April 4, 2011
Hail & Farewell: Manning Marable, Malcolm X biographer, on eve of publication
by Dennis Johnson
For twenty years, Columbia University professor Manning Marable worked on the book that, as a New York Times story by Larry Rohter notes, “he considered his life’s work: redefining the legacy of Malcolm X.” The book, Malcolm X: A life of Reinvention, “described by the few scholars who have seen it as full of new and startling information and insights,” is due out today. Marable died Friday.
As Rohter details in a moving report,
Mr. Marable had been looking forward to leading a vigorous public discussion of his ideas. But on Friday Mr. Marable, 60, died in a hospital in New York as a result of medical problems he thought he had overcome. Officials at Viking, which is publishing the book, said he was able to look at it before he died. But as his health wavered, they were scrambling to delay interviews, including an appearance on the “Today” show in which his findings would have finally been aired.
The book challenges both popular and scholarly portrayals of Malcolm X, the black nationalist leader, describing a man often subject to doubts about theology, politics and other matters, quite different from the figure of unswerving moral certitude that became an enduring symbol of African-American pride.
It is particularly critical of the celebrated “Autobiography of Malcolm X,” now a staple of college reading lists, which was written with Alex Haley and which Mr. Marable described as “fictive.” Drawing on diaries, private correspondence and surveillance records to a much greater extent than previous biographies, his book also suggests that the New York City Police Department and the F.B.I. had advance knowledge of Malcolm X’s assassination but allowed it to happen and then deliberately bungled the investigation.
“This book gives us a richer, more profound, more complicated and more fully fleshed out Malcolm than we have ever had before,” Michael Eric Dyson, the author of “Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X” and a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, said on Thursday. “He’s done as thorough and exhaustive a job as has ever been done in piecing together the life and evolution of Malcolm X, rescuing him from both the hagiography of uncritical advocates and the demonization of undeterred critics.”
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him at @mobylives