Alex Kane (senior reporter): To call Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention extremely detailed would be an understatement. The 2011 biography of the Black Muslim leader by the late Manning Marable, one of the most esteemed historians of his generation, reaches into every nook and cranny of Malcolm’s life and pulls out something interesting. Somehow, Marable does it without the book ever feeling like a slog. As with any work about Malcolm, the subject’s far more famous autobiography, which Alex Haley wrote with Malcolm’s cooperation, looms large over this book. Marable, making a case for another authoritative biography in the shadow of this totemic work, deals with his position by frequently referencing the autobiography, using archival and government sources as evidence to highlight its convenient omissions and debunk some of its more hallowed myths. With little pathos, Marable spends a good chunk of his biography examining how Malcolm exaggerated his pre-conversion life of crime to increase the drama of his prison time and support the narrative of the Nation of Islam delivering him from sin; more salaciously, Marable also posits that Malcolm may have cheated on his wife Betty and had a sexual relationship with a man for money, two assertions that upset his family greatly. (Ta-Nehisi Coates delves into the controversial notion that Malcolm engaged in gay activity here.) While I can’t help but enjoy the gossipy intrigue the book sometimes trades in, Marable’s reassessment of Malcolm’s much-debated political and spiritual transformation from Nation of Islam devotee to Black Power movement pioneer is far more important.
If you’ve read the autobiography or watched Spike Lee’s movie that adapted it, you’re familiar with how Malcolm turned his back on the Nation of Islam’s bizarre and sectarian take on Islam and race. According to Marable’s account, those works capture the broad strokes of Malcolm’s transformation, but the details in Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention complicate their otherwise straightforward narrative. Marable shows how Malcolm flirted with rejecting the Nation’s ideology before he formally left the fold, and how he bounced between praising mainstream civil rights leaders and calling them “Uncle Toms”—sometimes in the same week!—while he was still in the Nation. In other words, his transformation into a more orthodox Muslim and a proponent of involvement in mainstream politics happened in fits and starts, not all at once. Marable also spends a great deal of time on Malcolm’s overseas travels, which included stops in the Middle East and Africa, where he met with the likes of Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah and Palestine Liberation Organization officials. It was there that his fascination with Pan-Africanism and his flirtation with socialism crystallized.
Marable ends the book in the only place you really can: the assassination of Malcolm X by Nation of Islam members. Marable demonstrates that the NYPD and FBI had no interest in solving the case, and that they arrested the wrong Nation members who were ultimately convicted. Evidence he uncovers in the book points to a Newark Nation of Islam member as one of the culprits. In 2021, the two men pinned for the murder had their convictions thrown out—a testament to Marable’s careful work.
Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Now that my 13-month-old twin sons have mastered the art of seizing and paging through books, we’ve ended up spending most of our reading time on board books designed to withstand the tugging of tiny, shockingly strong hands. But for last night’s bedtime story, I reached for a long-neglected paper favorite: Du Iz Tak?, written and illustrated by Carson Ellis. This imaginative tale—which follows a cast of whimsically rendered bugs who discover a sprout that soon develops into a leafy plant, which, in turn, becomes a vibrant social space—is composed entirely in a made-up bug language. It’s hard to say what difference this makes to my kids, still early in their journey into speech, but as a parent I love the way it brings me closer to their view of the world. Usually, reading to them means speaking words I understand and they don’t. But as I read the strange syllables of Du Iz Tak? aloud, we all share the experience of struggling to comprehend, delighting together in the interplay of confusion and sense.
Though Ellis’s book is decipherable—or at least I think I’ve begun to parse it!—the experience reminds me of a remark the Italian designer Luigi Serafini once made about his beautiful Codex Seraphinianus, an encyclopedia of imaginary phenomena featuring surreal illustrations and a nonsensical language produced by automatic writing. “The book creates a feeling of illiteracy,” Serafini said, “which, in turn, encourages imagination, like children seeing a book: they cannot read it, but they realize that it must make sense (and that it does in fact make sense to grown-ups) and imagine what its meaning might be.” By throwing adults out of the stable certainty of meaning, Du Iz Tak? similarly facilitates that pleasure in bewilderment—and the struggle to understand.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): When I was informed of the existence of a volume of the fables of Vasily Eroshenko, I knew it was a book I had to read. Eroshenko has been described as a “blind left-wing Esperantist”—i.e., a speaker of the constructed international language Esperanto—a combination that is obviously quite rare. His appeal to me is obvious, since I’m legally blind and an Esperantist as well, though a lapsed one. (I’ve translated works from the communist Esperanto movement of the early 20th century; part of my marriage ceremony was performed in Esperanto; and the ketubah my artist wife created is written in English, Hebrew, and Esperanto.)
Born in a Ukrainian village in 1890, Eroshenko lost his sight at age four, but this did nothing to prevent him from living a life of activism and frenetic movement. He spent years in Japan, where he was deeply involved in both the Esperanto and revolutionary movements, associating with men who would form the core of the Japanese Communist Party. He later moved to China, where he was less happy but still ran in remarkable circles with some of China’s most important intellectuals. His travels allowed him to survive the extermination of the Soviet Esperanto movement, and he finally returned to his birthplace in 1952, where he died that same year. He was apparently a somewhat difficult man, but his political and linguistic activism bespeak a commitment to human brotherhood and solidarity.
And yet, however optimistic Eroshenko’s beliefs might have been, his newly published collection of Aesopian tales, The Narrow Cage—featuring anthropomorphized insects, fish, and a variety of quadrupeds—presents a tragic vision of life and humanity. These tales, bleak beyond compare, are clearly expressions of Eroshenko’s lived experience as an outsider. While they frequently invoke notions of “selfless love” and “self-sacrifice” as the ultimate good, the reward for self-abnegation is almost always betrayal and death. Creatures of all kinds are called on to free themselves from slavery, but it is the potential liberator who is turned on and slaughtered by the enslaved. The Narrow Cage reveals the darkness latent in Eroshenko’s anarchism, in which death is the ultimate anarchist. As one of its incarnations says in the story “Two Deaths,” echoing Bakunin: “All must die. It makes no difference to me. For I am an anarchist. I am an equalizer! I kill flowers and birds and men and women and children. Ah, what fun it is to reap destruction on living things.”
Before you go!
We leave you with one final recommendation from Jewish Currents Press: The second printing of the Israeli Black Panthers Haggadah is finally here! We think this beautiful hardbound edition featuring footnotes rich with anecdotes, notes on the authors’ intentions, and crucial context about the movement, will make a meaningful contribution to your Passover seder for years to come. Domestic orders placed by March 16th will arrive before the first night of Passover (April 5th). Order yours today!