm planned to leave the Nation of Islam, but the threats and plots that followed were utterly serious.

What is the significance of Malcolm X? As Marable suggests in the epilogue to his biography, Malcolm was as important a figure in the struggle against racism as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unlike King, Malcolm could speak to poor and working-class blacks in a language that resonated with them. As a Muslim, he forged links with international Islam, and as a black man he forged links with Africa.

Malcolm X was a galvanizing speaker and tenacious debater, though his education came mostly from the books he read in prison. Disciplined, hard-working, and self-sacrificing, he struck one observer as a combination of priest and soldier. And perhaps most impressive, he continued to grow and change until the end. As Marable writes, “Malcolm’s strength was his ability to reinvent himself.”

Geoff Wisner is the author of “A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa.”

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