Paul Bryant's Reviews > Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Malcolm X by Manning Marable
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Nov 08, 13

really liked it
bookshelves: history-will-teach-us-nothing, godreads
Read in December, 2011

This is a dense, thorough, dour book and I found it tough going most of the time, for a variety of reasons. Malcolm X is a complex and hair-raising subject. When we follow Malcolm through his tortured life, and it was tortured, we find ourselves face to face with some very disturbing views and statements and actions. The usual trajectory laid across Malcolm's life is that after the break from the Nation of Islam, and his pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, he became an enlightened all-embracing champion of humanity – gone were the terrifying denunciations, and the implacable race hatred was visibly melting. And this upset some people, so he was assassinated, like Gandhi, like Martin Luther King, like RFK. But it really wasn't like that at all.


One thing this book has to do is provide a handy summary of the creation and development of the Nation of Islam in the USA. Atheists need look no further for clear – and indeed heartrending - proof that religion is largely composed of human wish-fulfilment. The NOI was a cult which emerged in the 1930s in Detroit, Chicago and a few other Northern American cities. The weird and racist theories spun by Elijah Muhammed, which formed a defining myth for the NOI, were as nasty as anything imagined by the author of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or indeed Adolf Hitler. But of course, there the comparison ends, because it's almost impossible to understand how the Jews came to provoke such pathological hatred in Hitler's (and many other's) minds - but it's extremely easy to see why white people could be seen as 100% evil devil creatures by black people in the early to middle 20th century. The psychology of this particular brand of racism is very clear. Why wouldn't you hate people who hate you so much and prove it every day?

(Quick question : when is a weird little cult a religion?
Answer : when it started two thousand years ago and was lucky enough to have great poets write its holy books.)

Anyway, the NOI took a number of concepts and ideas from Islam and threw them in a pot and stirred them up with a whole lot of invented stuff. Not too dissimilar to Scientology and Mormonism and all the other cults. And this is what all religions did in their beginnings, of course.

All deities reside in the human breast. – William Blake.

The NOI did not do well in its first years, less than 1000 members by 1953. In opposition to every other black organisation, they preached non-involvement in politics. They were against blacks voting in elections! And they were 100% segregationist. They had this whole Yakub's History thing going. This is where they said that a black scientist many thousands of years ago deliberately created the white race during a eugenics experiment. And the white race is irredemably evil. That's the way they were, that's the way they will be, they can't change. They were radical and they wanted separatism, ideally in a state of their own. They had only contempt for the tiny black middle class – they were all Toms. (Everyone who wasn't a Muslim was a Tom – when Martin Luther King arrived on the scene he was a Tom too, according to Elijah.)

The NOI mindset led them down some crazy pathways. Malcolm met with the KKK, as previously Marcus Garvey had done, to discover if there were any areas they could find to work together for mutual benefit. The KKK and the NOI were both believers in total separation of the races, so why not? Likewise, a few years later, the NOI invited the American Nazi Party to attend some of their rallies. George Lincoln Rockwell, the Nazi leader, gave the NOI a ringing endorsement, saying that Elijah Mohammed had

Gathered millions of the dirty, immoral, filthy-mouthed, lazy and repulsive people and inspired them to the point where they are clean, sober, honest, hard-working, dignified, dedicated and admirable human beings in spite of their color.

This is the guy Elijah and Malcolm had discussions with and invited to their rallies in 1961. With friends like that, hmmm?


Malcolm X was clearly the human dynamo who turned this weird little cult around, barnstorming his way through American cities, charismatic, inspirational, and flattening audiences with rhetoric which this book unfailingly describes as "incendiary". He got them signing on the dotted line. Membership took off. He was the golden star and he was thought of as the likely successor to Elijah Muhammed himself.

But things happened.

In 1959 Malcolm toured the Middle East and Africa and realised to his astonishment that

- Islam is not racist but inclusive, and there are many white Muslims

- the Muslims he met had never heard of this Yakub's History thing and
they clearly thought the the NOI was either profoundly heretical or not Islamic at all, just an American black sect which used Islamic terms here and there

- Elijah Muhammed was therefore not a prophet at all

This put him in a spot. What to do?

And then ….. Elijah Muhammed – surprise! - decided that it was his cult so the very strict moral rules imposed on all the Muslims did not, in point of fact, apply to him, and he therefore fathered a series of babies with the young women who came to work at his head office in Chicago. The final tally was around eight or so. Now, every male cult leader does this, and – hmm – there are no women cult leaders, so I'm thinking that starting a cult is a way for some guys to meet girls. Lots of them. Other guys join rock bands because learning 4 chords is easier than inventing a theology.

Malcolm was genuinely horrified when he found out about Elijah's girls. At the same time Elijah was getting really worried about Malcolm because Malcolm was getting more and more blatantly political. Then came the chickens remark.


December 1st, 1963, Manhattan Center, New York City. Malcolm's speech is entitled "God's Judgement of White America". Elijah had ordered Malcolm not to mention the late JFK at all.

Malcolm delivered the speech and was answering questions from the crowd. Eventually dallas came up and Malcolm said it was an instance of "the chickens coming home to roost". Well, so far, so ordinary. Malcolm characterised the US government as perpetrators of huge violence against its black citizens, not to mention increasingly against Vietnamese freedom fighters. So Malcolm just meant that ye shall reap what ye sow. But then he added :

Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad, they've always made me glad.

(Audience laughs appreciatively)

This was so offensive that even Elijah Muhammed was offended, and he had no time for Kennedy. For the chickens remark Malcolm got a 90 day speaking ban from Elijah, and the 90 days ended up being forever. As Hank Williams put it, one word led to another, and the last word led to divorce. And this was astonishing because the NOI was Malcolm's whole world, where he ate, slept, got married, got paid, it was the roof over his head, it was everything. But he walked away from it.


After the split, which was a painful gradual process from December 63 to summer 64, Malcolm was in an extremely exposed position.
Malcolm stood at the very middle of a complex set of crossroads between Islam and America, Africa and America, religion and politics, pacifism and violence. From 1963 to 1965 he was the very personification of these swirling torrents.

What now? He was reforming his views on everything at the same time as being under the full-on media glare and scrutiny of the black population of America – and Africa too, the new independent African nations had not only heard of Malcolm, they were fascinated by him. Imagine, a black Muslim in America! And what a guy!

So Malcolm ended up with everything on his plate. He was trying to act politically as the fulcrum between black America and black Africa, and religiously as the conduit between Muslim America and orthodox Islam. He was involved with an escalating war with NOI who were issuing death threats, veiled and not so veiled, on a daily basis. Oh, and he had no source of income, so he had to flog himself around the country making lecture after lecture, engagement after engagement. It was too much for anyone. He couldn't slow down until the NOI slowed him down.

Malcolm X, 11 March, 1963 :

There will be more violence than ever this year. … White people will be shocked when they discover that the passive little Negro they had known turns out to be a roaring lion. The whites had better understand this while there is still time.


The contradictions in Malcolm's thought at this time are dizzying – in 1964 he was the only black leader supporting right-wing Republican Barry Goldwater for president. At the same time the CIA were trying to figure out how to arrest him for sedition.

MM sums this up beautifully:

He was trying to appeal to so many different constituencies. He took different tones and attitudes depending on which group he was speaking to and often presented contradictory opinions only days apart. That he was not caught up in thiese contradictions more often owed to the fact that news travelled slowly across the country, that black politics was underreported, and that speeches were not regularly recorded. … he would alternately praise King and other civil rights leaders one day and ridicule them the next.


Malcolm was a dazzling articulator of black anger and oppression, and not a clear political strategian or writer of manifestos. That would probably have come later. The organisations he created after the NOI split did not survive his death. He was the very embodiment of painful black struggle. He laid out the fate of black Americans for all to see. You take a few million black people in chains from Africa, you dump them into a foreign land, you work them in the fields, you breed them like cattle, and then you turn around and hate them for being in the country that you brought them to. Whilst at the same time you issue constitutions proclaiming your country to be the bastion of freedom for all. How about that? Breathtaking. This is what Malcolm explained in brutal language that everyone could understand.

The Chickens remark and many others made Malcolm the most feared and hated black man in America in 63 and 64. But in 1987 Mayor Ed Koch renamed Lenox Avenue in Harlem Malcolm X Boulevard. In 1999 the US Postal Service put Malcolm on a stamp. He's almost revered now. He has had a spectacular posthumous career.




In 1959 local New york City tv produced a series of documentaries about the NOI called The Hate that hate Produced. It became famous. It introduced the NOI to white America. And yes, it's on Youtube. So you have to stop reading and watch it because now you don't have to read about this stuff , you can watch the thing itself! Wow.
While reading a biography of British author B S Johnson I found out he'd made a tv show called Fat Man on a Beach in 1973. Yes, that's there too. (well, it was....)

While reading a book on the Velvet Underground I found out that before the Velvets were formed John Cale had appeared on the panel game show I've got a Secret. Yes, that's there too.

Youtube is changing the way I read non-fiction.

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Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

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Seán Just got my copy in the mail. Fucking amped.

Paul Bryant This book will rock my brain, I know it. Whether a white guy like me can jump in and review it and start expressing opinions and all, I'm not sure.

message 3: by Mariel (new)

Mariel So true about YouTube and biographies. I don't always find what I'm looking for but I find enough.

message 4: by Eric_W (new)

Eric_W Fascinating review. I must read this book.

Paul Bryant Thanks Eric. Mr Marable is not one of the great prose stylists but the subject matter doesn't need one, it needs a steady hand and clear brain, and he's got that all right.

message 6: by Diane (new)

Diane Extraordinary review. I want to read
your books!!

message 7: by Lilo (new)

Lilo Hi, Paul, I am so glad to write these wonderful reviews because I can never read all the books I want to read. I once saw a documentation of Malcolm X on TV. It wasn't half as informative as your review.

Paul Bryant thanks! this book was a steep learning curve....

message 9: by Cecily (new)

Cecily I feel as if I've learned more about Malcolm X and NOI from this review than I have picked up everywhere else until now.

message 10: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant My work is done!

message 11: by Riku (new)

Riku Sayuj Paul wrote: "Youtube is changing the way I read non-fiction. "

That is one sentence I did not expect to see.

message 12: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant it's true though...

message 13: by Terri (new)

Terri Paul have you read any other Malcolm X books and if so, how did this compare?

message 14: by Linda (new)

Linda I echo Cecily, Paul. Thanks so much for this review.

Your statement, " turn around and hate them for being in the country you brought them to..." is truly profound. It stopped me in my tracks. And it's sadly very true.

message 15: by Lilo (new)

Lilo Cecily wrote: "I feel as if I've learned more about Malcolm X and NOI from this review than I have picked up everywhere else until now."

This is also my take.

message 16: by Lilo (new)

Lilo Linda wrote: "I echo Cecily, Paul. Thanks so much for this review.

Your statement, " turn around and hate them for being in the country you brought them to..." is truly profound. It stopped me in my t..."

This sentence has also caught my attention and has aroused sad feelings.

I'll never understand how people can be so nasty and cruel, be it against African Americans, against Jews, against any other ethnic group or minority, or be it against animals.

message 17: by Paul (last edited Nov 09, 2013 12:51PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant Thanks everyone.... Terri, no, this is my only book on Malcolm. After I read it I tried to watch the Spike Lee biopic but found it overmelodramatised an already melodramatic story and it lost me. As an afterthought, the NOI changed after all the above upheavals and the Farrakhan split, and part of it at least has become othodox in its Islamic theology and junked the crazed racist myths, but I'm sure there are other NOI offshoots still rollin' on with the white-people-are-an-experiment-that-went-wrong stuff.

Vicky Kern I agree with C

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