Malcolm X - A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable, abridged by Polly Coles

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BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week

BBC Radio 4, 6-10 June 2011
In this Radio 4 Book of the Week, Manning Marable challenged many of the preconceptions held about Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) (1925-65), while examining Malcolm's autobiography - filling in many omissions and correcting inaccuracies.
Each episode concentrated on a different aspect of his life. The first concentrated on his early years in Omaha, Nebraska, relocation to Milwaukee and Lansing, Michigan, harassment by the Black Legion (a white supremacist group), and the death of his father - which was officially deemed accidental but which many African-Americans believed was deliberately caused by a white person. The second episode followed Malcolm to Boston and New York, where he became a hustler, acquiring the soubriquet 'Detroit Red' in the process, on account of his hair-colour. The third episode followed Malcolm to prison in Boston, where he discovered the lessons of Islam; as a result he reinvented himself as a member of the Nation of Islam, foregoing pork and cigarettes in the process. In the fourth episode we learned of Malcolm's political struggles; although a great orator, he was continually torn between two ideological extremes. On the one hand he wanted to follow the Nation of Islam, and advocated a completely separate state for African Americans; on the other hand, he inclined towards the more liberal stance of Martin Luther King, based on integration rather than separation. Eventually Malcolm ended up leaving the Nation of Islam and setting up his own organization, Muslim Mosque Inc. Malcolm was always an outspoken orator, making as many enemies as he did friends; thus it was inevitable that someone would try to assassinate him. The fifth episode described his violent death, as he was gunned down at a public meeting in Manhattan.
Polly Coles' abridgment of Marable's novel suggested that Malcolm X was a chamelelon-like figure, who reinvented himself at different points in his life to suit changing political and social conditions. He became a member of the Nation of Islam because it was socially and politically expedient for him to do so; likewise in the early 1960s he moderated his ideological position, so that he could seem more in tune with the concerns of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm had only one fault - a tendency to let his public pronouncements run away with him. Following the assassination of J. F. K. in November 1963, Malcolm implied in a speech that Kennedy deserved everything he got, on account of his racist domestic policies. Such sentiments, although keenly felt, made him more and more unpopular, and increased the likelihood of his being assassinated.
The abridgement told a cautionary tale of an undoubtedly talented politician and orator whose ambitious eventually got the better of him. While the text perhaps made a little too much of the perceived differences between Islam and Christianity (both religions actually share the same god), it was nonetheless lucidly read by Colin McFarlane in a detached tone, suggesting that he neither condemned nor applauded Malcolm's actions. The producer was Clive Brill.

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