Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America

by Bruce Perry
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2095

A twenty-year search by Bruce Perry for the historical Malcolm X has resulted in a more detailed and more intimate analysis of the famous black leader’s life than The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) by Roots author Alex Haley. In key respects, Perry’s book departs from and corrects the earlier...

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A twenty-year search by Bruce Perry for the historical Malcolm X has resulted in a more detailed and more intimate analysis of the famous black leader’s life than The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) by Roots author Alex Haley. In key respects, Perry’s book departs from and corrects the earlier work, which Haley wrote from Malcolm’s own memories. From the quotidian details of Malcolm’s life to the larger issues of his father’s death and Malcolm’s self-image, Perry provides a quite different picture. Yet, the two works complement each other by providing varying insights into the complex character of the man hailed by many as the quintessential spokesman for black nationalism pride.

Malcolm X, Perry argues, was shaped by his troubled childhood and youth. The son of a self-ordained Garveyite Baptist preacher who abused his family, young Malcolm knew little of the security which a happy childhood requires. His father, Earl Little, failed to tell his second wife, Louisa, about an earlier marriage and three children he had left without notice or financial provision. The daughter of a Scottish father and a Grenadan mother, Louisa followed Earl Little from place to place and job to job in the early days of their marriage. Montreal, Philadelphia, Omaha, and Lansing, Michigan were temporary homes for the Littles as Earl drifted without any apparent plan. Malcolm was born in 1925 in Omaha, where Louisa gave birth also to Philbert and Hilda. Attracted to the ideas of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, Earl Little became involved with the Omaha branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which Garvey had founded in his native Jamaica in 1914 and transplanted in the United States by the end of World War I. This was the closest thing to a sense of belonging that Malcolm found during his childhood.

Resistance by the Ku Klux Klan in Omaha was, according to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, one of the factors that prompted Earl to take his family to Milwaukee shortly after Malcolm’s birth. This was not true, Perry notes, although Earl did move his family from Omaha, and eventually to Lansing, Michigan. This migratory pattern was not the only problem that undermined young Malcolm Little’s sense of security. There was also tension related to his light skin color. His mother, whose parentage bequeathed her a fair complexion, emphasized that she was West Indian, not African American, and at times vigorously scrubbed Malcolm’s face and confessed to a white friend that if she bathed him enough she could “make him look almost white…” Yet, she encouraged Malcolm to play in the sun to darken his skin lest he think he was superior because of his fair color. According to Perry, this ambivalence left a mark on the boy’s psyche. Neither parent consistently approved of him. Malcolm felt that his mother saw her own light skin as evidence of her illegitimacy and his as a constant reminder of that.

Many other painful experiences dogged the steps of Malcolm. When he was only five years old his father died in Lansing. According to the autobiography prepared by Haley, Earl Little was killed by racists in the Black Legion, white men wearing black robes and hoods, who left him on a streetcar track to be crushed. Perry’s research indicates that Earl’s death was accidental, that he fell under the wheels of a streetcar. He suffered a partially severed leg and other injuries and died despite medical efforts to save him. Earl had frequently beaten his wife and otherwise abused her and the children, but his death became, somewhat ironically, further reason for Malcolm to be sensitized to problems of racial identity and the seeming hopelessness of his young life.

The young boy with such inauspicious beginnings experienced little relief. His mother Louisa suffered mental illness and was institutionalized when Malcolm was fourteen. Other disappointments, including failure in his effort to become a prizefighter, caused him to withdraw into an isolated world of his own. Rebellion against authority symbols, argues Perry, caused further difficulties that eventually drew him into a life of street crime and even prostitution.

His dreams of becoming a boxer, then an attorney, or a writer, all eluded him. In foster homes and often on the streets, he had little sense of direction, but he retained a strong desire to be somebody important. By the end of World War II, he had been involved in break-ins and other crimes, including homosexual prostitution. In Boston in 1946, where he lived with his half- sister Ella, he was arrested during a break-in attempt. By his own admission, which Perry takes seriously, Malcolm wanted to be stopped and courted arrest.

Malcolm was sentenced to a ten-year prison term but was paroled in 1952, two years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that triggered the Civil Rights movement. During the postwar period when black leaders were beginning to articulate their demands for reform, Malcolm was educating himself in prison. There he came into contact with the Lost-Found Nation of Islam movement led by Elijah Muhammad. In it Malcolm found a means to express himself, to identify with a cause that would allow him to be persuasive and influential. The Nation of Islam (NOI) condemned white people, emphasized black separatism, and, in a sense, did provide a forum for young Malcolm X. Ironically, however, it was not truly engaged in social reform and kept Malcolm isolated from the early stages of the Civil Rights movement. Eventually Malcolm found it restrictive. He had conflicting feelings about the Black Muslims as he did about other entities in his life: “A similar ambivalence pervaded his feelings about the Nation of Islam, whose refusal to engage in political activity during the zenith of the civil rights struggle was apparently very difficult for him to bear.” Malcolm played an “errand boy” role for Elijah Muhammad and referred to himself as Elijah’s “slave.”

It was not a simple matter, however, to leave the Nation of Islam. The catalyst in bringing about his break with Elijah Muhammad’s organization was a remark Malcolm made about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in late 1963. “Chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad,” he said; “they’ve always made me glad.” Angered by the damage he felt had been done to the Nation of Islam by Malcolm’s remark, Elijah Muhammad officially silenced him, closing to him the rostrums of Temple Seven in New York and other facilities of the NOI. Although humiliated, Malcolm controlled his feelings as well as he could, but it was obvious to Alex Haley during his interviews for the autobiography as well as to many others, that irreparable damage had been done to the relationship. Soon, boxer Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) of Louisville, Kentucky, replaced Malcolm in NOI circles as the public symbol black of masculinity. The Black Muslims had given Malcolm a forum and a public image of the articulate, manly African American. Called a sissy in his younger days, but always aspiring to be a cogent, influential man, he had devoted himself the Elijah Muhammad’s organization. He had become Malcolm X under its aegis, dropping his “slave name,” Malcolm Little. As early as 1952, upon his release from prison, he had begun to speak out forcefully against the ubiquitous racism he saw in white culture. He edited a paper called Muhammad Speaks; by 1954, he had gone to Harlem to lead the mosque there. Popular, dynamic, albeit troubled by strong internal conflicts, Malcolm X became the Nation of Islam’s most influential preacher. But with the 1963 rift, he was forced to try it on his own.

The split affected Malcolm X deeply. Suffering from severe headaches and a sense of emotional trauma, he feared that he had a brain tumor. His physician, Dr. Leona A. Turner, assured him that he did not and that he did not need Elijah Muhammad. He could be successful in his own right. Further encouragement came from his wife, Betty. Malcolm had met Betty Sanders within NOI circles. She typed for him on occasion and was impressed by his air of authority. Despite his ambivalence toward marriage, Malcolm was strongly attracted to the tall, dark-skinned nursing student. She had college training and a strength that Malcolm admired. Their marriage in 1958 endured despite his domineering role. He did not beat Betty as his father had done to his own mother, but he did impose restrictions, and she played the role of the nontraveling Muslim wife. Malcolm apparently loved her, though he was less than unequivocal on that; Perry links his coolness toward her to the “male chauvinism [that was] the predictable result of past tyranny.”

In this, as in virtually all respects, Perry’s account is psychohistorical. His extensive coverage of Malcolm’s wandering, painful childhood and crime-laden young adulthood are pivotal to his approach. Half of his study analyzes the last two years of Malcolm’s life, from his break with the Nation of Islam to his assassination in New York in February 1965. During that period Malcolm founded his separate Muslim Mosque, Inc. and had a meteoric career as a tough-talking militant who, according to Perry, was masking his continuing insecurity: He attacked the establishment within which he actually wanted to excel. Malcolm X spoke of “revolution by any means necessary” during the period when Martin Luther King, Jr., was articulating a nonviolent philosophy in which Malcolm had little faith. Despite a new name, Al Hajj Malik Al-Shabazz, he was known among friends and in the press as Malcolm X.

The strengths of Perry’s book include its extensive probing of Malcolm’s childhood, the rather full account of Malcolm’s rise to prominence within the Black Muslim movement, and the focus on the inner conflicts and dreams of an important figure in recent American history. That Perry is unflaggingly committed to revealing the real man is apparent. But there are problems with both the methodology and the outcome of this biography. Lacking adequate written sources, of which there are comparatively few, Perry relied on Malcolm’s prison records and hundreds of interviews with family members, friends, associates, and people who have studied Malcolm’s career. There is a strongly subjective quality to such sources, and while Perry has used them critically and analytically, the reader is left wondering whether the real Malcolm X has yet been discovered.

The pervasive emphasis is upon the inner man, burdened by his past and unable fully to be what he professed. Malcolm X appears in Perry’s account as an articulate, even charming and charismatic figure who is gifted in speech and intellect. His subtitle suggests that Malcolm was a major figure in changing black Americans. But he also influenced people of other races and American society’s self-perception. That dimension is not treated adequately by Perry to bring a complete picture of Malcolm X’s historical role. The author’s corrections of details of earlier work, to the extent that he has firmly accomplished that, are valuable, but also lack sufficient documentation to obviate the need for further study. One thing is clear. Perry confirms Malcolm’s difficulty in accepting nonviolent social change as the compelling method of the Civil Rights movement. Malcolm admired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and indeed visited the famous Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader in Selma, Alabama only days before Malcolm was gunned down by disillusioned extremists. Perry denies FBI complicity in Malcolm’s assassination. The coverage of Malcolm’s final days is rich and interesting. One senses in it the drama of his untimely death.

Perry acknowledges Malcolm’s importance. Although he had brought about no major legal victories for the Civil Rights movement and won no public office, he did change America: “because of the way he articulated his followers’ grievances and anger, the impact he had upon the body politic was enormous. He mobilized black America’s dormant rage and put it to work politically.” With that Perry encapsulates the central implication of his study and perhaps hints at the need to look beyond the psychohistorical method to complete the task of revealing the real Malcolm X.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVII, June 15, 1991, p. 1912.

Chicago Defender. November 12, 1991, p. 15.

Detroit News and Free Press. September 15, 1991, p. G8.

Ebony. XLVI, October, 1991, p. 18.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, May 15, 1991, p. 656.

Library Journal. CXVI, June 15, 1991, p. 86.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 8, 1991, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, November 24, 1991, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, May 24, 1991, p. 41.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, August 4, 1991, p. 4.

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