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Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

Malcolm X’s life was brief but impactful. It was also filled with contradiction and conflict. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011) illustrates Malcolm’s life and shows us his personal evolution from small time hustler to Nation of Islam minister to civil rights leader. Manning delivers an extremely detailed biography of Malcolm X that Malcolm X deserves.

The only downside to this book is that it is not what you would call a page-turner. It took me quite a while to get through this book, but I learned quite a lot about Malcolm’s life—including thee most influential element of Malcolm’s life: the Nation of Islam (NOI). Manning’s book outlines the creation and development of the NOI and Malcolm’s involvement in it. The NOI was an anti-white, anti-political, and segregationist religious organization that eschewed political solutions and the civil rights movement. Malcolm X, being a powerful speaker, became a representative of the organization, and gave talks in various cities and mosques across the United States. His charisma helped the NOI grow. But while Malcolm was earning the admiration of his listeners, he also gained the distrust and resentment of Elijah—the leader of the NOI—and his circle. FBI surveillance documents reveal several discussions by members of the NOI on the best way to deal with Malcolm, not ruling out assassination. Malcolm was aware that he was making enemies within the organization, but never thought that things would unravel so quickly.

Malcolm’s notoriety enabled him to travel. Perhaps the most consequential of his travels were his tours of the Middle East and Africa where he came into direct contact with the Muslim religion unadulterated by Elijah Mohammed’s ideology. While abroad, Malcolm learned that the Muslim religion was inclusive, and he came into contact with many white Muslims. Islam, Malcolm learned, was inclusive and not anti-white as the NOI taught. Despite the NOI’s inconsistencies with traditional Islam, Malcolm remained loyal to the NOI and Elijah.

But Elijah and his circle did not remain loyal to Malcolm. Malcolm was becoming too famous and too political, and Malcolm’s vision was becoming directly conflicted with the teachings of the NOI. He was becoming a major figure in civil rights movement. The last straw was Malcolm’s “Chickens Coming Home to Roost” speech, which the NOI ultimately used to kick Malcolm out of the organization permanently. After being expelled from the NOI, Malcolm started his own organization, Muslim Mosque Incorporated.

If it were only a matter of being expelled from the NOI, Malcolm X might not have been assassinated. But Manning’s book illustrates how members of the NOI planned multiple assassination attempts that didn’t come into fruition. Manning’s book also goes into the suspicious circumstances concerning the day of Malcolm’s assassination, and it also talks about problems with the investigation of Malcolm’s murder. To be honest, a lot of these details are based on speculation. But given the circumstances, Manning’s speculation is not unreasonable. As a side note, it stands to reason that we may learn more of Malcolm’s assassination in the coming months, for Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz and civil rights lawyer Ben Crump are suing the FBI, CIA, and the NYPD in a wrongful death lawsuit.

In short, I highly recommended Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention for those more interested in the facts of Malcolm X’s life and American history. But be forewarned: this is not an easy book to get through. Like all good histories, Manning’s book has a lot of detail. For those who are looking for something about Malcolm that’s more readerly, I recommend The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (Haley was also the author of the famous novel-turned-tv-mini-series: Roots).

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