“Malcolm was our manhood, our living black manhood….And we will know him for what he was and is—a prince—our own black shining prince—who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”   So said Ossie Davis, in a eulogy to Malcolm X following his assassination.  In a recent biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Viking 2011Manning Marable helps us understand why Malcolm found this place in the hearts of black men and women.

As a youngMalcolmX2 man he had led a life of poverty and partial criminality (later exaggerated in his famous autogiography) spending time in prison.   From this marginalized existence he was “rescued” by the Nation of Islam, the militant group of “Black Muslims” whose sole recognized leader was Elijah Mohammed.  This led to a contradictory existence.  On the one hand, the Nation taught a kind of racial hatred, with a mythology (“Yacub’s history”) saying that the white man was created as the devil; on the other hand, Malcolm’s widening contacts with the universalism of true Islam softened this racialism, leading him eventually to repudiate it.

He was also torn because, while the Nation of Islam repudiated political involvement, proclaiming a religious solution, he was drawn to the black power and even civil rights movements, towards taking part in the struggles of his people.

As a minister and a speaker, Malcolm articulated the bitterness, alienation and anger of the marginalized, criminalized ghetto Blacks.   He was popular, adored and followed by many. He helped to build, for a time, the Nation of Islam.

But a break was inevitable.  Malcolm’s growing disillusionment with its leader Elijah Muhammad was fueled by his discovery of the man’s numerous affairs and illegitimate children; political contradictions abounded.  Once he left, he tried to organize on his own, minimizing the differences….but it was useless.  In the end, he was assassinated.   And black America was deprived of one of its noblest and most heroic spokesmen.

Manning Marable’s exhaustive autobiography, with extensive (but unobtrusive) footnotes will fascinate readers who want to know more about this unique leader.