Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is generally acknowledged to be one of the most important books ever written by an African American. Few other books—including Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—have had comparable impacts on the general reading public. Malcolm X’s book naturally aroused hostility among white reviewers because of Malcolm’s inflammatory accusations against the white race as a whole. His attitude was widely regarded as reverse racism: If whites are wrong for indiscriminately hating African Americans, some asked, how can African Americans be right for indiscriminately hating whites?
Many commentators, both black and white, thought that Malcolm’s militancy would produce a counterreaction. The term “white backlash” was frequently used in print and over the airwaves. Martin Luther King, Jr., was disturbed by Malcolm’s uncompromising position, although publicly he tried to maintain cordial relations between the Muslim and Christian members of the Civil Rights movement.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published at the height of the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union had recently been at the brink of mutual nuclear annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Many critics thought that Malcolm X was undermining his own country in the eyes of the world and thereby helping to influence some developing nations to align themselves with the Soviet Union in the global ideological struggle. It has been suggested that his assassination was encouraged if not actually arranged by American intelligence agencies because the African American Muslim movement under his leadership was assuming international importance.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X has been published in many editions and continues to stir powerful emotions among African Americans, who recognize the painful truths it exposes. Although African Americans have made significant advances in all areas since Malcolm X’s assassination, most thinking people acknowledge that segregation and economic injustice are still painful facts of American life.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, many African Americans converted to the Islamic religion and changed their names to signify their new allegiance. Two prominent examples are heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and basketball player Lew Alcindor, who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That wave of African American Islamic religious fervor seems to have subsided, along with many other extremist movements that characterized the turbulent 1960’s. The basic principles enunciated by Malcolm X, however, have become deeply ingrained in African American consciousness.
As reviewer I. F. Stone put it, “No man has better expressed his people’s trapped anguish. . . . This book will have a permanent place in the literature of the Afro-American struggle.” Truman Nelson, writing in The Nation, said, “A great book. Its dead level honesty, its passion, its exalted purpose will make it stand as a monument to the most painful truth.”
Spike Lee’s lengthy, faithful film adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, released in 1992 as Malcolm X, revived interest in the book for a whole new generation. Malcolm X T-shirts and other memorabilia became fashionable. Malcolm X has become an American icon, and his book, because of its emotional impact and powerful dramatic format, has become an acknowledged American literary classic.