Malcolm X 1925–1965
(Born Malcolm Little; changed name to Malcolm X; later adopted religious name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) American autobiographer, orator, and speechwriter.
The following entry provides an overview of Malcolm X's career through 1994.
An 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.
Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm was exposed to white racism and the black separatist movement at an early age. His father, Earl Little, was a Baptist minister and a follower of Jamaican-born, black nationalist Marcus Garvey. When the Littles lived in Nebraska, the Ku Klux Klan tried to prevent the Reverend Little from conveying Garvey's teachings. The Littles consequently left Nebraska, eventually settling in Mason, Michigan, where they found the racial climate no better. In 1929 members of the Black Legion, a white supremacist group, reputedly burned down the Littles's home and later murdered Malcolm's father. His death, officially labeled a suicide, left Louise Little to care for the children. Unable to cope with the financial and emotional demands of single parenthood, she was placed in a mental institution, and the children were sent to separate foster homes. Despite the traumas of his early youth, Malcolm was among the best students in his class. Malcolm soon became angry toward his white teachers and friends, whom he believed viewed him not as their equal, but as their "mascot." His interest in academic study waning, he quit school after completing the eighth grade. Living in Boston, New York City, and later Detroit, he held several low-paying jobs. To fit into his new urban environment, Malcolm altered his outward appearance, treating his hair with corrosive chemicals to straighten it and frequently wearing a zoot suit. As "Detroit Red," a name derived from his fair complexion and red hair, he made his living as a hustler, pimp, and drug dealer. Malcolm was arrested in early 1946 and sentenced to ten years in prison. Another convict, Bimbi, introduced him to the prison's extensive library, and Malcolm became an avid reader. When his siblings revealed to him that they had become followers of Elijah Muhammad—the leader of the Nation of Islam, popularly known as the Black Muslims—Malcolm pored over Muhammad's teachings and initiated a daily correspondence with the man. Upon his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm became a follower of Muhammad. He took the name "Malcolm X" to signify the loss of his true African name and to reject the "slave name" of Little. In 1953 Malcolm was appointed assistant minister of Detroit's Temple Number One of the Nation of Islam. He believed that every black person would gravitate to Muhammad's teachings, for "when he thinks about his own life, he is going to see where, to him personally, the white man sure has acted like a devil." Malcolm rose swiftly in the ranks of the Black Muslims, becoming Muhammad's national representative and, in 1954, the head of a major mosque in Harlem. There he became known as an articulate spokesperson for the radical black perspective. In addition to denouncing integration, nonviolence, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm "identified whites as the enemy of blacks and cheered at tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, airplane crashes, even the Kennedy assassination—anything that might cause them anguish or pain." Malcolm termed the killing of John F. Kennedy a case of "chickens coming home to roost"—a statement that severely damaged Malcolm's career. He later explained that he meant only that "the hate in white men … finally had struck down the President," but he was immediately censured by Muhammad. Muhammad ordered him to refrain from public comment for ninety days, and Malcolm complied. But his remark about the Kennedy assassination gave Muhammad an opportunity to expel his national minister from the movement's hierarchy, for Malcolm had been in conflict with the leader of the Nation of Islam for some time. Malcolm had privately condemned Muhammad's materialism—his expensive cars and business suits and lavishly furnished estate—and was shocked by allegations that Muhammad had seduced several women and sired their children. Proceeding to break officially with the Nation of Islam, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, taking the religious name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. In Mecca he underwent a transformation in his beliefs: "Since I learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends have come to include all kinds—some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists! I have friends who are called capitalists, Socialists, and Communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists—some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white!" On a diplomatic trip to Africa, Malcolm began the work of uniting blacks across the world, later establishing the Organization of Afro-American Unity in the United States. However, Malcolm now believed that the Nation of Islam saw him as a threat. "Now I'm out," he said. "And there's the fear [that] if my image isn't shattered, the Muslims in the movement will leave." Indeed, Elijah Muhammad wrote in his periodical Muhammad Speaks that Malcolm was "worthy of death." On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated while addressing an audience of four hundred in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Three men associated with the Nation of Islam—Talmadge Thayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson—were apprehended and eventually convicted of the crime.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which details Malcolm X's life from infancy to the time of his assassination, was published posthumously, and although some critics questioned Alex Haley's influence over the work's production, commentators generally agreed that the story is Malcolm's own. Several of Malcolm's speeches have also been published, including Malcolm X Speaks (1965) and Malcolm X: The Last Speeches (1989), but his autobiography remains by far his most noted contribution to literature. As Malcolm X has increasingly been recognized as a leading figure in the African-American struggle for recognition and equality. The Autobiography of Malcolm X has grown in stature. In 1993, filmmaker Spike Lee directed a widely-known screen version of the Autobiography.
Of the importance of Malcolm X's memoir, Charles H. Nichols asserted in 1985: "The Autobiography of Malcolm X is probably the most influential book read by this generation of Afro-Americans…. It is a fantastic success story. Paradoxically, the book, designed to be an indictment of American and European bigotry and exploitation, is a triumphant affirmation of the possibilities of the human spirit." In the decades since its initial publication, the Autobiography has prompted diverse critical readings, including analyses of its properties as a political and rhetorical text, as a conversion narrative reflecting Malcolm's search for identity, and as a work that both affirms and challenges the tradition of American autobiography. Truman Nelson concluded: "its manifold unsolved ambiguities will make it stand as a monument to the most painful of truths: that this country, this people, this Western world has practiced unspeakable cruelty against a race, an individual, who might have made its fraudulent humanism a reality." Malcolm X's abilities as an orator have drawn much praise from commentators who have applauded his capacity for eliciting in his audiences the intensity and dedication that he demonstrated for his beliefs. It has been noted that whether those who heard him speak agreed with his contentions did not determine whether they would be profoundly affected by the delivery of his message, if only in the sense that they marveled at the dynamic wordplay, imagery, and symbolism used by the speaker. John Illo, in an essay published in 1966, illustrated Malcolm X's skill as an orator, and asserted that Malcolm X "emerged from dope, prostitution, burglary, prison, and a fanciful sectarianism to enter a perennial humanist art, to achieve a brilliant facility in oratory and debate, in less time than many of us consume in ambling through graduate school…. In the full Aristotelian meaning he was a rhetorician, who, to be such, knew more than rhetoric: ethics, logic, grammar, psychology, law, history, politics; and his best speeches might be texts for students of that comprehensive science and art."
The Autobiography of Malcolm X [with Alex Haley] (autobiography) 1965
Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements (speeches) 1965
Malcolm X on Afro-American History (speeches) 1967
The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard (speeches) 1968
Malcolm X and the Negro Revolution: The Speeches of Malcolm X (speeches) 1969
Malcolm X Talks to Young People (speeches) 1969
The Speeches of Malcolm X (speeches) 1969
By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and a Letter by Malcolm X (speeches, interviews, and a letter) 1970
The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches by Malcolm X (speeches) 1971
Malcolm X: The Last Speeches (speeches) 1989
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SOURCE: "Making His Mark," in New York Herald Tribune Book Week, November 14, 1965, pp. 1, 8, 10, 12, 16-17.
[In the following review, Rustin offers a favorable assessment of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, summarizing the content and providing an analysis of some of Malcolm X's political and social beliefs and strategies.]
[The Autobiography of Malcolm X, t]his odyssey of an American Negro in search of his identity and place in society, really begins before his birth 40 years ago in Omaha, Neb. He was born Malcolm Little, the son of an educated mulatto West Indian mother and a father who was a Baptist minister on Sundays and dedicated organizer for Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa movement the rest of the week.
The first incident Malcolm recounts, as if it were his welcome to white America, occurred just before he was born. A party of Ku Klux Klanners galloped up to his house, threatened his mother and left a warning for his father "to stop spreading trouble among the good" Negroes and get out of town. They galloped into the night after smashing all the windows. A few years later the Klan was to make good on its threat by burning down the Littles' Lansing, Mich., home because Malcolm's father refused to become an Uncle Tom. These were the first in a series of incidents of racial violence, characteristic of that period, that were to haunt the nights of Malcolm and his family...
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SOURCE: "The Man and His Mission," in Freedomways, Winter, 1966, pp. 48-52.
[In the following review of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Clarke indicates a high regard for Malcolm X's personal accomplishments and notes while the autobiography would have benefitted from "editing and pruning," it is effective in imparting the nature of Malcolm X and his achievements.]
The man best known as Malcolm X lived three distinct and interrelated lives under the respective names, Malcolm Little, Malcolm X and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Any honest attempt to understand the total man must begin with some understanding of the significant components that went into his making. The racist society that produced and killed Malcolm X is responsible for what he was and for destroying what he could have been. He had the greatest leadership potential of any person to emerge directly from the black proletariat in this country. In another time under different circumstances he might have been a King—and a good one. He might have made a nation and he might have destroyed one.
In the introduction to this autobiography, M. S. Handler has said: "No man in our time aroused fear and hatred in the white man as did Malcolm, because in him the white man sensed an implacable foe who could not be had for any price—a man unreservedly committed to the cause of liberating the black man in American society...
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SOURCE: "The Rhetoric of Malcolm X," in Columbia University Forum, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring, 1966, pp. 5-12.
[In the following essay, Illo analyzes and applauds Malcolm X's skill as an orator.]
In a nation of images without substances, of rehearsed emotions, in a politic of consensus where platitude replaces belief or belief is fashioned by consensus, genuine rhetoric, like authentic prose, must be rare. For rhetoric, like any verbal art, is correlative with the pristine idea of reason and justice which, if it decays with the growth of every state and jurisprudence, now has developed into an unreason that aggressively claims the allegiance of the national mind.
Jurisprudence is the prudent justification of an absurd society, of institutionalized inequity and internal contradiction. Law, and juridical logic, and grammar conspire to frustrate the original idea of a just and good society, in which all men may freely become the best that they may be. Rhetoric, like the Shelleyan poetic, returns us to primal intelligence, to the golden idea and the godly nature whose mirror is unspoiled reason. The critical and reformist function of rhetoric, apparent in processes like irony and paradox, is perceptible in the whole range of tropes and syntactic and tonal devices. Repetitions and transposals of syntax recall the emphases of nature, before civil logic; and metaphor recalls the true relations,...
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SOURCE: "A Black Man's Quarrel With the Christian God," in New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1966, pp. 3, 14.
[In the following review, Bone demonstrates the use of Malcolm X's autobiography as a means of understanding the intentions and convictions of the proponents of the concept of "Black Power" in the civil rights movement during the latter half of the 1960s.]
In the month of June, 1966, the Negro protest movement entered a new phase. For the first time, during the so-called "Meredith march" to Jackson, Miss., the younger activists raised the slogan of "Black Power!" In the same month, less than a year after its initial publication, Grove Press brought out a paperback edition of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The two events are linked by more than a coincidence. For Malcolm's book, without a doubt, has had a major impact on the younger generation.
White liberals and Negro leaders alike have joined in condemnation of the new slogan. But before we resign en masse from CORE and S.N.C.C. (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and before we fill the air with charges of "nihilism" and "black nationalism," it behooves us to read, and even to reread Malcolm's book, and especially the last five chapters, which describe the transformation that took place in his mind and heart after his break with Elijah Muhammad and the Black Muslims. We might then better grasp...
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SOURCE: "Minister Malcolm Orator Profundo," in Negro History Bulletin, Vol. 30, No. 7, November, 1967, pp. 12-14.
[In the following essay, Boulware delineates Malcolm X's career as an orator and religious and social leader, complimenting his achievements and declaring: "People enjoyed his speaking whether or not they agreed with him, because he made speaking an appealing art."]
The expanding prestige and stature of the Black Muslim movement attracted hundreds of adherents, and many of them were brilliant like the late Malcolm Little whose pseudonym was "Malcolm X." Opponents labelled him protestor, panelist, Muslim minister, and orator profundo. Numerous articles have been written about this dazzling figure who was often identified as a smooth, oily ex-convict. In his early career as a Black Muslim, Malcolm X is worthy of comparison with Plato and Aristotle of the Greeks—though his teachings were somewhat orthodox. It was rumored that Minister Malcolm X was next in line for the office of the Messenger of Allah.
At the acme of his career, Malcolm X, who split with the Black Muslims and launched his own faction, was assassinated speaking from the stage of a Harlem ballroom in mid-afternoon on February 21, 1965. It was reported that his slaying was the outgrowth of revenge by active members of the Black Muslim sect. At the trial in January, 1966, the government claimed three men...
(The entire section is 1704 words.)
SOURCE: "Malcolm X," in Cambridge Quarterly, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 84-94.
[In the following essay, Caserio analyzes The Autobiography of Malcolm X, using the works of other modern African-American writers as a means of comparing and contrasting the views expressed by Malcolm X with those of his contemporaries.]
In 1963 Malcolm X was asked by a free-lance writer named Alex Haley to tell the story of his life, so that it could be published as a full-scale autobiography. Malcolm X was at that time the chief of staff of an American religious sect called the Nation of Islam, whose members were identified as 'Black Muslims' by the national press. Its leader was and still is a Georgia-born black man named Elijah Muhammad, who claims he has been chosen by Allah to be the saviour of American negroes. The sect requires of its members an ascetic moral discipline, and it encourages their education and their economic betterment. Its theology, or cosmology, is simple: God is black, the Devil is the white man, and a scientist named Yacub, at the beginning of recorded history, grafted the devil white race from an original black people. In 1959 a television special on the sect, entitled 'The Hate That Hate Produced', had been broadcast, and the most formidable exponent of this hate was said to be Malcolm. Originally he agreed to dictate his memories to Mr. Haley, because he thought it would help...
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SOURCE: A review of The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard, in New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1969, pp. 24-5.
[In the following review, Watkins asserts that The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard effectively conveys the essence of Malcolm X's "radical viewpoint" and "approach to the racial problem."]
Malcolm X, prior to his death in 1965, found most of his support in the urban ghetto masses. His growing posthumous appeal to the élite of the black community reflects the pervasive character of the black man's militancy; Malcolm X has become, to many black Americans, the symbol of manhood. This volume, [The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard,] includes, in addition to Malcolm's Harvard speeches, an introductory "inquiry" into the validity of the militant's radical viewpoint.
The most interesting aspect of the Harvard speeches is the discernible shift in position which occurs between Malcolm's initial appearance as Muslim minister in 1961 and his last appearance, following a pilgrimage to Mecca in December of 1964. His perspective remains racist and violent (he had not yet publicly adopted the more humanitarian stance taken shortly before his assassination), but his polemics had moved from a sectarian religious foundation to a more realistic secular one. Excepting the first, the three speeches are presented in their entirety. Archie Epps's minor editing does not...
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SOURCE: "Malcolm X: History as Hope," in Time, Vol. 95, February 23, 1970, pp. 88, 90.
[In the following essay, published on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of Malcolm X 's assassination, the critic provides a synopsis of Malcolm X's life and works, and attempts to assess his legacy.]
He was assassinated five years ago this week. Since then, assorted parks, streets and ghetto playgrounds have been named after him. His bespectacled face, ballooned to twice life-size, gazes owlishly from the walls of innumerable schools and youth clubs. Though he is sometimes described as an apostate and a monster, these days he is more often invoked, especially by young whites and blacks, as a martyr in the cause of brotherhood, and even a kind of saint.
To whites, the apotheosis at first seems unsettling. Many Americans recall Malcolm X only as a bad guy, known mainly for preaching racism. Is the continuing Malcolm X cult just one more outrageous byproduct of the rage and rhetoric that afflict race politics and U.S. culture in general? The answer is, no. And the best way of learning why is to examine yet another post-Malcolm X phenomenon, the spate of books by or about the former Black Muslim leader that have made him a minor industry in the publishing business.
Savage Skepticism…. The Autobiography is his will and testament. The speeches [in The Speeches of Malcolm X...
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SOURCE: A review of By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews and a Letter by Malcolm X, in Black Scholar, Vol. 1, No. 7, May, 1970, pp. 56-7.
[In the following review, Blackwell applauds By Any Means Necessary, maintaining that the volume offers insights into the spiritual and intellectual development of Malcolm X, and also illuminates aspects of "the man" himself.]
George Breitman brings us a little more of Malcolm in the form of several previously unprinted speeches, interviews which appeared in periodicals, and a letter from Cairo. By Any Means Necessary is really a continuation of Malcolm X Speaks, also edited by George Breitman. It contains materials which were not available at the time of that printing. Everything which appears in this newest compilation was delivered by Malcolm after his break with the Black Muslims. Included with each selection are notes by the editor giving a brief background, the time and place of interviews or speeches, and references to points of interest. No interpretive attempts are made.
By Any Means Necessary is certainly an appropriate heading under which to present Malcolm's thoughts. His whole being was dedicated to the liberation of black people by any means necessary. No statement was too strong, no idea was too radical, no end was too far when it came to the cause which racism forced him to make his life. Malcolm was...
(The entire section is 1070 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches by Malcolm X, in New York Times Book Review, May 16, 1971, pp. 4, 22.
[In the following excerpt, Lester offers praise for The End of White World Supremacy, declaring that "these speeches are the best examples in print of why, even dead, [Malcolm X] is a man to measure one's self against."]
All praises are now given to the name and memory of Malcolm X. In his person he represented the apotheosis of blackness; but, except for the last 11 months of his political career, he articulated the aims and ideals of the Nation of Islam as the number one spokesman for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. This is important to remember because as the most important black political figure of the sixties, Malcolm X brought the thought of Elijah Muhammad to a larger audience and thereby increased its influence. That fact is not recognized or acknowledged today, but it is very evident in The End of White World Supremacy, a collection of four previously unpublished speeches given during 1962 and 1963, Malcolm's last year in the Nation. Here we find the concepts that, three years after his death, would be gathered under the rubric black power and forwarded as a secular philosophy: pride in blackness; the necessity to know black history; black separation; the need for black unity; black control of the political, economic and social institutions...
(The entire section is 687 words.)
SOURCE: "Autobiography as Fact and Fiction: Franklin, Adams, Malcolm X," in Centennial Review, Vol. XVI, No. 3, Summer, 1972, pp. 221-32.
[In the following essay, Miller uses the autobiographies of Malcolm X, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Adams to illustrate the patterns in and the course of American autobiographies, which, he asserts, represent "a coherent American literary tradition which in addition to saying something about the country, has always challenged conservative and confining notions of what is taken to be the separate realms of fact and fiction."]
The autobiographies which fill the bookstores today mark a departure from what I see as a classic line of autobiographical literature from Benjamin Franklin to Malcolm X. A serious metaphysical or self-reflective quality is simply missing in recent works. Using three examples of serious autobiographical art, I have chosen to reconstruct a coherent American literary tradition which in addition to saying something about the country, has always challenged conservative and confining notions of what is taken to be the separate realms of fact and fiction. But as it took Tocqueville to tell Americans about their own political institutions it is not altogether surprising that a Frenchman has brought attention to a declining American literary tradition.
André Malraux was sensitive to the failure of a profound art of autobiography in...
(The entire section is 4086 words.)
SOURCE: "Rhetoric and Autobiography: The Case of Malcolm X," in Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 60, No. 1, February, 1974, pp. 1-13.
[In the following essay, Benson offers an analysis of Malcolm X's Autobiography based on the principles of rhetoric, and contends that The Autobiography of Malcolm X "achieves a unique synthesis of selfhood and rhetorical instrumentality."]
Rhetoric is a way of knowing, a way of being, and a way of doing. Rhetoric is a way of knowing the world, of gaining access to the uniquely rhetorical probabilities that govern public policy and personal choice for oneself and others; it is a way of constituting the self in a symbolic act generated in a scene composed of exigencies, constraints, others, and the self; it is a way of exercising control over self, others, and by extension the scene. Taken by itself, any one of the rhetorical modes of action is incomplete. Knowledge alone becomes decadent and effete, existence alone becomes narcissistic and self-destructive, and power alone becomes dehumanized technological manipulation. Perhaps only when rhetorical knowing, being, and doing are present together can a rhetorical act truly be said to take place. In a given rhetorical event the balance among being, knowing, and doing is a function of the structure of the act and its relation to audience, scene, agent, agency, and purpose.
The constituents of...
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SOURCE: "From Chaos to Cosmos: The Role of Trust in The Autobiography of Malcolm X," in Soundings, Vol. LXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 437-49.
[In the following essay, Groppe employs the developmental stage theory of Erik Erikson to demonstrate Malcolm X's "growth into trust" as it is related in The Autobiography of Malcolm X.]
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a story of the loss, and then the regaining, of the capacity to trust. According to Erik Erikson, trust is the foundation on which the personality is developed. The basic trust of the newborn is elaborated and refined into more conscious, more articulated, and more complex modes of relationship. In spite of the variety of modes of trust, trust is nevertheless characterized by one's confidence that his world and his own attributes can meet his needs and the needs of those he loves. In this essay I will trace Malcolm X's growth into trust by superimposing his pilgrimage upon Erikson's developmental stages.
For Malcolm X to tell hi;; story, even to a black journalist, was an act of trust. At the beginning of his relationship to Alex Haley, he told Haley, "I don't completely trust anyone … not even myself. I have seen too many men destroy themselves. Other people I trust from not at all to highly, like The Honorable Elijah Muhammad…. You I trust about twenty-five percent." However, by listening and recording...
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SOURCE: "Animal Imagery in the Rhetoric of Malcolm X," in Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, June, 1988, pp. 435-51.
[In the following essay, Flick and Powell explore Malcolm X's use of animal imagery in his rhetoric as a means of changing the prevailing conceptions held by black Americans about white Americans.]
The history of the black man in America emanates from the edifice of slavery and its subsequent effects on both white and black Americans. Over the years a number of rhetors have analyzed such a situation for the purpose of identifying those rhetorical devices that had been employed to regulate blacks to a lifelong position of servitude in America. Rhetors noted the different devices that were employed to maintain and then tighten the shackles of slavery to the limbs of blacks as they migrated from the plantations of the old South to the urban centers of America. One rhetor who analyzed such a situation was Malcolm X.
Malcolm X's rhetoric was designed to modify the image that many blacks had of white America. Such an image had white America seen as a people who were humane in their interests and treatment of other people. White America was perceived by blacks as being a moral people who had the courage to deal effectively with those injustices that had been perpetrated against blacks. In seeking to modify such an image, Malcolm faced a situation wherein he made use of...
(The entire section is 5400 words.)
SOURCE: "The Odyssey of Malcolm X: An Eriksonian Interpretation," in Historian, Vol. 52, No. 1, Autumn, 1990, pp. 47-62.
[In the following essay, Goodheart examines the identity of Malcolm X—as set forth in The Autobiography of Malcolm X—using the theoretical framework of Erik Erikson.]
The black search for identity in the United States has been well put by the poet Robert Perm Warren: "Alienated from the world to which he is born and from the country of which he is a citizen yet surrounded by the successful values of that world, and country, how can the Negro define himself?" At the heart of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1950s and 1960s was the defining of the individual and collective identities of members of the largest racial minority in the United States. During what recently has been labeled a "Second Reconstruction." critical constitutional, legal, and federal-state relationships were reordered to promote equality under the law regardless of race. At the same time, there was a psychological revolution, a popular transformation of African-American identity from a culturally sanctioned racial inferiority to a black assertion of pride, beauty, and power.
The odyssey of Malcolm X was a search for "a definition of himself and his relationship to his people, his country, and the world," according to sociologist John H. Clarke. When Malcolm stated that...
(The entire section is 5261 words.)
SOURCE: "Adapting the Autobiography," in Cineaste, Vol. XIX, No. 4, 1993, pp. 5-7.
[In the following essay, Locke discusses director Spike Lee's film adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.]
At the core of Spike Lee's [film] Malcolm X is The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a story that draws from the breadth of twentieth-century African-American experience. Like any narrative contemporaneous with a past era, the autobiography contains elements that most moviegoers today would find antiquated or irrelevant. From the outset, then, Lee's intent to tell history is at odds with the needs of a mass market, and the film's transformation of Malcolm X to meet contemporary expectations has significant consequences for historical accuracy and dramatic impact.
The story is fundamentally tripartite in structure: a man leads an aimless, self-destructive life; he experiences enlightenment; he is redeemed. Since enlightenment occurs nearer the middle of the story than the end, Malcolm's prison conversion to the Nation of Islam (NOI) becomes the fulcrum on which the story teeters. Before prison, he is Malcolm Little, humiliated beyond his comprehension by a racially prejudiced society; after prison, he becomes Malcolm X, with the prerogatives of indignation as the impetus to his claim on spiritual confession and political discourse.
For Malcolm's life to make sense in...
(The entire section is 2861 words.)
SOURCE: "Malcolm, the Aardvark and Me," in New York Times Book Review, February 21, 1993, p. 11.
[In the following essay, Gates relates his persona! experience of reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a young man.]
One of the most gratifying effects of Spike Lee's film Malcolm X is that its success has prompted the restoration of Malcolm's autobiography to the best-seller lists. The country is reading the 1965 book once again, as avidly, it seems, as it is seeing Mr. Lee's movie. For 17 weeks The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with the assistance of Alex Haley, has been on the New York Times paperback best-seller list, and for 10 of those weeks it was No. 1. Today, on the 28th anniversary of his assassination. Malcolm's story has become as American—to borrow H. Rap Brown's famous aphorism—as violence and cherry pie.
Malcolm first came into my life some three decades ago, when I was 9 years old and Mike Wallace and CBS broadcast a documentary about the Nation of Islam. It was called The Hate That Hate Produced, and it showed just about the scariest black people I had ever seen: black people who talked right into the faces of white people, telling them off without even blinking. While I sat in our living room, I happened to glance over at my mother. A certain radiance was slowly transforming her soft brown face, as she listened to...
(The entire section is 978 words.)
SOURCE: "Malcolm X Across the Genres," in American Historical Review, Vol. 98, No. 2, April, 1993, pp. 432-39.
[In the following essay, Painter examines (he facts and events involved in the story of Malcolm X's life as they are presented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and two films adapted from that book, both entitled Malcolm X.]
The historian in me distrusted a dramatic early scene in Spike Lee's Malcolm X that is set in Omaha. The Ku Klux Klan comes pounding up to the Little family's house on horseback. Initially, the scene seems menacingly authentic—hooded white supremacy in its most recognizable guise bent on terrorizing a helpless black family—but as soon as one recalls that this is supposed to be Omaha, Nebraska, in the 1920s, the sense of realism breaks down.
I assumed this to be yet another employment of the iconography of southern white supremacy, which Americans still think of as the real white supremacy, to advance a narrative of black life anywhere in the United States. Spike Lee's Malcolm X, like the 1972 documentary of the same name and countless other evocations of black life, uses photos and footage from southern history to hammer home the plight of black people in American life generally. Considering that in Lee's film, a still photograph from 1936 of a Florida lynch victim appears between cuts of the violence that met civil rights...
(The entire section is 4101 words.)
SOURCE: "Hamlet, Malcolm X, and the Examined Education;" in CEA Critic, Vol. 57, No. 1, Fall, 1994, pp. 111-22.
[In the following essay, Roark outlines the use of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and William Shakespeare's Hamlet as a means of illustrating to students the effect of external influences on their perceptions of the world.]
Shakespeare's Hamlet and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, taught in conjunction, are useful texts for encouraging first-year writing students to examine how their educations are often a mix of conflicting influences. Both works can be used to provoke not only arguments and counter arguments regarding those influences but also practical action on the insights derived from such study. The usually debilitating "double consciousness" that permeates the thoughts of both Hamlet and Malcolm X can also suggest attitudes and techniques useful for student argumentative writing, especially when such a habit pushes both students and teachers to confront contradictory evidence, thus undermining the urge to distort or simplify experience. After briefly reviewing the unusual ways these two works mirror each other, I will discuss how passages that offer conflicting evidence imply a structure for class discussions. This approach in class also offers a method for student autobiographical and argumentative writing, which in turn aims at self-examination and right...
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Abbott, Philip. "Hustling: Benjamin Franklin. Malcolm X, Abbie Hoffman." States of Perfect Freedom: Autobiography and Political Thought, pp. 27-57. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.
Asserts that "taken together" the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin, Malcolm X, and Abbie Hoffmann—to whom Abbott refers as "hustlers"—exhibit a particular type of personality and also provide insights into the nature of American politics and society.
Barbour, John D. "Christianity and 'The White Man's Religion.'" Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith, pp. 85-105. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
Compares the autobiographies of early Christian African-American and Native-American writers to the autobiographies of the non-Christian Malcolm X and Lame Deer to illustrate that the latter two writers adapted the earlier writers' strategy of "show[ing] the reader the difference between Christianity and 'the white man's religion,' which is the religious justification of white superiority."
Hareven, Tamara K. "Step-Children of the Dream." History of Education Quarterly IX, No. 4 (Winter 1969): 505-14.
Examines the objectives of African-American autobiographers in a...
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