The rich repertoire of songs and music that African-Americans have produced over the last century has to a large extent been recorded. Its value is recognized all over the world. The same cannot be said for black oratory, which shared the same roots and reflected similar emotions: slavery, segregation and imprisonment produced resistance, anger, bitterness and, often, resignation. Very few speeches were written, leave alone recorded, until the mid-20th century; and yet they had a huge cultural and historical impact. W. E. B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey were amongst the greatest orators during the early twentieth century. A generation later, Adam Clayton Powell, the independent Congressman elected from Harlem, could electrify an audience. This is the tradition within which the 1960s activist Malcolm X should be situated. It was his ability to articulate political ideas instinctively that won him an audience far beyond the ranks of the converted. First and foremost, he was one of the greatest orators that North America has ever produced.

Malcolm X embodied all the strengths and many of the contradictions of the black political condition in mid 20th-century America. Towards the end of his tragically short life he understood, better than most, that it was structural and systemic barriers that had kept the majority of African-Americans below the poverty line and denied them political and racial equality, a hundred years after a civil war supposedly fought to liberate their ancestors from slavery. In a speech of April 1964, he pointed out that if Lincoln—sardonically: ‘that great shining liberal’—had freed the Afro-American, ‘we wouldn’t need civil-rights legislation today’. Malcolm X’s political philosophy and approach, as well as his religious beliefs, were in transition over the last five years of a life cut short, in February 1965, by assassins from the Nation of Islam. They had acted on the orders of their Prophet and the National Secretary who was, in all likelihood, an fbi plant.

Manning Marable’s new, deconstructive biography demonstrates all this in vivid detail. Marable, a social-democratic essayist and historian who died in April this year, a few days before the book was published, was a much-respected voice within the African-American intelligentsia and later within the academy as a whole. In his earlier books and essays on black liberation, especially in the sharply analytical How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (1983), he deployed many a weapon from the Marxist armoury. The tone is somewhat different in Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. ‘From an early age’, Marable writes, ‘Malcolm Little had constructed multiple masks that distanced his inner self from the outside world . . . He acquired the subtle tools of an ethnographer, crafting his language to fit the cultural contexts of his diverse audiences’. Noting the various identities he adopted during his lifetime—from Detroit Red to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz—Marable asserts that ‘no single personality ever captured him fully. In this sense his narrative is a brilliant series of reinventions, “Malcolm X” being just the best known.’

Marable is not, of course, the first to chronicle the life of Malcolm X. The latter’s autobiography, co-written with Alex Haley, came out in late 1965, only months after its subject’s death. Since then there have been half a dozen biographies, not to mention a film by Spike Lee. But Marable’s is the first account to benefit from access to the personal correspondence, photographs and texts of speeches held by Malcolm X’s estate. Marable worked on the book for almost two decades, and was only able to complete it, as he generously acknowledges, with help from his partner Leith Mullings, a scholar in anthropology; a project manager, coincidentally a Muslim; and a team of dedicated researchers and post-graduate students at Columbia. The end product is sprawling and under-edited, but much of the information it collates has not previously appeared in book form. Some of it is, frankly, extraneous; but some of it sheds new light on the killing as well as providing details of Malcolm’s personal life that he carefully omitted from his own autobiography, and which were also absent from Lee’s movie based on that work.

The basic facts of Malcolm’s life are by now well known. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska in May 1925, but spent most of his childhood in Lansing, Michigan. At the age of six he lost his father, Earl Little Sr—killed in a streetcar accident that many at the time found suspicious, and which Marable suggests may have been the work of local white supremacists. Malcolm’s mixed-race Grenadian mother struggled to feed and clothe her seven children; in 1939, she had a nervous breakdown and was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where she spent the next quarter-century. Malcolm and his siblings were forced to depend on each other. In 1941, after being expelled from school, he moved to Boston to live with his half-sister. He spent the war years shuttling between Boston and Harlem, alternating between a series of menial jobs and a zoot-suited life peddling drugs, thieving and pimping. Unsurprisingly, he ended up in prison, receiving an eight-year sentence for a string of burglaries. He spent the years from 1946 to 52 in the Massachusetts penal system. It was here, in 1948, that he discovered the true faith as espoused by a politico-religious sect, the Nation of Islam. This changed his life-style in many ways: it meant farewell to pork and alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. Moreover, as Marable explains, the Nation of Islam ‘required converts to reject their slave surnames, replacing them with the letter X’. An autodidact, Malcolm acquired the reading habit in prison and it never left him. His choices were eclectic: the Koran became an important reference point, but he also dipped into Hegel, Nietzsche, Kant, as well as the history of his people and of the Africa whence they had originally come.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that his road to politics started in prison. In later years he recalled snatches of conversation he had overheard at home, and when he accompanied his father to political gatherings. Earl Little Sr was born in Georgia in 1890; memories of the Civil War, and of what had been promised but never given, remained strong in African-American communities in the South. Moreover, as Marable points out, the 1920s and 30s were a period of resurgence for white supremacism. Originally consisting of little more than violent gangs of embittered vigilantes, the Ku Klux Klan was reborn after the First World War amid rising unemployment and waves of xenophobia directed against not only blacks but also ‘non-European’ immigrants, Catholics, Jews, anarchists and communists. By 1923 the re-invented Klan had a membership of at least two and a half million, with millions more sympathizers and a base in both Republican and Democratic Parties.

Many black citizens, observing these developments with trepidation, were drawn to black separatist and nationalist movements. Others preferred to work with the gradualist National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp), a staunchly integrationist organization led by the conservative Booker T. Washington. Offered these choices, Earl Little Sr opted for separatism, joining Marcus Garvey’s ‘Back to Africa’ movement. Garvey, a Jamaican, had migrated to the United States, witnessed the racism and the Jim Crow laws and decided to fight back by creating the Universal Negro Improvement Association (unia) and the African Communities League. He espoused an inventive theology, and proclaimed himself provisional president of Africa, bestowing ludicrous titles on his acolytes: Dukes of Uganda, Knights of the Nile and so on. According to Marable, central to Garvey’s success was his ‘enthusiastic embrace of capitalism’ and free enterprise. The problem was that material success had been reserved for whites, which was why black Americans should ‘return’ to their own continent and create their version of the white American dream; to facilitate the process, Garvey created a shipping company, Black Star Line. On the political front he held that, since the kkk was the ‘invisible government of the United States’ and represented the real views of ‘white America’, the unia should open direct negotiations with them—after all, both were opposed to social and sexual intercourse between blacks and whites (a tradition that would be continued by the Nation of Islam). The summit between Garvey and Grand Wizard Clarke enraged some of his own supporters, many of whom left the organization. Garvey’s security apparatchiks tracked down and killed the leader of the dissidents.