After two decades of work, the celebrated scholar Manning Marable was poised to release his life's work in April: a 608-page, meticulously researched biography of Malcolm X. Marable, a longtime professor of African-American history at Columbia University, died of pneumonia just days before the book was published.
Manning devoted much of his career to uncovering provocative new details about the life of Malcolm X. The book, and its claims that Malcolm X may have embellished his criminal past and may have engaged in a homosexual relationship, have stirred controversy, criticism and praise for shedding new light on the larger-than-life historical figure.
"Manning Marable has helped to demythologize" Malcolm X, public radio host and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson tells NPR's Neal Conan. "But most of all, what we see about the meaning of Malcolm X is that in Manning Marable's eyes ... Malcolm X was an extraordinarily complicated figure, who was even greater than the mythology made him out to be."
Paring 20 years of research into a single volume proved a daunting challenge for Marable and his editor at Viking Books, Wendy Wolf. "With a life there is a decision of how much to say and how much not to say. How much do you chronologically put into the book? How many days do you recount? How many days do you miss?" Wolf tells Conan.
There was also the consideration of how much historical context to provide for today's readers — who might not be as familiar with the culture of the 1950s and 60s. "How many readers today know what a Zoot suit was?," asks Wolf. "We had to help determine how much of the surrounding history of the civil rights movement and ... world Islam, that we could pack into this story."
But while the project was challenging it never dampened Marable's enthusiasm for his subject. "After 20 years of working on a project, a lot of people come to hate the person" they're writing about, Wolf says. But not Marable. "He said, 'I have come to terms with [Malcolm X's] many flaws, and many people will be unhappy about some of the things I'm going to be saying about him ... but I admire him.'"
"And," she adds, "I think he would say Malcolm ... had so much else he could have done had he not been killed at the age of 39."