Nearly 50 years after his death, Malcolm X remains a controversial figure. An 8th grade dropout (he ditched school when a white teacher told him it was unrealistic for a black kid to dream of being a lawyer), he rose to prominence as the second most influential minister in the Nation of Islam, only to dramatically break with the Nation and convert to Sunni Islam the year before he was killed.
As the nickname “Detroit Red”—gained during his hustling days in Harlem—implies, Malcolm X makes for a sneaky biographical subject. In the public imagination, he’s largely defined by The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written by Alex Haley and published shortly after his death. However, as the late Columbia University scholar Manning Marable reminds us in his ground-breaking biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Penguin, 2011), The Autobiography is a text and not a history. The Autobiography itself was a reinvention.
The winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History, Malcolm X is an attempt to reshape the narrative of Malcolm X’s life and to prompt further investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death, but the book’s greatest contribution may turn out to be its portrayal of Malcolm himself. In contrast to the near messianic figure of The Autobiography, the Malcolm that emerges in Marable’s telling is profoundly flawed and hauntingly human.
He is also vividly alive. “He lived the existence of an itinerant musician,” writes Marable, “traveling constantly from city to city, standing night after night on the stage, manipulating his melodic tenor voice as an instrument. He was consciously a performer, who presented himself as the vessel for conveying the anger and impatience the black masses felt.” The snappiness of Marable’s prose leaves one with the sensation that Malcolm X must’ve been standing over the author’s shoulder for the full twenty years it took him to write the book. Detroit Red— whistling, snapping, hustling, along.