The great historian Manning Marable died only a few short days before the publication of what will undoubtedly be the work he is best known for, the biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. He spent more than a decade researching and writing this book, gaining unprecedented access to Malcolm X’s personal papers and original documents that piece together in great detail his journey from the son of a slain Garveyite to street hustler to one of history’s greatest orators and Black American heroes. Marable’s sudden death, which shook the academic world and those influenced by his extraordinary career and scholarly output, meant he was unable to bear witness to the tremendous critical reception to his work, that has now culminated in A Life of Reinvention being awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History.
It also meant that Marable was not around to participate in the fiery discussion his book ignited, which is sure to continue upon this announcement. While generally well received, the book generated much criticism and some outright scorn upon its release, as it challenged the prevailing image of Malcolm that has been established and celebrated in the nearly five decades since his assassination. In fact, the debate around Marable’s version of Malcolm became so intense, it prompted the release of By Any Means Necessary Malcolm X: Real, Not Reinvented, an edited volume that bears the subtitle “Critical Conversations on Manning Marable’s Biography of Malcolm X.”
Among the contentious points is the relationship between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam. Marable traces the tension between the two entities back further than the public dispute that led to Malcolm’s leaving and rebuking of the NOI and its leader, his one time mentor the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Marable also reserves particular scorn for Malcolm’s willingness to meet with members of the Ku Klux Klan to discuss areas of mutual beneficial consideration.
Of course, the biggest controversy had to do with Marable’s reading of Malcolm’s sex life, namely the strong suggestion that during his hustling days Malcolm may have engaged in a sexual relationship for pay with an older White man. Rumors regarding Malcolm’s sexual orientation have floated for years, and Marable offers evidence, though he spends little time on this particular aspect of his life, that Malcolm may have spent some time performing same-sex sex acts for money. Marable also suggests that Malcolm may have, later in life, committed adultery, carrying on an affair with a young member of his Organization of Afro-American Unity, which complicates the notion of Malcolm as devoted and faithful husband. Understandably, this new information rattled long time admirers of the fierce activist and fighter for Black liberation.
Surely the debate will rage on, but it isn’t unfair to say that’s exactly how Marable would have wanted it. As a journalist early on and as a scholar later in life, he devoted his career to telling stories about Black people and challenging the world to think about the experiences of Black people beyond their given limitations. It’s only natural for there to be some pushback, but it is that dialogue that forges the way toward truth and understanding. This Pulitzer is deserved on those merits alone.
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