I trust that these two figures, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, require no introduction. Without qualification, they are two of the most important American figures of the 20th century. Contemporaries, they often took up oppositional positions, though they were fighting for the same cause: the right of black Americans to claim the equality they were rightfully owed. Both men gave their lives to the struggle, and have gone on to represent a great many things to a great number of people.
Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year by Tavis Smiley with David Ritz (4 stars)
I honestly didn’t expect much from this biography. Martin Luther King is, perhaps, the most well-known and important American figure of the 20th century. Every child is raised to learn the basic outline of his life, and his birthday is commemorated every year across the country. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. He is the American personification of peace, love, and civic virtue.
And, to some degree, I didn’t learn much from this book. I know that the King we’re taught about as 10 year olds is but a glimpse of who he really was, and that he was far more complex than the image we celebrate. He wasn’t faithful to his wife, and didn’t fully embrace peaceful resistance until coming into contact with Bayard Rustin. He has a less than honorable academic record (including plagiarism), wasn’t always celebrated within the African American community (especially towards the end of his life), and alienated many of his wife allies with his vocal stance against the Vietnam war.
But Tavis Smiley does a superb job following King through his final year, and ably paints the picture of a man passionately taking a stand for what he believes in, despite the fractious political maneuvering from his closest friends and advisors and the near constant threat of death and violence at the hands of a system he has been a stalwart opponent of.
King is a fascinating figure, and the conflict between our idea of him and the actuality of his life is an endless source of study for many people. This book does not paint a comprehensive portrait of the man, or his message, but it’s not trying to. It purports to be a look at the final year of his life, and relies heavily on the insight of those closest to King. Smiley attempts to explore what it was like for King, not just what he did in that time. I have no idea of knowing whether Smiley was correct in his inferences, but the narrative he creates is certainly plausible.
I think this is a good source for someone trying to get the measure of the end of his life, and it seemed both fair and well researched. But I don’t know that it added anything knew to the wealth of study that’s already been done on MLK.
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable (5 stars)
I didn’t set out to read these two book in such close proximity to one another, but it’s fitting that I did given their cultural placement as two sides of the same coin. Or, at least, that’s the idea of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X that many people seem to have. The former was the American Gandhi, preaching love and unity, while the latter is the most vocal black militant, calling for the death of whitey and armed resistance. They were contemporaries, and both were assassinated – one (King) by a deranged white man, the other (Malcolm) by his former allies within the Nation of Islam. One (King) was not only successful (eg, the Voting Rights Act) but is an iconic American hero, the other has no major victories to his name and died a man in conflict with the very message he worked so hard to put out there.
Like most great biographies, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention encapsulates what we know or assume to be true about the subject, gives it context, and explains how we don’t actually know him (in this case, “her” in others) as well as we think we do.
For instance, much of The Autobiography of Malcolm X is (at best) an exaggeration, due in no small part to the radical shift in philosophy Malcolm was undergoing during its writing, but also to his desire to paint himself as different from who and what he truly was. Not only may his past not have been quite so dramatically criminal as he paints it, but he may not have been quite so mythologically masculine as he’s depicted. There’s strong evidence that he may have been a homosexual prostitute in his youth, and a white man whom he was close to was someone he sought help from prior to leaving prison (to the apparent disapproval of Elijah Muhammad). Also, Marable seems to believe that Malcolm’s marriage to Betty Shabazz was anything but an idyllic one – he seemed to disappear after she gave birth to each of their six daughters, there was infidelity on both sides, and he seemed largely indifferent to her happiness.
I was of limited knowledge about the details of Malcolm’s life prior to reading this book. Most of my knowledge of what I did know, in fact, came from partial familiarity with The Autobiography and the film Malcolm X by Spike Lee. Well, that and the understanding that he was pro-violence and anti-white people, ideas which have permeated our culture through the vague distillation of fact that leads to beliefs like, “illegal immigrants are taking our jobs”, “television rots your brain”, and “Kanye West is as great as he thinks he is.”
But Marable takes the story much deeper than this, and delves into how Malcolm X absolutely did talk about black supremacy, and that the Nation of Islam very much has some absolutely batshit ideas – including the belief that the white devil was created by an evil black scientist named “Yakub”. And while Malcolm was the NOI’s chief minister, and the only one substantially advocating political involvement and social consciousness, his pronouncements of “white devil” and support for violence are more complex than they seem at first blush.
In short, Malcolm X is a far more complex person than he’s often given credit for (at least in my experience), and he is often appropriated by different groups to mean different things, and his words can be turned to support nearly every possible view.
Some parts of the narrative dragged a bit, but Marable never lost the thread, and was always able to reel me back in.
For what it’s worth, reading about the Nation of Islam made it really hard to see them as anything but a version of the Church of Scientology. So I wasn’t even faintly surprised when I discovered that Louis Farrakhan began embracing some of Scientology’s practices since at least 2010.
Anyway, both of these books are well worth a read, but I found Malcolm X to be more eye opening.
(Neither has previously been read for CBR.)