The Autobiography of Malcolm X

by Malcolm X, Alex Haley

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The Classic American Success Story

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The general reaction among the white community in the United States to Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam in the 1950s and 1960s was one of alarm. He and the Nation were painted as fomenting violent revolution just as many whites and some more conservative blacks believed that life was beginning to get better for African Americans.

In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the Muslim leader remembers the heated response to a documentary made in 1959 about the Nation of Islam: ‘‘The public reaction was like what happened back in the 1930s when Orson Welles frightened America with a radio program describing, as though it were actually happening, an invasion by 'men from Mars.'’’ For example, panic erupted around the documentary's revelation that the Nation was teaching its members judo and karate—viewers and the press interpreted these actions as evidence of the Nation's malevolent intentions, even though Malcolm X asked the obvious question, "Why does judo or karate suddenly get so ominous because black men study it? Across America, the Boy Scouts, the YMCA ... they all teach judo!’’

In a sense, the public perception of the Nation of Islam was that its members were aliens. Their separatist philosophy argued that the solution to America's racial woes was an independent black nation, and their strict moral codes, ultra-conservative demeanor and dress, and dietary restrictions offered to many Americans a frightening snapshot of radical discipline.

The story of Malcolm X is about a man who fulfills the classic American tale of struggle and success based on hard work, self-education, and overcoming mistakes. In fact, his autobiography is much more than a revolutionary guidebook—it is also an outline for how to beat your enemy at his own game and come out way ahead of where anyone thought you would through the mainstream American techniques of education and hard work.

Malcolm's childhood is one hard knock after another. His father is murdered and his mother literally goes insane trying to keep the family together. By the time he is about twelve-years-old, Malcolm is an orphan ward of the state, living with a foster family. He doesn't despair, though, despite his misfortune, and thrills at being able to beat the older men at hunting, for example. ‘‘It was the beginning of a very important lesson in life—that anytime you find someone more successful than you are ...—you know they're doing something that you aren't,’’ he instructs his readers in one of the numerous lessons he presents in his autobiography. Striving at education and learning sustain him until a racist school counselor dismisses his desire to become a lawyer, even though he is at the top of his class. ‘‘It was then that I began to change— inside,’’ remembers Malcolm X.

Though he leaves school to hang out on the streets of Boston and Harlem, Malcolm's drive to succeed never falters. During all of the years of hustling, he is always learning and thinking, trying to figure out how to do whatever he is engaged in faster and smarter than the next guy. For example, when the pressure from the Harlem police gets to be too much, Malcolm simply puts wheels on his marijuana sales operation and travels up and down the East Coast, following his musician friends to their gigs and selling to them. It is as if a fire burns in his belly, pushing him to be the best, even if his "best" is robbery or numbers. The more experienced hustlers are his teachers and Malcolm proves himself a willing student. The chapters dedicated to his time in Boston and Harlem...

(This entire section contains 1725 words.)

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are sprinkled with references to Malcolm "learning" about street life and getting his "first schooling'' in how to succeed in the ghetto.

Throughout the book, Malcolm makes clear that, despite how much he despises the way whites have treated blacks, he has deep respect for the high points of American culture, especially its educational institutions. While visiting Boston for the first time, he walks past Harvard University; he uses this moment to bring the reader up to date with his accomplishments by dropping the comment, "Nobody that day could have told me I would give an address before the Harvard Law School Forum some twenty years later.’’ Despite the tough-guy talk, his pride at how far he had come is evident in this and many other similar scenes. In one of the book's later chapters, Malcolm X almost sounds as if he is bragging when he says that according to a New York Times poll, he was the second most sought after speaker on college campuses in 1963. A few paragraphs later, he wants to make sure that his readers know that by that same year he had spoken at "well over fifty'' colleges, including those "in the Ivy League.’’

Malcolm X cites education, in fact, as one of the reasons for his ultimate break with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Muhammad, according to Malcolm X, feels intimidated when he speaks to influential and prestigious audiences, worried as he is about the inadequacy of his fourth-grade education; this public work he leaves to Malcolm X. Malcolm loves being around those involved in education and learning, noting, ‘‘Except for all-black audiences, I liked the college audiences best ... They never failed in helping me to further my own education.’’ Jealous feelings develop over Malcolm X's comfort with the Nation's intelligentsia and add to the reasons Muhammad already has for Malcolm X's banishment.

Malcolm X was a passionate and life-long learner, and he knew that these activities would make it easier for him to succeed at whatever he did in the American culture. In prison he is rescued from the possibility of a life of ignorance by Bimbi, an old burglar who chastises Malcolm for failing to use his brain. In no time, Malcolm is reading everything he can get his hands on, even taking a correspondence course in Latin. His reading material in prison includes Gregor Mendel's Findings in Genetics, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and works by Thoreau, Spinoza, Kant, and Nietzsche. The reading habit stuck with him his whole life. "You will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which I'm not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man,’’ he notes.

At the end of his life, Malcolm X is acutely aware of his lack of an official education, dissatisfied that he had to rely on his "homemade'' education instead. "My greatest lack has been, I believe, that I don't have the kind of academic education I wish I had been able to get,’’ he muses in his autobiography's final chapter. ‘‘I don't begin to be academically equipped for so many of the interests that I have.’’ Malcolm X, despite being a severe critic of America, understands the role of education and struggle in the great American success story. Everything Malcolm X did was arranged as a self-education of some sort—even his two conversion experiences. The chapters about his introduction to Elijah Muhammad and Islam contain images that are perfect examples of the student-teacher relationship. And when Malcolm X becomes disenchanted with his mentor's theology and philosophy, he travels to Mecca to gather ‘‘new insight into the true religion of Islam and a better understanding of America's entire racial dilemma.’’

All this is not to diminish the radical and challenging nature of Malcolm X's thinking in his autobiography. However, like many self-made Americans, Malcolm X understood the value of educating himself into the mainstream. By the end of the autobiography, Malcolm X has made some kind of peace with his more revolutionary and incendiary pronouncements against whites, deciding that his earlier blanket indictments against those who did not agree with him, and his association with a rather fanatical group, were all part of his personal ongoing learning process. Sounding almost as conciliatory as his former nemesis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X explains his new heart: ‘‘Since I have learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends, I have come to include all kinds ... black, brown, red, yellow, and white!

As I. F. Stone notes in the New York Review of Books, even while Malcolm X is undergoing his second conversion, he is still the consummate salesman, the American always thinking of a better way to get something done. "He had become a Hajj but remained in some ways a Babbitt, the salesman, archetype of our American society,’’ writes Stone. Malcolm X was a quintessential American, in fact, despite his earlier rejections of that title. During his stay in Africa, he rejects the idea that he is anti-American or un-American while speaking to an "agent" from some U. S. surveillance group. (He suspects that the person is with either the FBI or the CIA.) In fact, with his American label firmly attached, Malcolm X goes on his pilgrimage to Mecca "doing some American-type thinking and reflecting’’ about how he might be able to ‘‘double or triple’’ the number of converts to Islam if the colorfulness and energy of the hajj is ‘‘properly advertised and communicated to the outside world.’’

Malcolm X's self-education into the America mainstream and his striving always to do things faster and better very nearly allow him to secure a piece of the American dream. Just before his death, according to Robert Penn Warren in the Yale Review, Malcolm X was about to make a down-payment on a house in a Long Island Jewish neighborhood. Warren wrote:

He no longer saw the white man as the 'white devil.' ... and he was ready, grudgingly, not optimistically, and with a note of threat, to grant that there was in America a chance, a last chance, for a 'bloodless revolution.'

Malcolm X yearned for acceptance, and he knew that one of the primary ways one could earn this in America was by fighting against the odds, through hard work and education—whether in the elite classrooms of the Ivy League or the streets of Harlem. These factors in his life have made him an almost mythological figure, surrounded by stories of victorious struggle, many of which appear in his autobiography.

Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Sanderson holds a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer.

Malcolm X's Growth

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of the most famous books America has produced. It stands beside the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and other classics. The figure of Malcolm X, the fiery Black Muslim leader, is charismatic and memorable. And since much, if not all, that is known about Malcolm X comes from the The Autobiography of Malcolm X, it's only natural to assume that Malcolm X, his autobiography, and people's image of him are all essentially the same. But this would be a mistake. The Autobiography of Malcolm X features hidden depths and false bottoms; the book informs its readers about the man as he changes, grows larger and wiser.

Narrated to Alex Haley over a three year period, The Autobiography of Malcolm X came at a key stretch in Malcolm's life. The book clearly owes much to Haley's skill as an editor. As Haley makes clear in his lengthy epilogue, working with Malcolm X required great delicacy. Haley could not tell Malcolm how to tell his own story, but neither could he merely transcribe what Malcolm said, especially since, midway through the project, Malcolm's world was turned upside down.

At its inception, the book was meant to be a testament to the goodness and redemptive power of the Nation of Islam and its leader, a man never referred to other than as ‘‘The Honorable Elijah Muhammad.’’ So scrupulously devoted to Muhammad was Malcolm X that his writing skirts the border of propaganda. The Autobiography of Malcolm X was frankly conceived as a way to proselytize for the Nation of Islam. In fact, the dedication originally planned for the book read:

This book I dedicate to The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who found me here in America in the muck and mire of the filthiest civilization and society on the earth, and pulled me out, cleaned me up, and stood me on my feet, and made me the man I am today.

By the time the book was being written, however, Malcolm had broken with the Black Muslims. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad had turned out not to be so honorable as Malcolm had thought: Muhammad had apparently committed adultery with several members of The Nation, and, Malcolm believed, now sought to destroy Malcolm because of his growing popularity.

This betrayal is the central revelation in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. When Haley and Malcolm sat down to write this memoir, it was designed as a conversion narrative, an ancient genre with precedents as far back as The Confessions of St. Augustine. The narrator would describe his sinful early days, his awakening at rock bottom, and finish on a triumphal note by describing his career as an apostle and reformed sinner. That was the plan; but somewhere along the way the plan was abandoned. Haley asked Malcolm not to revise the early chapters, in which he wrote so glowingly of ‘‘The Honorable Elijah Muhammad,’’ the ‘‘this little, sweet, gentle man.’’ To make changes, Haley said, would be to "telegraph" to the reader what lay ahead. So although Malcolm periodically acknowledges that friction develops later with him, one never gets a sense of it while reading the description of Malcolm's redemption in prison. On the contrary, those chapters are written with the evangelical zeal of a man remembering the central event in his life: his conversion to Islam, or at least the Black Muslims' version of it.

Malcolm X's reputation today is that of a charismatic extremist, a bold, take-no-prisoners truth teller out to liberate his race "by any means necessary." This is the man who narrates the early part of the book. In the middle chapters, in which Malcolm preaches about ‘‘white devils,’’ expounding on the evils of the white man, Malcolm seems to fit this stereotype. But in the chapters, "Out'' and "Mecca,'' the supremely self-assured narrator begins to change. His once-unshakable faith in The Honorable Elijah Muhammad is destroyed. He goes to the holy city of Mecca and discovers that his vision of Islam has been narrow and parochial. He does not even know the common prayers recited by Muslims around the world; he is physically incapable of assuming the position Muslims do in prayer. ‘‘Western ankles won't do what Muslim ankles have done for a lifetime,’’ Malcolm writes. ‘‘When my guide was down in a posture, I tried everything I could to get down as he was, but there I was, sticking up.’’

The narrative in these chapters echoes Malcolm's initial conversion, as described in the book's middle chapters. Then, for example, Malcolm writes of the difficulty of bending his knees to pray:

Picking a lock to rob someone's house was the only way my knees had ever been bent before. I had to force myself to bend my knees. And waves of shame and embarrassment would force me back up.

The subsequent remark echoes this one.

In his epiphany in Mecca, Malcolm learns of ‘‘sincere and true brotherhood,’’ regardless of skin color. Until this point, the narrative is infused with Malcolm's absolute conviction about racism—an intensely compelling quality of his, one that partially accounts for his force as a speaker. Every page of the The Autobiography of Malcolm X prior to this point focuses on one central truth: the evil of white racism as ‘‘an incurable cancer.’’ The early chapters describe Malcolm's folly and blindness, his wickedness and self-destructive path. The chapters in prison then describe the clouds parting, revealing the truth which is later confirmed by the experience at Mecca. Perhaps, if Malcolm X had been assassinated in 1963 instead of 1965, the book would have been self-contained, a testament to that particular truth. Because of all that happened to him in those two years, however, the book was changed forever, and the last pages, in which Malcolm presciently writes of his own imminent death, have a special poignancy because of his power to change and grow.

This is not to say that Malcolm's views at the end of the The Autobiography of Malcolm X are right or wrong, any more so than his views as a minister of the Nation of Islam, or for that matter his views as Detroit Red, the street hustler. In a sense—and in this is surely something Malcolm X would have deplored—the actual content of the author's convictions really isn't that important. It's possible to read, and even revere, The Autobiography of Malcolm X without necessarily having any interest or investment in the problem of race. In all probability, the book will continue to matter long after the historical circumstances surrounding Malcolm X and the 1960s have faded into history.

Source: Josh Ozersky, Critical Essay on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Ozersky is a cultural historian and author.


Critical Overview