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X marks the spot: Manning Marable, 'Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention'

(Allen Lane, 2011; 608pp; £30)

Malcolm X came to public notice as a black supremacist, the public voice of the right-wing separatist African-American cult, “the Nation of Islam”, known for his brilliant and vitriolic anti-white rhetoric. He was, in the early 1960s, the most prominent African-American critic of nonviolence – though he himself never engaged in violent action against white racism. By the time of his assassination in February 1965, Malcolm X had broken with the Nation of Islam, discarded black separatism, converted to orthodox Sunni Islam, accepted alliances with (some) white people, and reached out to Martin Luther King.

Tracing this extraordinary story, from petty criminality and prison to international recognition, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (written largely by Alex Haley, who later wrote Roots) was rightly named by Time magazine in 1998 as one of the top ten nonfiction books of the twentieth century. Why then do we need Malcolm X: A life of reinvention, by African-American scholar Manning Marable? Well, it turns out that the undoubted power of the Autobiography covers up some import-ant gaps. One of the most striking is Malcolm X’s long trip through post-colonial Africa and the Middle East in 1964, where he was treated almost as a visiting head of state, despite being the leader of two tiny fledgling organisations in New York.

Marable’s depth of research, his exploration of the African-American political scene during Malcolm X’s childhood, and his objectivity all make Malcolm X: a life of reinvention an invaluable book for those still trying to make sense of this global figure.

One possible weakness is in Marable’s treatment of Malcolm X’s attitude to violence. Marable is very clear that brutality was routine within the Nation of Islam, and that Malcolm X was a leading figure in training and organising the security and discipline squads, known as the “Fruit of Islam”. (It was a member of the Fruit of Islam who eventually confessed to assassinating him – Marable is excellent in untangling this story.)

However, Marable does not do enough, perhaps, to untangle the knotty issue of “self-defence”. Malcolm X famously said: “I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defence. I call it intelligence.” (These words appear at the end of Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing.) At the same time, Malcolm X made it clear that he believed in both pre-emptive self-defence and revolutionary violence, distinctions that Marable does not explore.