The Autobiography of Malcolm X Essay - Critical Evaluation

Malcolm X, Alex Haley

Critical Evaluation

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, edited by Alex Haley, is an extended monologue by Malcolm X in which he recounts his life story, shares the dramatic changes that occurred in his life and thinking, and addresses the reader about the values he held as if he were a moral philosopher or a member of the clergy. Although the book is edited, it is written in the first person, communicating with readers as if no second party or editor interfered with Malcolm X’s direct connection with his reading audience. The exception to this style is the epilogue which was written by the editor after Malcolm X’s death. It is a record of the assassination of Malcolm X and reveals how the spirit of the man in life appears to continue after his death. It emphasizes the impact of Malcolm X’s life and the number of people who have assessed his contribution, whether they agreed with his ideas or not. Malcolm X claimed that he would never live to see the Autobiography published; because he was killed before it was printed, the epilogue by the editor is important as a conclusion to the life story of Malcolm X and as an analysis of his impact.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X has been so widely read and the interest in Malcolm X as a leader in American life in the 1950’s and 1960’s is so broad that many authors have written about his life and his speeches. Malcolm X: A Selected Bibliography, published in 1984, includes more than one hundred pages of listings of works by other authors about Malcolm X, including dissertations and theses. Among all of his speeches and other writers’ critiques, however, The Autobiography of Malcolm X remains the most complete and direct communication of his life experiences and changing ideas. It is in some ways a traditional conversion narrative, showing how a man alters his perceptions and values. It is in other ways an admonition to a general audience of that which Malcolm X considered to be wrong with his time and place. It is in still other ways an explanation by the author of how he, as one African American male, experienced rejection and found ways to address and repudiate the discrimination against him. Although Malcolm X’s words often imply that he had a sense of contentment toward the end of his life and that he could share that completed sense of self with others, The Autobiography of Malcolm X also has a continuing theme of change. The author shows not only how he has changed throughout his life but also how he is open to further change toward the end of his life. Thus, it is a narrative told by, and about, a man “in process.” The epilogue raises questions about the direction Malcolm’s life took in his later years and whether these challenged earlier directions he had promoted.

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. From an early age, he had knowledge of both white discrimination against blacks and of black separatist reactions. His father was a Baptist minister and follower of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey. When the family moved to Mason, Michigan, his father was murdered by white supremacists. Malcolm’s mother found the care of the dependent children such a strain that she was placed in a mental hospital, and Malcolm and his siblings were placed in foster homes. Malcolm succeeded, however, in his largely white environment and was elected president of his seventh-grade class. At the same time, however, his English teacher advised him not to attempt to become a lawyer but to be content with being a carpenter because he was black. The suggestion devastated Malcolm, and he moved to Boston to live with his half sister. He stopped attending school after the eighth grade, held some menial jobs, and became involved in illegal acts. He later moved to Harlem, where he was known as “Detroit Red” because he had a fair complexion and reddish hair. He had also become successful as a hustler, pimp, and drug dealer. By the time he was twenty-one years old, Malcolm had been sentenced to prison for ten years.

The autobiography becomes far more than a “slice of life” ethnic history of one man when Malcolm describes the changes in his thinking in prison. These changes were not just mental; his style of life was altered and became consistent with the new ideas he encountered and embraced while incarcerated. Some of his brothers and sisters had become followers of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam (sometimes named the “Black Muslims”), and they sent him literature by Muhammad. Malcolm wrote to this leader daily and, when he was released from prison in 1952, became a follower of Muhammad and took the name “Malcolm X” in place of his birth name, which he now rejected as a slave name. Malcolm embraced the ideas of the Nation of Islam: that the black race was the original race, that blacks must develop pride in themselves by separating themselves from whites, and that blacks would enter a new age in which their race would rule the world. Malcolm felt the appeal of this theology and value system for himself but, more important, believed that black men would find this thought acceptable because they had historically experienced the “devil-nature” of white people. Malcolm agreed with Muhammad that attempting to change a white-dominated society was useless and was not the mission of blacks. Instead, black people would always be victimized by the inferior whites, and their only recourse was to depend on themselves and their own community to realize their innate purity partly by disassociating from whites. In 1953, Malcolm X was appointed the assistant minister of Detroit’s Temple Number One of the Nation of Islam and later became Muhammad’s national representative. By 1954, Malcolm was the head of a major mosque in Harlem in New York City. He had become Muhammad’s main spokesperson throughout the country.

The autobiography makes it clear that Malcolm revered Elijah Muhammad for giving him the greatest gift of all, a new identity. The name change symbolized what had happened to Malcolm’s perspectives and values. He had become a full man, worshiping a relevant god, finally understanding the way out of his plight of oppression. He was obedient to the Nation of Islam’s doctrines and morality, abstaining from liquor and drugs, refusing to exploit other blacks, honoring black women, and accepting full responsibility for the roles of husband and father in a secure family life. At the same time, Elijah Muhammad had found in the gifted Malcolm a spokesperson who would obediently follow Muhammad’s direction and an appealing, articulate, but street-smart voice who could generate and maintain the interest of masses of black people in the ideas of the Nation of Islam. It appeared to be, and was for several years, a productive relationship between the leader and his main representative in which both found ways to meet the other’s needs. Under Malcolm’s skilled presentation, the Nation of Islam grew from a very small cult of several hundred persons to a major religious organization in the black community with thousands of followers in all fifty states.

Malcolm’s successes, however, were not appreciated by some of Elijah Muhammad’s other assistants and, eventually, Muhammad reprimanded Malcolm for remarks he had made about former president John Kennedy’s assassination. Finally, Malcolm was removed from all responsibilities and expelled from the organization. This became one more decisive change in Malcolm’s life and an opportunity to expand his own thinking further, beyond the strict ideologies of the Nation of Islam. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he took the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and announced that he had altered his views on integration. This was partly because of his experience in Mecca of perceiving brotherhood among Muslims of many nationalities, races, and ethnic groups. He also began working closely with Africans internationally who were seeking to unite blacks throughout the world. In order to process this work, he established a new organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, in the United States with headquarters in New York City.

Malcolm was assassinated while speaking to an audience of this organization in Harlem on February 21, 1965. Three persons were convicted of the crime, two of whom were members of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm had predicted his death through violence but had suspected that the action would require more than Black Muslim involvement, implying that other institutions such as governmental agencies would be part of the scheme.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X shows how Malcolm was a person always in transition and that the changes in his life were a series of dramatic conversions and reconversions. He was not content to keep fixed ideas for long periods of time without exploring options. Even as a member of the Nation of Islam, he applied thoughts he had read in the great works of Western culture from Georg Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Nietzsche. He also relied on traditional African American intellectuals including W. E. B. Du Bois, whom the Nation of Islam did not consider among its teachers. He could use philosophical images when speaking with the uneducated. He could also use the shrewdness, competitive instinct, and wariness of his ghetto experiences when talking with reporters. Malcolm had the ability to expand his own universe by expanding that of others, and the autobiography is an elongated sermon that takes the reader from small-town America to urban poverty through universal religion and, eventually, into international concepts and organizations. Each of his several conversions and new experiences broadened his world, and the readers of the book are compelled to make their own changes and transitions as they become excited by his story and thoughts.

Malcolm’s autobiography is a document of spiritual growth and changing commitments that may encourage some to join in a similar journey. It appeals to both theologians and sociologists as a pilgrim’s progress, a study of conversions. It is also a depiction of the emotional structure of a leader who had a great impact on twentieth century America. As such, it appeals to psychologists and literary critics. It conveys a continuing struggle of a charismatic figure whose words are meant to mold and direct readers’ thoughts, even though this struggle is not finalized, not absolute, and part of an ongoing process. It is also a very personal testimony of a major player in the social revolutions of the mid-twentieth century United States, one who encouraged his readers to be converted to thinking about and acting out justice. Because of this encouragement, it appeals to many who remain dissatisfied with the status quo, although their plans for restructuring society may differ from those proposed by Malcolm X.

The epilogue by editor Alex Haley helps the reader to understand the ways in which Malcolm’s life evolved and how unexpected the changes in his life were to many who knew him well, including the editor. It makes clear that this autobiography is no final testament but, rather, the words of a man whose evolution was never final. By the end of his life, Malcolm was questioning the earlier criticisms he had made of the 1960’s Civil Rights movement. He was meeting cordially with Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he had earlier demeaned, and he was resistant to the authority of Elijah Muhammad, who had been his spiritual leader. He rejected the theology of a pure black race and expanded his commitment to the oppressed to include groups of all colors and ethnic backgrounds. He had evolved from a national leader to an international figure who was attempting to unite African and Third World peoples from all continents. The epilogue assesses Malcolm as a pilgrim who did not know what his future thoughts, acts, and commitments would be, but who remained open to more conversions and transitions.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X has sold millions of copies and has received critical acclaim by readers who sometimes take issue with Malcolm’s philosophy. Nevertheless, it remains a great work as the testimony of a leader for social change whose appeal extends far beyond those groups which he formed or those people he directly represented. Many readers may be disturbed by some of the ideas he promoted, but all readers remain fascinated by the honesty, integrity, and humanity evidenced in this book.