Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is an interesting and exciting book. Although it is based on fact, it reads like a novel. It tells the story of a young African American who inherits the gifts of courage and self-reliance from his father and mother and rises to international prominence despite overwhelming odds. As a child, Malcolm often went hungry. His father, an itinerant preacher, was constantly moving because of threats from white bigots who resented his espousal of the back-to-Africa program of Marcus Garvey. Malcolm’s worldview was forever affected by his memories of late-night raids by the Ku Klux Klan and his father’s murder by members of another white supremacist organization called the Black Legion. His widowed mother eventually suffered a nervous breakdown under the strain of trying to rear eight children on welfare, and she had to be institutionalized. Malcolm became a virtual orphan and a ward of the state.

Along with his remarkable strength of character, the young African American child was exceptionally intelligent and got outstanding grades in the nearly all-white schools he attended. His academic success motivated him to achieve financial success, but he soon realized that most doors were shut to African Americans at that time. Eventually, he drifted into a life of crime. His book is full of interesting, often shocking, anecdotes, and many of these have to do with his adventures as a con artist, pimp, gigolo, drug peddler, rapist, burglar, and armed robber. In 1946, he was sentenced to ten years in Charlestown State Prison in Massachusetts for a series of burglaries.

Malcolm’s autobiography reads like an exciting novel comparable to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) or Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), with one important difference. Malcolm writes about his early years from a mature perspective. He constantly interrupts his narrative to interject observations about how his life experiences mirrored the experiences of countless African Americans of his time. He stresses the fact that the majority of African Americans had consciously or unconsciously adopted white values and were hoping somehow to achieve the impossible feat of becoming white.

Malcolm was attracted to white women and describes many of his affairs with them. Telling about these affairs in retrospect, he philosophizes that his attraction was only another symptom of African Americans’ adoption of white values and their own feelings of inferiority that are a natural consequence.

One of the most striking anecdotes in the novel describes the time when Malcolm was “conking” his hair—that is, using a mixture of lye, eggs, and potatoes to make his hair straight—and found that the water had been shut off. The lye was burning his scalp; in desperation he stuck his head into the toilet to wash it out. To him, this incident symbolized the humiliating position of the African American who had accepted the belief that white features were desirable while African features such as kinky hair were ugly and shameful.

Malcolm used the penitentiary’s extensive library for self-education and found that he had voracious interests in languages, philosophy, politics, religion, and other subjects. While in prison, he became acquainted with the tenets of the Black Muslim’s Lost-Found Nation of Islam, a religion that proclaimed the superiority of the black race and stigmatized the white race as devils. He corresponded with the Black Muslims’ founder, Elijah Muhammad, and went to serve under him in Chicago after he was released from prison in 1952.

His relationship with Elijah Muhammad was the most important of his entire life. Perhaps the older man became a substitute for the father Malcolm had lost in childhood. As Malcolm X, Malcolm Little became Elijah Muhammad’s most loyal and most successful disciple, preaching from Harlem Mosque Number Seven as well as on street corners and anywhere he could gather an audience. He discovered that he possessed the rare gift of spellbinding oratory, attributable to his intelligence, his extensive self-education, his strong motivation for self-fulfillment, and his deep belief in the teachings of his mentor. He quickly rose from assistant minister to minister to national minister in the Black Muslim organization.

Malcolm had such a bad reputation in prison that fellow inmates referred to him as “Satan.” His conversion to the Black Muslim faith, however, transformed his character. He gave up smoking, drinking, drugs, profanity, and sexual promiscuity. He gave up zoot suits, conked hair, and all the other flashy affectations he now considered clownish. His cropped hair and conservative business suits reflected his moral transformation.

Malcolm was Elijah Muhammad’s diligent disciple for more than ten years. Another major turning point in his life arrived when he became aware that his master was not the saintly character Malcolm had taken him to be. Malcolm discovered that Elijah Muhammad was not only interested in personal enrichment but also sexually promiscuous and had seduced several of his former secretaries, who had borne him illegitimate children.

Although disillusioned with his mentor, Malcolm remained a devout Muslim. He went to Mecca in search of further spiritual enlightenment and experienced a powerful religious conversion. He renamed himself el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. After this experience, he considered himself at least equal to Elijah Muhammad in religious enlightenment and founded his own Muslim organization, which he called the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

After Malcolm broke with the Black Muslim sect, he was harassed and threatened by its members, who presumably were working under orders from Elijah Muhammad. In speeches and interviews, Malcolm frequently predicted that he would be assassinated. His house was firebombed, and he had to send his wife and four daughters out of town for their own safety. His remarkable courage and dedication to his cause were evident in his behavior during this critical period. He refused to hide from his invisible enemies, making repeated public appearances in Harlem and elsewhere to proclaim his crusade for the spiritual and political unification of black people all around the world. He openly attacked Elijah Muhammad for “religious fakery” and “immorality.”

The most striking things about Malcolm X’s autobiography are his candor, his motivation, and his anger. Few characters in novels have undergone such transformations as this man did in real life. Reader see Malcolm change from an ignorant child into a sophisticated urbanite, then into a vicious criminal, then into an embittered convict, and finally into a highly devout, ascetic religious leader who is ready to sacrifice his life for the good of others. The one thing that remained consistent throughout his adult life was his anger at the way white society had cheated him by shutting its doors to opportunity and forcing him into a life of crime and degradation. He believed that his life story was the story of his race.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X ends with Malcolm living as a hunted man, having been repeatedly threatened by the followers of his former idol. In 1965, the year his autobiography was published, Malcolm died in a blaze of shotgun pellets and pistol bullets while addressing an audience in Harlem. Three followers of Elijah Muhammad eventually were convicted of the crime; however, countless conflicting rumors circulated concerning who might have been the masterminds behind the plot.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X became a martyr to the cause he believed in. Perhaps only King can be compared to Malcolm X for courage and dedication to the cause of ending racial bigotry in the United States.