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Influential scholar dies just before new Malcolm X bio publishes

Manning Marable, one of the most significant scholars devoted to post-war African-American life, spent 15 years working on an exhaustive biography of the great Civil Rights activist Malcolm X. The result, a 600-page tome called Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, is due to be published today by Viking. Sadly, the author did not live to witness the culmination of his efforts. Marable died in a New York hospital on Friday. According to The New York Times, Marable’s death resulted from “medical problems he thought he had overcome.”

The NYT goes on to describe the new biography, which contains a number of revelations about Malcolm X’s life, and takes a critical look at the now-canonical work, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

[Marable’s] book challenges both popular and scholarly portrayals of Malcolm X, the black nationalist leader, describing a man often subject to doubts about theology, politics, and other matters, quite different from the figure of unswerving moral certitude that became an enduring symbol of African-American pride.

It is particularly critical of the celebrated Autobiography of Malcolm X, now a staple of college reading lists, which was written with Alex Haley and which Mr. Marable described as fictive. Drawing on diaries, private correspondence and surveillance records to a much greater extent than previous biographies, his book also suggests that the New York City Police Department and the F.B.I. had advance knowledge of Malcolm X’s assassination but allowed it to happen and then deliberately bungled the investigation.

Marable was the M. Moran Weston and Black Alumni Council Professor of African-American Studies at Columbia University. One of the most heartfelt tributes to the late scholar appears on The Atlantic‘s culture blog. The piece is written by Marable’s former research assistant, John McMillan, who describes his mentor as affable and “a lot like a teddy bear”:

Without him, I’m not sure I’d have mustered the courage to go to Columbia, something that later turned out “ without question “ to be one of the great blessings of my life.  And yet whenever I tried to thank Manning for anything “ whether for helping to pay for my education, or for buying me a sandwich (as he sometimes did), I always got the same response.  He’d shrug, smile impishly, and say, “Hey, what do you expect?  I’m a socialist!”