Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)
The Autobiography of Malcolm X takes its place in a long history of black autobiographical writings which begin with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845) and continue through such generally accepted classics as Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery: An Autobiography (1901) and My Larger Education: Being Chapters from My Experience (1911), James Welden Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), and such controversial works as Dick Gregory’s Nigger: An Autobiography (1964) and Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets (1967). The work also stands in the long tradition of the Bildungsroman, or novel of personal education, in which the author focuses on those experiences which shaped his or her life. Of those who knew the man, among them many university scholars, not even his severest critics ever questioned the power of his intellect or the thoroughness of his preparation.
It has often been noted that Malcolm X was a speaker and not a writer. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is his only book-length work which is not a collection of speeches. Many of his important speeches have been collected in Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements (1965) and By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and a Letter (1970), the former containing his most famous oration, “Message to the Grassroots.”
Malcolm’s critics often referred to him as violent and irresponsible: an extremist, an apostle of hate, a “reverse racist.” His supporters saw him as a saint, a savior, a prophet, an inspired leader. Such caricatures serve only to underline the complexity of the man and his work. He was never a black leader in the sense that large masses of people flocked to follow him. He admittedly made mistakes of judgment, yet always stood prepared to change his mind when proved wrong. He was a master of polemic and the first acknowledged black media revolutionary. Although he knew how to manipulate the press and electronic media to carry his message to black Americans, he never was able to articulate a clear plan of action to accomplish his goals.
Yet Malcolm X did possess the imagination that he believed other black leaders of his time were lacking. His vision for black America ultimately resolved the extremist positions of his angry youth. Some critics have stressed that Malcolm was a revolutionary of the spirit, for his greatest stated hope was that the youth of America, black and white, would eventually turn the nation “to the spiritual path of truth.” The truth he foresaw was a vision of an egalitarian world, color-blind, and united under the one God and one moral code of Islam.