MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Manning Marable's biography of Malcolm X, called "A Life of Reinvention" introduces all kinds of new information. Much of it is based on examining Nation of Islam documents, and it could reshape the widely accepted narrative of the black Muslim leader.
Manning Marable passed away last week, just days before the book's publication. Among other things, Marable asserts that Malcolm X had exaggerated his early criminal career and had engaged as a young man in a relationship with another man.
The book also claims that some of the trigger men responsible for killing Malcolm X are still alive and were never charged.
All these new details raise questions about how Malcolm X is viewed and how his life will be taught in the classroom. I put some of those questions to Melissa Harris-Perry. She's an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.
Ms. MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY (Associate Professor of Politics and African-American Studies, Princeton University): Marable's picture of Malcolm X is of a profoundly flawed individual.
You know, I think that in the kind of heroic reinventions of Malcolm X that have occurred as early as his own autobiography, where he apparently embellishes, I think that same trajectory was picked up in American popular culture in the mid-'90s through Spike Lee's film and, of course, also by people like Public Enemy and others in sort of the cultural milieu who adopted this almost perfected vision of Malcolm.
But what we get through Manning Marable's eyes of Malcolm X is an exceptionally flawed and struggling human being. Part of what we see in the Nation of Islam papers are the ways in which Malcolm is trying to hold on to his relationship with the Nation but then also, I think, this very intense and clear language about the Nation of Islam's decision to push Malcolm X out and not only to push him out but to perceive him as an enemy.
And that it is that perception of Malcolm as an enemy that Manning Marable ends up reading as at the core of the assassination a few years later.
NORRIS: I want to get to the assassination, but first you mention the autobiography of Malcolm X. And many people are introduced to Malcolm X through this Alex Haley biography, a book that's widely taught in American classrooms, really classrooms around the world and much embraced. Many people still have dog-eared copies in their personal collections.
But Marable says that much of that narrative was fictive. Will this book change the view of that seminal work and how it is used and taught in American classrooms?
Ms. HARRIS-PERRY: Absolutely. I think what now happens for all of us who have taught Malcolm X's autobiography from, you know, from high school through graduate school as a text, is we now have to go back and truly teach it as a text, in other words, as an autobiography.
I think far too many of us, and I'll make myself as a teacher culpable in this, have taught the autobiography of Malcolm X as though it were sort of a historic document in and of itself, as though it were truth with a capital T. You know, that changes, I think, how we understand the man who was Malcolm X.
NORRIS: There is much in this book about the assassination of Malcolm X, the lead-up to the killing, the investigation that followed. In the reading of that section, it seemed almost like Manning Marable was issuing a call to action. In reading this, did you think that he was trying to encourage people to re-examine the case, the questions about who exactly were the triggermen, the questions about what did the FBI or the police department do or what didn't they do in trying to prevent the assassination or to investigate it?
Ms. HARRIS-PERRY: It is completely clear that Manning Marable believes that he has identified the person who fired what they call the kill shot, the first and most deadly shot, that he believes that person to be alive and well and living under another name and that he believes there has been complete failure on the part of federal and local authorities to pursue justice in this case.
It was clearly Manning's next life and political and intellectual mission to bring this case to some kind of resolution, and I suspect that his now widow, who was very much his life partner intellectually and academically and personally, will likely take up this work.
NORRIS: Melissa Harris-Perry, good to talk to you. Thank you very much.
Ms. HARRIS-PERRY: Thanks for having me.
NORRIS: Melissa Harris-Perry is an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.