The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

(Critical Survey of Literature, Masterpiece Edition)

Critical Evaluation:

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, edited by Alex Haley, is an extended monologue by Malcolm X in which he recounts his life story, shares the dramatic changes that occurred in his life and thinking, and addresses the reader about the values he held as if he were a moral philosopher or a member of the clergy. Although the book is edited, it is written in the first person, communicating with readers as if no second party or editor interfered with Malcolm X’s direct connection with his reading audience. The exception to this style is the epilogue which was written by the editor after Malcolm X’s death. It is a record of the assassination of Malcolm X and reveals how the spirit of the man in life appears to continue after his death. It emphasizes the impact of Malcolm X’s life and the number of people who have assessed his contribution, whether they agreed with his ideas or not. Malcolm X claimed that he would never live to see the Autobiography published; because he was killed before it was printed, the epilogue by the editor is important as a conclusion to the life story of Malcolm X and as an analysis of his impact.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X has been so widely read and the interest in Malcolm X as a leader in American life in the 1950’s and 1960’s is so broad that many authors have written about his life and his speeches. Malcolm X: A Selected Bibliography, published in 1984, includes more than one hundred pages of listings of works by other authors about Malcolm X, including dissertations and theses. Among all of his speeches and other writers’ critiques, however, The Autobiography of Malcolm X remains the most complete and direct communication of his life experiences and changing ideas. It is in some ways a traditional conversion narrative, showing how a man alters his perceptions and values. It is in other ways an admonition to a general audience of that which Malcolm X considered to be wrong with his time and place. It is in still other ways an explanation by the author of how he, as one African American male, experienced rejection and found ways to address and repudiate the discrimination against him. Although Malcolm X’s words often imply that he had a sense of contentment toward the end of his life and that he could share that completed sense of self with others, The Autobiography of Malcolm X also has a continuing theme of change. The author shows not only how he has changed throughout his life but also how he is open to further change toward the end of his life. Thus, it is a narrative told by, and about, a man “in process.” The epilogue raises questions about the direction Malcolm’s life took in his later years and whether these challenged earlier directions he had promoted.

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. From an early age, he had knowledge of both white discrimination against blacks and of black separatist reactions. His father was a Baptist minister and follower of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey. When the family moved to Mason, Michigan, his father was murdered by white supremacists. Malcolm’s mother found the care of the dependent children such a strain that she was placed in a mental hospital, and Malcolm and his siblings were placed in foster homes. Malcolm succeeded, however, in his largely white environment and was elected president of his seventh-grade class. At the same time, however, his English teacher advised him not to attempt to become a lawyer but to be content with being a carpenter because he was black. The suggestion devastated Malcolm, and he moved to Boston to live with his half sister. He stopped attending school after the eighth grade, held some menial jobs, and became involved in illegal acts. He later moved to Harlem, where he was known as “Detroit Red” because he had a fair complexion and reddish hair. He had also become successful as a hustler, pimp, and drug dealer. By the time he was twenty-one years old, Malcolm had been sentenced to prison for ten years.

The autobiography becomes far more than a “slice of life” ethnic history of one man when Malcolm describes the changes in his thinking in prison. These changes were not just mental; his style of life was altered and became consistent with the new ideas he encountered and embraced while incarcerated. Some of his brothers and sisters had become followers of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam (sometimes named the “Black Muslims”), and they sent him literature by Muhammad. Malcolm wrote to this leader daily and, when he was released from prison in 1952, became a follower of Muhammad and took the name “Malcolm X” in place of his birth name, which he now rejected as a slave name. Malcolm embraced the ideas of the Nation of Islam: that the black race was the original race, that blacks must develop pride in themselves by separating themselves from whites, and that blacks would enter a new age in which their race would rule the world. Malcolm felt the appeal of this theology and value system for himself but, more important, believed that black men would find this thought acceptable because they had historically experienced the “devil-nature” of white people. Malcolm agreed with Muhammad that attempting to change a white-dominated society was useless and was not the mission of blacks. Instead, black people would always be victimized by the inferior whites, and their only recourse was to depend on themselves and their own community to realize their innate purity partly by disassociating from whites. In 1953, Malcolm X was appointed the assistant minister of Detroit’s Temple Number One of the Nation of Islam and later became Muhammad’s national representative. By 1954, Malcolm was the head of a major mosque in Harlem in New York City. He had become Muhammad’s main spokesperson throughout the country.

The autobiography makes it clear that Malcolm revered Elijah Muhammad for giving him the greatest gift of all, a new identity. The name change symbolized what had happened to Malcolm’s perspectives and values. He had become a full man, worshiping a relevant god, finally understanding the way out of his plight of oppression. He was obedient to the Nation of Islam’s doctrines and morality, abstaining from liquor and drugs, refusing to exploit other blacks, honoring black women, and accepting full responsibility for the roles of husband and father in a secure family life. At the same time, Elijah Muhammad had found in the gifted Malcolm a spokesperson who would obediently follow Muhammad’s direction and an appealing, articulate, but street-smart voice who could generate and maintain the interest of masses of black people in the ideas of the Nation of Islam. It appeared to be, and was for several years, a productive relationship between the leader and his main representative in which both found ways to meet the other’s needs. Under Malcolm’s skilled presentation, the Nation of Islam...

(The entire section is 2857 words.)