Book of the Year for 2011

My selection for book of the year may seem far afield for a student of American religion and congregations, but it’s not. In my view, the very best books are those that expand my vision and knowledge beyond the specific subject of the books themselves. That’s what Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention did for me. Many years ago I read Malcolm’s Autobiography, a book that opened a new world to many of my generation. In this new biography Manning Mirable tells the full story of that “autobiography,” which was written in large part by Alex Haley (of Roots fame) and of the politics of its creation.

Marable’s book is remarkable in several respects. First, it tells the story of Malcolm Little and his family and their role in the evolution of the Nation of Islam. This is an important story in itself that Marable tells with genuine empathy for all of the players. The author seems to have read everything and talked with everyone involved in the struggle for Black Civil Rights in the sixties and seventies. He challenges historians’ tendency to interpret Malcolm X through the lens of Martin Luther King, a view Mirable says “was not only wrong, but unfair to both Malcolm and Martin.”

That suggests, I think, the second contribution of the book. I have a full shelf of terrific books covering the civil rights movement and I continue to recommend many of them. David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross, Taylor Branch’s, three-volumes beginning with Troubling the Waters, Diane McWhoerter’s Carry Me Home and Charles Marsh’s God’s Long Summer remain among my favorites. Each of these histories proceeds from a particular point of view but they share a strong sympathy for the integrationist, liberal, reform position that was dominant among the movement’s religious leadership. Mirable argues, by contrast, that Malcolm X “perceived himself first and foremost as a black man, a person of African descent who happened to be an American citizen.” He continues: “This was a crucial difference from King and other civil rights leaders.” “Malcolm, he writes, “perceived black Americans to be an oppressed nation within a nation, with its own culture, social institutions and group psychology.” Further, Malcolm was not a product of the black middle class. He was a graduate not of Morehouse College but of the Norfolk Prison Colony.

Third, I view Malcolm X as a contribution to our understanding of religious leadership. Marable’s contends that one of Malcolm’s great strengths was the capacity to “reinvent” himself over time as new occasions brought forth new duties. Mirable: “Malcolm’s strength was his ability to reinvent himself, in order to function and even thrive in a wide variety of environments. He carefully crafted his physical presentation, the manner in which he approached others, drawing upon the past experiences of his own life as well as from African American folklore and culture. He wove a narrative of suffering and resistance, of tragedy and triumph, that captured the imaginations of black people throughout the world.” And later: “He was consciously a performer, who presented himself as the vessel for conveying the anger and impatience the black masses felt.”

Manning Marable, who died as the book was being published, was an historian at Columbia University. He directed its African American studies department from 1993-2003 and its Center for Contemporary Black History until his death.

My runner-up for 2011 is Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition by Gary Dorrien. Dorrien holds the Reinhold Niebuhr chair in Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York and his three-volume The Making of American Liberal Theology already occupies prime space in my personal library. His new book is a history of the field of Christian social ethics and an introduction to its leading proponents. As in his earlier books, Dorrien presents key authors on their own terms, sometimes more clearly than in their own work! I would quarrel with a couple of Dorrien’s editorial choices here that sometimes reflect a Union Seminary-centric world view (although, strangely, he gives too little attention to Robert McAfee Brown, who spent much of his career there). Nonetheless, he has given us another essential book for the student of American religion.