The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Masterplots, Revised Second Edition)
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...
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Born Malcolm Little to parents who were followers of the Jamaican black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, Malcolm learned early about the tribulations of being an outspoken black man. His father, an ardent opponent of white racism, was killed in 1931 by—his family believed—the Ku Klux Klan. The death of his father precipitated the breakup of his family, and Malcolm grew up with relatives and in foster homes. In his early twenties he was arrested for burglary and sent to prison, where he discovered the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. During the 1950’s he became a minister of the sect and began speaking out publicly in favor of black separatism.
Many people consider that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) activities amounted to an abridgment of Malcolm’s First Amendment rights and that they helped to “demonize” him via mass media. A special FBI Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) was established in order to disrupt black nationalist organizations. As a leading spokesperson of the Nation of Islam (NOI), Malcolm was a prime target of FBI attempts to destroy African American leadership. Most vocal African American groups and individuals had come under FBI scrutiny and harassment long before the establishment of COINTELPRO, and mass media were often used by the FBI to carry out its activities.
One element of censorship was that the mass media often focused on Malcolm’s self-defense rhetoric, obscuring his broader message of black self-determination and self-reliance, thereby depicting him as a hatemonger. He was fully aware of this, asserting in his posthumously published autobiography that he would be used, dead or alive, as a symbol of hatred so that white Americans could avoid accepting responsibility for racial discrimination. An editorial commenting on Malcolm’s 1965 assassination in a Wisconsin newspaper illustrated his point in declaring that Malcolm was one of the “most violent of racist leaders” of an “ultra-racist Organization of Afro- American Unity” and that “he died as he lived, in violence and bloodshed.”
Undoubtedly, Malcolm recognized the power of the media in forming public opinion. Throughout his public career, he used the podium, rallies, television, radio, and the press to spread the Nation of Islam’s message and—after his break with the NOI—the messages of his own Muslim Mosque and Organization of Afro-American Unity. In 1957 he founded Muhammad Speaks, a newspaper which was to be the positive voice of the Nation of Islam and a tribute to its spiritual leader, Elijah Muhammad. The paper’s circulation outside of NOI membership helped to gain support for the organization, and Malcolm, in the larger African American...
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Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Born Malcolm Little, Malcolm X rose from life as a criminal hustler to become the national minister of the Nation of Islam and a popularizer of black nationalism, which emphasized self-defense for African Americans and independence from white America. Malcolm X’s separatism served as a political alternative to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s advocacy of nonviolence and desegregation.
In his best-seller The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964), Malcolm described his father, Baptist preacher Earl Little, and his mother, Granada native M. Louise Norton, as dedicated followers of Marcus Garvey. Garvey, founder of the United Negro Improvement Association,...
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Malcolm X’s (born Malcolm Little) early years were marked by unsettling events: His family, threatened by the Ku Klux Klan in Omaha, moved to Lansing, Michigan, only to have their house burned down by a white hate group. Malcolm’s father died in 1931 under mysterious circumstances, leaving his mother with the task of raising eight children. Malcolm eventually moved to Boston in 1941 and to New York in 1943, where he first experienced the street life of the African American urban poor. After becoming a burglar, he received a six-year prison term for armed robbery. In prison, he converted to the Nation of Islam and read voraciously on philosophy, theology, and history. The Nation of Islam helped him to acquire self-respect and...
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Early Life (The Sixties in America)
Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, was raised in poverty in the urban North unlike other civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., who came from upper-middle-class southern families of professional standing. Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, died tragically when Malcolm was five years old, and his mother, Louise Little, suffered a nervous breakdown when Malcolm was fourteen. Malcolm and his seven siblings were separated and placed in foster homes or with family members across the country. Malcolm’s teenage years were spent between Boston, Massachusetts, and New York City. After working for a short period in a menial job in the service sector, he turned to street life and criminal pursuits. In 1946, Malcolm was convicted...
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Appalled at the racial discrimination that was widely practiced in predominantly Christian America, Malcolm X chastised Christianity as unethically enslaving African Americans through its teaching that the oppressed should focus on Heaven, where they will reap rewards and their wrongs will be righted, instead of doing something about their deprivation here on Earth. He taught that Islam could bring about true brotherhood because of the “color-blindness” of Muslims. Distancing himself from the “turn-the-other-cheek” philosophy of Christianity, he advocated the “fair exchange” of an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a head for a head, and a life for a life,” if that was what it took to obtain human rights for...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Malcolm X helped to restore the pride that made the emergence of black consciousness in the twentieth century inevitable and then went beyond anger and hatred to make the reemergence of hope possible. He was born as Malcolm Little (his mother’s father was white) and grew up on the outskirts of East Lansing, Michigan, where his family raised their own food until their house was burned down by white people when he was four. His father, Earl Little, a Baptist minister who believed in Marcus Garvey’s ideas that black people had to return to Africa to attain true freedom, was murdered by two white men when Malcolm was six. His mother sought consolation in another religion and became a Seventh-day Adventist before suffering a mental...
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IntroductionAn influential African-American leader, Malcolm X rose to prominence in the mid-1950s as the outspoken national minister of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad. He opposed the mainstream civil rights movement, publicly calling for black separatism and rejecting nonviolence and integration as effective means of combatting racism. In the 1960s, however, Malcolm repudiated Muhammad and the Nation of Islam and embraced conventional Islam. He documented his various experiences in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), a work prepared with the help of American writer Alex Haley. Published after his assassination, the Autobiography has been called a "compelling and irreplaceable book" comparable to the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass. -- Malcolm X Criticism