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
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
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.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015