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Scholars critical of latest Malcolm X bio

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 6/21/2011, 11:29 p.m.
This May 21, 1964 file photo shows Malcolm X as he speaks at a news conference at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, New York. The famed Hotel Theresa closed in 1967. The building where it was located, at 2090 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, was later designated a city landmark and is now an office building. The hotel was called the “Waldorf of Harlem,” hosting celebrities from Louis Armstrong to Fidel Castro. AP

For Malcolm X, like any international icon, the man behind the legend remains elusive.

 The basic details of his life are well-known: He was born Malcolm Little; as an adolescent became Detroit Red, a gambler, drug dealer, pimp and thief; was sentenced to prison and there became Malcolm X, a disciple in the Nation of Islam; and after rising through the ranks of the Nation, eventually split from the group, embraced Sunni Islam on his pilgrimage to Mecca and adopted his final name, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.

His life is best known through “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” but even in this carefully crafted work, many stories were left untold and questions unanswered.

Attempting to “go beyond the legend” and “recount what actually occurred in Malcolm’s life,” Columbia University professor Manning Marable offers a new biography, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.” For the scholar of African American studies, who died just days before the book’s release, the work chronicles, for better and for worse, a man who “embodied the spirit, vitality, and political mood of an entire population — black urban mid-twentieth century America.”

In constructing his work, Marable consulted many previously unexamined sources, including FBI, CIA and U.S. State Department files, Malcolm’s personal diaries and the Nation of Islam archives. The latter is particularly revealing. Before his project, Marable explains in the prologue, Louis Farrakhan, current head of the Nation, “had never permitted scholars to examine the sect’s archives.”

“After years of effort,” he gained access to many audiotapes of Malcolm’s old speeches, letters between Malcolm and former spiritual leader of the Nation, Elijah Muhammad, and impressively, a nine-hour interview with Farrakhan himself, as well as with other Nation of Islam members who had known Malcolm decades ago.

But perhaps most intriguing are the so-called “missing chapters” Marable gained unprecedented access to.

Alex Haley, co-author of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” originally conceived of the work in three parts: 10 chapters narrating Malcolm’s life, three essays outlining Malcolm’s religious and political positions and an afterward written by Haley. However, the three essays were eventually cut from the final manuscript, leaving the book strangely silent about the specifics of Malcolm’s political objectives.

The missing chapters were never published, and in the 1992 sale of Haley’s estate, they were sold to a Detroit attorney, Gregory Reed, for $100,000. Instead of making the documents public, they remain hidden away in Reed’s office. Marable recounts in his 2006 work “Living Black History” that “after lengthy telephone conversations” he met Reed in Detroit and was permitted to browse selections of the missing chapters for 15 minutes at a restaurant.

The short time was enough for Marable to determine that the chapters had been written between October 1963 and January 1964, the final months of Malcolm’s membership in the Nation. In these documents, Malcolm “proposed the construction of an unprecedented African-American united front of black political and civic organizations” and pushed for “open dialogue and political collaboration with the civil rights community.”