2011 National Book Award Finalist,
Nonfiction

Manning Marable

Manning Marable
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Viking Press, an imprint of Penguin Group USA

Interview by Megan Gilbert

Note: Due to the unfortunate passing of Mr. Marable in April 2011, this interview was conducted with Wendy Wolf and Kevin Doughten, who were Mr. Marable’s editors at Viking.

Megan Gilbert: How did you come to work with Manning Marable on Malcom X? Can you describe the editing process?

Wendy Wolf and Kevin Doughten: Manning’s proposal for the Malcolm X bio came to Wendy Wolf from his agent, Elyse Cheney, in early 2005, though it was no secret that Manning had already been gathering material for many years. His original draft hewed much closer to the details of Malcolm’s life than the final version. Part of his research process had been to assemble a very impressive, very massive document containing sourced information on Malcolm’s whereabouts and activities for nearly every day of his life, a remarkable chronology that was the product of countless hours of research and documentation. One of the pleasures of working with Manning over the years was giving him a chance to step back from Malcolm in his daily life and flesh out more of the context, to build in the history of these remarkable times. Manning was originally a Caribbeanist, and the breadth of his erudition on African-American history was perhaps unparalleled. As we edited and he revised, he was able to bring much more of this wider knowledge to the book. In the original draft, he’d already given us the man; by the time we were done, he’d given us the man in his times.

MG: In the book's Acknowledgments section, Mr. Marable writes that the origins of this biography date back to 1969. What challenges did he face while researching and writing it? How did he feel once it was published?

WW and KD: Reticent or hard-to-locate interviewees and lack of access to critical documents have long made writing about Malcolm problematic, part of the reason that few serious historians have attempted to mount a comprehensive biography prior to this. One of Manning’s great achievements was persuading members of the Nation of Islam to go on the record, including capturing hours of discussion with Louis Farrakhan and other Malcolm intimates. In doing so, he was able to create a vivid picture of the world of Black Nationalism from which Malcolm emerged. There was also the challenge of the Autobiography itself, and how to present Malcolm’s story in a way that respects that book’s power while deepening our understanding of its central figure and acknowledging the complexity of his ideas, life, and legacy.

Unfortunately, Manning passed away three days before the book was published, though he held the finished book in his hands before his final illness. We can’t speak to the depth of his feelings, but he sounded joyous and gratified when we spoke after he received the book. He expressed real excitement about being able to participate in the discussions he hoped it would spark, and to engage in debate with those who might disagree with his interpretations.

MG: Mr. Marable cited the lack of original sources in other biographies of Malcolm X. Are you able to speak about his process of finding original sources for this book?

WW and KD: Manning spent years finding and convincing those who knew Malcolm to speak, filing requests for classified CIA, FBI, and NYPD documents, and combing archives for primary sources stretching back to Malcolm’s Michigan boyhood. He also received access to long-unseen Nation of Islam files, and an unpublished diary that Malcolm kept during his second trip to Africa, when he was trying to transform the American civil rights issue into a human rights issue by bringing the problem before the United Nations. This trip had been something of a lost moment in Malcolm’s life; he devoted a mere sentence to it in the Autobiography. Yet that period is critical in understanding Malcolm’s evolution as both a political and religious figure.

MG: How did Mr. Marable manage to make a biography of someone as well known as Malcolm X fresh?

WW and KD: One of Manning’s goals in writing the book was to show just how much our received views of Malcolm too easily reduced him to stereotypes, for some a kind of caricature of rage, for others a princely revolutionary. We’re not entirely sure Manning would agree that Malcolm was, in fact, truly well known, especially because the primary vehicle we have had for knowing him is the Autobiography, a subjective act of self-creation but also a work written and shaped by Alex Haley, whose agenda in writing the book differed considerably from Malcolm’s; remember as well that the book was published after Malcolm’s assassination. Plus, the Autobiography itself was published almost half a century ago, and little serious, popular work on Malcolm’s life has been published in the years since. Manning’s narrative powers and prodigious research delivered a story that challenged a lot of long-held preconceptions. We think Manning was particularly satisfied with the book’s take on Islam in America, its examination of Malcolm in the context of global Islam, and its suggestions of Malcolm’s trajectory at the moment of his death, which differ considerably from Alex Haley’s.

MG: Can you describe how Mr. Marable decided what the book's structure should be?

WW and KD: To my knowledge, Manning planned a chronological narrative from the outset, and we never veered from that path.

MG: The book puts forth some controversial findings about Malcolm X's sexuality and death. How did Mr. Marable approach writing about these controversial subjects? What did he think the reception of these revelations might be? How did he react to the book's reception?

WW and KD: He approached all aspects of Malcolm’s life as a historian should, dispassionately, and with an aim for avoiding sensationalism. For Manning, who was interested in telling the whole story, the findings about Malcolm’s sexuality and his unblinking portrait of his marriage were relevant, but hardly defining when it came to Malcolm’s legacy. Manning also expressed many times the hope that the investigation into Malcolm’s death would be reopened, in light of the evidence he gathered which went against the swiftly delivered official verdicts. While Manning hoped for legal justice for Malcolm, he believed part of a broader justice involved giving people a chance to engage with the complexity of Malcolm’s ideas about race and America. Manning knew, of course, that the more controversial issues would be widely covered, but he hoped they wouldn’t overshadow what he felt to be the far more critical points of Malcolm’s politics and religion.

MG: What do you think Malcolm X illuminates about the idea of idolatry?

WW and KD: Perhaps that idolatry produces the exact opposite effect of its intention by erecting barriers to true understanding.

MG: How do you think Mr. Marable would feel about Malcolm X receiving a National Book Award nomination?

WW and KD: We’re sure he would be elated, in some small part because of the recognition for many years of intensive work, but mostly because the news would keep people discussing and thinking about Malcolm X as a crucial figure in American history.

Megan Gilbert's writing has appeared in the New York Press, Paste online, Laughspin.com, and Underwater New York. She is a senior copywriter for Gawker Media. Read her work at ithardlymatters.com and follow her on Twitter @ithardlymatt3rs.