Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book Review: Malcolm X, A Life Of Reinvention

The last time I found myself in Rome I had only brought two books to cover me for the weekend, silly me, so come Sunday I found myself browsing the English section in the bookshop for something to keep me company on the train ride back. I stumbled upon this new biography of Malcolm X by Manning Marable and I thought great, why not. As I only ever took one year of US history in my life in high school, and we only made it to the 1920s I knew absolutely nothing about Malcolm X, except that he was a big name in the African American struggle for civil rights and he was murdered in the 1960s. Shameful, I know, so I decided to buy the book.

First thoughts: I was extremely impressed with the quality of this biography. I found it to be extremely interesting, containing some information that I felt outright stupid for not knowing (Malcolm X had red hair?! o.O? And yes, I had to Google Images "zoot suit") as well as being full of extremely interesting insights into the inner workings of some American sub-cultures that I had been completely unaware of. The peculiar theology of the Nation of Islam, for example, that apart from the name could not possibly be further from the original religion it apparently stemmed from. The bizarre story of Yacub's history and the fact that they could be so blasphemous as to suggest that Allah took a human form, walked and preached around the US, and that therefore there was another new prophet after Muhammad.

The sheer amount of research that went into this book was astounding. Every day he tracks, every detail he goes over is backed up, especially when what really happens seems to differ from what Malcolm X said in his autobiography. But that is exactly what I most enjoyed about the book. There is no building up a martyr and ignoring anything that makes him look bad. There is no embellishment or fanciful descriptions of things the biographer could not have known. When the evidence is scarce or ambiguous he tells you, presents the evidence available, and lets you make up your own mind as to what might have happened. While some might find that kind of writing a little dry, to me it was the best aspect of the book and exactly why I enjoyed it so much.

Manning Marable certainly pulls no punches. He goes over every single detail of Malcolm X's life, from revealing some potentially embarrassing details (such as his probable episodes of homosexuality-for-hire or stealing from his family to feed his drug habit) to the flaws in his ideology (like his misogyny or his erratic anti-Semitic comments) to the unequivocal awe that he inspired in even the most unlikely of people ("He is a MAN, whom it is impossible not to admire, even when blasting the White Race for its mishandling of the Black Man", now how many black men get that kind of praise from leaders of the fucking Nazi Party?!). Only once does the voice of Manning Marable step in to criticize the history he is retelling:

To sit down with white supremacists to negotiate common interests, at a moment in black history when the KKK was harassing, victimizing, and even killing civil rights workers and ordinary black citizens, as despicable. Malcolm's apologetics and negotiating with with white racists were insufficient.

Having said that, at no point do you walk away from this book thinking badly about Malcolm X. His presence, his strength radiates out of this book, and you feel it not in spite of, but perhaps because of the honesty of its telling. He was human, and humans make mistakes, learn from them and grow in their ideology and philosophy as they become more educated in life. It is the way that Malcolm never shut himself off from this growth to sit and get fat in a comfortable position within the Nation, despite the inconvenience and outright danger this caused him, makes you respect him enormously. If you try to portray someone as 100% perfect from the start, the amazing courage it takes to revisit and restructure the way you look at life as you grow as an individual is completely lost.

I could go on for hours about every little aspect of the history, chapter by chapter, but for the purposes of this review I don't think it is relevant. At the end I have to say that, although the middle portion of the book can get a little confusing to follow (not by fault of the writer, it mostly has to do with the fact that they all have similar names, and then they keep changing their names as they enter into the Nation of Islam), it is a fascinating book, and it saddens me that the life of such a visionary was cut short. During the time that I was reading book I was constantly asking myself "What would Malcolm X think about that?" or "What would he say about Obama's presidency, or the Black Republicans like Allen West?" in a way that it felt like Malcolm X's speeches and words had really affected me, despite the fact that I had never had the privilege of seeing him in the flesh and listen to him speak. It is definitely worth the read, and I highly recommend it.

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