A Review of Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention”

Posted: May 23, 2011 by dnnewark in Education, General, Politics

Manning’s Invention, or, Malcolm’s Reinvention?

Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X” is an adroit craftsperson: an artisan who is skilled at undergoing perpetual “reinventions.” Marable’s thesis, in his now widely discussed and contested Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, is grounded in the proposition that “self-invention was an effective way for [Malcolm] to reach the most marginalized sectors of the black community giving justification to their hopes.” According to Marable, Malcolm’s travels (between his pasts and futures) and travails (to define his self and his politics) in a raced, classed, irreligious (read, anti-Islamic) and imperialist American (and, later, international) context were driven largely by his desire to engage in the process of relentless reinvention: a process of continual, purposeful becomings, not necessarily for himself, but for the “black community” that would eventually claim him as its “Prince.”

Marable’s biography, flowing from this idea, recreates the sometimes tragic, and, mostly gallant, life and death of a martyr who dies for a cause—for others—but also a radical (and complicated) freedom fighter who dies also to his “self” and volition. Malcolm, via Marable, is caricatured as a “social being”—only imagined within the context of his beingness-in-relation-to the larger societal context where there exists a need for a salvific protagonist of the burgeoning black radical tradition and villainous antithesis to the very ideas of the presumed democratic tradition of white racist (and liberalist) America. But, as Baldwin illumines when writing about Richard Wright’s Native Son in his essay “Many Thousand Gone”: “the reality of a man as a social being is not his only reality and that artist is strangled who is forced to deal with human beings solely in social terms” (emphasis added). Marable, who was committed to the task of a historian as opposed to fiction writer, develops a narrative that refuses to allow space for Malcolm X the “human being” who exists without the ostensible proclivity towards “self-reinventions” that benefit others while only tangentially benefiting the human actor himself.

One must, then, interrogate the argument that is weaved into the narrative arc that directs Marable’s historical analysis of Malcolm X the “social being.” If the argument goes that Malcolm’s life “narrative is a brilliant series of reinventions,” as Marable suggests, then it would follow that Malcolm Little/Detroit Red/Big Red/Malcolm X/Malik Shabazz/El-Hajj Malik Shabazz were merely iterations along a continuum of perpetual and purposeful becomings, which were driven by external forces only, rather than the living-into, or, rather, states of beings that emerge and re-emerge as a result of the contextual life spaces and experiences that propel any human being toward self-motivated (and sometimes unmethodical) change. The former is a sign of a tragic life while the latter opens up the possibility for life’s complex beauty.

So, was the life of Malcolm X one defined by reinventions (for the sake of everyone but himself) or was Malcolm X delimited by Marable’s drive to invent a Malcolm X whose propensity manifested towards such desires? And, did such a desire impact the Malcolm X that the reader is left to grapple with? Even if one is not sure of that answer, s/he should read Marable’s work with that question in mind or otherwise s/he might find him/herself guilty of submitting to a politicized historiography of a sociopolitical Malcolm X that fails to fully capture the human being who just happened to be, like all of us, social and political.

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