Since I was a young boy growing up, the story of Malcolm X captivated me. Before I hit my 13th birthday, I had already read his autobiography, watched the Spike Lee movie and sat through countless hours of his recorded speeches with my African-American teachers – many of whom had reverted to Islam after meeting or learning about him. The fascination continued through college and Medical School, where a group of friends and I gave presentations on the life of Malcolm X at Universities across the UK.
Therefore, as you can imagine, I eagerly awaited the latest biography by Professor Manning Marable called “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.” He had based his book on a decade worth of research and set out to reveal the man behind the legend. It would be a chance to get to know the character traits and morality of a person who had served as an inspiration to millions across the world. That Marable himself had died days before the book was published made it all the more interesting.
However, the emotion that I experienced whilst reading the book was not one of discovery or insight, but of profound disappointment bordering on disgust. Interspersed between slow and rambling passages, the book is littered with various accusations including that Malcolm X lied about his criminal past in order to sex-up his bad-boy image, that he was involved in a sexual relationship with an elderly white businessman, that he was a hypocrite who drank alcohol whilst calling others to be teetotal and that he carefully airbrushed all these parts out of his autobiography.
An example of the unjustified extrapolation that Marable engages in to arrive at these accusations is how he uses a letter from Malcolm X talking about a rough patch in his marriage and the fact that he was constantly away on speaking tours to come to the wild-leap conclusion that he and Betty were “most likely” unhappy and involved in an extra-marital affairs. Such statements have little evidence beyond the fertile imagination of Marable himself and are more befitting the lowest rung of tabloid newspapers rather than a serious academic text.
Given the amount of speculation deceitfully presented as factual revelations, one would think that the book would be consigned to the garbage tip of history. Instead, the literary community has this week awarded it one of its highest honours – the Pulitzer prize in history. What were they thinking? Perhaps they just wanted to honour a Professor who died before he could see his work published. Perhaps they didn’t even read it. Or perhaps they wanted to pull the icon of Malcolm down a peg or two to the level of other great (but morally flawed) leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. or JFK.
To a jaded non-Muslim audience, these “revelations” are not shocking since it is possible for someone to engage in hypocrisy, adultery and lying on a grand scale in their private lives and still have their public image heralded as an example to millions. To Muslims and those who truly love Malcolm X, these accusations are a slur on the character of a martyred comrade, an inspirational leader and – most importantly – a brother in faith.
“A Life of Reinvention” was supposed to epitomize the amazing transformation Malcolm underwent from deep down in the gutter of humanity to one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. Instead, this biography has ended up as a reinvention too far.