Manning Marable and the Malcolm X Biography Controversy: A Response to Critics

On the day of Manning Marable’s death, April 1, 2011, I received an additional piece of disturbing information. A friend of mine informed me of a discussion he had just had with a Black activist-writer who, in hearing about Marable’s passing, went into what could only be described as a rant against Marable. Marable’s body was hardly cold, and this individual, who knew Marable, was castigating him to my friend, claiming that Marable was everything but a child of God. It was at that moment that I knew that Marable’s Malcolm X:  A life of reinvention (hereafter referred to as MX) would ignite a firestorm in some quarters of the Black Freedom Movement. Within days, despite the overwhelmingly positive response to the book, this firestorm emerged. 

In approaching the controversies that surround MX it is important to ask two questions prior to responding directly to critics:  (1) what did Manning set out to do? (2) did he succeed?  We will take these one at a time before commenting on some of the issues raised by various critics and what lies beneath them.


What did Manning set out to do? 

MX is a blockbuster of enormous proportions. The mere act of writing a 500+ page biography is a significant achievement on any scale. Yet Marable was not attempting to write the definitive biography when he first started out on this journey. As he himself noted, his first objective was to write what he called a “political biography” of Malcolm X. Over time the objectives shifted somewhat and became a bit more complex. 

Much has been made of the biography “humanizing” Malcolm, a term which I have myself used. Yet that is not the starting point for understanding the objectives. A better starting point is perhaps derived from Marable’s own statements on the matter, the gist of which begins with the fact that Malcolm X had been—and remained—a hero for Marable, who, in his opinion, had been the most significant Black activist figure of the mid-to-late 20th century. It was Marable’s committed belief in Malcolm X’s significance that moved him to dedicate the last decade of his life to chronicling Malcolm’s life and legacy through the Malcolm X Project at Columbia University. And it is this same commitment to Malcolm X’s and his family’s legacy that caused Marable to utilize his institutional influence and resources to push Columbia University to make good on its promise to open the site of the former Audubon Ballroom as the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial Center. MX is the product of a historian who cared deeply for his subject, who felt that his subject was deserving of a comprehensive examination of his life.  Marable took this task seriously, grappling with aspects of Malcolm’s life that he knew would challenge our iconic view of Malcolm but also do it in a way that would deepen our appreciation of his heroicism as human being to other human beings. Yet in trying to understand Malcolm’s trajectory, not just when he left the Nation of Islam, but much earlier, there were curious features in the Autobiography of Malcolm X that were difficult to either understand or explain.

From my own discussions with Marable, as well as what is contained in MX, I know that Marable had been perplexed for years regarding what was missing from the Autobiography. Most people that I know who have read the Autobiography found the ending somewhat odd, i.e., that there is little discussion of Black freedom strategy and then, suddenly, we are into Alex Haley’s final words!  Like many other things in life, the tendency was just to chalk this up to circumstances, in this case, that the book was completed after Malcolm’s assassination and that not everything could be wrapped together. 

This explanation did not satisfy Marable. His conclusion, as he notes in the book and in numerous interviews he conducted prior to his death, was that Haley edited the book in such a way as to make it more acceptable for the audience that Haley wanted to reach (mainstream white America). Accordingly, sections of the Autobiography, such as that which covered Malcolm’s proposed Black united front, were eliminated entirely. Haley, a Black Republican, had no interest in a Black Nationalist or Pan Africanist vision. This mere fact makes highly ironic some of the criticisms raised of Marable in connection with the book, specifically, that he was attempting to make Malcolm more acceptable to a liberal audience. The facts, simply put, demonstrate that such a conclusion is ridiculous. Why it is being offered, however, is something that will be discussed later. 

The Autobiography contained some other issues for Marable, h

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