Allen Lane, £30, 592pp. £27 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, By Manning Marable

The global fame and iconic posthumous stature of the man born as Malcolm Little may seem anomalous, even inexplicable. By most measures, his career was neither very successful, important, nor admirable. Murdered by former devotees at the age of just 39, he left no institutional legacy: the political and religious organistions he founded, always small and fragile, withered away within weeks of his death.

Unlike more quietly effective African-American leaders of his era – a Bayard Rustin or Philip Randolph, let alone a Martin Luther King – he pioneered no legislative or electoral victories, no mass movement, no obvious concrete achievements. Nor was there a significant literary legacy. His inspirational Autobiography was, as Manning Marable shows, far more ghostwriter Alex Haley's book than Malcolm's own.

Most of his public life had been devoted to propagating what he finally scorned as "some of the most fantastic things that you could ever imagine": the Nation of Islam's bizarre mélange of theology, science fiction and racial chauvinism. Although in his last months he was breaking away from those beliefs – and died because of that break - he did so only in ambiguous ways. His ideological evolution was rapid, and was cut brutally short, enabling admirers to project onto him multiple imaginings about where it was going. But it had not (yet?) included clear-cut rejection of ideas he had once propounded: like the inherent evil of white people and especially Jews, the natural inferiority of women, the desirability not just of armed revolution but of political murder, or for that matter that black Gods were circling the Earth in giant spaceships.

Amid all the things Malcolm X was not, there were two great things which he was; albeit one mostly only in retrospect. He was a great talker, and he became a screen onto which millions of people could project their diverse hopes and aspirations. His verbal brilliance was itself of two kinds, as orator and as conversationalist. This made him a crucial transitional figure, between the earlier age of the great face-to-face public meeting and the emerging media world of the soundbite and TV debate.

Malcolm shone at both, in ways which as Marable shrewdly suggests, shared a great deal both with the revered tradition of the improvising jazz musician and the later art of the rapper. If much he said seemed, to sober Civil Rights luminaries as well as to the American establishment, to be mischievously irresponsible, then this placed him within another compelling lineage: that of the black outlaw-trickster. From West African Anancy tales and their North American offspring Brer Rabbit, through folk icons like Stagger Lee to Tupac Shakur, that figure echoes throughout African-American history. As Marable argues, much of Malcolm X's enduring popular appeal came refracted through that imagery, fed always by an enduring sense of black powerlessness.

Whether this tradition will, or indeed should, survive into the Age of Obama is a question at which Marable's biography repeatedly hints, but never fully addresses. Its attitude towards its subject remains deeply, deliberately ambivalent. The central trope is reinvention: how Malcolm Little constantly reworked himself and how commentators and iconographers have repeatedly revised him. Marable gives us all the raw material for a harshly critical appraisal. He shows that the man's early criminality was far less serious and prolific than depicted in the Autobiography - but in some ways more sordid, since it included theft from his friends and family. He skates rather lightly over some of the madder beliefs of the Nation of Islam, but does not conceal either their absurdity or nastiness.

Marable is critical, too, of the "top-down leadership" Malcolm always promoted, and of the sexism from which, despite a few modifying or mollifying remarks, he never broke away. More bluntly, Marable notes how many "violent and unstable characters" were attracted to the Nation of Islam in Malcolm's time, and especially to its enforcer wing the Fruit Of Islam.

If you recruit in prisons, as the NoI so prominently did, you may get many "born again" followers – but you also get something else, really obvious but consistently denied or ignored by 1960s US radicals. Not all prisoners were nascent revolutionaries. Some were, believe it or not, criminals. There is no record of Malcolm ever criticising such tendencies, and eventually he fell victim to them. His own notorious words about chickens coming home to roost were, perhaps, here all too apt. Finally, Marable is explicit about the multiple troubles in his subject's personal relationships, from the tragic strain of mental illness in Malcolm's family to the probable infidelities of both the man himself and his wife Betty.

All this was clearly at times difficult for Marable, for overarching, the more negative evaluations is an intense affirmation. Indeed, his final claim is startlingly laudatory: that "Malcolm embodies a definitive yardstick by which all other Americans who aspire to a mantle of leadership should be measured." Equally, alongside the trickster image of Malcolm is one of stern moral seriousness and rectitude. Spike Lee's 1992 film, which played a key role in reviving the Malcolm X legend, was crippled by those expectations, as many previous writings have also been.

Marable's is very far from the first biography of Malcolm, but is undoubtedly the most penetrating and thoroughly researched. It clearly surpasses the best previous effort, Bruce Perry's 1991 study. Marable produced it at the head of a research team – though this barely diminishes his personal achievement, especially when one learns how gravely ill the author was in the later stages. Tragically, Marable died just days before publication. That makes it hard and sad to say that it is a flawed triumph.

Marable's prose is efficient but blandly anonymous – there is barely a single striking or memorable phrase. His comments on African or Middle Eastern politics are rarely inaccurate, but often disconcertingly vague. And his concluding suggestion that, posthumously, Malcolm X may form a mighty reconciling bridge between American power and global Islam must seem little more than wishful thinking.

Stephen Howe is professor of post-colonial history and culture at Bristol University

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine