Feb 7, 2013 - Issue 503

Brief Reflections on the Debate Surrounding
Publication of “Malcolm X, a Life of Reinvention”
by Manning Marable
By Jack Smith

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[Acknowledgment: Author wishes to express heartfelt appreciation to Bill Fletcher Jr., Professor Robyn C. Spencer, Professor Jeanne Theoharis, Professor Johanna Fernandez, Professor Farah Griffin, Professor Zak Kondo, Professor Komozi Woodard, Professor Clayborne Carson, Professor Ronda Levine, Professor Michael Vinson Williams, Garret Felber, Professor Waldo E Martin, Joshua Bloom, Zaheer Ali, Professor Barbara Ransby etc.,. and all who struggle for social justice. This brief article is dedicated to the memory of Dr Manning Marable. All errors herein are the sole responsibility of the author.]

“History is not everything, but it a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are, but more importantly, what they must be.”


-Dr. John Henrik Clarke.


“It is vital to critique the mistakes of those who came before us.. to correct the mistakes and to emulate the success”


-Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael)

Casting Manning out of the community?

At a Colgate University October 24 2011 memorial program on Manning Marable, in a panel discussion of scholars including Professor Robin C. Spencer (Lehman College), Professor Russell Rickford (Dartmouth College) and Professor Komozi Woodard (Sarah Lawrence College), Professor Spencer shared insightful remarks in her first public comments concerning the vitorlic debate which accompanied publication of Dr Manning Marable’s work. Professor Spencer suggested perhaps scholars may distinguish the Reinvention trope selected by Dr Marable for his discussion of Malcolm, with the series of “life evolution”, changes etc.,. which may describe the growth of leaders such as Vicky Garvin, W.E.B Dubois, Dr. King, Maya Angelou, Yuri Kuchiyama, etc.

Pointedly, Professor Spencer described the powerful nature of Dr Marable’s scholarship.

“Manning’s work was seen as a deeply threatening to people who have built up lives, careers, social cache etc., from representing certain aspects of the oppression of Black Folks but not all aspects of it… I see the critique of Manning’s work ‘Reinvention’ coming from that sort of vantage point … almost a vitriolic attempt to cast Manning out the community,” (emphasis added).

Tension between Family legacy rights, scholarly research and public access

Presciently, the recent publication in 2013 of the Portable Malcolm X Reader, edited by Dr Manning Marable and Garret Felber, includes an interesting introduction by Dr Manning Marable describing major problems in this political biographic work. His attempt to resolve these challenges may have fueled the controversy which accompanied the 2011 publication of “Reinvention of Malcolm X”.

In the Portable Malcolm X Reader, Dr Marable states, “Almost immediately I encountered four major problems in telling Malcolm’s life story; The first was the embargo on information imposed by the attitude and decisions taken by Malcolm X’s widow, Dr. Betty Shabazz. Following her husband’s assassination, Dr. Shabazz decided not to collect and archive his papers and original documents in preparation for either giving or transferring them to a library or archive. Instead, for more than three decades, thousands of pages of correspondence and documents written or issued by Malcolm X, even his Holy Qur’an, were left rotting on the basement floor of her Mount Vernon, New York, home. Dr. Shabazz aggressively sued writers and scholars who utilized or reprinted sections of Malcolm’s speeches or writings in their published works.”

A similar conflict between financial and legal interest of family vs the needs of scholars is described in a newly published work The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks by Professor Jeanne Theoharis.

“Unfortunately many of Park’s personal effects-dresses, awards, sewing basket, eye glasses and papers - have been caught up in an extended legal dispute between the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute, which she confounded ...and her family. This led a Michigan probate judge to give Gurnsey’s, a celebrated auction house jn New York City, the responsibility of selling all of it with the profits to be distributed between her Institute and her family. Guernsey’s has been attempting to sell the Rosa Parks Archive for five years, steadfastly unwilling to let any scholar make even a cursory examination...The legacy of Rosa Parks has been besieged by controversies around profit, control, and use of her image. … a vast trove of her papers, letters, and other ephemera sits in a storage facility in Manhattan, of use to no one, priced at $6 million to $10 million. Institutions such as Wayne State University, Alabama State University, and the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture would be the logical home for Park’s papers, but they cannot compete in such an auction. And so Park’s ideas and life’s work sit idly in a New York warehouse, waiting to be purchased.” (Emphasis added).

In order to address these family legacy concerns, scholars such as Dr Clayborne Carson and Dr Marable leveraged the considerable resources of well-endowed private universities such as Stanford University and Columbia University to enable scholarly access to the works of Dr King and Malcolm X. For example, Dr Marable facilitated a Columbia University $5 million payment to the Estate for temporary lease of the Malcolm X papers for 75 years. 

This enabled deposit of these documents in the proper care and keeping of the New York Public Library Schomburg Center of Black Research with public access, scholarship research etc. Another component of the settlement may have been facilitation of family members to be appointed as Directors of a public/private funded Memorial Center located at the Audubon Ballroom. The Center is a modest community memorial reminiscent of the Dr King Center in Atlanta. 

Professor Zak Kondo, the well respected author of Conspiracies Unraveling the Assassination of Malcolm X, stated on April 29 2011, in a presentation titled, “The 2nd Crucifixion of Malcolm X,” in remarks strongly critical of Dr Marable’s Reinvention work, insightfully noted that Dr Betty Shabazz’s heartfelt desire was to replicate for the family of Malcolm, the same wealth of royalty and financial benefits provided to Coretta Scott King and family from Dr King’s legacy. If this is an accurate assessment, the steps taken by scholars such as Dr Marable were reasonable efforts to enable publication of Malcolm X, a Life of Reinvention.

Lost in Translation - a political biography or a personal memoir?

At the heart of the vitriolic debate that followed publication of Reinvention, may have been an unfortunate misunderstanding. Dr Marable, the Estate of Malcolm, Loyalists, family members etc., all used similar language to describe their vision of biographic scholarship. Dr Marable consistently described his work as “telling Malcolm’s life story”. However, Dr Marable’s nontraditional vision of political biography was similar to Professor Ransby in her definitive work Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement.

On the other hand, the Estate, family members, family friends, Malcolm loyalists etc., may have reasonably desired a traditional personal biography similar to the inspiring and financially successful Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley, the autobiography Growing Up X by Ilyasah Shabazz, the definitive work Betty Shabazz - Surviving Malcolm X by Russell Rickford, etc.

The difference between these competing biographic approaches is dramatic

For example, Professor Michael Vinson Williams acknowledges the invaluable personal biographic memoir of Medgar Eves, For Us the Living, authored by Medgar Evers’ wife and widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams and Williams Peters. Professor Williams notes in his Bibliographic Essay, “the authors of For Us, the Living present a primary account of Evers as husband, father, and social/political activist”. 

An interesting contrast can be seen with the following bold disclaimer included by Professor Theoharis in her newly published political biography of Rosa Parks, which states:

“This is fundamentally a political biography; it does not fully capture her community of friends and family ties, her faith, and church life, her marriage, her daily activities. That is a task for others.” (emphasis added).

Conclusion – “Our Black manhood”, Challenging iconoclastic racial/gender etc., myths

“Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! ....Our own shining black prince.”


-Ossie Davis’s famous Eulogy at Malcolm’s funeral in February 1965.

The paternalistic description of civil rights leaders such as Rosa Parks as a demure, self effacing, passive, unlikely heroine was a popular myth extensively promoted at her funeral by political leaders, barely two months after their failed Hurricane Katrina victim’s disaster relief.

Unfortunately iconoclastic accolades by core members of Malcolm’s circle of trust, such as Ozzie Davis with his famous eulogy of Malcolm as “our shining Black manhood,” were well meaning but deeply limiting legend. In realty, warriors such as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Dr King, Rosa Parks, etc. faced all of the racial, gender, class, etc. complications challenging all human beings, yet they were extraordinary in their dedication to social justice.

As Nelson Mandela consistently stated to his biographers, “I am no Angel”. Instead, Nelson Mandela fondly quotes W.E. Henley work, Invictus.

“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”


Ashe. Palante.

BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator, Jack Smith, is an alumnus of Harvard University, New York University School of Law, and is a member of the United States Supreme Court Bar. Click here to contact Mr. Smith. Critical feedback is appreciated.