Manning Marable's newly released biography of Malcolm X introduces new information that could reshape the widely accepted narrative of the Muslim leader's life.
Marable died on Friday, just days before the book's publication. The African-American studies professor was 60 years old and died of complications from pneumonia. His life's work, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, came out Monday.
The new biography asserts that Malcolm X had exaggerated his early criminal career and had engaged in an early homosexual relationship with a white businessman. The book also claims that some of the triggermen responsible for killing Malcolm X are still alive and were never charged.
Melissa Harris-Perry, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, spoke with NPR's Michele Norris about how this affects the legacy of Malcolm X and how his life is taught in the classroom.
"Marable's picture of Malcolm X is of a profoundly flawed individual," Harris-Perry said, a "struggling human being — one who was consistently unsure of himself despite his own enormous intellect and resources." It's an abrupt departure from "heroic" and "perfected" visions of the African-American minister that were set in motion by The Autobiography of Malcolm X and perpetuated in American popular culture.
Marable argues that much of the narrative in the 1965 autobiography — a collaboration between Malcolm X and writer Alex Haley — is gross oversimplification. "Far too many of us ... have taught The Autobiography of Malcolm X as though it were sort of a historic document in and of itself," Harris-Perry said. "As though it were Truth with a capital T. ... We now have to go back and truly teach it it as a text — as an autobiography."
Take, for example, Malcolm X's relationship with Betty Shabazz. "In Manning Marable's reading, this was a relationship that Malcolm felt forced into as a result of his role as the minister in the Nation of Islam," Harris-Perry explained. "He felt that it was necessary to marry, and that his attachment with Betty was tenuous — not as profound an emotional and physical connection as has been presented by Malcolm himself and ... by his other biographers."
Marable also explores the question of Malcolm X's homosexual relationship with a white businessman. "It can be read as salacious or titillating to make this claim," Harris-Perry said. But Marable "doesn't necessarily say that Malcolm is a gay man. He is suggesting that Malcolm at certain points in his life engages in sexual activity with men and particularly this man — but he frames it around economic need and social anxiety."
But Malcolm X has been dead for 46 years, and theories about his personal life are only speculation. "Questions of homosexuality, race, manhood — they are really difficult discussions," said Harris-Perry. "And given that Malcolm himself is long ago departed, obviously he can't speak directly on these questions."
Marable focuses much of the book on Malcolm X's 1965 assassination — from the lead-up to the killing to the investigation that followed. Harris-Perry says "there is no doubt" that Marable was issuing a call to action to encourage a re-examination of the case.
"Had my dear friend Manning lived past Friday it was absolutely his intention to commit the process of ... promoting the book primarily to the work of bringing pressure for the purpose of reopening the case," Harris-Perry said. She suspects that Leith Mullings Marable, the professor's widow, is likely to pick up the work where her late husband left off.