Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction The Autobiography of Malcolm X Analysis
Although the autobiography is intended for an adult audience and is frank, sometimes brutal, in its depiction of Malcolm’s life and philosophy, its focus on Malcolm’s childhood and youth and its theme of change through education make it appropriate for teenagers. Malcolm describes his life as a chronology of changes and writes of the “open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.” The autobiography is crafted to reflect those changes and to show the experiences and thought processes that led to them.
Malcolm came to Boston, in his words, as a “hick,” but quickly learned the rules of street life. Seeing the degradation around him, he became an atheist who viewed women as “nothing but another commodity” and whose every word was “hip or profane.” Then, through self-education in prison and his introduction to the Nation of Islam, he changed again, becoming an eloquent speaker and writer and a convert to the stringent morality of the Black Muslims. A devoted follower of Elijah Muhammad, whom he believed to be nearly divine, he saw Elijah’s own materialism and scandalous personal morality and came to view him as a “religious faker.” A minister of the Black Muslim faith, Malcolm traveled to Mecca and recognized that faith as a distortion of true Islam.
Unlike many biographies in which such changes are viewed as steps toward a final truth or finished identity, each stage of Malcolm’s life, even the last, is treated as provisional and subject to change. As Malcolm puts it, “How is it possible to write one’s autobiography in a world so fast-changing as this?” Although there is some foreshadowing, each segment of Malcolm’s life is treated largely from its own perspective rather than being crafted to lead inevitably to the next stage. Thus, the Black Muslim, whose creed forbids dancing, can describe with relish and in great detail his having done the lindy in the ballrooms of Boston and New York.
That such a narrative perspective was intentional is confirmed in the book’s epilogue, in which Haley recounts Malcolm’s initial desire, after his split with the Black Muslims, for the book to become a polemic against Elijah Muhammad. The final decision to leave the earlier material unchanged allows the autobiography to remain faithful to Malcolm’s feelings and perspectives at each point in his life rather than viewing them through the filter of subsequent knowledge. Although the autobiography ends with Malcolm’s belief that Elijah has called for his murder, it also faithfully depicts his earlier worship of Elijah as next to Allah.
Malcolm’s recognition that he is a marked man makes the autobiography’s final chapter especially compelling, as he attempts to reflect on the meaning of his life and the significance of the autobiography, which he does not expect to live to read in its published form. Malcolm seems to speak directly to the reader as he indicates his hope that the autobiography will “prove to be a testimony of some social value” and writes of his regrets, particularly that he had so little formal education. He acknowledges his “many” shortcomings, but he also contends that he has “fought the best that [he] knew how” for the freedom of his “22 million black brothers and sisters here in America.”