Bayard Rustin (review date 14 November 1965)

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SOURCE: "Making His Mark," in New York Herald Tribune Book Week, November 14, 1965, pp. 1, 8, 10, 12, 16-17.

[In the following review, Rustin offers a favorable assessment of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, summarizing the content and providing an analysis of some of Malcolm X's political and social beliefs and strategies.]

[The Autobiography of Malcolm X, t]his odyssey of an American Negro in search of his identity and place in society, really begins before his birth 40 years ago in Omaha, Neb. He was born Malcolm Little, the son of an educated mulatto West Indian mother and a father who was a Baptist minister on Sundays and dedicated organizer for Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa movement the rest of the week.

The first incident Malcolm recounts, as if it were his welcome to white America, occurred just before he was born. A party of Ku Klux Klanners galloped up to his house, threatened his mother and left a warning for his father "to stop spreading trouble among the good" Negroes and get out of town. They galloped into the night after smashing all the windows. A few years later the Klan was to make good on its threat by burning down the Littles' Lansing, Mich., home because Malcolm's father refused to become an Uncle Tom. These were the first in a series of incidents of racial violence, characteristic of that period, that were to haunt the nights of Malcolm and his family and hang like a pall over the lives of Negroes in the North and South. Five of Reverend Little's six brothers died by violence—four at the hands of white men, one by lynching, and one shot down by Northern police officers. When Malcolm was six, his father was found cut in two by a trolley car with his head bashed in. Malcolm's father had committed "suicide," the authorities said. Early in his life Malcolm concluded "that I too would die by violence … I do not expect to live long enough to read this book."

Malcolm's early life in the Midwest was not wholly defined by race. Until he went to Boston when he was 14, after his mother suffered a mental breakdown from bringing up eight children alone, his friends were often white; there were few Negroes in the small Midwestern towns where he grew up. He recounts with pride how he was elected president of his eighth-grade class in an almost totally white school.

But the race problem was always there, although Malcolm, who was light-skinned, tried for a time to think of himself as white or just like anyone else. Even in his family life, color led to conflict that interfered with normal relationships. The Reverend Little was a fierce disciplinarian, but he never laid a hand on his light-skinned son because, unconsciously, according to Malcolm, he had developed respect for white skin. On the other hand, Malcolm's mother, whose father was a white man, was ashamed of this and favored Malcolm's darker brothers and sisters. Malcolm wrote that he spent his life trying to purge this tainted white blood of a rapist from his veins.

Race also set the limits on his youthful ambitions during what he describes as his "mascot years" in a detention home run by whites with mixed feelings of affection and superiority towards him. One of the top students in his school and a member of the debating club, Malcolm went to an English teacher he admired and told him of his ambition to become a lawyer. "Mr. Ostrowsky looked surprised and said, 'Malcolm, one...

(This entire section contains 3602 words.)

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of life's first needs is for us to be realistic … a lawyer, that's no realistic goal for a nigger … you're good with your hands … why don't you plan on carpentry?'" How many times has this scene been repeated in various forms in schoolrooms across the country? It was at this point, Malcolm writes, "that I began to change—inside. I drew away from white people."

Too many people want to believe that Malcolm "the angry black man sprang full grown from the bowels of the Harlem ghetto." These chapters on his childhood are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the plight of American Negroes.

Malcolm Little was 14 when he took the Greyhound to Boston to live with his half-sister, Ella, who had fought her way into the Boston "black bourgeoisie." The "400," as they were called, lived on "the Hill," only one step removed socially, economically and geographically from the ghetto ("the Town"). Malcolm writes that "a big percentage of the Hill dwellers were in Ella's category—Southern strivers and scramblers and West Indian Negroes, whom both the New Englanders and Southerners called 'Black Jews.'" Ella owned some real estate and her own home, and like the first Jews who arrived in the New World, she was determined to shepherd new immigrants and teach them the strange ways of city life. There were deep bonds between Ella and her younger brother, and she tried to help him live a respectable life on the Hill.

But for Malcolm the 400 were only "a big-city version of those 'successful' Negro bootblacks and janitors back in Lansing … 8 out of 10 of the Hill Negroes of Roxbury … actually worked as menials and servants…. I don't know how many 40- and 50-year-old errand boys went down the Hill dressed as ambassadors in black suits and white collars to downtown jobs 'in government,' 'in finance.' or 'in law.'" Malcolm instead chose "the Town," where for the first time he felt he was part of a people.

Unlike the thousands of Negro migrants who poured into the Northern ghettos, Malcolm had a choice. But from the moment he made it, the options narrowed. He got a job at the Roseland Ballroom, where all the jazz greats played. His title was shoe-shine boy but his real job was to hustle whiskey, prophylactics and women to Negroes and whites. He got his first conk and zoot suit and a new identity, "Red," and his secondary education began before he was 15. "I was … schooled well, by experts in such hustles as the numbers, pimping, con games of many kinds, peddling dope, and thievery of all sorts, including armed robbery."

It is significant that it was Malcolm's good qualities—his intelligence, integrity, and distaste for hypocrisy—as well as his sickness that made him choose crime rather than what passed in the Negro community for a respectable bourgeois life. Later he moved on to bigger things in Harlem, became "Detroit Red," went on dope and at one time carried three guns.

His description of the cut-throat competition between the hustlers and their fraternity is both frightening and moving. "As in the case of any jungle," he writes, "the hustler's every waking hour is lived with both the practical and the subconscious knowledge that if he ever relaxes, if he ever slows down, the other hungry, restless foxes, ferrets, wolves, and vultures out there with him won't hesitate to make him their prey." He summed up his morality at the time: "The only thing I considered wrong was what I got caught doing wrong … and everything I did was done by instinct to survive."

As a "steerer" of uptown rich whites to Harlem "sex specialties," he recounts perversions with racial overtones, of white men begging to be beaten by black women or paying large amounts to witness interracial sex that make Genet's "The Balcony" seem inhibited by comparison.

"Detroit Red" was a limited success in his trade for four years. But even in this business, success was limited by race. The big operators, the successful, respectable, and safe executives of policy, dope, and prostitution rackets, were white and lived outside the ghetto.

Malcolm left Harlem to return to Boston, and a few months later was caught as the head of a burglary gang. In February, 1946, not quite 21, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, though the average sentence for burglary was about two years—the price for his being caught with his white girl friend and her sister.

Most of the first year in prison, Malcolm writes, he spent in solitary confinement, cursing: "My favorite targets were the Bible and God." Malcolm got a new name from the other prisoners—"Satan"—and plenty of time to think. He went through what he described as a great spiritual crisis, and, as a result, he, the man who cursed God, bowed down and prayed to Allah. It will be difficult for those readers who have never been in prison to understand the psychological torment that prisoners experience, their feelings of isolation, their need to totally commit their minds to something outside of themselves. Men without any of the external economic symbols of status seek security in a religion, philosophy or ideology. Malcolm particularly, with his great feelings of rebelliousness, hatred and internal conflict, turned to books and ideas for relief. When his brothers and sisters wrote to him that they had become followers of Elijah Muhammad and sent him Elijah's teachings, Malcolm seized on the tracts. Stimulated, he read other books on religion and philosophy voraciously. In his spiritual and psychological crisis he underwent religious conversion.

He took on a new identity and became Malcolm X, a follower of Elijah Muhammad. Now he had a God to love and obey and a white devil responsible for his plight. Many Negro prisoners accepted the "Messenger," Elijah Muhammad, for similar reasons. Excluded from American society, they are drawn to another one, the Nation of Islam. (This analysis of why Malcolm joined the Muslims is mine, for although Malcolm writes about Muslim ideas, nowhere does he discuss the reasons for his conversion beyond a surface level.)

Out of prison, Malcolm, while remaining religious, arrived at a balanced view of the more fantastic elements of Elijah's teachings and a deeper understanding of one of the driving forces: "So many of the survivors whom I knew as tough hyenas and wolves of the streets in the old days now were so pitiful. They had known all the angles, but beneath that surface they were poor, ignorant, untrained men; life had eased up on them and hyped them…. I was thankful to Allah that I had become a Muslim and escaped their fate."

Alex Haley, who assisted Malcolm with the book, rightly commends him for deciding not to rewrite the first parts of the book and make it a polemic against his old leader, although in the interim they had broken and now were in competition with each other. As a result, the book interestingly shows changes in Malcolm's thinking.

After seven years in prison, Detroit Red emerged as Malcolm X and was soon to be the brightest star of the Nation of Islam. But as in every conversion, the man himself was not entirely reborn. Malcolm brought with him his traits of the past—the shrewd and competitive instincts learned on the ghetto streets, combined now with the language and thoughts of the great philosophers of Western culture he applied from reading Hegel, Kant, and Nietzsche, and great Negro intellectuals like Du Bois. Remaining, too, with his burning ambition to succeed, was the rebellious anger of his youth for being denied a place in society commensurate with his abilities. But on the other side of the coin was a desire for fraternity, family and respectability.

Because of his ability, he was sent to New York, where he struck a responsive chord with a great many Harlem Negroes. The Nationalist sects provided an arena of struggle for power and status denied lower-class Negroes in the outside world.

But the same qualities that made him a successful ghetto organizer soon brought him into conflict with other Muslim leaders, especially Elijah's children and prospective heirs. They saw Malcolm as a threat to their domain and apparently were able to convince Elijah that there was a threat to himself as well. For although Malcolm always gave corollary credit to Elijah—and the limits set upon him by Elijah's demands made many underestimate the exceptional nature of his mind—he could not totally constrain his brilliance, pride or ambition. "Only by being two people could I have worked harder in the service of the Nation of Islam. I had every gratification that I wanted. I had helped bring about the progress and additional impact such that none could call us liars when we called Mr. Muhammad the most powerful black man in America."

As Malcolm's star rose higher in the western sky, Mr. Muhammad saw his eastern star setting and grew jealous. The conflict grew, although Malcolm made efforts toward conciliation. Finally, there was a total break that can be fatal to the erring Muslim who is cast away. Malcolm was aware of the dangers. "I hadn't hustled in the streets for nothing. I knew I was being set up … As any official in the Nation of Islam would instantly have known, any death-talk for me could have been approved of—if not actually initiated—by only one man." Later, just before his death, Malcolm said the attempt to murder him would come from a much greater source than the Muslims; he never revealed about whom he was talking.

Under a death sentence and without money or any substantial organization, Malcolm opted for action, although it was unclear whether he was running away from or toward something as he began another phase of his odyssey—a pilgrimage to Mecca where he became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Throughout his many conversions and transformations, he never was more American than during his trip to Mecca. Because his ankles were not flexible enough, he was unable to sit properly cross-legged on the traditional Muslim rug with the others, and at first the shrank from reaching into the common food pot. Like many American tourists, he projected desires for hospitality and fraternity, frustrated at home, on the Muslims he met, most of whom he could not communicate with because of the language barrier. Back in America, he acknowledged that it would be a long time before the Negro was ready to make common struggle with the Africans and Arabs.

In Mecca, Malcolm also dramatically announced that he had changed his view on integration, because he had seen true brotherhood there between black and white Muslims. In reality he had begun changing his attitude on integration and the civil rights movement many months before as the divisions between him and Elijah Muhammad widened. Part-way through the book his attacks on the movement became muted, and in the epilogue Haley concludes that Malcolm "had a reluctant admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King."

The roots of Malcolm's ambivalence were much more profound than personal opportunism. In a touching confession of dilemma he told Haley, "'the so-called moderate' civil rights organizations avoided him as 'too militant' and the 'so-called militants' avoided him as 'too moderate.' 'They won't let me turn the corner!' he once exclaimed. 'I'm caught in a trap!'" Malcolm was moving toward the mainstream of the civil rights movement when his life was cut short, but he still had quite a way to go. His anti-Semitic comments are a symptom of this malaise.

Had he been able to "turn the corner," he would have made an enormous contribution to the struggle for equal rights. As it was, his contribution was substantial. He brought hope and a measure of dignity to thousands of despairing ghetto Negroes. His "extremism" made the "mainstream" civil rights groups more respectable by comparison and helped them wrest substantial concessions from the power structure. Malcolm himself clearly understood the complicated role he played. At a Selma rally, while Dr. King was in jail, Malcolm said, "Whites better be glad Martin Luther King is rallying the people because other forces are waiting to take over if he fails." Of course, he never frightened the racists and the reactionaries as much as he made liberals feel uncomfortable, and moderates used his extremism as an excuse for inaction.

Behind the grim visage on television that upset so many white Americans there was a compassionate and often gentle man with a sense of humor. A testament to his personal honesty was that he died broke and money had to be raised for his funeral and family.

Upset by the comments in the African and Asian press criticizing the United States government for Malcolm's fate, Carl T. Rowan, Director of the United States Information Agency, held up some foreign papers and told a Washington audience, according to Alex Haley, "… All this about an ex-convict, ex-dope peddler, who became a racial fanatic." Yes, all this and more, before we can understand Malcolm's autobiography, revealing little-known aspects of his life and character, makes that tortured journey more understandable.

One of the book's shortcomings is that M. S. Handler and Haley, in their sensitive and insightful supplementary comments, make no comprehensive estimate of Malcolm X as a political leader. His often conflicting roles in the civil rights movement are described rather than analyzed. Perhaps this couldn't be helped, for Haley writes that Malcolm wanted a chronicler, not an interpreter. Obviously, Malcolm was not ready to make a synthesis of his ideas and an evaluation of his political role.

Shortly after Malcolm's death Tom Kahn and I wrote in New America and Dissent: "Now that he is dead, we must resist the temptation to idealize Malcolm X, to elevate charisma to greatness. History's judgment of him will surely be ambiguous. His voice and words were cathartic, channeling into militant verbiage emotions that otherwise might have run a violently destructive course. But having described the evil, he had no program for attacking it. With rare skill and feeling he articulated angry subterranean moods more widespread than any of us like to admit. But having blown the trumpet, he could summon, even at the very end, only a handful of followers."

Of course we cannot judge political effectiveness by numbers alone, but we cannot ignore his inability to build a movement. As a spokesman for Negro anger and frustration, he left his mark on history, but as a militant political leader he failed—and the Negro community needed both. Till the end, his program was a maze of contradictions. He was a brilliant psychologist when it came to articulating the emotions and thoughts of ghetto Negroes, but he knew virtually nothing about economics, and more important, his program had no relevance to the needs of lower-class Negroes. His conception of the economic roots of the problem is reflected in such remarks as "it is because black men do not own and control their community retail establishments that they cannot stabilize their own communities." And he advocates, as a solution, that Negroes who buy so many cars and so much expensive whiskey should own automobile franchises and distilleries. Malcolm was urging Negroes to pool their resources into small business establishments at a time when small businesses were declining under the pressure of big business and when an unplanned technological revolution is creating massive unemployment for unskilled Negroes. Malcolm's solutions were in fact almost a mirror image of many proposals made by white economic moderates; those advocates of "self-help" without a massive program for jobs remind me of no one so much as those black nationalist sects and their "build it yourself" black economy without capital. In short, Malcolm's economic program was not radical. It was, in fact, petty bourgeois.

Malcolm got a wide hearing in the ghetto because large sections of the Negro working class were being driven into the "underclass" and made part of the rootless mass by the vicissitudes of the economy. He articulated the frustration and anger of these masses, and they admired his outspoken attack on the racists and white hypocrites. But while thousands came to his funeral (I was there, too, to pay my respects), few joined his organization. Nor should it be surprising that the Negro masses did not support his proposed alliance of black Americans, Africans, and Arabs, including such leaders as Prince Faisal. For what did a Harlem Negro, let alone an Arab Bedouin, have in common with a feudal prince like Faisal? And at home Malcolm maintained an uneasy co-existence with the Harlem political machine. Today Malcolm's organization, the OAAU, hardly exists. In addition, he never clearly understood that as progress was made toward social integration, the problem for America's Negroes would become just as much one of class as of race.

Malcolm was with the Negro masses, but he was not of them. His experience and ambitions separated him from working-class Negroes. But to say this is not enough. In a sense Malcolm's life was tragic on a heroic scale. He had choices but never took the easy or comfortable ones. If he had, he might today be, as he says, a successful lawyer, sipping cocktails with other members of the black bourgeoisie. He chose instead to join the Negro masses who never had this freedom of choice. And, before his death he was working toward a more creative approach to the problems of the ghetto. Perhaps he might have been successful in "turning this corner."

After reflecting on the old days at Mosque 7, shortly before he was killed, Malcolm told Haley, "That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days—I'm glad to be free of them. It's a time for martyrs now. And if I'm to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood."

Our journey through the madness of racism continues, and there is much we can learn about both the sickness and the cure from Malcolm X.


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Malcolm X 1925–1965

(Born Malcolm Little; changed name to Malcolm X; later adopted religious name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) American autobiographer, orator, and speechwriter.

The following entry provides an overview of Malcolm X's career through 1994.

An influential African-American leader, Malcolm X rose to prominence in the mid-1950s as the outspoken national minister of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad. He opposed the mainstream civil rights movement, publicly calling for black separatism and rejecting nonviolence and integration as effective means of combatting racism. In the 1960s, however, Malcolm repudiated Muhammad and the Nation of Islam and embraced conventional Islam. He documented his various experiences in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), a work prepared with the help of American writer Alex Haley. Published after his assassination, the Autobiography has been called a "compelling and irreplaceable book" comparable to the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass.

Biographical Information

Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm was exposed to white racism and the black separatist movement at an early age. His father, Earl Little, was a Baptist minister and a follower of Jamaican-born, black nationalist Marcus Garvey. When the Littles lived in Nebraska, the Ku Klux Klan tried to prevent the Reverend Little from conveying Garvey's teachings. The Littles consequently left Nebraska, eventually settling in Mason, Michigan, where they found the racial climate no better. In 1929 members of the Black Legion, a white supremacist group, reputedly burned down the Littles's home and later murdered Malcolm's father. His death, officially labeled a suicide, left Louise Little to care for the children. Unable to cope with the financial and emotional demands of single parenthood, she was placed in a mental institution, and the children were sent to separate foster homes. Despite the traumas of his early youth, Malcolm was among the best students in his class. Malcolm soon became angry toward his white teachers and friends, whom he believed viewed him not as their equal, but as their "mascot." His interest in academic study waning, he quit school after completing the eighth grade. Living in Boston, New York City, and later Detroit, he held several low-paying jobs. To fit into his new urban environment, Malcolm altered his outward appearance, treating his hair with corrosive chemicals to straighten it and frequently wearing a zoot suit. As "Detroit Red," a name derived from his fair complexion and red hair, he made his living as a hustler, pimp, and drug dealer. Malcolm was arrested in early 1946 and sentenced to ten years in prison. Another convict, Bimbi, introduced him to the prison's extensive library, and Malcolm became an avid reader. When his siblings revealed to him that they had become followers of Elijah Muhammad—the leader of the Nation of Islam, popularly known as the Black Muslims—Malcolm pored over Muhammad's teachings and initiated a daily correspondence with the man. Upon his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm became a follower of Muhammad. He took the name "Malcolm X" to signify the loss of his true African name and to reject the "slave name" of Little. In 1953 Malcolm was appointed assistant minister of Detroit's Temple Number One of the Nation of Islam. He believed that every black person would gravitate to Muhammad's teachings, for "when he thinks about his own life, he is going to see where, to him personally, the white man sure has acted like a devil." Malcolm rose swiftly in the ranks of the Black Muslims, becoming Muhammad's national representative and, in 1954, the head of a major mosque in Harlem. There he became known as an articulate spokesperson for the radical black perspective. In addition to denouncing integration, nonviolence, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm "identified whites as the enemy of blacks and cheered at tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, airplane crashes, even the Kennedy assassination—anything that might cause them anguish or pain." Malcolm termed the killing of John F. Kennedy a case of "chickens coming home to roost"—a statement that severely damaged Malcolm's career. He later explained that he meant only that "the hate in white men … finally had struck down the President," but he was immediately censured by Muhammad. Muhammad ordered him to refrain from public comment for ninety days, and Malcolm complied. But his remark about the Kennedy assassination gave Muhammad an opportunity to expel his national minister from the movement's hierarchy, for Malcolm had been in conflict with the leader of the Nation of Islam for some time. Malcolm had privately condemned Muhammad's materialism—his expensive cars and business suits and lavishly furnished estate—and was shocked by allegations that Muhammad had seduced several women and sired their children. Proceeding to break officially with the Nation of Islam, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, taking the religious name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. In Mecca he underwent a transformation in his beliefs: "Since I learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends have come to include all kinds—some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists! I have friends who are called capitalists, Socialists, and Communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists—some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white!" On a diplomatic trip to Africa, Malcolm began the work of uniting blacks across the world, later establishing the Organization of Afro-American Unity in the United States. However, Malcolm now believed that the Nation of Islam saw him as a threat. "Now I'm out," he said. "And there's the fear [that] if my image isn't shattered, the Muslims in the movement will leave." Indeed, Elijah Muhammad wrote in his periodical Muhammad Speaks that Malcolm was "worthy of death." On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated while addressing an audience of four hundred in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Three men associated with the Nation of Islam—Talmadge Thayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson—were apprehended and eventually convicted of the crime.

Major Works

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which details Malcolm X's life from infancy to the time of his assassination, was published posthumously, and although some critics questioned Alex Haley's influence over the work's production, commentators generally agreed that the story is Malcolm's own. Several of Malcolm's speeches have also been published, including Malcolm X Speaks (1965) and Malcolm X: The Last Speeches (1989), but his autobiography remains by far his most noted contribution to literature. As Malcolm X has increasingly been recognized as a leading figure in the African-American struggle for recognition and equality. The Autobiography of Malcolm X has grown in stature. In 1993, filmmaker Spike Lee directed a widely-known screen version of the Autobiography.

Critical Reception

Of the importance of Malcolm X's memoir, Charles H. Nichols asserted in 1985: "The Autobiography of Malcolm X is probably the most influential book read by this generation of Afro-Americans…. It is a fantastic success story. Paradoxically, the book, designed to be an indictment of American and European bigotry and exploitation, is a triumphant affirmation of the possibilities of the human spirit." In the decades since its initial publication, the Autobiography has prompted diverse critical readings, including analyses of its properties as a political and rhetorical text, as a conversion narrative reflecting Malcolm's search for identity, and as a work that both affirms and challenges the tradition of American autobiography. Truman Nelson concluded: "its manifold unsolved ambiguities will make it stand as a monument to the most painful of truths: that this country, this people, this Western world has practiced unspeakable cruelty against a race, an individual, who might have made its fraudulent humanism a reality." Malcolm X's abilities as an orator have drawn much praise from commentators who have applauded his capacity for eliciting in his audiences the intensity and dedication that he demonstrated for his beliefs. It has been noted that whether those who heard him speak agreed with his contentions did not determine whether they would be profoundly affected by the delivery of his message, if only in the sense that they marveled at the dynamic wordplay, imagery, and symbolism used by the speaker. John Illo, in an essay published in 1966, illustrated Malcolm X's skill as an orator, and asserted that Malcolm X "emerged from dope, prostitution, burglary, prison, and a fanciful sectarianism to enter a perennial humanist art, to achieve a brilliant facility in oratory and debate, in less time than many of us consume in ambling through graduate school…. In the full Aristotelian meaning he was a rhetorician, who, to be such, knew more than rhetoric: ethics, logic, grammar, psychology, law, history, politics; and his best speeches might be texts for students of that comprehensive science and art."

John Henrik Clarke (review date Winter 1966)

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SOURCE: "The Man and His Mission," in Freedomways, Winter, 1966, pp. 48-52.

[In the following review of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Clarke indicates a high regard for Malcolm X's personal accomplishments and notes while the autobiography would have benefitted from "editing and pruning," it is effective in imparting the nature of Malcolm X and his achievements.]

The man best known as Malcolm X lived three distinct and interrelated lives under the respective names, Malcolm Little, Malcolm X and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Any honest attempt to understand the total man must begin with some understanding of the significant components that went into his making. The racist society that produced and killed Malcolm X is responsible for what he was and for destroying what he could have been. He had the greatest leadership potential of any person to emerge directly from the black proletariat in this country. In another time under different circumstances he might have been a King—and a good one. He might have made a nation and he might have destroyed one.

In the introduction to this autobiography, M. S. Handler has said: "No man in our time aroused fear and hatred in the white man as did Malcolm, because in him the white man sensed an implacable foe who could not be had for any price—a man unreservedly committed to the cause of liberating the black man in American society rather than integrating the black man into that society." Malcolm X put American society on the defensive by questioning its intentions toward his people and by proving those intentions to be false. This is an act of manhood, and it is the basis for most of the trouble that Malcolm had in this country in his lifetime.

It has been said, correctly, that The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a book about the nature of religious conversion. The book is more precisely about a man in search of a definition of himself and his relationships to his people, his country and the world. Malcolm X knew, before he could explain it to himself and others, that he was living in a society that was engaged in the systematized destruction of his people's self-respect. His first memories are about his father and his attempts to maintain himself and his family while bigoted white policemen, Ku Klux Klansmen and Black Legionnaires were determined to teach him to stay in "his place." The father of Malcolm X was killed while fighting against the restricted place that has been assigned to his people in this country. Malcolm X continued the same fight and was killed for the same reason.

His mother was born as a result of her mother being raped by a white man in the West Indies. When he was four, the house where he and his family lived was burned down by members of the Ku Klux Klan. When he was six his father met a violent death that his family always believed was a lynching.

After the death of his father, who was a follower of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, his family was broken up and for a number of years he lived in state institutions and boarding houses. When he finally went to school he made good marks, but lost interest and was a dropout at the age of fifteen. He went to live with his sister in Boston, and worked at the kinds of jobs available to Negro youth—mainly the jobs not wanted by white people, like: shoe-shine boy, soda jerk, hotel bus boy, member of a dining-car crew on trains traveling to New York, and waiter in a Harlem night club. From these jobs he found his way into the underworld and thought, at the time, that his position in life was advancing. In the jungle of the underworld, where the fiercest survive by fleecing the weak and the defenseless, he became a master manipulator, skilled in gambling, the selling of drugs, burglary and hustling. A friend who had helped him get his first job gave him the rationale for his actions. "The main thing you have to remember," he was told, "is that everything in the world is a hustle."

Malcolm returned to Boston, where he was later arrested for burglary and sentenced to ten years in prison. The year was 1946 and he was not quite 21 years old. Prison was another school for Malcolm. He now had time to think and plan. Out of this thinking he underwent a conversion that literally transformed his whole life. By letters and visits from his family he was introduced to the Black Muslim Movement (which calls itself officially The Lost-Found Nation of Islam).

He tested himself in the discipline of his newly chosen religion by refusing to eat pork. The event startled his fellow inmates, who had nicknamed him Satan. He describes the occasion in this manner:

It was the funniest thing—the reaction, and the way that it spread. In prison, where so little breaks the monotonous routine, the smallest thing causes a commotion of talk. It was being mentioned all over the cell block by night that Satan didn't eat pork.

Later I would learn, when I had read and studied Islam a good deal, that, unconsciously, my first pre-Islamic submission had been manifested. I had experienced, for the first time, the Muslim teaching, "If you take one step toward Allah—Allah will take two steps toward you."… My brothers and sisters in Detroit and Chicago had all become converted to what they were being taught was the "natural religion for the black man."

His description of his process of self-education in prison is an indictment of the American educational system and a tribute to his perseverance in obtaining an education after being poorly prepared in the public schools.

While in prison he devised his own method of self-education and learned how to speak and debate effectively so that he could participate in and defend the movement after his release from prison. He started by copying words from the dictionary that might be helpful to him, beginning with "A." He went through to "Z," and then he writes, "for the first time, I could pick up a book and actually understand what the book was saying."

This aspect of his story calls attention to the tremendous reservoirs of talent, and even genius, locked up in the black ghettos among the masses. It also indicates what can be accomplished when the talent of this oppressed group is respected and given hope and a purpose.

Within a few years he was to become a debater with a national reputation. He took on politicians, college professors, journalists, and anyone black or white who had the nerve to meet him. He was respected by some and feared by others.

Malcolm was released from prison in 1952, when he was twenty-seven years old. For a few weeks he took a job with his oldest brother, Wilfred, as a furniture salesman in Detroit. He went to Chicago before the end of that year to hear and meet the leader of the Nation of Islam—Elijah Muhammad. He was accepted into the movement and given the name of Malcolm X. He went back to Detroit and was made assistant minister of the Detroit Mosque. From this point on his rise in the movement and in the eyes of the public was rapid.

At the end of 1953 he went to Chicago to live with the leader of the Nation of Islam and be trained by him personally. After organizing a mosque in Philadelphia, he was sent to head the movement in Harlem in 1954 before he was thirty years old. In a few years he was able to transform the Black Muslim Movement into a national organization and himself into one of the country's best known personalities. As the public spokesman and defender of the movement, he literally put it on the map. This was the beginning of his trouble with his leader, Elijah Muhammad. When the public thought of the Black Muslim Movement they thought first of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X had appeal far beyond the movement. He was one of the most frequent speakers on the nation's campuses and the object of admiration by thousands of militant youth.

In his pamphlet, "Malcolm X—The Man and His Ideas," George Breitman gives the following description of Malcolm's appeal as a speaker:

His speaking style was unique—plain, direct like an arrow, devoid of flowery trimming. He used metaphors and figures of speech that were lean and simple, rooted in the ordinary, daily experience of his audiences…. Despite an extraordinary ability to move and arouse his listeners, his main appeal was to reason, not emotion…. I want only to convey the idea that rarely has there been a man in America better able to communicate ideas to the most oppressed people; and that was not just a matter of technique, which can be learned and applied in any situation by almost anybody, but that it was a rare case of a man in closest communion with the oppressed, able to speak to them, because he identified himself with them.

At the Grass Roots Conference in Detroit in November 1963 Malcolm X made his last important speech as a Muslim. In this speech he took a revolutionary position in the civil rights struggle—speaking mainly for himself and not for the leader he always referred to as The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. This speech showed clearly that Malcolm X had outgrown the narrow stage of the Black Muslim Movement.

He devotes a chapter in his book to the growth of his disenchantment and his eventual suspension from the Black Muslim Movement. He says: "I had helped Mr. Muhammad and his ministers to revolutionize the American black man's thinking, opening his eyes until he would never again look in the same fearful way at the white man…. If I harbored any personal disappointment whatsoever, it was that privately I was convinced that our Nation of Islam could be an even greater force in the American black man's overall struggle—if we engaged in more action. By that mean I thought privately that we should have amended, or relaxed, our general non-engagement policy. I felt that, wherever black people committed themselves, in the Little Rocks and the Birminghams and other places, militantly disciplined Muslims should also be there—for all the world to see, and respect and discuss."

The split with Elijah Muhammad finally came, as it was expected, and over a matter that seemed rather trivial. The occasion for the split was a remark by Malcolm after the death of President Kennedy in November 1963.

During the last phase of his life Malcolm X established Muslim Mosque, Inc., and a non-religious organization—The Organization of Afro-American Unity, patterned after the Organization of African Unity. He attempted to internationalize the civil rights fight by taking it to the United Nations. In several trips to Africa and one to Mecca, he sought the counsel and support of African and Asian heads of state.

In the Epilogue to this book Alex Haley has written a concise account of the last days of Malcolm X. The book, revealing as it is, reads like the first draft of what could have been the most exciting autobiography of our time. It is unfortunate that Malcolm X did not live long enough to do the necessary editing and pruning that this book needed. We have no way of knowing what liberties Alex Haley took, if any, while editing the manuscript after the assassination of Malcolm X on Sunday, February 21, 1965.

That a man who had inhabited the "lower depth" of life could rise in triumph as a reproach to its ills, and become an uncompromising champion of his people, is in itself a remarkable feat. Malcolm X went beyond this feat. Though he came from the American ghetto and directed his message to the people in the American ghetto first of all, he also became, in his brief lifetime, a figure of world importance. He died on the threshold of his potential. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written hurriedly near the end of his life, is a clear indication of what this potential could have been.

Principal Works

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X [with Alex Haley] (autobiography) 1965
Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements (speeches) 1965
Malcolm X on Afro-American History (speeches) 1967
The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard (speeches) 1968
Malcolm X and the Negro Revolution: The Speeches of Malcolm X (speeches) 1969
Malcolm X Talks to Young People (speeches) 1969
The Speeches of Malcolm X (speeches) 1969
By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and a Letter by Malcolm X (speeches, interviews, and a letter) 1970
The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches by Malcolm X (speeches) 1971
Malcolm X: The Last Speeches (speeches) 1989

John Illo (essay date Spring 1966)

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SOURCE: "The Rhetoric of Malcolm X," in Columbia University Forum, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring, 1966, pp. 5-12.

[In the following essay, Illo analyzes and applauds Malcolm X's skill as an orator.]

In a nation of images without substances, of rehearsed emotions, in a politic of consensus where platitude replaces belief or belief is fashioned by consensus, genuine rhetoric, like authentic prose, must be rare. For rhetoric, like any verbal art, is correlative with the pristine idea of reason and justice which, if it decays with the growth of every state and jurisprudence, now has developed into an unreason that aggressively claims the allegiance of the national mind.

Jurisprudence is the prudent justification of an absurd society, of institutionalized inequity and internal contradiction. Law, and juridical logic, and grammar conspire to frustrate the original idea of a just and good society, in which all men may freely become the best that they may be. Rhetoric, like the Shelleyan poetic, returns us to primal intelligence, to the golden idea and the godly nature whose mirror is unspoiled reason. The critical and reformist function of rhetoric, apparent in processes like irony and paradox, is perceptible in the whole range of tropes and syntactic and tonal devices. Repetitions and transposals of syntax recall the emphases of nature, before civil logic; and metaphor recalls the true relations, resemblances, predications, that we have been trained to forget. Love is not a fixation but a fire, for it consumes and cleanses; and man is not a rational animal so essentially as he is dust and breath, crumbling, evanescent, and mysterious because moved invisibly.

To use schemes, figures, tropes, in a plan or plot that corresponds with the broad proceeding of the juridically logical mind, is to make an oration. Within the grammatical frame of his society, the orator, using the language of primordial reason and symbol, restores to his audience the ideas that have been obscured by imposed categories that may correspond to institution but not to reality. Rhetoric, Aristotle taught, is analogous to logic because enthymeme is related to syllogism; but, more significantly, rhetoric is related to logic as logic is related to reality. And rhetoric is also related to poetry, as Cicero observed, his prosaic Roman mind reducing poetry to ornamented language, as the lyric mind of Plato had reduced rhetoric to "cookery." Cicero and Aristotle were each half right. Rhetoric is in fact poeticized logic, logic revised by the creative and critical imagination recalling original ideas. Rhetoric, the art that could grow only in a polis and a system of judicature, is the art that restores the primitive value of the mystical word and the human voice. With a matured craft and a legalist's acuteness, orators contrive the free language of childlike reason, innocently reproving the unnatural and perverse, which institution, custom, law, and policy ask us to accept as the way of the world.

And so great orators, when great, have spoken for absolute justice and reason as they perceived it, in defiance of their governments or societies, accusing tyrants, protesting vicious state policies that seduced the general will, execrating the deformation of popular morality. We think of an Isaiah prophesying against the corruption of ancestral religion, of a Demosthenes against Philip, a Cicero against Antony, a Burke against a colonial war, a Garrison against slavery. At the summit of their art they recalled the language of primal intelligence and passion in defense of elemental truth; and their symbols and transposed syntax, though deliberated, were no more spurious or obtrusive than in poetry. But unlike the pure poet, the orator always holds near enough to the juridical logic, grammar, and semantic of the institution to be able to attack the institution. He never yields his reformist responsibility for the private vision that may be illusive, and may be incommunicable. The orator unlinks the mind-forged manacles, but refashions them into an armor for the innocent intelligence, the naked right.

Lesser oratory, venal, hypocritical, in defense of the indefensible, is patently factitious, its free language a cosmetic, a youthful roseate complexion arranged on an old, shrewd and degenerated visage, as in the forced prosopopoeias of Cicero appealing for a criminal Milo, or in the tediously predictable alliterated triads of Everett McKinley Dirksen. Bad morals usually produce bad rhetoric, and such is the dureful weight of institutions and their parties that rhetoric had been pejorated, generally, into bad rhetoric. Even Henry Steele Commager can regard oratory like Senator Long's as "eloquent but shameless." attributes ideally exclusive. The swelling anaphoras of a Southern Congressman are not eloquent but ludicrous, raising irrepressible images of toads and swine. Little else but bad rhetoric is possible to those within the establishment, so far from original reason, so committed to the apologetics of unreason. And those outside are conditioned by established styles, or are graceless, or are misdirected in eccentric contrariety. The poetry of Bob Dylan veers in its metaphoric texture between the more lyrical ads and the Daily News editorials; the new left sniffles and stumbles into the unwitting anacolutha of uh and you-know; the old left tends to rant and cant, persuasive only to the persuaded. There are clear teachers like Allen Krebs and Staughton Lynd, but as good teachers they are probably not orators.

The achievement of Malcolm X, then, though inevitable, seems marvelous. Someone had to rise and speak the fearful reality, to throw the light of reason into the hallucinatory world of the capitalist and biracial society that thinks itself egalitarian, that thinks itself humanitarian and pacific. But it was unexpected that the speaking should be done with such power and precision by a russet-haired field Negro translated from conventional thief to zealot and at the end nearly to Marxist and humanist.

For the rhetoric of the American black outsider in this age has seldom been promising; this is not the century of Toussaint L'Ouverture or the nation of Frederick Douglass. The charismatic strength of Father Divine, or of Elijah Muhammad, did not derive from rhetoric. The language of one was hypnotically abstruse, if not perfectly unintelligible, related not to oratory or to religion but to New Thought. The oratory of the other is diffuse and halting, unornamented, solecistic, provincial, its development over-deliberate, its elocution low-keyed though rising to an affecting earnestness. Robert Williams has force but not majesty or art. Men like James Baldwin and Le Roi Jones are primarily writers, and each is deficient in the verbal and vocal size and action required in oratory, which is neither writing nor talking. The young Negro radicals are beyond criticism, the gloomy product not so much of the ghetto as of TV and the American high school. The Nobel Laureate and the Harlem Congressman have different oratorical talents, but neither is an outsider.

The rhetoric of Malcolm X was in the perennial traditions of the art, but appropriate to his audiences and purpose—perennial because appropriate. A Harlem rally is not the Senate of the Roman Republic, but Cicero would have approved Malcolm's discourses as accommodates, aptus, congruens, suitable to his circumstances and subject. His exordia were properly brief, familiar, sometimes acidly realistic ("… brothers and sisters, friends and enemies: I just can't believe everyone in here is a friend and I don't want to leave anybody out."), and he moved to his proposition within the first minute, for his audience needed relevant ideas and theses, not dignity and amplitude. His perorations were similarly succinct, sometimes entirely absorbed into the confirmations. His personal apologiae, negative or self-depreciatory, contrary to those of a Cicero or a Burke, assured his hearers that he was on the outside, like them: "I'm not a politician, not even a student of politics; in fact. I'm not a student of much of anything. I'm not a Democrat, I'm not a Republican, and I don't even consider myself an American," an ironic gradation or augmentative climax that was, in the world of Malcolm and his people, really a kind of declination or reversed climax.

His narration and confirmation were densely analytical, but perspicuous because of their familiar diction and analogies, and their catechetical repetitions: "And to show you what his [Tshombe's] thinking is—a hired killer—what's the first thing he did? He hired more killers. He went out and got the mercenaries from South Africa. And what is a mercenary? A hired killer. That's all a mercenary is. The anti-Castro Cuban pilots, what are they? Mercenaries, hired killers. Who hired them? The United States. Who hired the killers from South Africa? The United States; they just used Tshombe to do it."

Instruction was the usual purpose of Malcolm's oratory; he was primarily a teacher, his oratory of the demonstrative kind, and his speeches filled with significant matter. It was the substantive fullness and penetration, the honesty and closeness to reality of Malcolm's matter that imparted much of the force to his oratory.

A representative political speech in the United States is empty of content. What did President Kennedy's Inaugural Address contain that a commencement address does not? Indeed, the Inaugural displayed the meaningless chiasmus, the fatuous or sentimental metaphor, the callow hyperbaton of a valedictory. President Johnson's speeches on foreign affairs vitiate reason and intelligence as his foreign policy violates international morality: temporarily not to attack a neutral nation is a positive beneficence that should evoke gratitude and concessions, and one is ready to negotiate with any party under any conditions except the party and conditions that are relevant. But such is the tradition of vacant and meaningless political oratory in America, and such the profusion of the universally accepted and discredited rhetoric of advertising, that the public nods and acquiesces, not believes. We expect truth and substance not in open oration, but in secret conference or in caucus, "on the inside"—where we can't hear it. We assume that rhetoric is a futile and deceptive or self-deceived art, because rhetoric should persuade through rational conviction, but business and government are ruled by power and interest. And perhaps Congressional or party oratory is a facade, the votes having been decided not by analogies and metonymies but by the Dow-Jones averages.

Yet the people, closer to reason than their legislators, may still be moved by rhetoric, and popular oratory may still be a political force. We wonder how a crowd in Havana can listen to the Premier for three hours. A revolution needs people, and to explain a revolution needs time, and three hours is little enough. To explain a self-maintaining American polity and economy while evading its real problems needs very little time, and three hours of Hubert Humphrey would be unconscionable.

Malcolm's speeches, if not so complex, not so informed or copious as those of an accomplished revolutionary, were not vacuous. The man whose secondary education began painstakingly and privately in the Norfolk Prison Colony was able to analyze for his people their immediate burden, its maintenance in a system of domestic power and its relation to colonialism, more acutely than the white and black Ph.D's with whom he debated. A man about whose life it is difficult not to sentimentalize was seldom sentimental in his oratory, and though he simplified he did not platitudinize.

Malcolm's simplifications, sometimes dangerous, though commonplace in popular oratory and less sophistic than those in establishment rhetoric, derived from the simplicity of his central message: that colored people have been oppressed by white people whenever white people have been able to oppress them, that because immediate justice is not likely ("Give it to us yesterday, and that's not fast enough"), the safest thing for all is to separate, that the liberty to "sit down next to white folks—on the toilet" is not adequate recompense for the past 400 years. Like Robert Owen or John Brown or William Lloyd Garrison, Malcolm spent the good years of his life asserting one idea and its myriad implications and its involved strategies in a society in which the black is often a noncitizen even de jure. And because what he said was as intelligible and obvious as a lynching, his rhetorical content was not embarrassed by the tergiversations, the sophisms, the labored evasions, the empty grandiloquence of American political oratory.

The American press attributed the preaching of violence to a man who was no political activist, who moved in the arena of words and ideas, and who usually described a condition of violence rather than urged a justifiably violent response. The obtuse New York Times obituary editorial was representative. At worst, Malcolm X, like St. Alphonsus Liguori, taught the ethic of self-defense. Méchant animal! The weakness of Malcolm, in fact, and of Elijah Muhammad, is that they were not activists; unlike Martin Luther King, neither had a "movement," for neither went anywhere. Malcolm's success in enlarging the Nation of Islam from 400 to 40,000 and in drawing "well-wishers" by the hundreds of thousands was from the ideas and the words, not from an appeal to action, and not from an appeal to license: the call to moral responsibility and the perpetual Lent of the Muslims repelled most Negroes as it would repel most whites.

But Malcolm's essential content was so simple and elemental, his arguments, like Thoreau's, so unanswerable, that the American press, even when not covertly racist, could not understand him, accustomed as it is to the settled contradictions of civil logic in a biracial country.

What answer is there to the accusations that in a large part of America, a century after the 14th Amendment, some kinds of murderers cannot be punished by law, that the law is the murderer? Is it an answer that we must tolerate injustice so that we may enjoy justice? Condemning such deformed logic, and adhering to obvious moral truths, Malcolm, like the Bogalusa Deacons, had little difficulty in understanding and explaining to his audiences the Thomistic conception of law better than the Attorney General of the United States understands it. Malcolm was always disconcerted when the powers that be and their exponents refused to recognize the legality of humanity. His strongest vocal emphases were on words like law and right: "They don't use law," he exclaimed of the Central Congolese Government, which was directed by outside interests, and the lawfulness of the Eastern Government was more valid, he thought, because it was of its own people.

Justice and equity and emancipation, not violence, not hatred, not retribution, and not the theology of the Muslims were the central matter of Malcolm's oratory, though that theology was useful as a repudiation of American white Christianity. He had entered the stream of sane and moral social teaching before his parting from Elijah Muhammad, and was deepening his knowledge and expression of it at the moment of the death he expected each day.

If his theses were terrible, it was because they were asserted without compromise or palliation, and because the institutional reality they challenged was terrible. How else to indicate reality and truth if not by direct challenge? Indirection is not workable, for the state has stolen irony; satire is futile, its only resource to repeat the language of the Administration. To say that the American tradition beckons us onward to the work of peace in Vietnam, or that they who reject peace overtures are great servants of peace, is to speak not ironically but authoritatively. The critical efficacy even of absurd literature is threatened by real reductions toward the absurd and beyond, and when usable, absurd statement cannot be at once terse, clear, complex, and unequivocal. The only useful attack is directness, which, opposed to outrage, is outraged and, to apologists of outrage, outrageous.

Malcolm's challenge soon implied anticolonialism, in which was implied anticapitalism. Not a doctrinal Marxist when he died, Malcolm had begun to learn a relation between racism and capitalism during his first African journey, and a relation between socialism and national liberation. Rising above the ethical limitations of many civil rights leaders, he rejected a black symbiosis in the warfare state. The black housewife may collect Green Stamps or dividends, the black paterfamilias may possess an Impala and a hi-fi, the black student an unimpeachable graduate degree and a professorship, but what moral black or white could be happy in the world of color TV and Metrecal and napalm? If a rising Negro class could be contented by such hopes and acquirements, if it yearned for the glittering felicities of the American dream, for the Eden of Life and Ebony. Malcolm had finer longings, and so his following was small: his vision was more intense, more forbidding than that of King or Wilkins or Farmer. They preached integrated Americanism; Malcolm taught separation for goodness, the co-existence of morally contrary cultures in a geographic unit, in "America."

Because the black had been always alien in America, had been always taught to hate himself in America ("We hated our heads … the shape of our nose … the color of our skin…."), he now had the freedom to despise, not embrace, a society that had grown alien to humanity, and whose profound alienation had been intimated for the black first in slavery, then in racism. Separation promised not the means to make a black image of Beverly Hills or Westchester, but the liberty to build a new Jerusalem. How might such an evangel be grasped by a social worker or a Baptist minister?

Malcolm's earlier expressions of racism, sometimes augmented or distorted in the misreporting, were a means or an error that receded after his Islamic-African pilgrimage, qualified into renouncement. Their white counterparts have been the political hardware of thousands of local American statesmen and scores of United States Congressmen, and how many have not outgrown them, are legislators because of them? An American President can admit to prior racism with little embarrassment, with becoming repentance.

It is the growth and maturing that matter, and Malcolm's ideological journey, truncated after beginning late, was leftward, enlightened, and opening toward humanitarianism and unsentimental fraternalism, contrary to that of some British lords and some Yale graduates, contrary to that of the young American Marxists of the 1930s, now darkening into polarized anticommunism. There were no saner, more honest and perspicuous analyses of the racial problem than Malcolm's last speeches and statements, beside which the pronouncements of most administrations and civic officials are calculated nonsense. Only from the outside can some truths be told.

In the rhetoric of Malcolm X, as in all genuine rhetoric, figures correspond to the critical imagination restoring the original idea and to the conscience protesting the desecration of the idea. Tropes and schemes of syntax are departures from literal meaning, abusiones, "abuses" of a grammar and semantic that have themselves grown into abuses of original reason. As Shelley saw, the abusion, or trope, like revolutionism, destroys conventional definitions to restore original wholeness and reality. Rhetoric, like revolution, is "a way of redefining reality."

The frequent repetitions in Malcolm X's rhetoric, like those of Cicero or St. Paul, are communications of the passion that is not satisfied by single statement, but that beats through the pulses. Good rhetorical repetition is viscerally didactic.

But it is an especially dangerous device, its potential of fraudulence proportionate to its elemental power to persuade. It may reinforce truths, it may add stones to build great lies. The anaphoras of Administration rhetoric lead successive clauses each further from reality. Abstractions in repetitions, like the "peace" and "freedom" of the Presidential addresses, are usually doubtful, because ambiguous and inaccessible to testing. War may very well be peace, and slavery freedom, if the predications are repeated often enough.

The substantives and verbs in Malcolm's repetitions were usually concrete, exposing themselves to empirical judgment:

As long as the white man sent you to Korea, you bled. He sent you to Germany, you bled. He sent you to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese, you bled. You bleed for white people, but when it comes to seeing your own church being bombed and little black girls murdered, you haven't got any blood. You bleed when the white man says bleed; you bite when the white man says bite; and you bark when the white man says bark.

Malcolm here began with epistrophe for reinforcement of a repeated reality, combined it with anaphora to shift focus to "the man," moved to epanastrophe in the third and fourth sentences, in which "the man" and the black man share the repeating emphasis, and to epanadiplosis in the fourth for a doubled emphasis on bleed, while a tolling alliteration of labials and liquids instructs the outer ear, while asyndeton accelerates a tautness and indignation, and while the fullness of emotion evokes a pathetic-sardonic syllepsis or blood.

His rhetorical questions and percunctations with repetition, here anaphora and epistrophe, have the urgency of a Massillon convincing a noble audience of the probability of their damnation:

Why should white people be running all the stores in our community? Why should white people be running the banks of our community? Why should the economy of our community be in the hands of the white man? Why?

The orator may redirect as well as repeat his syntactic units. Malcolm used chiasmus, or crossing of antithetic sets, not deceptively, not to confound realities, but to explore the calculated fantasies of the American press, to untangle the crossing of image and reality:

… you end up hating your friends and loving your enemies … The press is so powerful in its image-making role, it can make a criminal look like he's the victim and make the victim look like he's the criminal…. If you aren't careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.

Malcolm was attracted to chiasmus as an economy in dialectic. In the Oxford Union Society debate of December 1964, he explicated and defended Senator Goldwater's chiasmus of extremism and moderation, converting the memorable assault upon radical reform into an apology for black militancy.

As the strict clausal scheme may be varied to represent emotional thought, strict demonstration may be relieved by paradox and analogy. Paradox, here climactic and with repetitions, writes itself into any narrative of American Negro history since 1863.

How can you thank a man for giving you what's already yours? How then can you thank him for giving you only part of what's already yours?

With an analogy Malcolm dismissed Roy Wilkins' quaver that though the black may be a second-class American, he is yet an American, with his little part of the affluent dream:

I'm not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn't make you a diner, unless you eat some of what's on that plate. Being here in America doesn't make you an American. Being born here in America doesn't make you an American.

We see a black man with half the income of a white, and think of other hungers, and the analogy works as symbol and image, like Bacon's winding stair to great place or Demosthenes' Athenian boxer defending himself from multiple blows.

Metaphor and metonymy are the symbolic image condensed and made freer from customary logic than the more explicit analogy. Like repetitions and analogies they may be recognizably fraudulent, for symbolic language is not dissociated from truth. We must know or imagine the referent before we can judge and be moved by the symbol. When an American President now says, "The door of peace must be kept wide open for all who wish to avoid the scourge of war, but the door of aggression must be closed and bolted if man himself is to survive," he is disquieting tame, weary metaphors, long since grown insipid and moribund, into a defiance of meaning, and the very antithesis emphasizes the inanity of the ghostwritten rhetoric in a linguistic culture that has not finally adopted Newspeak. If the figures are initially suspect because of the designed, limitless ambiguity and abstract-ness of the referents, they are contemptible when related to the realities they profess to clarify. Such metaphor is not the discovery of truth but its concealment. "When I can't talk sense," said the eighteenth-century Irish orator, John Curran, "I talk metaphor."

The metaphors of Malcolm X, sometimes ethnically conventional, sometimes original, sometimes inevitable ("I don't see an American dream. I see an American nightmare."), were rarely ambiguous in the abstract member, and were often concrete in both, lending themselves to the touch of common experience. They were infrequent, less frequent than in the elevated tradition of Pitt and Burke and Webster. Malcolm's oratory resembled rather that of the self-educated reformer Cobden in its simple, unornamented vigor, in its reduction to essential questions, in its analytic directness and clarity. In Malcolm's oratory as in Cobden's, metaphor was exceptional in a pattern of exposition by argumentation in abstract and literal diction.

And because Malcolm wished to demonstrate rather than suggest, he preferred the more fully ratiocinative structure, the analogy, to the more condensed and poetic metaphor: he had wished to be not a poet but a lawyer when his elementary school English teacher advised him to turn to carpentry. So also, Malcolm composed in the larger grammatical unit, the paragraph, which corresponds to analogy, rather than in the sentence, which corresponds to metaphor. In answering questions he often prefaced his extended expositions with the request not for one more word or one more sentence, but for "one more paragraph"—and a paragraph indeed was what he usually produced, extemporaneous and complete with counterthesis, thesis, development, synthesis and summary.

The metaphors and metonymies, restricted in number, often suggested truth, like the analogies, by fusing image and symbol, as in poetry: Blake's little black thing amid the snow is sensuously and spiritually black, the snow sensuously and spiritually white. Malcolm used the same deliberate indetermination of perception in the image by which he characterized white immigrants in America:

Everything that came out of Europe, every blue-eyed thing is already an American.

Synecdoche and tmesis combine to refocus on generic essentials for a black audience.

In quick answer to an immoderating Stan Bernard and an uncivil Gordon Hall and trying to defend the thesis that the Muslims were a force in the Negro movement though numerically insignificant, Malcolm compared them with the Mau Mau, then condensed an implicit analogy to a metaphor and, with characteristically temerarious simplification, expanded and explicated the metaphor into analogy:

The Mau Mau was also a minority, a microscopic minority, but it was the Mau Mau who not only brought independence to Kenya, but—… but it brought it—that wick. The powder keg is always larger than the wick…. It's the wick that you touch that sets the powder off.

By a folk metonymy in one pronoun, more convincing than the usual rhetorical patriotic genealogies, Malcolm enlarged to their real dimension the time and space of the Negro's misfortune:

many of us probably passed through [Zanzibar] on our way to America 400 years ago.

The identification of Malcolm with his audience, not merely through the plural pronoun, was so thorough that he effected the desired harmony or union in which the speaker can disregard his audience as an object and speak his own passion and reason, when between himself and his hearers there is no spiritual division. The great orator does not play upon his audience as upon a musical instrument; his verbal structures are artful but urged from within.

Malcolm's composition and elocution were remarkable in their assimilative variety. Before the mixed or white audiences, as at college forums, the composition was more abstract and literal, austerely figured, grammatically pure, and the elocution sharper, somewhat rapid and high-pitched, near his speaking voice, enunciated precisely but not mimetic or over-articulated. Before the great black audiences Malcolm adopted a tone and ornament that were his and his audience's but that he relinquished before the white or the academic. The composition of the black speeches was rich in ethnic figuration and humor, in paronomasia, alliteration, and rhyme (the novocained patient, blood running down his jaw, suffers "peacefully"; if you are a true revolutionary "You don't do any singing, you're too busy swinging"; the Negroes who crave acceptance in white America "aren't asking for any nation—they're trying to crawl back on the plantation.") The elocution of this, Malcolm's grand style, was deeper, slower, falling into a tonal weighting and meiosis, wider in its range of pitch, dynamics, emphasis.

Always exhibiting a force of moral reason, never hectic or mainly emotional, Malcolm changed from homo afer to homo europaeus as the ambience and occasion required. In the mosques he employed the heavy vocal power of impassioned Negro discourse; in academic dialogue and rebuttal his voice sometimes resembled that of Adlai Stevenson in its east-north-central nasality, and in its hurried, thoughtful pauses, its wry humor, its rational rather than emotional emphases.

It is understandable that he was correct, intelligible, lucid, rational, for few public orators in our time have been as free as Malcolm from the need to betray their own intelligence. John Kennedy, who in January pledged a quest for peace and a revulsion from colonialism, in one week of the following April repudiated the Cuban invasion he was then assisting, in another week of the same April pugnaciously justified the intervention, and, having been rebuked by reality, reproached reality with a dialectic from the Mad Tea-Party. His audience was appropriate: American newspaper editors. Later, waving a flag in the Orange Bowl, he would promise the émigré landlords warfare and their restored rents with melodramatic and puerile metonymy. Adlai Stevenson, who twice had talked sense to the American people, denied his government's aggression in Cuba with juridical solemnity, with the noble anaphoras, the poignant metaphors, the sensitive ironies of the campaign speeches, and, fatally drawn to display expertise, derisively censured the oratory of Raul Roa. His indignant exposure of revolutionaries was submerged in the laughter of the black galleries of the world; he indulged himself, during the Congo debates, in the pointless metonymies of Independence Day addresses; and his recurrent denunciations of colonialism were freaks of unintended irony.

"Who would not weep, if Atticus were he?"

Malcolm, more fortunate than these, was not ordained by history to be the spokesman or the apologist of violence and unthinkable power, and so was not forced to violate reason. In his last years he was in the great tradition of rational and moral speech, consanguineous with Isaiah, with Demosthenes and Cicero, with Paine and Henry, Lincoln and Douglass, as they were allied to the primitive idea of goodness. He was not an emotionalist or a demagogue, but an orator who combined familiarity with passion, with compelling ideas and analytic clarity, and with sober force of utterance, and with a sense, now usually deficient except when depraved, of rhetoric as an art and a genre.

His feeling for the art was probably the benefit of his old-fashioned verbal and literary education in prison. As the rhetoric of Frederick Douglass, then a young slave, originated in his readings of Sheridan's oratory, so Malcolm's alma mater, he said, was "books." The methodical long-hand copying of thousands of logical definitions, his nightly labor with the dictionary in prison, left an impress of precision in diction and syntax, later tested and hardened in hostile debate. As he learned the science and the habits of grammar, Malcolm learned the unfamiliar subtleties of the art of rhetoric within a few years. As late as 1961 he prevailed in debate more by conviction than by linguistic accuracy, and the solecisms were embarrassing to his literate admirers and probably to himself, as were the parochial pronunciations, atavistic traces of which could be heard very rarely in the last year ("influence"). But this sense of rhetoric derived also from his perception of the ideas that antedate rhetoric and that inform all moral language. His teaching, because elemental and unsophisticated in its morality, was more sane, more philosophic than the wisdom of many an academician who, detached from the facts of human pain, has the institutionalized intelligence to devise a morality to fit his institution, who can make policy his morality: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., can regard the genocidal war in Vietnam as "an experiment,… something you have to try."

In his maturity, Malcolm was always aware of the centrally ethical and honest enough not to elude it, and so he soon outgrew what was doctrinally grotesque in the Nation of Islam (what native American religious movement is without such grotesqueness?). But he retained the religious commitment and the wholesome ascesis of the Muslims, and thus was helped in the exhausting work of the last years, the weeks of eighteen-hour days. A mixed seed fell in good soil.

He emerged from dope, prostitution, burglary, prison, and a fanciful sectarianism to enter a perennial humanist art, to achieve a brilliant facility in oratory and debate, in less time than many of us consume in ambling through graduate school. His developing accomplishment in the last year was, as a New York Times reporter exclaimed but could not write, "incredible." The Oxford Union Society, venerable, perceptive, and disinterested because unAmerican, adjudged him among the best of living orators after his debate three months before his death, a pleasant triumph ignored by the American press. Though he may be diluted, or obliterated, or forgotten by the established civil rights movement, which is built into the consensus, Malcolm was for all time an artist and thinker. In the full Aristotelean meaning he was a rhetorician, who, to be such, knew more than rhetoric: ethics, logic, grammar, psychology, law, history, politics; and his best speeches might be texts for students of that comprehensive science and art.

His controlled art, his tone of pride without arrogance, have followers if not a school, in his own Muslim Mosque and among the Nation of Islam, audible in the rational and disdainful replies of Norman 3X in the murder trial. But Malcolm is distinct rhetorically from his admirers among the surly school of Negro speakers, the oratorical equivalent of Liberator, who have little to offer their mixed auditory but insolence and commonplaces in broken and frenetic, in monotonous or ill-accented language. And he was remote from the misanthropic and negativist among the alienated. Malcolm, a religionist, could not be "bitter," or descend to scatology in expressing moral outrage. The laughter or chuckling, in his several oratorical styles, was, in motive and in sound, not embittered, or malicious, or frustrated, but apodictic; it was the laughter of assured rectitude, and amusement at the radical unreason of the opposition. For not he but the established structures were the opposition, dissentient to godly reason and justice, which were the authority for his teaching. Hearing Malcolm was an experience not morbid or frightening, but joyous, as Mark Van Doren said of reading Hamlet. Though the drama and the man were tragic, in each the confident and varied movement of language and moral ideas told us something superb about our humanity. Malcolm combined magnificence and ethnic familiarity to demonstrate what he asserted: the potential majesty of the black man even in America, a majesty idiosyncratic but related to all human greatness. And so his last ten years tell us that a man can be more fully human serving a belief, even if to serve it requires that he borrow from the society that his service and belief affront. If he and his people illustrate that the grand primal ideas and their grand expression can be spoiled for men by institutions, the whole work and life of Malcolm X declare that the good man. If he has the soul to resist the state and its courts and senates, can restore the ideal world of art and justice.

Robert Bone (review date 11 September 1966)

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SOURCE: "A Black Man's Quarrel With the Christian God," in New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1966, pp. 3, 14.

[In the following review, Bone demonstrates the use of Malcolm X's autobiography as a means of understanding the intentions and convictions of the proponents of the concept of "Black Power" in the civil rights movement during the latter half of the 1960s.]

In the month of June, 1966, the Negro protest movement entered a new phase. For the first time, during the so-called "Meredith march" to Jackson, Miss., the younger activists raised the slogan of "Black Power!" In the same month, less than a year after its initial publication, Grove Press brought out a paperback edition of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The two events are linked by more than a coincidence. For Malcolm's book, without a doubt, has had a major impact on the younger generation.

White liberals and Negro leaders alike have joined in condemnation of the new slogan. But before we resign en masse from CORE and S.N.C.C. (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and before we fill the air with charges of "nihilism" and "black nationalism," it behooves us to read, and even to reread Malcolm's book, and especially the last five chapters, which describe the transformation that took place in his mind and heart after his break with Elijah Muhammad and the Black Muslims. We might then better grasp the spirit and intent of these young men, who are in mood and outlook and political perspective nothing other than the heirs of Malcolm X.

The main events of Malcolm's life are by now familiar. His childhood in Michigan was a nightmare, replete with images of violence and misery. His adolescence in Boston, "conked" and zoot-suited, did little more than prepare him for the hustler's life he was to enter when he moved to Harlem. He became a pusher, a procurer, a gunman, and eventually was sentenced to 10 years in prison for armed robbery. There he was converted to the Nation of Islam, and for 12 years he devoted to the Muslim cause his impressive forensic and administrative talents. Not much more than a year before his death, he was "isolated indefinitely" by the Black Muslims. His last months were devoted to a pilgrimage to Mecca, and an attempt to found a splinter group called the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Malcolm's inner history is less widely understood. His life has been from start to finish a challenge and rebuke to historic Christianity. The son of a Baptist minister, he encountered only violence and humiliation from "the good Christian white people" of his native state. He retaliated through a life of crime, which proclaimed louder than words his denial of Christian community and negation of Christian values. It was the Nation of Islam, with its anti-Christian demonology, that rescued Malcolm from criminality and elevated his rebellion to a metaphysical plane. Nor did his rupture with the Black Muslims mitigate his opposition to the Christian faith. On the contrary, it confirmed his alienation by drawing him still closer to Islam.

In the end, it is Malcolm's metaphysical revolt that matters. For around his quarrel with the Christian God clusters a series of explosive issues that are of paramount concern to Negroes of the coming generation. These include the historic relationship of Christianity to white power, the freeing of the black man's mind from the tyranny of white culture and the formation by the American Negro of an adequate self-image—or putting it another way, his conquest of shame.

To all of these issues Malcolm addressed himself with eloquence and passion from the time of his conversion to the Nation of Islam. It is to that curious sect that we must therefore turn in order to discover the sources of his personal power.

The Muslim indictment of historic Christianity might be summarized as follows. The Christian religion is the tribal religion of white Europe. Since the time of the Crusades, the Christian church has instigated, championed, and proclaimed as holy the white man's depredations into Africa. Throughout the centuries, and in every corner of the globe, the church has been the willing instrument of white power. She has been guilty of sanctifying white supremacy, blessing the white man's wars of conquest, and justifying in the name of God slavery and segregation. Without pity or remorse the Christian church has aided and abetted the white man in his criminal designs upon the colored world.

In the consolidation of white power, the church has played a crucial part. The whip and gun, although in ample evidence, remained a last resort. Far handier was the apathy, resignation, or even willing cooperation of the victim in his own enslavement. To secure this acquiescence, the blessings of the white slavemaster's religion were bestowed upon the blacks. They were taught to endure humbly and without complaint the cruelties of the slavemaster, and to look for their reward in Heaven, while the white man enjoyed the products of their labor here on earth.

The permanent effects of this indoctrination are apparent in "the brainwashed black Christian" of the present day. He has been convinced of his inferiority; his manhood has been crushed by an overwhelming sense of shame. And here again, the Muslims claim, it is the church that taught the Negro to hold his blackness in contempt, and to revere the color white.

It is difficult, for example, to believe at the bottom of one's soul that black is beautiful if one has been taught for centuries to worship a blond and blue-eyed God. For if God is man idealized, then the black man who worships a white God is through every act of worship buried deeper in a sense of worthlessness and shame. Rehabilitation, the Muslims have discovered, will require a new sense of self as well as a new concept of God.

All of this, as Malcolm never ceases to affirm, rings true to the potential Muslim convert. It corresponds to his experience, his knowledge of the white world. It comes in a package, to be sure, which also contains a good deal of magic, Puritan fanaticism, ignorance and hate. These extraneous features of the sect, Malcolm came to realize, had limited its growth and obscured its central insight. What if they were cut away? A movement might emerge shorn of racism, separatism, and blind hate, which yet preserved the explosive force and liberating energy of the Muslim myth. This is the direction in which Malcolm X was moving for a year or more before his death.

Hatred, to be sure, does not respond so readily to the imperatives of ideology. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we understand the spiritual transformation that enabled Malcolm to transcend his hate. When he returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca, he announced to the reporters, "In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I never will be guilty of that again—as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man." He then explained that in the Holy World his attitude was changed by virtue of the brotherhood that was extended not only to himself but to all Moslems, of whatever nationality or race.

Malcolm's explanation of his new attitude toward whites ought not to be accepted at face value. The casual encounters, however gratifying, of a visit to a foreign land, do not constitute an adequate basis for a profound personality change. What took place in Malcolm's heart was perhaps confirmed in Mecca, but initiated in Chicago: namely, his betrayal by Elijah Muhammad and expulsion from the Muslim sect. It was this experience that laid the groundwork for his new relations with co-religionists of white complexion.

What is at issue is Malcolm's education in the nature of evil. For 12 years he endorsed a demonology which proclaims that the white man is a devil. On no account is any white man to be trusted; however friendly his behavior, covertly he is plotting your betrayal. When betrayal came, however, it was by a black man and in Malcolm's world, the black man par excellence. Under the impact of this trauma, the simple equation of white with evil had to fall. If a man's moral nature cannot be reliably inferred from the color of his skin, then we must confront what James Baldwin has called the mysteries and conundrums of the human heart.

It was this confrontation, this inner growth, that made possible the next stage in Malcolm's political development. For want of a better term, it might be described as a tactical black nationalism. Toward the end of his life, Malcolm wrote that he now wanted "an all-black organization whose ultimate objective was to help create a society in which there could exist an honest white-black brotherhood."

This is as far from the separatism of the Black Muslims as Malcolm's attitude toward whites is a departure from their racism. In both instances, there remains a healthy skepticism, which places the main responsibility for brotherhood where it belongs: on the whites. The political expression of that skepticism is the transitional demand for black power.

Perhaps, in the light of Malcolm's book, we can better understand the rivalry between the youthful militants of S.N.C.C. and their erstwhile parent organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. For these young men are finished with appeals to Christian conscience; that is the meaning of their new slogan. "Freedom Now!" is addressed to whites; it is a shorthand version of "Give us our freedom now!" But "Black Power!" is addressed to Negroes; it is a call to mobilize their full social weight for the achievement of specific goals. The essence of the shift is psychological. It has nothing to do with black supremacy, but much to do with manhood and self-reliance.

For centuries, the American Negro has felt the weight of white power. Now he proposes to organize a countervailing power with a base among the poorest of the poor. Those whites who are inclined to cry "Foul!" would do well to contemplate the strange career of Malcolm X. For Malcolm's ascent from the lower depths to his final vision of human brotherhood suggests that black power may be after all redemptive; and apostasy, one man's way to heaven.

Further Reading

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Abbott, Philip. "Hustling: Benjamin Franklin. Malcolm X, Abbie Hoffman." States of Perfect Freedom: Autobiography and Political Thought, pp. 27-57. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Asserts that "taken together" the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin, Malcolm X, and Abbie Hoffmann—to whom Abbott refers as "hustlers"—exhibit a particular type of personality and also provide insights into the nature of American politics and society.

Barbour, John D. "Christianity and 'The White Man's Religion.'" Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith, pp. 85-105. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

Compares the autobiographies of early Christian African-American and Native-American writers to the autobiographies of the non-Christian Malcolm X and Lame Deer to illustrate that the latter two writers adapted the earlier writers' strategy of "show[ing] the reader the difference between Christianity and 'the white man's religion,' which is the religious justification of white superiority."

Hareven, Tamara K. "Step-Children of the Dream." History of Education Quarterly IX, No. 4 (Winter 1969): 505-14.

Examines the objectives of African-American autobiographers in a discussion of the works of Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Claude Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, and Anne Moody.

Taylor, Gordon O. "Voices from the Veil: W. E. B. DuBois to Malcolm X." Chapters of Experience: Studies in 20th Century American Autobiography, pp. 41-65. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Considers how in the autobiographical works of such African-American authors as W. E. B. DuBois, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X "narrative consciousness of the personal present is both invaded and informed, threatened and sustained, by a sense of dissolution within the racial past."

Terry, Eugene. "Black Autobiography—Discernible Forms." Okike, No. 19 (September 1981): 6-10.

Posits that there is a similarity between the autobiographical works of "Afro-Americans of as varied experience and vision as Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, and Malcolm X" which is "best explained by the way of life foisted upon blacks since the days of slavery."

"Voices from Black America." Times Literary Supplement, No. 3,613 (28 May 1971): 605-06.

Brief, favorable assessment of By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and A Letter by Malcolm X, which the reviewer asserts "bears the powerful impress of that formidable personality."

Marcus H. Boulware (essay date November 1967)

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SOURCE: "Minister Malcolm Orator Profundo," in Negro History Bulletin, Vol. 30, No. 7, November, 1967, pp. 12-14.

[In the following essay, Boulware delineates Malcolm X's career as an orator and religious and social leader, complimenting his achievements and declaring: "People enjoyed his speaking whether or not they agreed with him, because he made speaking an appealing art."]

The expanding prestige and stature of the Black Muslim movement attracted hundreds of adherents, and many of them were brilliant like the late Malcolm Little whose pseudonym was "Malcolm X." Opponents labelled him protestor, panelist, Muslim minister, and orator profundo. Numerous articles have been written about this dazzling figure who was often identified as a smooth, oily ex-convict. In his early career as a Black Muslim, Malcolm X is worthy of comparison with Plato and Aristotle of the Greeks—though his teachings were somewhat orthodox. It was rumored that Minister Malcolm X was next in line for the office of the Messenger of Allah.

At the acme of his career, Malcolm X, who split with the Black Muslims and launched his own faction, was assassinated speaking from the stage of a Harlem ballroom in mid-afternoon on February 21, 1965. It was reported that his slaying was the outgrowth of revenge by active members of the Black Muslim sect. At the trial in January, 1966, the government claimed three men stationed themselves in the audience, two started a fight to distract attention, while Thomas "15 X" Johnson shot Malcolm in the chest with a sawed-off shot gun. Then the other two men rushed to the stage and fired bullets into the prone body of Malcolm X. Before the perpetrators could escape, one was shot in the leg by an adherent of Malcolm's faction and taken into custody by the police. The other two men were arrested later.

The public remembers the late Minister Malcolm as an eloquent Muslim minister and philosopher whose trail led from a dingy prison cell to the Mount of Olives, while at the same time, he developed himself into an eloquent orator and street-corner spell-binder. People enjoyed his speaking whether or not they agreed with him, because he made speaking an appealing art. His oratorical skill was a favorite with audiences at street corners, but this did not mean that he did not have hostile listeners in his audiences. The orator's vocal style of delivery caught the fancy of numerous "avenue hangbys" who often followed him to his several speaking stations.

Like every human being, Malcolm X made mistakes and often turned his ears away from wisdom's good counsel. His courageous character led him to speak his mind in a vocabulary which the government interpreted as being treason. Unfortunately he was arrested and placed in prison. From then on, his critics never failed to forget his early career as a Harlem hoodlum nor his nickname "Big Red." In defense of himself as a youth, Malcolm X attributed his youthful delinquent habits to white people who made it difficult for a black man to earn honestly a decent living.

During his adolescent years, Malcolm became the product of the forces that molded him belatedly into a Muslim minister of the upper echelon. His life was a paradox that had to be resolved by him alone. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925 but his family moved to Michigan. Because his father was a radical exponent of Marcus Garvey, the Ku Klux Klan drove his family to Boston by a circuitous route. There the family joined the Islamic religion. Young Malcolm never recovered fully from the tragical experiences suffered from watching his home go up in smoke, allegedly the device of a revengeful Klan. His life, therefore, was a shortchanged existence.

Malcolm's life did not follow the fairy tale "happy ever after" ending, nor was it the typical success story "from rags to riches." When he was in prison in 1947, he met Elijah Muhammad from whom he learned about the religion of Islam. Then the spirit carried him upon the Mount where he made the most important decision of his life. When he descended the Mount of Temptation with the devil, there was no doubt about the work he must do. The wrestle with his unconscious mind restored his morale and gave him a new commitment for living, and the mountain experience reconstructed his integrity and manliness. However, his struggles to eke out a living during his youth and his term in prison left him without humanity for Caucasians.

Malcolm was a doer of the word, and he was effective as an organizer and speaker in the Black Muslim movement. His speaking activities were not limited to Temples and street-corner audiences, but he also spoke to audiences at colleges and universities and was a participant in radio and television discussions. He supplemented his eighth-grade education with extensive reading after affiliating with the Black Muslims. This general reading background greatly enlarged his vocabulary and refined his language style. In short, Minister Malcolm made an impression upon all whom he met. On Friday, May, 1963, he was interviewed by James Baldwin on a television broadcast. He made manifest how conversant he was with the aims and purposes of the Black Muslim movement as it was related to world issues.

The writer who viewed this telecast noticed that Malcolm X, a confrère of Elijah Muhammad, excelled in the rapid-fire "give-and-take" of formal discussion. His diction and vocabulary were superb: It should be added that Minister Malcolm was interviewed more than any other Negro leader during 1961 to 1963. All of the programmed interviews featuring Malcolm X revealed his personal magnetism as an orator, and he displayed a graceful vocal inflection appropriate to the meaning of what was said.

Both in speaking and writing, Malcolm opposed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the host of guerrilla chiefs who advocated non-violence as the proper approach to a solution of the racial problem in the United States. He frequently said, "We are never the aggressor. We will not attack anyone, but teach our people if anyone attacks you, lay down your life!" Every Muslim is counseled never to start a fight, never to look for trouble, never to stir up confusion. These statements, and others like them, often created enemies for Malcolm and this is traceable to the tone of voice employed.

Opposition to Malcolm's statements by whites resulted in name calling. C. Eric Lincoln, an authority on the Black Muslim movement, said that Malcolm wouldn't restrain himself and made utterances like this statement: "Get the white man's foot off my neck, his hands out of my pockets, and his carcass off my back. I sleep in my own bed without fear, and can look straight into his cold blue eyes and call him a liar everytime he parts his lips." Many times in speaking, Malcolm called Caucasians a devil, and he did not pass up critical Negro leaders either. Once he called Ralph Bunche "the George Washington of Israel," Thurgood Marshall a "20th century Uncle Tom." He considered the Negro race "the ugly American" for being a good Uncle Tom. He scored Martin Luther King as "the Other Cheek Man," and subtly suggested the phrase "Galavanting Harlem Politico" as a sobriquet for Congressman Adam Clayton Powell.

In telecast interviews Malcolm X maintained an atmosphere of self-assurance, displayed dignified gestures, and attended to proper platform trivia. Tall and trim for his 40-odd years, the Muslim Minister sometimes wore a beard and the goatee of an Ivory Tower professor. In the refining fires, he learned to play this platform role. Yet, he no doubt did his best Muslim proselyting with soap-box oratory and in meeting the challenges he faced from hecklers. His effectiveness was engendered by his marvelous mental powers, his storehouse of words, his simple and lucid vocabulary, and his ability to make his audiences go home and think about his messages.

As a popular television orator, Malcolm X had the dynamics to compel people to listen. The way he carried himself behind the lectern gave his hearers an artistic experience. If one made allowances for people's dislike of all Black Muslims and the orator's ostentation of himself, the hostility he created cannot be wholly palliated. His speeches redeemed souls, but, withal of a vain orator. In spite of themselves, certain orthodox Negro leaders were impelled to hear him with thunderous approbation. This was true even when his oral discourses abound in cajolery, impetuosity, invective, and violent sarcasm—together with all that was magnificent in eloquence.

The Minister's foundation for eloquent speaking was found in his poetical faculty for setting prose to music. The soul and breath of all speaking were striking simplicity and concreteness made luminous. The Minister of Allah had good voice control, talked within a narrow band of natural pitch range in order to have great reserve whenever he needed it. Many times as a young public speaker, it was his honey-toned voice that enabled him to cope with the harassment of the rabble, as well as control his temper.

What nobler tribute could there be paid an orator than passing on to his reward while he commanded the ears and hearts of eager hearers? When the fatal shot rang out, Malcolm's talents were soaring on the climax of his address. His language was bold, fierce and strong, complementing a full round voice flowing melodiously on the atmospheric breeze. While Martin Luther King gives us poetry, Malcolm gave us prose.

"Mr. Muslim" was an active, vigorous orator who sometimes pounded the lectern softly with a clinched fist. His marvelous vocal mechanism was at its full perfection and flexible strength when he lay down his life at the hands of evil ones. Black Muslims, attending that fatal meeting when Malcolm was shot down in the theater, were compelled to surrender themselves to the magnetic pull of his proselyting rhetoric. Persons hostile to the pleas of Malcolm X were nevertheless dazzled by his persuasive language. The three perpetrators upon his life resisted his persuasion, but they can never forget his dedicated passion which was silenced when the sawed-off shotgun went off bang! Then, are there any persons who can truthfully deny that he was indeed "the called of Allah", a sobriquet he bore to the end of his natural life?

R. L. Caserio (essay date Winter 1969)

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SOURCE: "Malcolm X," in Cambridge Quarterly, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 84-94.

[In the following essay, Caserio analyzes The Autobiography of Malcolm X, using the works of other modern African-American writers as a means of comparing and contrasting the views expressed by Malcolm X with those of his contemporaries.]

In 1963 Malcolm X was asked by a free-lance writer named Alex Haley to tell the story of his life, so that it could be published as a full-scale autobiography. Malcolm X was at that time the chief of staff of an American religious sect called the Nation of Islam, whose members were identified as 'Black Muslims' by the national press. Its leader was and still is a Georgia-born black man named Elijah Muhammad, who claims he has been chosen by Allah to be the saviour of American negroes. The sect requires of its members an ascetic moral discipline, and it encourages their education and their economic betterment. Its theology, or cosmology, is simple: God is black, the Devil is the white man, and a scientist named Yacub, at the beginning of recorded history, grafted the devil white race from an original black people. In 1959 a television special on the sect, entitled 'The Hate That Hate Produced', had been broadcast, and the most formidable exponent of this hate was said to be Malcolm. Originally he agreed to dictate his memories to Mr. Haley, because he thought it would help outsiders 'to appreciate better how Mr. Muhammad salvages black people'.

But during the period in which he was dictating his story Malcolm's life changed considerably. He broke with the Nation of Islam, in part because he discovered that it was not the authentic Mohammedan religion. This break seems to have thrown him into a painful and lonely self-awareness. He thought it was necessary to go on with the book, in order to justify his devotion to the Allah of Mecca. And that justification meant going in detail into what he called his 'sordid past', because he wanted to convey the sense that a pilgrimage he made to the East in 1964, and his discovery there of a larger humanity in himself and in others, had been preordained, in a sense pre-written, in all his life's experience. In spite of the popularity of the autobiography, however, the public image of Malcolm, contrived by those he frightened, endures. Without the book one would be likely to believe that Malcolm X was just a seething crackpot. He was shot down at a public rally in 1965, but he is usually not listed or mentioned in any roll call of honourable American public figures who have been assassinated.

In spite of the religious pressure which shaped the book—significantly, perhaps, because of it—I find Malcolm's life has the narrative interest of a nineteenth-century Bildungsroman. Malcolm was a strange, peculiarly American repetition of Pip or Julien Sorel or Eugene Rastignac, determined to become what he was, to find a vocation in which he would justify himself, and which would also suit the terms society sets to define its best men. But Malcolm became disillusioned, like his prototypes: and he had to recreate his world, at least his way of seeing it, in his own terms, so that he could believe in it again. Malcolm's father was a disciple of Marcus Garvey, and was murdered by whites. The fact represents the limits of his first expectations: he would be able to 'make it' only in the black world. He became a hip Harlem celebrity and a criminal, and he was a celebrity and a success because he was a criminal. In 1946, just before he was twenty-one, he was arrested for a minor robbery attempt, and was sentenced to ten years in prison. There he underwent a religious conversion, and became a follower of Mr. Muhammad, in whom he figuratively found his father (and Garvey) again. The pilgrimage to Africa curiously both rejected and vindicated his 'fathers': Malcolm brought Africa, in the form of what he believed to be its most authentic religious spirit, back with him to America. But this last step in his education kept him, I think, in the eyes of his countrymen still illegitimate, if not still criminal.

In the autobiography one sees Malcolm change continually, playing as many parts as Ralph Ellison's Rinehart in the novel Invisible Man. Rinehart is a kind of extraordinary Harlem politician; he seems to hold the community together by encapsulating its contradictions. He is, among other things, a pimp, a one-man general employment agency, a priest, a gigolo, a bookie, a collaborator with the white police. But this epitome of American black men incorporates too much: the narrator of Invisible Man wonders if Rinehart isn't the symptom of schizophrenic illness. Yet Malcolm, for all the roles he passed through—he never did ally himself with the police, however—was not schizophrenic. The autobiography illustrates how possible and yet how difficult it is for a man to unify his disparate experiences and to mature. The identity of Malcolm's assassins is not reliably certain, but I think it is reasonable to believe that he was murdered by those who couldn't accept or allow his development. Certainly Elijah Muhammad encouraged his Muslims to turn against Malcolm, and to force Malcolm's withdrawal. What one gathers from Malcolm's narrative is that Mr. Muhammad could not respond to changes taking place in himself. When he trespassed his own religion's laws concerning adultery, he told Malcolm that such was Allah's plan. To the reader he seems a split person desperately holding himself together, embodying precisely the illness he diagnosed in his people. They have not been able to grow, perhaps, because they have wanted a double existence, to be both black and white at the same time, without realising what it might mean to be either. Malcolm, although he was in anguish, could not lie about his saviour. The Muslims formally silenced him, ostensibly because of something he said to the press about the assassination of President Kennedy, and Malcolm then uncovered a Muslim plot against his life. What this betrayal crystallised compelled him to find again some new, truthful way of going forward.

Nothing in Malcolm's adventures was merely private, and one senses that he was indeed tracking down the expectations of a people. But at the same time it would be wrong to claim for certain that Malcolm's experience is representative. The values he actively created for himself, to justify his way of seeing us, he too conveniently attributes to Allah and to 'society'. In spite of all he shows, one is likely to feel that his diagnosis of American sickness is itself unhealthily monolithic or abstracted. Yet it is also one of the convincing wonders of his book that he can point to the sickness in the live bodies, even in the hair, of his people. When he was in his teens. Malcolm periodically straightened his hair, so that his appearance would conform to white standards of beauty. Until I read Malcolm I never realised consciously that most black Americans, at least up until the last few years, have tortured themselves with cosmetics and wigs in order to look 'better', that is, more white. The process of straightening is called 'conking'. A conk in a barbershop, even in the forties, cost up to four dollars, so Malcolm with the help of a friend conked his own hair. He describes the first time he did so as a major event. The actual conking process consisted of submitting one's scalp to a mixture of eggs, vaseline, potatoes, and lye. The lye had to be combed into the hair, and this burned fiercely, but the longer one could stand the burning, the straighter the hair would become. The lye had to be applied with rubber gloves, and rinsed off ten or twelve times, since any of it remaining would burn sores into the scalp. For years Malcolm conked faithfully, but he considered it later his 'first really big step toward self-degradation':

I don't know which kind of self-defacing conk is the greater shame—the one you'll see on the heads of the black so-called 'middle class' and 'upper class', who ought to know better, or the one you'll see on the heads of the poorest, most down-trodden, ignorant black men. I mean the legal-minimum-wage ghetto-dwelling kind of Negro, as I was when I got my first one. It's generally among these poor fools that you'll see a black kerchief over the man's head, like Aunt Jemima; he's trying to make his conk last longer, between trips to the barbershop. Only for special occasions is this kerchief-protected conk exposed—to show off how 'sharp' and 'hip' its owner is … I don't see how on earth a black woman with any race pride could walk down the street with any black man wearing a conk—the emblem of his shame that he is black.

But this cosmetic enactment of social degradation is a relatively minor point in the social analysis which Malcolm opens up. Many converts to the Nation of Islam were junkies. As ex-addicts these converts went after their old friends, to reclaim them from addiction. Conversion took the form of the addict's breaking the habit; and at the same time breaking the white man's hold on his life:

When the addict's withdrawal sets in, and he is screaming, cursing, and begging, 'Just one shot, Man!' the Muslims are right there talking junkie jargon to him. 'Baby, knock that monkey off your back! Kick that habit! Kick Whitey off your back!' The addict, writhing in pain, his nose and eyes running, is pouring sweat from head to foot. He's trying to knock his head against the wall, flailing his arms, trying to fight his attendants, he is vomiting, suffering diarrhea. 'Don't hold nothing back! Let Whitey go, baby! You're going to stand tall, man! I can sec you now in the Fruit of Islam!'

This is gruesome, not only because of the physical details. A reader is likely to draw back at the sight of a man exchanging a physical addiction for a spiritual one. Yet this, at the height of his preaching for Elijah Muhammad, was Malcolm's analytic method. The intimate crying-out of a sick man's nerves is at once translated into a public structure. True, in America skin can still be fate. But Malcolm tended to hide how he persuaded persons to choose to see that. He didn't just cleanse his converts' vision, but helped create it, as a shaping force. Malcolm's whole life proved the connection between intimate and public fact. But I come round to my doubt that the proof is representative.

Truthful descriptions of black experience and white are rare. I know how easy it is, for those of us who don't have Malcolm's very special experiences or strength, to feel we're justly getting at all the truth when we see our living exclusively in the aspect of 'issues'. I myself, a young white man, believe in the conclusions of his social analysis, and in the practical economic and political aims of the Organisation for Afro-American Unity which Malcolm founded after his return from Mecca. But in Shadow and Act (1966), Ralph Ellison asks. 'Are American Negroes simply the creation of white men, or have they at least helped to create themselves out of what they found around them? Men have made a way of life in caves and upon cliffs, why cannot Negroes have made a life upon the horns of the white man's dilemma'. This question was asked in a review of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma. We are always hearing and reading about the dilemma and its horns, and next to nothing about the life.

Malcolm's later views raise serious problems for his imitators. He did not by any means grow soft, but his condemnations changed their target, and his thinking became more flexible. His life as we have it now is what he was actively growing away from, so young people are likely to be trapped in their imitation, modelling themselves on ideas or theories he was beginning to modify, or discard.

One thing is certain: had he lived, he would not have retreated into a politics of Love. There is a euphoric moment in the story when Malcolm, in a car, has stopped for a traffic light, and a white man, stopped beside him, calls out: '"Malcolm X!" … and when I looked, he stuck his hand out of his car, across at me, grinning. "Do you mind shaking hands with a white man?" Imagine that! Just as the traffic light turned green, I told him, "I don't mind shaking hands with human beings. Are you one?"' The 'Are you one?' shows his persisting toughness. You would have to prove yourself before you dealt with him. I think this is an astonishing question to ask in America, where the commonness and omnipresence of 'humanity' is great political and diplomatic capital, yet the numberless specific and non-negotiable forms of that humanity are ignored. The last President attended a number of churches: 'aren't all gods one, and all human beings?' I expect the new President will do the same, to help create the unity that we all, for the sake of 'law and order', supposedly want. But on the basis of this totalitarian assertion of oneness, there can only develop more 'understanding' and 'love', and more disgust at the lie it makes of the life we know. I think there was in Malcolm's orthodoxy and intransigence, personal and religious, since they did not stunt him, something both holy and most significantly humane. And I say this bearing in mind the contrast of Martin Luther King, whose religion was more conventional and peaceful.

Dr. King's conventionality to be sure was more effective politically. His tactics were suitable to most of the country's belief in tolerance and fair play; before Memphis at least he never seemed to the general public to be a trouble-mater. But here I cannot help expressing some bitter feelings towards the press. At times Dr. King's cunning passivity, although it was only a tactic, has struck me as similar in outward appearance to the passivity of the 'objective' news reporter, who shrewdly illuminates an 'issue' but divorces his feelings, or his passions, from it. Dr. King was indeed passionate, but his characteristic 'image' was self-effacement. And this image especially attracted newsmen, because self-effacement characterises daily American journalism, with the result that non-feeling or stingy or 'reasonable' thinking usually become identified with wisdom and objectivity. Malcolm effaced himself before Allah, but then, the thinking seemed to go (as it did in regard to Muhammad Ali), how could a black man in America legitimately believe in Allah? And when Malcolm said that America was a sham, and spoke with hatred rather than firm and self-effacing Christian meekness in his voice, he became identified with hate, as if that emotion excluded all other feelings, and especially ruled out thought or objectivity. But the most serious injustice the newsmen do Malcolm is simply to forget him, or to believe that at best his memory is poisonous. His conviction that whites and blacks can work for common freedoms and hopes only by working separately is still behind news stories about black self-help projects, but these stories are often followed up by editorials sadly reflecting on the 'racism' implicit in separatism and self-help. But 'black power' has grown from Malcolm's book and from those who took up his work and I hardly think it sad. Maybe Malcolm opposed the nagging pressures for 'integration' because he was strongly capable of unifying his own life. Those who longed for togetherness (although most civil rights workers wanted simple justice), embarrassed even by the healthy differences between black and white, struck him as themselves fragmentary. Certainly he believed that 'giving' integration to Negroes only confirmed the white man in his specious feeling of superiority.

As a contrast with Malcolm's response to Harlem life Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land (1965) is worth reading. Mr. Brown was also a juvenile criminal, like Malcolm he dangerously experimented with the use of drugs, and he also went through a conversion, although a very personal and not religious one, in reform school and prison. Moved especially by the hopelessness of the Harlem streets, which he saw sapping the lives of his friends and his brother, Mr. Brown went to live in lower Manhattan, and worked and studied hard enough to get into law school, and to write his best-selling autobiography. In describing his growing up Mr. Brown writes in a language which is movingly authentic, and here one does find at least as much of the real life as of the dilemma. But I find his maturity sad, it is a growing isolation from Harlem, his community, a perpetuation of a split; he seems to save himself and withdraw. In 1955, Mr. Brown remembers, he first became aware of the changes the Black Muslims were working in Harlem. He had a conversation with a street friend named Alley Bush who had become a Muslim in prison. Alley tried to convert Mr. Brown, whom he here calls by his nickname, Sonny:

'If you're not mad [at white men], I feel sorry for you, Sonny, because you're crazy, and you're lost, man. So there, black man, you've got to be mad, brother.'

'Alley, man, you can gel mad about this shit, but if you can't do anything about it, it's gon fuck with your mind, you know? Unless you stop being mad because you realise you have to stop, for your own good.'

'How the hell are you gon stop bein' mad when you've got a foot up in your ass?'

I said, 'Look, man, if you're going to live, you got to try and take the foot out of your ass. There's some things, man, that anger doesn't mean a damn thing to. You can get mad if you want to, but why bother if nobody's going to pay any attention to you? Alley, the way I feel about it is that we—you, me, the cats we came up with, probably all the cats that were in jail with you—we were angry all our lives. That's what that shit was all about. We were having our revolution. The revolution that you're talking about, Alley, I've had it. I've had that revolution since I was six years old … I rebelled against school because the teachers were white. And I went downtown and robbed the stores because the store owners were white. I ran through the subways because the cats in the change booths were white.

'I was rebelling every time I went someplace like [reform school or prison] … But nobody was winning. That revolution was hopeless. The cats who had something on the ball and they could dig it in time, they stopped. They stopped. They didn't stop being angry. They just stopped cutting their own throats, you know?'

So Mr. Brown wasn't convinced, because he identified self-defeating criminality with social rebellion. In the final pages of his book he records a conversation with another friend, whose dream is not to be a black revolutionary, but to own two bars in Harlem, and two Cadillacs, and to be a great lover. 'You dig it?' the friend asks Sonny. 'Yeah, I dig it. It sounds like a pretty hip life.' 'I don't know, man, but that's what I want to do, Sonny.' 'Yeah, Reno, I guess that's all that matters, that a cat docs what he wants to do.' But I think Malcolm's doing what something larger seems to demand of him, the vitality of his continuing opposition, and his faith in the persuasive power of his intellect and of his truth show themselves as more positive and more valuable.

It should be emphasised, however, that Malcolm, and the Nation of Islam, represent nothing very new; and no doubt a strong sense of this, even weariness in response to it, negatively influenced Claude Brown, and many like him. Our racial experience remains trapped in repetition. Malcolm's insights and ideas are already present in The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. DuBois, published in 1903:

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, the sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings….

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanise America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible to be both a Negro and an American.

This is exactly Malcolm's position after his return from Africa. A reader may ask, however, if this isn't a kind of traditional American liberal viewpoint. I doubt if it is, but DuBois' statement is special anyway, because it was written as part of a criticism of Booker T. Washington's leadership of American Negroes. Washington's leadership meant that blacks had to sacrifice political power, civil rights, and higher education, in exchange for industrial education, a chance to accumulate money, and the conciliation of whites. Now Malcolm's break with Elijah Muhammad actually repeated DuBois' break with Washington. This has been pointed out in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse (1967). 'Elijah Muhammad carried out Booker T. Washington's philosophy of economic self-sufficiency and self-help', Mr. Cruse writes, 'more than any other movement'. And Malcolm's break with Elijah came when, after Mecca, Malcolm realised this was not enough; the militant self-centredness of the Nation of Islam had to be seen as part of a broader human struggle, even as part of the attempt by developing coloured nations to disengage themselves from white power. Again one is led back to DuBois. DuBois wanted to emphasise the dignity of the American Negro's African past, and to connect his condition with that of the colonial peoples of 1903. But in doing so, he did not urge emigration; he rejected Garvey. 'By the irony of fate, nothing has more effectually made this programme [of emigration] seem hopeless than the recent course of the United States toward weaker and darker peoples in the West Indies, Hawaii, and the Philippines [Malcolm would probably have added Vietnam]—for where in the world may we go and be safe from lying and brute force?' The characteristic of our age,' DuBois emphasised, 'is the contact of European civilisation with the world's undeveloped peoples.' So Malcolm finally argued that the United States would do no more than bungle its best intentions for the world, as long as it refused to recognise its blindness to the experience of an undeveloped nation within its own borders. In the last year of his life Malcolm saw very clearly, and in the chapters 'Out' and '1965' the facts and evaluations he brings forward are not marked with the crudeness of thought of the junkie episode.

The black man in North America was economically sick and that was evident in one simple fact: as a consumer, he got less than his share, and as a producer gave least…. For instance, annually, the black man spends over $3 billion for automobiles, but America contains hardly any franchised black automobile dealers. For instance, forty per cent of the expensive imported Scotch whisky consumed in America goes down the throats of the status-sick black man; but the only black-owned distilleries are in bathtubs…. Or for instance … in New York City, with over a million Negroes, there aren't twenty black-owned businesses employing over ten people. It's because black men don't own and don't control their own community's retail establishments that they can't stabilise their own community.

The black man was sickest of all politically. He let the white man divide him into such foolishness as considering himself a black 'Democrat', a black 'Republican', a black 'Conservative', or a black 'Liberal' … when a ten-million black vote bloc could be the deciding balance of power in American politics, because the white man's vote is almost always evenly divided. The polls are one place where every black man could fight the black man's cause with dignity, and with the power and the tools that the white man understands, and respects, and fears, and co-operates with. Listen, let me tell you something! If a black bloc committee told Washington's worst 'nigger-hater', 'We represent ten million votes', why, that 'nigger-hater' would leap up: 'Well, how are you? Come on in here!'

Malcolm still knew his enemy, but he was no longer replacing one kind of addiction with another.

I have said nothing about Malcolm's prose. Of course, the writing is Mr. Haley's, and mostly it is Reader's Digest writing, much of which, ironically, needs condensation. But I hope readers won't be put off by this. The sort of mind or person Malcolm was can't be gauged by scrutinising a sentence or a paragraph of this prose. The significant units of the book are the chapters, and their interest is in their factualness, in what they, in spite of the mismanagement of words, make clear in broad outline about Malcolm's life. Claude Brown's writing is alive in a better way. Although Mr. Haley tried to transcribe Malcolm's speaking voice, the tone isn't personal, and the autobiography could be read suitably over loudspeakers at a rally. Mr. Brown's voice comes through without one's having the sense that a microphone needs to authenticate it. I expect English readers would find reading Mr. Brown very difficult, however, because of the specialness of the dialect, but this is the kind of daily speech one actually hears. Yet Mr. Brown doesn't seem able to connect his Harlem with his university speech; his awareness is tolerant and 'private', while Malcolm is relatively intolerant, does not believe in every man's finding his own way alone, and is decidedly 'public'. Is there no meeting ground for the two kinds of awareness? And is there a way in which the American black experience remains, at least in its completeness, inaccessible to written language? In DuBois' writing there is frequently a horrible kind of blankness and fakery. The following sentences are from The Souls of Black Folk:

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil [of colour]. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideous-ness of Georgia?

Perhaps Mr. Haley's transcript of Malcolm, when it is insensitive and coarse, gives us only the more modern equivalent of DuBois' affectation. I trust it is only affectation, and not the symptom of a very uncertain hold on reality. DuBois was an historian, and in sorting out, for example, the history of the Freedmen's Bureau and of Negro education, his hold was strong. And Malcolm, as an historian of himself and his people, had an equal strength. But the suggestion that black experience is essentially inaccessible in writing, especially to whites, isn't very convincing. Certainly Invisible Man is proof against the suggestion. But that novel does bring out something more to the purpose here. In the end its narrator gives up his political activity and goes underground, realising that he has been failed by what sociology, history and politics have offered him, in the way of language and thought that can help him adequately to define and realise himself. Ellison rather explicitly points out through the narrator the large applicability of this failure, for all its specific racial conditioning. If there is a black reality which has not found its way into adequate language, then I have the feeling that this means the same is true of white reality, and that this inarticulateness and inadequacy argue our mutual condition.

Mel Watkins (review date 13 April 1969)

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SOURCE: A review of The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard, in New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1969, pp. 24-5.

[In the following review, Watkins asserts that The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard effectively conveys the essence of Malcolm X's "radical viewpoint" and "approach to the racial problem."]

Malcolm X, prior to his death in 1965, found most of his support in the urban ghetto masses. His growing posthumous appeal to the élite of the black community reflects the pervasive character of the black man's militancy; Malcolm X has become, to many black Americans, the symbol of manhood. This volume, [The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard,] includes, in addition to Malcolm's Harvard speeches, an introductory "inquiry" into the validity of the militant's radical viewpoint.

The most interesting aspect of the Harvard speeches is the discernible shift in position which occurs between Malcolm's initial appearance as Muslim minister in 1961 and his last appearance, following a pilgrimage to Mecca in December of 1964. His perspective remains racist and violent (he had not yet publicly adopted the more humanitarian stance taken shortly before his assassination), but his polemics had moved from a sectarian religious foundation to a more realistic secular one. Excepting the first, the three speeches are presented in their entirety. Archie Epps's minor editing does not detract from the wit and high rhetoric of the original transcripts; and Malcolm's direct, albeit sometimes logically extenuated, approach to the racial problem is clearly shown.

Epps's long introduction, while more reasoned than the speeches, is often more obscure. He points out the ultimate uselessness of Malcolm's call to violence and shows the extent to which his early experiences, particularly his hustler background, influenced his radical viewpoint. He also incisively notes that Malcolm's true legacy is the sense of racial pride that he left with the black man.

Time (essay date 23 February 1970)

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SOURCE: "Malcolm X: History as Hope," in Time, Vol. 95, February 23, 1970, pp. 88, 90.

[In the following essay, published on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of Malcolm X 's assassination, the critic provides a synopsis of Malcolm X's life and works, and attempts to assess his legacy.]

He was assassinated five years ago this week. Since then, assorted parks, streets and ghetto playgrounds have been named after him. His bespectacled face, ballooned to twice life-size, gazes owlishly from the walls of innumerable schools and youth clubs. Though he is sometimes described as an apostate and a monster, these days he is more often invoked, especially by young whites and blacks, as a martyr in the cause of brotherhood, and even a kind of saint.

To whites, the apotheosis at first seems unsettling. Many Americans recall Malcolm X only as a bad guy, known mainly for preaching racism. Is the continuing Malcolm X cult just one more outrageous byproduct of the rage and rhetoric that afflict race politics and U.S. culture in general? The answer is, no. And the best way of learning why is to examine yet another post-Malcolm X phenomenon, the spate of books by or about the former Black Muslim leader that have made him a minor industry in the publishing business.

Savage Skepticism…. The Autobiography is his will and testament. The speeches [in The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard,] and The Man and His Times, a gathering of recollections by people who knew Malcolm X, add subtlety and substance to it. Read in retrospect, they reveal Malcolm X as the most fascinating, convincing and, in some ways, the most measured speaker and thinker that the black militant movement has yet produced.

His incitements to revolution drew a disproportionate amount of attention during his lifetime. But the angry and occasionally outrageous things that he said seemed wilder then than they do today. Malcolm X's characteristic tone was not flailing rage. It was a kind of savage, pragmatic skepticism about American liberal institutions and a sense that in the U.S., whites, collectively and historically, have been and still are a disaster for blacks. He refused to be grateful for empty favors. "I'm not going to sit at your table," he once said, "and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner." In retrospect, what seems most remarkable was the range of his intellectual change and growth. The final phase of that growth—marked by his separation from the Black Muslim movement and the founding of the Organization of Afro-American Unity—had only begun when he was shot down. Yet his last plan to start working with all civil rights and human rights groups in the U.S. shows how far beyond raw appeals to violence and references to "blue-eyed white devils" Malcolm X actually went.

Though he changed his views, he absolutely refused ever to believe that substantial change in black conditions would come about through turning the other cheek. Or through integration. Or through anything short of a relentless effort by black people themselves to take political power in their own communities, to work their own social revolution and to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. His prolonged misgivings about the possibilities of real integration in the U.S. still seem convincing. The Autobiography illustrates how well-equipped X was to be successfully folded into the white man's world. One is explicitly left with the feeling that if he found integration a fraud, it was one. "You can sometimes be 'with' whites," Malcolm X concluded, "but never 'of' them." His early life was blighted by the murder of his father and poverty that eventually forced his mother to yield her children to welfare workers in Lansing. Mich., and drove her to a mental institution. Still, young Malcolm, tall, light-complexioned and smart, was elected president of his all-white junior high school class, and became a star basketball player.

His autobiography is excruciating when he recalls going to dances in the 1930s, learning to sip punch and stand around as if he did not want to dance. The devastating need of blacks to restore pride in their color and race still flames forth in Malcolm X's comment on the tragic folly of doting black parents who favored whichever child in the family was the palest. When, at age 14, Malcolm was told—like many other gifted blacks—that he should think of carpentry instead of law, he turned his back on the whole white world.

Dramatic Conversion. First in Boston, then in New York as a teenager in the early 1940s, he donned a zoot suit and painfully "conked" his hair. He graduated from show-stopping Lindy Hopper to pimp to taker and pusher of marijuana and dope. Malcolm X's scorn for authority, black or white, 30 years ago, presents remarkable parallels to youthful attitudes today. It was not merely that everyone he knew used marijuana and bitterly resented the white cops who tried to deprive them of it. They also regarded World War II as a white establishment disaster, like Viet Nam, to be avoided at all costs.

At 19, Malcolm X became a successful burglar who used two white middle-class girls as advance scouts. In 1946 he was caught and sentenced to ten years in jail. It was there, in a dramatic conversion, that he reformed his life, began copying the dictionary to improve his reading and writing, and became a disciple of Black Muslim Leader Elijah Muhammad.

Malcolm X worked twelve tireless years for the Black Muslims. It would take great cynicism to doubt that he passionately believed in and practiced what he preached—monogamy, abstinence from drugs, extramarital sex and drink, ceaseless work for the black community. But the mythology, the religion, the reexamination of history that buttressed the Black Muslim resolve, may still strain the credulity of new readers—even as they troubled a number of white and black men who otherwise admired Malcolm X during his life.

Today whites may still disagree with, but nevertheless understand more easily than five years ago, the Muslim's somewhat Nietzschean contention that Christianity was a white man's device that unmanned blacks by forcing them to worship a white God and taught them to be patient with any ignominy. One can disagree with but nevertheless understand the need to modify African history so that, for example, slavery appears as a unique white invention.

But what is one to make of such a personage as the prophet. W. D. Fard? According to Black Muslim dogma, Fard came from Allah to Elijah Muhammad in Detroit in the year 1931. He soon mysteriously disappeared, but only after he had explained that the white race was a cruel joke played on the black world by a satanic black named Mr. Yacub. After generations of breeding blacks for light skin on the Island of Patmos, Yacub succeeded in creating the fiendish white race, which was eventually turned loose in the desolate wastes of prehistoric Europe.

The rest, Black Muslims preached, is history: commerce, capitalism, expansion, colonialism, slavery. That cycle, they (and Fard) consolingly insisted, would soon come to an end. The black world, overcoming the white demons, would restore civilization to its pre-white peace and harmony. In a fond and perceptive preface to the autobiography, New York Times Correspondent M. S. Handler, who admired Malcolm X, called this kind of thing "sheer absurdity." Hostile critics have assumed that Malcolm X either didn't believe it, or if he did he was slightly cracked.

To take so literal a view is to miss one overwhelming characteristic of Malcolm X's thought, his integration of history, religion and mythology, and his profound and necessary sense of history's possibilities as a man-created aid to faith and policy. Browbeaten by the delusions of science and scholarship, white society has lately and perhaps foolishly begun to discard such conceptions. But it takes shortness of memory or lack of imagination or both not to see that W. D. Fard's cyclical vision is hardly more farfetched than the mythology of Marxism, which also explains past horrors, justifies present conflict and assumes that the story will end in peaceful victory—when the state shall wither away. The millennial curve of Christianity from the Old Testament Genesis to a vaguely predicted Judgment Day offers similar encouragements.

Human Rights. When Malcolm X broke with the Black Muslim movement in 1964 and then made his famous voyage to Mecca, he simply broadened his concept of history to include the real world of Islam with its possibilities of world brotherhood. Then he was shot.

As a man and a personality, Malcolm X seems likely to endure in literature as the subject of a classic American autobiography. The book has already sold 1.2 million copies and is used in schools and colleges all over the U.S. As a practical ideologue of black revolution and human rights, he has already been outstripped by events. The much harried Black Panthers, often the victims of their own inflammatory language, are trying to carry out a program of education, self-defense and a self-help that in some ways resembles Malcolm X's final program. Their thought, however, is tinged with a Marxian notion of solidarity, not merely of race but of economic oppression.

Perhaps Malcolm X's most enduring legacy to black militancy was his lynx-eyed criticism of the hand-wringing but hapless efforts made by black and white liberals to wrest from the machinery of American democracy anything more than promises and paper shuffling. Extremist in many ways, Malcolm X was most effectively extreme in sheer impatience. In his view, as one of his "blue-eyed" fellow citizens once remarked in another connection, "Extremism in the cause of justice is no vice."

Angela Blackwell (review date May 1970)

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SOURCE: A review of By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews and a Letter by Malcolm X, in Black Scholar, Vol. 1, No. 7, May, 1970, pp. 56-7.

[In the following review, Blackwell applauds By Any Means Necessary, maintaining that the volume offers insights into the spiritual and intellectual development of Malcolm X, and also illuminates aspects of "the man" himself.]

George Breitman brings us a little more of Malcolm in the form of several previously unprinted speeches, interviews which appeared in periodicals, and a letter from Cairo. By Any Means Necessary is really a continuation of Malcolm X Speaks, also edited by George Breitman. It contains materials which were not available at the time of that printing. Everything which appears in this newest compilation was delivered by Malcolm after his break with the Black Muslims. Included with each selection are notes by the editor giving a brief background, the time and place of interviews or speeches, and references to points of interest. No interpretive attempts are made.

By Any Means Necessary is certainly an appropriate heading under which to present Malcolm's thoughts. His whole being was dedicated to the liberation of black people by any means necessary. No statement was too strong, no idea was too radical, no end was too far when it came to the cause which racism forced him to make his life. Malcolm was truly a servant to his people, and he attempted to perform that service by any means necessary.

The speeches and interviews presented in this book point to various stages of Malcolm's development. "Development" is a key word rather than "changes." Malcolm never changed his goals or his dedication to humanism, but his thinking followed a dialectical development which has had a profound effect on the struggle of the oppressed all over the world. Within the pages of this work we are examining not only Malcolm's development, but also the man. His warmth, his forcefulness, his wit, his ability to "bring it on down front" are brought to us once again.

It is doubtful whether there are any thoughts of Malcolm's included in By Any Means Necessary that have not, in some way, been presented elsewhere. This latest offering is not important because of its originality, but rather because it confronts us with Malcolm once more. Again we come face to face with Malcolm's challenges and his ideas. Again we are forced to feel the stab of knowing that his program and goals are not yet a reality. We are reminded of all Malcolm's aspirations and of our own failures.

The selections in this book show Malcolm before varied audiences. Several of his talks are presented to militant white groups, there are speeches before all black groups, radio interviews, and a telephone conversation. In all these circumstances, Malcolm was direct, sincere, and assured.

Malcolm's ability to express his views with pinpoint accuracy, even in impromptu situations, is demonstrated in an interview with A. B. Spellman. In one instance Spellman questioned Malcolm about his "goal of separation." Malcolm prefaced his response with an effective clarification of terms.

This word separation is misused. The thirteen colonies separated from England but they called it a Declaration of Independence; they don't call it a Declaration of Separation … When you're independent of someone you can separate from them. If you can't separate from them, it means you're not independent of them.

Malcolm was especially exciting when he spoke to black audiences. This is evidenced in four speeches which were recorded at OAAU. (Organization of Afro-American Unity) rallies. The simple, yet forceful and direct language that Malcolm used, coupled with the understanding and deep feeling which he felt for the audience, make these speeches an inspiration. At one of these rallies Malcolm was discussing the absurdity of civil rights legislation, and stated:

The Germans, that they used to fight just a few years ago, can come here and get what you can't get. The Russians, whom they're supposedly fighting right now, can come here and get what you can't get without legislation. The Polish don't need legislation. Nobody needs it but you. Why? You should stop and ask yourself why. And when you find out why, then you'll change the direction you've been going in, and you'll change also the methods that you've been using trying to get in that direction….

The effects of Malcolm's hajj to Mecca and his African tour are also revealed in these speeches by his deepened commitment to internationalize the struggle of the black man and his crystallization of the need for unity among blacks, regardless of their differences.

A letter written by Malcolm while he was in Cairo shows how aware Malcolm was of ensuing danger. He states:

You must realize that what I am trying to do is very dangerous, because it is a direct threat to the entire international system of racist exploitation.

In this same letter, Malcolm's great humility and dedication to the cause, rather than the building up of individual personalities, is evident. After a brief discussion of dissatisfactions and infighting taking place within OAAU, Malcolm said:

I know your grievances, much of which is just, but much of which is also based upon inability to look at the problem as a whole. It is bigger and more complicated than many of us realize. I've never sought to be anyone's leader. There are some of you there who want leadership. I've stayed away this summer and given all those who want to show what they can do the opportunity to do so. When I return I will work with anyone who thinks he can lead … and I only pray to Allah that you will work with me likewise.

It is refreshing and sobering to touch Malcolm's life again and to be reminded of his unparalleled rise to the forefront of the fight for black liberation. Thanks to George Breitman for compiling some additional works of the man who shaped the present struggle of the black man in America. Too many folks think that once they've read Malcolm, they've read Malcolm. To read Malcolm once is not enough; to read Malcolm twice is not enough. Malcolm should be read every morning and every evening until he is fully internalized; until his thinking is our thinking. A common phrase among black people is "it's like Malcolm says." We ought to keep reading Malcolm until Malcolm isn't saying it any more—until we're saying it.

Julius Lester (review date 16 May 1971)

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SOURCE: A review of The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches by Malcolm X, in New York Times Book Review, May 16, 1971, pp. 4, 22.

[In the following excerpt, Lester offers praise for The End of White World Supremacy, declaring that "these speeches are the best examples in print of why, even dead, [Malcolm X] is a man to measure one's self against."]

All praises are now given to the name and memory of Malcolm X. In his person he represented the apotheosis of blackness; but, except for the last 11 months of his political career, he articulated the aims and ideals of the Nation of Islam as the number one spokesman for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. This is important to remember because as the most important black political figure of the sixties, Malcolm X brought the thought of Elijah Muhammad to a larger audience and thereby increased its influence. That fact is not recognized or acknowledged today, but it is very evident in The End of White World Supremacy, a collection of four previously unpublished speeches given during 1962 and 1963, Malcolm's last year in the Nation. Here we find the concepts that, three years after his death, would be gathered under the rubric black power and forwarded as a secular philosophy: pride in blackness; the necessity to know black history; black separation; the need for black unity; black control of the political, economic and social institutions of the black community.

Malcolm X was more feared than loved by blacks while he lived, and these speeches are the best examples in print of why, even dead, he is a man to measure one's self against. One reads these four speeches from almost a decade ago and trembles. He speaks not as a political leader or social analyst (though he was both), but like one of the Old Testament prophets. He is the voice of doom from the maelstrom of American history. He does not exhort his followers or threaten his enemies. He lives in a place where such rhetorical weaknesses do not exist, for he represents Truth. He is one of the redeemed, and it is irrelevant to him if he is heeded or ignored. Being ostracized or vilified will not affect him in the least. Like Noah, he is building his ark, and if he is the only one who will be saved, then, all praises be!

It was this undoubting belief in the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, this vision of the wheat being separated from the chaff, that gave Malcolm his diamond-like integrity. He knew Armageddon was coming, and he was as sure that he was on the side of good as he was that the sun would rise each morning. I envy him his faith. For him, it was all so simple. Blacks were the chosen people, and their time had come. The white world would fall, and the black one would rise; he was one of the saved.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple, as Malcolm himself may have begun to team in the brief months left to him after quitting the Nation. Shorn of its religious framework and the cosmological dimension Malcolm was able to give it, the thought of Elijah Muhammad is black nationalism, with all the necessary and painful contradictions that have to exist when there is no physical nation in which the nationalism can root itself, when so much of the history of the people is forever lost in the lower depths of white-sailed slave ships.

But Malcolm made an existential leap, over the abyss and into the faith of blackness. Many have made the leap with him, but there are those of us who have hesitated, knowing that there is no such thing as Truth, except the abyss itself. Faith is comforting, but it is blind. And though having sight can sometimes make one long to be blind, ultimately, it is only by seeing that we fully live. Black history reached a necessary apex through Malcolm X. It must proceed beyond that point, however, if blacks are not to become, like everyone else, hapless puppets of history, the blindest force of all….

Ross Miller (essay date Summer 1972)

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SOURCE: "Autobiography as Fact and Fiction: Franklin, Adams, Malcolm X," in Centennial Review, Vol. XVI, No. 3, Summer, 1972, pp. 221-32.

[In the following essay, Miller uses the autobiographies of Malcolm X, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Adams to illustrate the patterns in and the course of American autobiographies, which, he asserts, represent "a coherent American literary tradition which in addition to saying something about the country, has always challenged conservative and confining notions of what is taken to be the separate realms of fact and fiction."]

The autobiographies which fill the bookstores today mark a departure from what I see as a classic line of autobiographical literature from Benjamin Franklin to Malcolm X. A serious metaphysical or self-reflective quality is simply missing in recent works. Using three examples of serious autobiographical art, I have chosen to reconstruct a coherent American literary tradition which in addition to saying something about the country, has always challenged conservative and confining notions of what is taken to be the separate realms of fact and fiction. But as it took Tocqueville to tell Americans about their own political institutions it is not altogether surprising that a Frenchman has brought attention to a declining American literary tradition.

André Malraux was sensitive to the failure of a profound art of autobiography in France, and his book Anti-Memoirs was conceived, in part, as a corrective to the dull public confessions of statesmen of his generation. He felt that there was a special vanity to those books which sought only to repeat, in an attractive context, the accomplishments of the author. Writing about oneself, Malraux thought, had to be more critical. The ongoing analogy of the autobiography to the documentary film was too mechanistic. The successful autobiography had to be reflexive, able to reflect upon its own process and organization. Writing about oneself was the archetypal activity of man, not unlike the problem he faced in trying to contemplate the implications of his own death.

To reflect upon life—life in relation to death—is perhaps no more than to intensify one's questioning. I do not mean death in the sense of being killed, which poses few problems to anyone who has the commonplace luck to be brave; but death as it manifests itself in everything that is beyond man's control, in the aging and even the metamorphosis of the earth (the earth suggests death by its age-old torpor as well as its metamorphosis, even if this metamorphosis is the work of man) and above all the irremediable, the sense that "you'll never know what it all meant." Faced with that question, what do I care what matters only to me?

Malraux is challenging the notion that autobiographies need be personal at all and suggests that autobiographical writing involves a man in no less serious problems than are posed by living life itself. A man, as autobiographer, has the power to face his own mortality with an exorbitant power. Life to him can hold no terror, because in a sense he is already dead—facts no longer have the power to define him. He has relieved life of its temporality. And while a man always feels tangential to history, the autobiographer seems always to be at history's center. To see why this is so demands a revaluation of what we accept to be the proper relation of fact to fiction in the autobiography. I have chosen to explore the structural and methodological factors which define autobiographical literature in the works of Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, and Malcolm X: three writers who it would seem have nothing else in common aside from their desire to talk about themselves.

In their writing, as in all autobiographies, there is that power which comes with being one's own historian. Or the feeling that one is a superior historian who need not be content to painfully search out the truth from numerous sources of evidence, but rather because he is his own direct link with history the autobiographer can immediately "rethink" the past. The life of the autobiographer is the stage upon which history, that is all the history he remembers, is played out. Franklin's life spanned the period of America's movement for independence; Adams watched the country grow from an agrarian to an industrial nation; and Malcolm witnessed the resurrection of the Afro-American. Their books are records of their lives and accounts of American history they affected as well as experienced. Franklin, through his formative work in government; Adams, as a member of a great political family and as a writer; and Malcolm X as a major black leader moved the country in which they moved. In choosing to write directly from their own experience each of them encountered the central problem of autobiographical literature: how to reconcile the vanities and obsessions of the personal life with the realities of the historical past.

The problem is settled ingeniously by conflating the private and public histories with an artful narrative. Time is marked through the use of images and metaphor to insure that the reader continues to see the world centered around the writer. It is not our Philadelphia. It is young Ben Franklin's. Yes, it belongs to that boy who first walked the streets with two rolls under his arm, and a third in his mouth. It is the same way with Henry Adams's New England:

The order of impressions retained by memory might naturally be that of color and taste, although one would rather suppose that the sense of pain would be the first to be educated. In fact, the third recollection of the child was that of discomfort. The moment he could be removed, he was bundled up in blankets and carried from the little house in Hancock Avenue to a larger one which his parents were to occupy for the rest of their lives in the neighboring Mount Vernon Street.

Or Malcolm recounting his first days in Boston:

He peeled the potatoes and thin-sliced them into a quart-sized Mason fruit jar, then started stirring them with a wooden spoon as he gradually poured in a little over half the can of lye … The congolene just felt warm when Shorty started combing it in. But then my head caught fire.

I gritted my teeth and tried to pull the sides of the kitchen table together. The comb felt as if it was raking my skin off.

My eyes watered, my nose was running. I couldn't stand it any longer; I bolted to the washbasin. I was cursing Shorty with every name I could think of when he got the spray going and started soap-lathering my head.

In each case the intent is the same: not only to recall the past but to possess it. All three, as they view history, catalogue the senses, attempting to link themselves inextricably to the places and times they describe. Autobiographers, because they are able to see, touch, and smell their subject, write sensuous histories. They deal with the past as it is re-experienced through memory (a kind of sense itself) and conceive of history as it was lived through an individual's senses. When Franklin, Adams, and Malcolm write about themselves they use the details of their senses, not merely facts or events, to locate critical moments of the past. A silent proposition is established: the autobiographer implies that to know the world one must first know him.

All three writers use fictions to illustrate personal histories. Fictions that never lose their identity with an essentially true body of information. Personal language, metaphor, and a controlling narrative create the unique sense that the facts of the author's life are particular and yet at the same time are valid indicators of a wider history just outside or parallel to the life of the writer. Franklin's description of his entrance into Philadelphia and his subsequent success is representative of America's passage from a colony to a nation. Adams's sense of discomfort over the move to Mount Vernon Street is a sensuous mnemonic for the psychic and spiritual dislocation he felt as a victim of industrialization. His childhood change of residence is a microcosm of the larger historical displacement of towns like Quincy, Massachusetts, and other parts of pastoral America. In turn, Malcolm uses a rush of details as an emblem for a larger meaning, writing the history of his people through the landscape of his senses. His life becomes identical with the passage of the country black, "homeboy," into the world of the city Negro. It is all there in Malcolm's description of hair processing. The "conk" is the sign of the black man's humiliation, the brand of his selfhatred.

The sensuous aspect of the autobiography is really the link between the peculiarities of the autobiographer's life and broader historical currents. It affords the writer a chance to talk about the world as he talks about himself. But nowhere are the fictional devices of the autobiographer clearer than in his use of personae to respond to the complex demands of autobiographical literature.


Benjamin Franklin, the first major American autobiographer, understood and responded to these demands in such a way that he exemplifies the autobiographical art. Franklin employs a constant barrage of exaggeration—the hyperbole and soothsaying that D. H. Lawrence objected to. But Lawrence, among others, was deceived by Franklin's style. The man sets a trap with the didactic rhetoric of the book. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin parades as a finished document, a memoir of an aging public figure; however, the book cannot be fully understood as a fait accompli, but must be read in process, taken a little like we accept a man posturing in a conversation. As Franklin's autobiography is not merely a memoir, but a subtle investigation into the very act of autobiographical writing. Here is a hint of the plan.

By my rambling digressions I perceive myself to be grown old. I us'd to write more methodically. But one does not dress for private company as for a publick ball: 'Tis perhaps only negligence.

Franklin's posture, his denial of complexity, is similar to Adams's insistence of failure, or Malcolm's pose as a bad nigger. Franklin creates a persona in his book who is human, yet always bigger than life. The Autobiography is as much a fable as it is a personal history. In fact the book, finally, is not personal at all. There are two Franklins: one a real historical figure; the other is a character in an elaborate fiction.

In the Autobiography, Franklin includes two letters. One is from Mr. Abel James and is undated; the other is from Mr. Benjamin Vaughan, dated January, 31, 1783, around the time Franklin signed the final treaty with England. Vaughan's letter is placed in the middle of the book, between Franklin's personal and public accounts of his life. It is unmistakably placed in such a strategic location to comment upon the author's method and purpose. In fact, we are tempted to question if Mr. Vaughan is really Benjamin Franklin himself, because Franklin could not have asked for a better spokesman.

Your history is so remarkable, that if you do not give it, somebody else will certainly give it; and perhaps so as nearly to do as much harm, as your management of the same thing might do good. It will moreover present a table of the internal circumstances of your country, which will very much tend to invite to it settlers of virtuous and manly minds. And considering the eagerness with which such information is sought by them, and the extent of your reputation, I do not know of a more efficacious advertisement than your biography would give. All that has happened to you is also connected with the detail of the manners and situation of a rising people; and in this respect I do not think that the writings of Caesar and Tacitus can be more interesting to a true judge of human nature and society.

Vaughan's "encouragement" makes explicit the link between Franklin's personal and public lives. Like a Caesar, his life is inexorably "connected with the detail of the manners and situation of a rising people." Vaughan goes on to say, "The nearest thing to having experience of one's own, is to have other people's affairs brought before us in a shape that is interesting." Franklin chooses a particular persona to describe experience in an interesting shape, a mythic embodiment of America's struggle for independence. And this need to embody and shape experience is not unique to Franklin, but is characteristic of autobiographical art. Henry Adams employs a remarkably similar metaphor to describe the plan of the Education.

The object of study is the garment, not the figure. The tailor adapts the manikin as well as the clothes to his patron's wants….

The manikin, therefore, has the same value as any other geometrical figure of three or more dimensions, which is used for the study of relations. For that purpose it cannot be spared; it is the only measure of motion, of proportion, of human condition; it must have the air of reality; must be taken for real; must be treated as though it had life. Who knows? Possibly it had!

Franklin's personal history, like Adams's, is a manikin with which he can study relations. The life of one man becomes the key to mapping the mysteries of the race; and the wonders that are related to the one life are as important as the record of the life itself. Autobiography, at this level, is as much an exercise of will as it is a record of the past.

This posturing, the use of fictions, to get outside of oneself—to be equal to, yet, to be more than one is entitled to by birth—is the archetypal pose of the autobiographer. In Malraux's language, it is to identify yourself with no less than the eternal metamorphosis of the earth. In a word, it is that terrible reaching for immortality. Watch Malcolm struggle as he moves to identify himself with the entire black American population. Like the Sultan who dies trying to propagate the earth with his sons and daughters.

I have given to this book so much of whatever time I have because I feel, and I hope, that if I honestly and fully tell my life's account, read objectively it might prove to be a testimony of some social value….

I think that an objective reader may see how when I heard "The white man is the devil," when I played what had been my own experiences, it was inevitable that I would respond positively; the next twelve years of my life were devoted and dedicated to propagating that phrase among the black people.

I think, I hope, that the objective reader, in following my life—the life of only one ghetto-created Negro—may gain a better picture and understanding than he has previously had of the black ghettoes which are shaping the lives and the thinking of almost all of the 22 million Negroes who lives in America.

Malcolm's mythical presence, the pose of an exemplary life, just as Franklin's, is a daring simplification. They are using the autobiography, in part, as a fiction to express personal relationships to history that are true in essence, but are nevertheless suspicious in the exaggerated form they take. The personae of Malcolm and Franklin, in their autobiographies, are bigger than life because they are intended to represent many individuals. The paradox of writing in this mode is that this mythic relationship, although accepted by the writer and his audience, is illusory; it is a literary relation and not a metaphysical one. The fictive aspect of the autobiography is that result of this conflation between a first-person narrator and a naturally third-person persona who share a mutual identity. Malcolm X narrates the history of "Malcolm X," who is simultaneously himself and all black men in America, as Ben Franklin records the story of "Benjamin Franklin," who seems to be all of colonial America. This double identity is not accidental, but is intrinsic to the structure of the autobiography. It is the acting out of the quality William James called the phenomenon of the "twice born." In Franklin's words:

I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking the advantages authors have in a second edition to correct some faults of the first. So I might, besides correcting the faults, change some sinister accidents and events of it for others more favorable. But though this were denied, I should still accepted the offer. Since such a repetition is not to be expected, the next thing most like living one's life over again seems to be a recollection as durable as possible by putting it down in writing.

Franklin could not be clearer. There is that quality to the autobiography that makes writing down the story of a life not so much reliving the past as simply living again.

What an opportunity for a man like Henry Adams. To live again. First he could arrange his marriage differently, do something about his father-in-law, and get early help for his wife. Second to that, he could write his autobiography and edit out all the painful "accidents." There did not have to be any marriage, any father-in-law, any suicide. He could leave it all out. As a result the Education is often more interesting for what it leaves out, at one point a full twenty years, than for what it contains. Late in the book the narrative breaks off with the year 1871 and resumes in 1892. The chapter "Twenty Years After" begins as if Adams is not conscious of his ingenious sublimation of the major emotional events of his life. Adams's style is reminiscent of those patients who awake in Swiss clinics after a month of sleep therapy (where a man is kept asleep, by the use of drugs for a protracted length of time) and who are cured by literally forgetting what was bothering them.

No doubt the world at large will always lag so far behind the active mind as to make a soft cushion of inertia to drop upon, as it did for Henry Adams: but education should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the enemy, and should train minds to react, not a haphazard, but by choice, on the lines of force that attract their world.

Adams is not really talking about education at all. His obsession with the idea of attraction and his sense that the world always lags behind the active mind is metaphysical static generated to avoid discussing similar questions in emotional terms. He asks the impossible of education—that it should conjoin thought and action. And at the same time it reveals one of the prime motives for writing about one's life. His autobiography might, at least on paper, make life subservient to mind and, in a sense, tame it. So in the end, as it was for Franklin and Malcolm, Adams's education was in the writing of his own life.


Fictional methods have applied so consistently to the writing of autobiography, and historical models are now once again so fashionable in the novel, that it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish the two. Alfred Kazin has considered a variation of this problem in an essay that concerns the shifting boundary between fiction and fact in what has come to be called the "non-fiction" novel. He speaks of Truman Capote's desire, in his book In Cold Blood, to relieve life of its "mere factuality." Kazin's insight is correct and if expanded it could be brought to describe the activity of writing itself. But Kazin stops short of the point and is content to acknowledge yet another genre. Like the term "new journalism," the creation of the "non-fiction" novel as a separate literary entity is less helpful than it is a clever circumvention of philosophical questions that are central to writing about any subject. What is now called "new journalism" is merely the manipulation of the details of experience in the present not unlike the way Sir Walter Scott manipulates historical facts of the past to invest a situation with character and plot. Oddly enough we are inclined to believe the journalist and not the novelist because no matter how subjective the journalist's interpretation seems, it is still an interpretation of the facts. Critics have chosen to distinguish so minutely between what they feel to be works of fact and works of fiction that they find themselves continually adding new categories, like philosophers creating new links for the "Great Chain of Being," instead of challenging the need for categories at all.

This discussion of Franklin, Adams, and Malcolm attempts to show that autobiographical writing has always been an attempt to make history into a novel, and that writers like Norman Mailer have really done nothing new but have more significantly grounded themselves in an American literary tradition that moves directly from Ben Franklin.

It is appropriate that autobiography should be more than personal and factual, in the same way we expect a still-life painting to be more than a facsimile of the objects themselves; or a film to be more than the chronological development from points A to Z. Painting shows us objects from many angles at the same time; a film breaks down time and explores connections that we ordinarily do not notice. As a form, autobiography is multi-angular and able to alter perspective, to make a man bigger or smaller, like those enormous figures on a movie screen; and like the novel, its reference is explicitly self-centered. Its subject and object are identical.

The intent and method of the best autobiographies have always been literary in the broadest sense, just as conversely the novel (most obviously those in the first person closely following the writer's own experience) has reflected the intimate particulars and reflections of the writer. For example, Jack London's Martin Eden and Frank Conroy's Stop-Time disguise real situations and people through the traditional devices of the novel. London and Conroy share a central concern, to see themselves as they were. To see their lives sublimated in an elaborate fiction. The masters of this method were Proust and Colette. In both cases the fictional distance they had from their own experiences permitted self-illumination comparable to the studied self-interpretation of the autobiographer writing from hindsight. (The pose of the autobiographer as an experienced man is particularly effective because we expect to hear from someone who has a completed sense of his own life and is therefore in a position to tell what he has discovered.) The obsession with sensuous detail in Proust and Colette's writing came from their fixation upon the sensual side of their own lives. In a way, writing about themselves, through elaborate disguises, allowed them the liberation of confession and created an art which made the final significance of life (because there was no heaven or hell) solely dependent upon its telling.

Autobiography at its best has the pretensions and effects of art. Merleau-Ponty hinted at this in a different context in his essay on Cézanne, where he hoped to suggest that what makes great art move us is that it alters our basic perceptions.

Cézanne's difficulties are those of the first word. He considered himself powerless because he was not omnipotent, because he was not God and wanted nevertheless to portray the world, to change it completely into a spectacle, to make visible how the world touches us … It is not enough for a painter like Cézanne, an artist, or a philosopher, to create and express an idea; they must also awaken the experiences which will make their idea take root in the consciousness of others. A successful work has the strange power to teach its own lesson.

In the same way, to write about oneself is to create a durable work of art in an attempt to freeze the process of life, for a moment, to make it visible. And it is with Franklin, Adams, and Malcolm that we feel this need to stop time, not to justify their actions in the past, but to see their lives as they might have appeared to God day by day. They use the facts of their lives, not as the historian would, but as a way of probing the limits of their own self-knowledge. Art is used in the writing of autobiography to express what cannot be understood by facts alone.

Thomas W. Benson (essay date February 1974)

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SOURCE: "Rhetoric and Autobiography: The Case of Malcolm X," in Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 60, No. 1, February, 1974, pp. 1-13.

[In the following essay, Benson offers an analysis of Malcolm X's Autobiography based on the principles of rhetoric, and contends that The Autobiography of Malcolm X "achieves a unique synthesis of selfhood and rhetorical instrumentality."]

Rhetoric is a way of knowing, a way of being, and a way of doing. Rhetoric is a way of knowing the world, of gaining access to the uniquely rhetorical probabilities that govern public policy and personal choice for oneself and others; it is a way of constituting the self in a symbolic act generated in a scene composed of exigencies, constraints, others, and the self; it is a way of exercising control over self, others, and by extension the scene. Taken by itself, any one of the rhetorical modes of action is incomplete. Knowledge alone becomes decadent and effete, existence alone becomes narcissistic and self-destructive, and power alone becomes dehumanized technological manipulation. Perhaps only when rhetorical knowing, being, and doing are present together can a rhetorical act truly be said to take place. In a given rhetorical event the balance among being, knowing, and doing is a function of the structure of the act and its relation to audience, scene, agent, agency, and purpose.

The constituents of rhetorical action are illustrated with special force in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which, I shall argue, achieves a unique synthesis of selfhood and rhetorical instrumentality.

The general outline of Malcolm's life is familiar to many Americans. He was born Malcolm Little in 1922, the son of a Baptist minister who was later killed by the Ku Klux Klan. After a boyhood in Michigan, Malcolm moved to Boston, where he worked as a shoeshine boy, soda fountain clerk, busboy, and railroad kitchen crewman, and drifted into a life of hustling, numbers running, pimping, and burglary. Finally arrested, he was sent to prison. There he became a convert to Islam, and after his release from prison became the leading spokesman for Elijah Muhammad's Lost-Found Nation of Islam in North America (the Black Muslims), and the country's most widely heard black advocate of racial separation. Then in November of 1963, Malcolm referred to the assassination of John F. Kennedy as "chickens coming home to roost," and was publicly silenced by Elijah Muhammad. Shortly afterwards, Malcolm broke with the Muslims and undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca. He returned to America to announce that he would henceforth work for the brotherhood of all men, and set about organizing a movement to achieve his ends, hinting that violent means might be necessary.

When Malcolm X was assassinated in February of 1965, he was a much-publicized but little-understood leader who seemed temporarily to have lost his following. Cut off from the Black Muslims, spurned as a black racist by moderate Negro leaders and most of the press, Malcolm nevertheless appeared at the threshold of either national leadership or increasingly bitter notoriety. His death seemed to end all that, temporarily promoting him to a compromised martyrdom that might well, because of the seeming ambiguity of his final position, have led to a quick eradication of his influence.

But a few months later Grove Press published The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written "with the assistance of Alex Haley." This book quickly restored Malcolm to a position in the rank of such black leaders as Douglass, Washington, DuBois, and King. Why? Here is an autobiography, moreover an autobiography whose authorship is clouded by collaboration, exhibiting the signs of a rhetorical work, and managing to solve a rhetorical problem of great complexity. How could Malcolm meet the most serious challenges posed to his life and work? The challenges that he changed his position so abruptly, near the end of his career, that he was without audience or program? And the challenge not only to create a place for himself in the pantheon of black leaders, but to further the development of revolutionary masses?

Let us first examine the foundation of the rhetorical problem and then try to find a reading of the Autobiography which illuminates his strategy.

For most of his audience, whether white or black, Malcolm's greatest needs were to establish his credibility and to explain his program. What stands in the way of satisfying these needs is the suspicion that he had no program and was not worth believing. Herbert W. Simons, for instance, sees Malcolm as impaled on the dilemma of needing to be both consistent and fresh. "When, in one year, Malcolm X broke with Elijah Muhammad, shifted positions on integration and participation in civil rights demonstrations, and confessed his uncertainties on other issues, he inevitably alienated some followers and invited charges of weakness and inconsistency from his enemies." One option for the readers of Malcolm's Autobiography is to explain Malcolm's apparent inconsistency by arguing that he was either a blind fanatic or an irresponsible charlatan.

One of the greatest rhetorical potentialities of the autobiographical genre lies in its ability to take a reader inside the writer's experience, and to show how early mistakes led to later enlightenment. But this very advantage also presents a danger, since later actions may be judged as variations on those earlier mistakes. In Malcolm's case, some readers may be tempted to see his conversion to Islam and his later advocacy of brotherhood as self-serving extensions of his former career as a street hustler. And there are elements of the hustler in Malcolm as he reveals himself even after his conversion to Islam.

Malcolm has an irritating propensity for opportunism in debate, cleverly setting up a situation to score a point when that point may be inconsistent with another position. For instance, late in the Autobiography when he is describing his visit to Africa in 1964, Malcolm tells of a press conference: "I stressed to the assembled press the need for mutual communication and support between the Africans and Afro-Americans whose struggles were interlocked. I remember that in the press conference, I used the word 'Negro,' and I was firmly corrected. "The word is not favored here, Mr. Malcolm X. The term Afro-American has greater meaning and dignity. I sincerely apologized. I don't think that I said 'Negro' again as long as I was in Africa." As it stands, this episode is unobjectionable. And yet during his ministry with the Black Muslims, Malcolm had, in his speech at Cornell University in March of 1962, for instance, repeatedly referred to America's "so-called Negroes," on the grounds that Negro was a white man's word which he refused to be ensnared by. His sincere apology of 1964, not an outright reversal, nevertheless misleads his readers for the convenience of making his point. And earlier in the Autobiography Malcolm makes much the same point in reporting a speech by Elijah Muhammad. The white man, says Muhammad to a group of Muslims, "has taught you, for his benefit, that you are a neutral, shiftless, helpless so-called 'Negro.' I say 'so-called' because you are not a 'Negro.' There is no such thing as a race of 'Negroes.' You are members of the Asiatic nation, from the tribe of Shabazz! 'Negro' is a false label forced on you by your slave-master!"

With considerable relish, Malcolm boasts of some of his debater's tactics when responding to white reporters: "I might copy a trick I had seen lawyers use, both in life and on television. It was a way that lawyers would slip in before a jury something otherwise inadmissable."

To prove that blacks did not really want integration, Malcolm said in his Autobiography that "the black masses prefer the company of their own kind," and as for the charge of "vain, self-exalted white people … that black people want to sleep in bed with them—… that's a liel" And yet at Cornell in 1962, when he wanted to prove that white society had corrupted black culture, Malcolm charged that the black man in America had been made into a monster. "He is black on the outside, but you have made him white on the inside. Now he has a white heart and a white brain, and he's breathing down your throat and down your neck because he thinks he's a white man the same as you are. He thinks that he should have your house, that he should have your factory, he thinks that he should even have your school, and most of them even think that they should have your woman, and most of them are after your woman."

For some readers of the Autobiography, Malcolm's enormous interest in his speaking appearances at American universities may seem to betray the crude ambitions of the autodidact to establish his intellectual status.

After he left Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm undertook the traditional Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, where among other thoughts he records the following reflection:

Behind my nods and smiles, though, I was doing some American-type thinking and reflection. I saw that Islam's conversions around the world could double and triple if the colorfulness and true spiritualness of the Hajj pilgrimage were properly advertised and communicated to the outside world. I saw that the Arabs are poor at understanding the psychology of non-Arabs and the importance of public relations. The Arabs said "insha Allah" ("God willing")—then they waited for converts. Even by this means, Islam was on the march, but I knew that with improved public relations methods the number of new converts turning to Allah could be turned into millions.

Coupled with his opportunism in debate, his inconsistencies, his earlier career as hustler, pusher, and pimp, and his ministry of millennial anti-white black nationalism, Malcolm's confession of the urge to market Islam with the tools of American public relations may seem the final proof in branding him as a charlatan. We are reminded early in the Autobiography that Malcolm first sees the Muslims as a hustle. His brother, Reginald, wrote to him, "Malcolm, don't eat any more pork, and don't smoke any more cigarettes. I'll show you how to get out of prison." Malcolm's first response was that his brother "had come upon some way I could work a hype on the penal authorities." Even in the last pages of his book, Malcolm speaks of how much he "cherished" his "'demagogue' role," and hints that he sees himself as another Elijah Muhammad.

Was Malcolm merely reducing Islam to a hustle, or was he a blind fanatic who was so absorbed in black racism that he would not allow logic to stand in his way?

After Malcolm's death, USIA director Carl T. Rowan called Malcolm a fanatic, and there are passages in the Autobiography that a judicious reader might take as evidence for fanaticism. There is, for instance, Malcolm's sense that his life is worked out according to divine guidance. While he was in prison, Malcolm had a vision:

I prayed for some kind of relief from my confusion.

It was the next night, as I lay on my bed, I suddenly, with a start, became aware of a man sitting beside me in my chair. He had on a dark suit. I remember. I could see him as plainly as I see anyone I look at. He wasn't black, and he wasn't white. He was light-brown-skinned, an Asiatic cast of countenance, and he had oily black hair.

I looked right into his face.

I didn't get frightened. I know I wasn't dreaming. I couldn't move, I didn't speak, and he didn't. I couldn't place him racially—other than that I knew he was a non-European. I had no idea whatsoever who he was. He just sat there. Then suddenly as he had come, he was gone.

Malcolm's own sense that he is a chosen leader is sometimes striking. He speaks of his brother Reginald, who recruited him into Islam and then was cast out by Elijah Muhammad, and was finally placed in an institution. Malcolm says of his brother: "I believe, today, that it was written, it was meant for Reginald to be used for one purpose only: as a bait, as a minnow to reach into the ocean of blackness where I was, to save me." And Malcolm says that Elijah Muhammad "virtually raised me from the dead."

Malcolm often speaks of his life as "written." After describing his arrest for robbery, Malcolm says, "I have thought a thousand times, I guess, about how I so narrowly escaped death twice that day. That's why I believe that everything is written." The incident took place before his conversion, he says, but "Allah was with me even then." Malcolm talks of having "previsions" while in prison of addressing large crowds.

Malcolm's pilgrimage to Mecca, after the break with Elijah Muhammad, is full of talk of the signs of divine guidance. On the plane from America, Malcolm's seatmates were Muslims. "Another sign!" And later, in Egypt, "I considered it another of Allah's signs, that wherever I turned, someone was there to help me, to guide me."

One curious mark of Malcolm's faith in divine guidance was his belief in the significance of numbers. He speaks of attending the Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight: "Among the eight thousand other seat holders in Miami's big Convention Hall, I received Seat Number Seven. Seven has always been my favorite number. It has followed me throughout my life. I took this to be Allah's message confirming to me that Cassius Clay was going to win." Variations on the theme of seven appear here and there in the Autobiography. For instance, on his pilgrimage he was a guest at the Jedda Palace Hotel. He is careful to report that he was in suite number 214 (the sum of whose digits is seven).

In the face of evidence that Malcolm was a hustler or a religious fanatic, how were those of Malcolm's followers who believed his descriptions of the white man as a devil to interpret the final year of his life? Malcolm quotes from speeches he made during this period: "'Since I learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends have come to include all kinds—some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists! I have friends who are called capitalists, Socialists, and Communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists—some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white!'"

How could Malcolm's diverse audiences, the audiences of his last year and beyond, of all colors and politics, be expected to understand and assent to his final appeals to them? For somehow, although he did make enemies, although his organizational following at the time of his death was smaller than during his ministry for Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm's influence has continued to grow.

For all the difficulties that Malcolm poses to credibility, the charge that he is a fanatic or a charlatan will not stick. He was too good humored for a fanatic, and in fact he spoke in his last days of the danger of assuming that anyone is divinely guided. He made more painful sacrifices than could have been borne by a charlatan. Some larger reading of his Autobiography is needed, one that will accept his traces of fanaticism and charlatanism without supposing that they account for the full impact of the Autobiography and the elevation of Malcolm to a leading role in America's tragic struggle over racial injustice.

One way out of our difficulty at this point is to find the solution in a direct refutation of charges against Malcolm's credibility. There are patterns in the Autobiography which support a version of Malcolm as a magnificent anti-hero, an existentialist saint, a mythic witness to America's oppressive racism.

Malcolm's existentialist credentials are strong. He often speaks as if action constitutes the man, and he was a man of action. He says, "I've never been one for inaction. Everything I've ever felt strongly about I've done something about." And again, "Our Nation of Islam could be an even greater force in the American black man's overall struggle—if we engaged in more action…. I felt that, wherever black people committed themselves, in the Little Rocks and Birminghams and other places, militarily disciplined Muslims should also be there—for all the world to see, respect, and discuss."

Not only did Malcolm demonstrate the virtues of courage, wit, and dedication, but he was willing to change his position when he thought it necessary. The autobiographical mode is uniquely suited to explaining and justifying how Malcolm was led from one stage of life to another, just as it is suited to keeping the focus upon Malcolm as its central figure. We are made to understand how Malcolm evolved from a troubled but promising black youth through the underworld of crime and drugs to an urgent and original agent of social redemption. Far from denying his changes, Malcolm makes "change" a major theme of his Autobiography, developing a pattern which tempts one to think in messianic terms. There is in the Autobiography a tension between the particularity of Malcolm's experience, depicted with passion and eloquence, and the sense of universal, almost mythical, patterns into which Malcolm's life is rendered, forming an archetypal cycle of innocence-initiation-corruption-salvation-disillusionment-redemption-death and, ultimately, vindication.

But to describe Malcolm as a hero or martyr, reading the Autobiography, in effect, as a novel or a sacred text of existential revelation, for all that the Autobiography suggests such patterns, especially in the context of contemporary literary and popular culture, is to detail the book as rhetoric. For if we find the principle of Malcolm's life in his existential heroism or in a repetition of universal cycles, we shall have built a monument and destroyed a leader Malcolm would be elevated above the problem posed by his inconsistencies, but his elevation would be either too personal or too universal to exercise a truly rhetorical function, that is, to contribute to the wisdom of a contemporary social movement much in need of direction. And so if Malcolm can rescue himself from the charges of fanaticism and charlatanism only by reconstituting himself in the role of hero or saint, he has allowed the autobiographical genre to triumph over its rhetorical purpose and has left the movement without any clue as to how to apply his experience to today's problems.

If Malcolm contained the principle of change within himself, how can his audience know that he would not have changed again, had he lived? Might the humanism of Malcolm's last year not be simply one more stopping place along an obscure trail whose markings only Malcolm could read? Does The Autobiography of Malcolm X become literature at the expense of fulfilling its rhetorical possibilities?

At this point we must pause to consider more fully the relation of rhetoric and literary forms, particularly in autobiography. Certainly it would be misleading to argue that literature and rhetoric are separated by impenetrable barriers. In the literature of experience, whether poetry, drama, journalism, fiction, or autobiography, rhetoric can provide the purpose, content, or principle of organization. In practice, literature may always be in part rhetorical. Wayne Booth has demonstrated the necessity of separating the implied from the actual author, and he has shown that where literature does not directly address an audience, at the very least it requires the audience to participate in the moral world of the literary work. And yet the language of criticism would be impoverished if we overcompensated for old dichotomies by substituting the slogan that all literature is rhetorical. Slogans are still slogans, and even if it is true that all literature is rhetorical, literature and rhetoric are not identical. In a given case such imprecise terms as literature and rhetoric must be distinguished before they can be related.

In the case of any symbolic form, a set of conventions helps to create the context for a response. What conventions operate in autobiography, and what sorts of responses do they invite? Theorists of the genre, and there are few, seem to agree that autobiography is a literary genre more important for the form it gives to felt experience than for the accuracy with which it records actual events or the extent to which it influences public or private behavior. And most theorists sharply distinguish between autobiography proper and such associated forms as reminiscence, memoir, confession, and apologia.

Roy Pascal is willing to grant that autobiography must "give us events that are symbolic of the personality as an entity unfolding not solely according to its own laws, but also in response to the world it lives in." but he is quite clear in his insistence that autobiography "is in fact not at all a suitable vehicle for the exposition of a doctrine, for by its very form we are led to appreciate the ideas and insights expounded in it (e.g., with Augustine, Wordsworth, Croce, Schweitzer) not in their objective truth but as true for this particular man, as true of him." It is this sense of the single self generated symbolically in terms of a literary genre that prompts Richard Ellmann to argue that "autobiography is essentially solitary," whereas "biography is essentially social."

The conventions of autobiography are constantly working to focus the reader's attention upon an individual, and even at that, an individual who is created in the work and not necessarily as he appeared in "real life." Where the external world is an element, it is most readily seen as a part of the author's experience, rather than as a real place shared with the reader. Indeed, the more fully realized the work as autobiography, as distinguished from such related genres as memoir, reminiscence, confession, or apologia, the more the reader may be impelled to a literary, as opposed to a rhetorical response. The literary response holds the pleasures of formal apprehension and psychological insight, whereas a fully rhetorical response ends in a responsibility which goes beyond the work. Or so, at least, the theorists of autobiography seem to tell us.

Perhaps Maurianne Adams suggests a false dichotomy when she states her preference for autobiographers when "as imaginative writers they are more concerned with the controlled articulation of subjective impressions and responses than with outer, public events and achievements." Her allegiance is given to a convention which "enables autobiography to be a form of literature that we enjoy for its own sake, not as an adjunct to our knowledge of politics, military history, or public affairs."

What may appear to Adams as the vexing intrusion of actuality into the rarified atmosphere of "authenticity, fidelity, coherence, and thematic design," is likely to appear to a rhetorical critic as a quite inevitable tension whose resolution it is up to the autobiographer to produce. In a rhetorician's view, the aim is not to purify the work of any taint of the real world. It is not how close to pure form the autobiography becomes, but how the work relates form to audience and external world that holds the interest of the rhetorical critic.

In Malcolm's case we can observe a reinvention and extension of the genre, recapitulating as he does the development of a literary form through religious confession and political apology to a final discovery of the self. But Malcolm does not stop with the revelation of his selfhood, and it is his ability to transcend the confines of pure literature even while meeting its formal requirements that constitutes his rhetorical genius.

For Malcolm's rhetorical purposes, either of the readings of the Autobiography so far proposed would amount to failure. For those who would reject Malcolm as a hustler or fanatic, the rhetorical problem is to establish credibility. For those who would promote Malcolm into a virtually fictional hero, Malcolm must avoid the more subtle failure of succeeding too well at remaining within the traditions of autobiography as literary form, and thereby isolating himself from the experimental world of the reader.

Both of the readings we have so far proposed are supportable by reference to the Autobiography, but both are too narrow to account fully for the work. Is it possible to develop a view of the book that acknowledges the attraction of contrasting, even inconsistent, alternate readings? Such a reading would have to accept Malcolm's opportunism and his deep commitment, his ordeal of corruption and his sacrifice in blood, his evident ambition and its accompanying self denial. The reading we seek does not lie "somewhere between" the two so far proposed, but is generated out of them. Because it must be approached in a dialectical fashion, the view now proposed takes its support not only from the direct evidence of the text, but also from the evident clash of two persuasive but conflicting readings.

At the first level, our proposed final or synthetic reading is simple: Malcolm's life is a drama of enlargement. In this view, Malcolm is a gifted but flawed man whose natural powers and sympathies undergo a gradual but powerful opening up to embrace wider scenes of action and larger groups of people. What makes Malcolm's life a drama—an enactment of conflict—rather than a mere growth, is the presence of racism, the agency of constriction, domination, and injustice. We reject the figure of growth because it is essentially passive, suggesting the involuntary fulfillment of a destiny. What is important about Malcolm is his achievement through willed action and reflection, in the face of hostile forces. Malcolm, in this view, is not a creature of circumstantial corruption, nor is he a Sisyphean figure whose life takes on a mythical distance from the immediate scene. He is a man in conflict with a condition whose nature he comes to understand and transcend as motive passes from his environment to him. Such a view, if we can accept it, gives Malcolm's life a continuity that may be extended beyond his death, and it reconciles our two previous readings.

Given this reading, the elements of fanaticism and hustlerism in his early career do not detract from Malcolm's credibility, but rather lend authenticity to a humanism which, alone, might seem anemic.

If Malcolm's life as a pimp and hustler, as a black nationalist rabble-rouser, and as a spokesman for human brotherhood can be seen as the general unfolding of a consistent pattern, then the Autobiography has succeeded as rhetoric, signaling the response to a human institution of which racism is the most pressing extension. Malcolm would thus not have to be dismissed as a frantic true believer or elevated—another form of dismissal—as a sainted scapegoat of racist America. Rather, he could be read as a gifted leader of men who develops a rhetoric transcending racism, a rhetoric of human purpose and brotherhood. Most importantly, perhaps, the reading gives us the principle behind Malcolm's "changes," which are now seen as consistent steps forward rather than as random and untrustworthy conversions by faith. Malcolm's readers are not reduced to admiring him; they can pick up where he left off.

As Malcolm came to understand that racism had caused him to act as he had, its power to control his actions passed over to him. Motive, previously located in his condition, was now in the hands of a conscious agent. With the Autobiography, Malcolm shares that motive with his readers, giving them a principle of action they can carry into the confrontation with racism as it conditions their own lives.

Thus far we have shown that to explain Malcolm's Autobiography as a drama of enlargement will plausibly synthesize variant readings and suggest the source of the book's power over readers. But every critical reading must pass a further test. If the notion of enlargement is to be useful, it must help us to open up the text. This it can do in a variety of ways.

First, enlargement is the pattern of Malcolm's career itself. Starting as a small-time hustler, whose power was active but restricted, Malcolm sought wider and wider stages for his actions. Moving from Michigan to Boston to Harlem to black nationalism, pan-Islamism, and the United Nations, Malcolm also enlarged his loyalties from self and family to gang, race, religion, and all mankind. Seen in this light, Malcolm's sense of brotherhood with all men is not the weakening of militancy or a softening of commitment, but an extension of potency.

The force against which Malcolm's power grew and exercised itself was racism, which Malcolm came to understand in broader terms as but the central manifestation of injustice and domination. Where racism appeared simply as the condition denying Malcolm money and prestige, he could combat it by conking his hair and resorting to a life of crime. Where racism was conceived as an institution created by white oppressors, he could turn to black nationalism. And where racism grew to appear as the symptom of a disease afflicting a social system, Malcolm could look for the healing power of revolution and social redemption.

Supporting the movement of Malcolm's life to ever larger stages is a counter-theme of thwarted growth. Before his two most important changes, Malcolm was placed temporarily in positions of impotency or confinement. It was while he was in prison that he converted to the Islamism of the Black Muslims, and later it was during an enforced silence imposed by Elijah Muhammad that Malcolm incubated his transformation into the larger world of a pilgrimage to Mecca, a political tour of Africa, and a return to America as the potential leader of an extended search for racial justice. And of course racism itself appears throughout the work in all of its forms as a constricting element that invites conflict and growth. Counter theme reinforces theme, thwarted power grows into larger power.

The pattern of enlargement is imitated in the structure of the chapters of the Autobiography as well as in its major movements. Typically, a chapter opens with a narrative section, which then gives way to a series of amplifications or generalizations on a theme growing out of the narrative. Chapter Three, "Home-boy," narrates Malcolm's first days in Boston and Roxbury, leading to a description of his first conk, applied by his friend Shorty. The chapter ends with an extended peroration depicting the hair-straightening process as a self-defacement, a natural product of racism. And along the way, even during the narration, there extends out from concrete particulars the larger world of values suggested by the vocabulary of a racist society: black, white, Crispus Attucks, Uncle Tom.

An early paragraph illustrates the book's movement, a movement repeated at the levels of sentence, paragraph, chapter, and section. Malcolm is describing his father, as remembered from his earliest years:

It was in his role as a preacher that my father had most contact with the Negroes of Lansing. Believe me when I tell you that those Negroes were in bad shape then. They an: still in bad shape—though in a different way. By that I mean that I don't know a town with a higher percentage of complacent and misguided so-called "middle-class" Negroes—the typical status-symbol-oriented, integration-seeking type of Negroes. Just recently, I was standing in a lobby at the United Nations talking with an African ambassador and his wife, when a Negro came up to me and said, "You know me?" I was a little embarrassed because I thought he was someone I should remember. It turned out that he was one of those bragging, self-satisfied, "middle-class" Lansing Negroes. I wasn't ingratiated. He was the type who would never have been associated with Africa, until the fad of having African friends became a status-symbol for "middle-class" Negroes.

This paragraph is worth our close attention. Here a recollection from his early childhood leads Malcolm to a larger theme which then incorporates an enlarged temporal scheme as he speaks directly from a later point in time (the incident at the United Nations did not happen, say, "many years later," in the usual formula for such things, but "just recently"). We note also that we are again in the presence of what at first appears as Malcolm's own snobbery, but by the end of the paragraph his worries about his own status, no doubt stirred by bitter memories of early snubs, have been transcended by turning the tables and by referring to the wider themes of Africa, the United Nations, and the fight against racism. The paragraph displays enlargement both as a dispositional strategy and as a struggle to confess and work from his own confining concern for status and retribution towards a principle of active change.

Malcolm's choice of figures is also governed by themes of growth and their contraries. Chapter Fifteen is climaxed by the image of Icarus, who reminds Malcolm that however high he flies his wings were supplied by Islam. Earlier in the chapter, describing a period when he was at the peak of his success as a minister of Elijah Muhammad, and therefore just about to leave the brotherhood, Malcolm devotes a section to his relations with the press: "I developed a mental image of reporters as human ferrets—steadily sniffing, darting, probing for some way to trick me, somehow to corner me in our interview exchanges." The image goes no further, and Malcolm instead continues by illustrating how he outwitted the press. Yet if the reporters were ferrets, Malcolm implies that he saw himself as a burrowing prey, retreating into a dark tunnel from which he was soon to emerge in a new form.

What bothered Malcolm most about prison were the bars, the visible sign of his confinement. "Any person who claims to have a deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars—caged. I am not saying there shouldn't be prisons, but there shouldn't be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars."

Later, when he had converted to Islam while in prison, Malcolm began to study, educating himself from the prison library. "Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened…. Months passed without my even thinking of being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life." And still later, when Malcolm undertook his Hajj pilgrimage, he arrived in Cairo, and "the effect was as though I had just stepped out of a prison."

But there is more to the theme of enlargement and confinement than images, for Malcolm's Autobiography goes beyond the closed world of literary form towards the open forum of rhetorical address. The relation of the theme of confinement to the predicament of American blacks is stated clearly in the following passage: "Human rights! Respect as human beings! That's what America's black masses want. That's the true problem. The black masses want not to be shrunk from as though they are plague-ridden. They want not to be walled up in slums, in the ghettos, like animals. They want to live in an open, free society where they can walk with their heads up, like men, and women!"

When speaking to black audiences in the last year of his life, Malcolm went beyond the Islamic faith "to embrace all who sat before me." He was, he said, "for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole." In the face of opposition and harassment, he declared that he was against "strait-jacketed thinking, and strait-jacketed societies."

Malcolm's Autobiography is constructed in terms of the contradictions between open and closed, constriction and enlargement, confinement and action. The dialectical structure of the book is a major rhetorical accomplishment, since it allows Malcolm to transcend the challenges which his own life in the context of a secular and a racist society posed to his credibility and relevance.

After he left Elijah Muhammad, in the last three chapters of the Autobiography, Malcolm's images change, to become variations on the concept of healing, with Malcolm seeking a symbol to reconcile an intensified religiosity and a growing sense of the need for secular action. He speaks of racism as a disease, a metaphor that for him makes possible a symbolic transcendence in which violence is weighed as a radical surgery for the "cancer" which grips America—an America which he no longer hates but now seeks to mend. The image of cancer itself becomes especially meaningful when we see it in the light of Malcolm's theme of enlargement, where it takes on resonances of the perverted growth of an evil and uncontrolled malignancy. The dialectical symmetry of the cancer metaphor is, in context, unmistakable.

These final themes are not resolved, nor had Malcolm, at the end of his life, yet found a perfectly unified and straightforward synthesis for the contradictions of his life. But he had found the principle of synthesis in his actions, and had set it forth in a pattern of symbols that, like his own life, possesses the capacity to evolve.

I have not attempted a full critical exploration of the immensely rich rhetorical works of Malcolm X. Rather, I have addressed the preliminary question of how to account for Malcolm's enduring influence by suggesting the presence in The Autobiography of Malcolm X of a dialectical rhetoric, in which a drama of enlargement saves Malcolm from being dismissed as a fanatic, a charlatan, or an existential anti-hero, and instead renders his life as the embodiment of a principle of rhetorical action. And the form of action Malcolm achieves in the Autobiography transcends the rhetorical fractions of which we spoke at the beginning of this essay. If we see hustling as a parody of rhetorical Doing, fanaticism as a corruption of rhetorical Knowing, and existential sainthood as a variation of rhetorical Being, we are able to see the Autobiography as a synthesizing act which resolves and transcends the fractions, producing a fully rhetorical action to which Being (and becoming), Knowing, and Doing contribute equally.

Malcolm has created a work which is formally consistent, authentically autobiographical, and yet rhetorically effective. Symbolically, Malcolm continually enlarges his powers and sympathies; dialectically, Malcolm's recurrent changes are shown to be transcendent movements which reconcile his own contradictory masks as hustler, religious mystic, and existential rebel, and the polarities of America's ordeal of racism; rhetorically, Malcolm seizes motive from the scene and makes it available to his readers, who are invited to assume their roles as actors in the drama of enlargement and reconciliation.

Confinement and enlargement. In The Autobiography of Aalcolm X these are the symbolic vehicles for an essentially rhetorical mode of knowing, being, and doing in the world. They stand as the symbols for Malcolm's discovery of himself through the act of addressing his fellow men. As Malcolm's sphere of action, a rhetorical sphere, enlarges, as he seeks in turn to rob, hustle, convert, and join in brotherhood with even larger constituencies, there is a parallel enlargement of his world view. At the end of his life, the Malcolm of the Autobiography stands at the threshold of both power and vision. Some men grow by appropriating the power and space of other men and women. Malcolm X. born Malcolm Little and assassinated as Brother Malcolm, El-Hajj Malik Shabazz, was one of those rare men the growth of whose power was consistently accompanied by a growing vision of freedom and brotherhood for all people.

John D. Groppe (essay date Winter 1983)

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SOURCE: "From Chaos to Cosmos: The Role of Trust in The Autobiography of Malcolm X," in Soundings, Vol. LXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 437-49.

[In the following essay, Groppe employs the developmental stage theory of Erik Erikson to demonstrate Malcolm X's "growth into trust" as it is related in The Autobiography of Malcolm X.]

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a story of the loss, and then the regaining, of the capacity to trust. According to Erik Erikson, trust is the foundation on which the personality is developed. The basic trust of the newborn is elaborated and refined into more conscious, more articulated, and more complex modes of relationship. In spite of the variety of modes of trust, trust is nevertheless characterized by one's confidence that his world and his own attributes can meet his needs and the needs of those he loves. In this essay I will trace Malcolm X's growth into trust by superimposing his pilgrimage upon Erikson's developmental stages.

For Malcolm X to tell hi;; story, even to a black journalist, was an act of trust. At the beginning of his relationship to Alex Haley, he told Haley, "I don't completely trust anyone … not even myself. I have seen too many men destroy themselves. Other people I trust from not at all to highly, like The Honorable Elijah Muhammad…. You I trust about twenty-five percent." However, by listening and recording faithfully what Malcolm X said, Haley gained Malcolm X's trust. Malcolm X stepped beyond repeating the ideological formulas of the Muslim movement and began to share his life with Haley, even the moments of great shame over things like his mother's incarceration in a mental hospital. Malcolm X was conscious of whom he trusted and whom he did not trust. Haley recalls Malcolm X's affirmation of his confidence.

One call that I will never forget came at close to four a.m., waking me; he must have just gotten up in Los Angeles. His voice said, "Alex Haley?" I said, sleepily, "Yes? Oh, hey, Malcolm!" His voice said, "I trust you seventy percent"—and then he hung up.

Trusting a stranger with the intimate details of one's life is a violation of the code of the hustler Malcolm X lived by from 1942 to 1946.

What I was learning was the hustling society's first rule; that you never trusted anyone outside of your own close-mouthed circle, and that you selected with time and care before you made any intimates even among them.

That group was small indeed. He encouraged his younger brother Reginald to leave the merchant marine and take up a hustle in Harlem. "I must have felt that having my kid brother around me would be a good thing. Then there would be two people I could trust—Sammy was the other." Not long afterwards Malcolm X was almost killed by Sammy for slapping Sammy's woman, and the reliable world narrowed to one. "I came to rely more and more upon my brother Reginald as the only one in my world I could completely trust."

The disintegration of the reliability of his world began early. His home was burned when he was four. His father was assassinated when he was six. His family was treated as "things" by the welfare workers who destroyed family pride and sowed "seeds of division" in the minds of the children, Mrs. Little weakened under the pressure, and the children watched their "anchor giving way." His parents became causes of shame. "None of us talked much about our mother. And we never mentioned our father."

His ability to trust in his own attributes was assaulted by the same forces that defeated his mother, but the final blow was the remark by his teacher that his ambition to become a lawyer was not a "realistic goal for a nigger."

Malcolm X's move to the black worlds of Roxbury and Harlem gave him the opportunity to experience race identity and pride. "This world was where I belonged," he recalled. For one thing, it identified with him: "I still was country, I know now, but it all felt so great because I was accepted." More importantly it allowed him to express, and excel at the expression of, something he felt was deep within him and other blacks; "With alcohol and marijuana lightening my head, and that wild music wailing away on those portable players, it didn't take long to loosen up the dancing instincts in my African heritage."

Race pride, however, went hand-in-hand with race shame. It was such shame, the rejection of his own and his common blackness, that led him to straighten his hair in the painful process of conking.

How ridiculous I was! Stupid enough to stand there simply lost in admiration of my hair now looking "white"…. This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man's hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are "inferior"—and white people "superior"—that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look "pretty" by white standards.

Harlem and places like Small's Paradise offered some sense of community: "Many times since, I have thought about it, and what it really meant. In one sense, we were huddled in there, bonded together in seeking security and warmth and comfort from one another, and we didn't know it." Not knowing what they needed from each other, the hustlers preyed on one another. "In this Harlem jungle people would hype their brothers." Malcolm X became physically sick from his use of opium and marijuana and spiritually, or as he puts it, "mentally dead."

The various stages of Malcolm X's life are signalled by name changes: Malcolm Little, Mascot, Sandwich Red, Harlem Red, Detroit Red. In prison he was called "Satan" because of his "antireligious attitude." But he also suggests that his resentment was directed not just at religion but also at the world. He preferred solitary confinement. He was disruptive and was punished with solitary. "I preferred the solitary that this behavior brought me. I would pace for hours like a caged leopard, viciously cursing aloud to myself." By this point Malcolm X had almost completely lost his basic trust. According to Erikson, "If you have forgotten how to trust, you may be driven to cultivate active mistrust and insist defiantly that everyone is against you."

The world he knew could not be trusted to sustain him or meet his needs, nor did there seem to be anything in himself to enable him to meet the opposition of the world and to sustain himself. However, the Satanic defiance was only a delaying tactic, not unlike the bravado of the hustling life he had lived on the streets. Just as "every criminal expects to get caught, [and] … stave[s] off the inevitable for as long as he can," Satan Malcolm had as yet no hope. He had to find something in himself and something in the world to trust. The convict Bimini led him to trust once again in his own mental powers. Bimini, a black burglar, could hold audiences of even white prisoners and guards spellbound by his opinions; "he was the first man [Malcolm] had ever seen command total respect … with his words." Bimini told him "he had some brains." A black man with some power in that restricted world spoke to him, identified his talent, and encouraged him to develop it. Malcolm began "a correspondence course in English."

He began to prepare to reenter the world, but he needed a place within it. After all, identity is characterized by mutuality. Elijah Muhammad provided that place. The role of Elijah Muhammad and the Black Muslim movement is probably the most difficult part of Malcolm X's regeneration to understand and accept. Its militant racism and its dependence on so patently absurd a foundation as "Yacub's History" of the human race suggest that Malcolm X faltered on his first regenerative step. I assume most readers are aware of Malcolm X's ultimate break with Elijah Muhammad and his movement and of his assassination by Muslims. This might prompt the reader to write off the Black Muslim experience as an unfortunate but temporary disaster. Such a reading, however, would cause the reader to fail to see how the Muslim movement aided in Malcolm X's growth. At the age of twenty-three Malcolm Little became Malcolm X and entered into the kind of relationship Erikson identifies with adolescence.

Erikson [in Insight and Responsibility: Lectures on the Ethical Implications of Psychoanalytic Insight] elaborates the childhood virtue of basic trust into four virtues: hope, will, purpose, and competence. Malcolm X's prison experience rekindled hope and will and gave him a purpose. His language program (including correspondence courses, his reading of the dictionary, his letters to Elijah Muhammad, and his participation in the debate club) gave him competence. The twenty-three year old ex-con might seem to have been ready for an adult role. Erikson defines adulthood in terms of courage; "to be a person, identical with oneself, presupposes a basic trust in one's origins—and the courage to emerge from them." Malcolm had yet to reconsider his origins and to deal with the shame of being the son of an assassinated father and a mental patient mother and at the same time a Negro. Dropping his family name and assuming the unknown X immediately lifted some of the burden, and Yacub's History held open the possibility of uncovering a more dignified lineage than he was aware of.

Dropping his family name for the X was no big step. He had long since lost the name Little and much of the relatedness it entailed. He recalled making a public show of his draft notice by reading it aloud and remarking, "this was probably the only time my real name was ever heard in Harlem in those days." The names he was known by emphasized personal attributes—his red hair—or a sort of generic quality—his being from Detroit or Harlem. He had moved into a culture in which relatedness was deemphasized or almost impossible. One had no continuity with a past and, therefore, no real future. One was a creature of the present to be distinguished only by personal characteristics. Yacub's History restored a relationship to the past and made his future possible.

He needed a supportive environment to explore the unknown and to test his competence. He had to go through adolescence, the virtue of which, according to Erikson, is fidelity, a virtue which produces "a whole circle of approving eyes which makes the space [one] masters both safe and secure." The chief virtue of the Muslim movement—with its strict codes on dress, alcohol and other stimulants, sex roles and family life, cleanliness and eating habits, and its schedule that consumed almost all of the free time of its devotees—was its separatism. Such a life style created a safe and secure space by blocking out and holding off at a distance distractions and inappropriate standards of personal dignity. Malcolm X accepted that secure space Elijah Muhammad offered to him, and, being selflessly faithful to him. Minister Malcolm increased the number of approving eyes within it.

Trust grows in a stable situation and increases the stability of the relationship. It is the stability of the relationship that contributes to the growth of the persons within it. In explaining why he prefers to call the basic relationship "trust" rather than "confidence," Erikson says:

If I prefer the word "trust," it is because there is more naiveté and more mutuality in it: an infant can be said to be more trusting where it would go too far to say that he has confidence. The general state of trust, furthermore, implies not only that one has learned to rely on the sameness and continuity of the other providers, but also that one may trust oneself and the capacity of one's own organs to cope with urges; and that one is able to consider oneself trustworthy enough so that providers will not need to be on guard lest they be nipped.

In the earliest stages, the developing infant is freed by the stable provision of food, shelter, and comfort to explore and exploit his world in certain directions. The relationship is a mutual one tending toward mutual sustenance and gratification. At later stages the child plays a more definite and distinctive part in sustaining and building the stability which secures both parties of the relationship. The taken-for-grantedness of the world, the attitude of not questioning everything, allows for the growth of confidence in one's ability to manage. Though it seems fantastic, Yacub's History of the Human Race and its hope for recovery of the lost dignity of black people provided a stable center for the development of the rhetorical, administrative, philosophical, and spiritual growth of the late adolescent Minister Malcolm. Yacub's History is a story out of cosmic time, and something apparently that old and that enduring reveals a recurrent dimension of Malcolm X's search for stability. He calls it "timelessness." It was the sense of timelessness he sought in drugs.

Going downtown to deliver the reefers, I felt sensations I cannot describe, in all those different grooves at the same time. The only word to describe it was a timelessness. A day might have seemed to me five minutes. Or a half-hour might have seemed a week.

The timelessness of drugs was an illusion that could be reentered only at the cost of mental and then physical death. Accepting Yacub's History and the Black Muslim movement led Malcolm ultimately to an experience of an enduring sense of timelessness. It came in Mecca, which he called "as ancient as time itself." Two other principles of stability emerged from the Mecca experience, the oneness of God and the unity of mankind: "All ate as One, and slept as One. Everything about the pilgrimage atmosphere accepted the Oneness of Man under One God." In Mecca Malcolm X found that space and time can become one thing.

Acceptance of a world by an act of fidelity gives one the opportunity to exercise competence and to grow. Malcolm X organized mosques in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. He was rewarded with the use of a car, which he identified as a sign of Elijah Muhammad's "trust and confidence in my efforts to help build our Nation of Islam." The New York mosque stood up to the police in a brutality case, and "a jury awarded [Brother Hinton] over $70,000, the largest police brutality judgment that New York City ever paid." He founded a newspaper. The Muslims cured drug addicts and organized many small businesses. Their membership grew. The good and faithful servant becomes in time the principle of stability for others, becomes, in other words, an adult. Minister Malcolm was rewarded for his fidelity with the trust of Elijah Muhammad. When Mr. Muhammad was convalescing in Arizona, Malcolm X went to him to discuss some public speaking requests and some administrative matters. He felt trusted:

Mr. Muhammad evidenced the depth of his trust in me. In those areas I've described, he told me to make the decisions myself. He said that my guideline should be whatever I felt was wise—whatever was in the general good interests of our Nation of Islam.

The cared for had begun to become the career. Erikson sees the virtues of adulthood as love, care, and wisdom. Malcolm X had learned too well the meaning of Yacub's History. Black people in need of care, in need of his protective rhetoric, were not limited to the membership of the Nation of Islam, or at least those who had already declared fidelity to it. After all, Islam was for him at that time the Black Man's religion. He was willing in the name of all Black Americans to take risks that threatened the isolation and separated security of the Nation of Islam. He was soon to face another crisis of growth which would end in his emergence to full personhood or adulthood: "to be a person, identical with oneself, presupposes a basic trust in one's origins—and the courage to emerge from them." The Black Muslim movement and its familial bonds gave him a trust in his remote black origins, and his growing competence as a speaker, leader, and organizer gave him the courage to emerge from the Nation of Islam into a broader, more diverse family.

The first step toward adulthood was taking charge of some portion of the world in his own name. This step was not his marriage to Sister Betty but his helping to get his mother released from the mental hospital after over twenty years of incarceration. In fact, it was only when Alex Haley asked him to talk about his mother that Malcolm X began to tell his own life story. Haley recalled, "After that night, he never again hesitated to tell me even the most intimate details of his personal life, over the next two years. His talking about his mother triggered something." It caused Malcolm X to become Malcolm Little again and to face some unfinished business which he could now deal with, the shame of his mother's hospitalization. Later Malcolm X told Haley:

"Ever since we discussed my mother, I've been thinking about her. I realized that I had blocked her out of my mind…. It made me face something about myself…. My mind had closed about [my] mother. I simply didn't feel the problem could be solved, so I had shut it out."

It was, indeed, a family effort that released Mrs. Little, but perhaps Malcolm X's growth was the catalyst that freed his brothers and sisters from their own shame and impotence.

Malcolm X had to take other steps toward adulthood. When he and Haley first met, he did nothing in his own name and owned nothing. The book he contracted to do with Alex Haley was dedicated to Elijah Muhammad, and all royalties were to be paid to Mr. Muhammad's mosque in Chicago. The house he and Sister Betty and the children lived in was owned by the New York mosque. Malcolm X recalled that the only quarrel he had with his wife was about money. She wanted him to put some money away for their family, but he convinced her at that time that "the Nation of Islam would take care of her for the rest of her life, and of [their] children until they were grown." He was still a person with almost no conscious base of identity outside the Nation of Islam.

Then came the break with Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm was silenced. He found himself being made a scapegoat for the growing rift in the Nation of Islam as a result of the paternity suits against Elijah Muhammad. His life was threatened. He felt he was losing his mind, and he struggled to avoid ending like his brother Reginald, whose brain was "burned." Even Malcolm had helped to destroy Reginald's mind:

The last time I had seen Reginald, one day he walked into the Mosque Seven restaurant. I saw him coming in the door. I went and met him. I looked into my brother's eyes; I told him he wasn't welcome among Muslims, and he turned around and left, and I haven't seen him since. I did that to my own blood brother because, years before, Mr. Muhammad had sentenced Reginald to "isolation" from all other Muslims—and I considered that I was a Muslim before I was Reginald's brother.

To survive outside the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X needed to know that his needs and, now that he was a husband and father, the needs of those he cared for could be met in that world. He had to trust, that is to identify, with that world. It was a larger, less clearly defined world than the Nation of Islam. For one thing, it included whites. He found that even white reporters were concerned about him as a result of the evident strain he was under following his silencing by Elijah Muhammad.

Since I had been a Muslim, this was the first time any white people really got to me in a personal way. I could tell that some of them were really honest and sincere. One of those, whose name I won't call—he might lose his job—said, "Malcolm X, the whites need your voice worse than the Negroes."

He discovered that he was a husband and father and that he could rely on Betty as he never before believed he could.

I never would have dreamed that I would ever depend so much upon any woman for strength as I now leaned upon Betty. There was no exchange between us; Betty said nothing, being the caliber of wife that she is, with the depth of understanding that she has—but I could feel the envelopment of her comfort. I knew that she was as faithful a servant of Allah as I was, and I knew that whatever happened, she was with me.

He rewrote the contract for the book with the royalties to go to his new mosque and, in the event of his death, to his wife.

Finally, he identified with the ghetto masses. As he put it. "I could speak and understand the ghetto's language." He spoke their language because he had lived and identified with their experience, and carried the memories of it into the Muslim movement.

The Nation of Islam had separated itself from both black and white America. Malcolm X was able to find in the dream of a separated Muslim nation a cure for his own self-rejection, but there were aspects of himself that he never repudiated. To be redeemed meant not to be utterly transformed, but to allow what was good in him to emerge. He never repudiated the dancing that made him famous in Boston and Harlem. Haley recalls that when Malcolm X was retelling his dancing exploits, he "really got carried away."

One night, suddenly, wildly, he jumped up from his chair and, incredibly, the fearsome black demagogue was scat-singing and popping his fingers, "re-bop-de-bop-blap-blam—" and then grabbing a vertical pipe with one hand (as the girl partner) he went jubilantly lindy-hopping around, his coattail and the long legs and the big feet flying as they had in those Harlem days.

In spite of the conks and zoot suits and the degradation of Laura, there was something basically good in his lindy hop experience that remained outside of the Nation of Islam and was a bond between him and the ghetto.

It pained him to see black people lost to alcohol and drugs. Haley recalls that on one of his daily walks through Harlem, Malcolm X might tell a wino, "It's just what the white devil wants you to do, brother…. He wants you to get drunk so he will have an excuse to put a club up beside your head." Malcolm X did not repudiate the black hustler, even though he recognized the hell the hustler lived in. He identified with the hustler.

"I had a jungle mind, I was living in a jungle, and everything I did was done by instinct to survive … it was all a result of what happens to thousands upon thousands of black men in the white man's Christian world."

He did not repudiate the hustler because there was a talent in him that could have been put to greater use. The numbers runner he had bet with, West Indian Archie with his "photographic memory" for numbers, was such a lost talent. Malcolm X admitted having frequently "reflected upon such black veteran numbers men as West Indian Archie. If they had lived in another kind of society, their exceptional mathematical talents might have been better used. But they were black."

Harlem and Roxbury blacks, with their raw energies, diverse if misdirected talents, and some level of mutual acceptance and respect, were those he identified with from his first encounter with the ghetto. He continued to identify with them and yearned to serve them even as a good servant of the separatist Muslim movement, and he served them well indeed, for when he accepted the break with Elijah Muhammad, his new place was already affirmed.

In the end, I reasoned that the decision already had been made for me. The ghetto masses already had entrusted me with an image of leadership among them. I knew the ghetto instinctively extends that trust only to one who had demonstrated that he would never sell them out to the white man. I not only had no such intention—to sell out was not in my nature.

His new mission was to be a continuation of the old one: to develop self-acceptance by developing competence and self-confidence. Part of his new vision was to continue the economic self-development he had initiated in the Muslims when the Muslims opened their own stores and services. He held that "It's because black men don't own and control their own community's retail establishments that they can't stabilize their own community." His vision was to found a new organization that would free black people from their mental, spiritual, economic, and political sickness. It would not be a separatist organization as "it would embrace all faiths of black men, and it would carry into practice what the Nation of Islam had only preached."

Acting in his own name again, he announced his new organization, The Muslim Mosque, Incorporated, at a public press conference, and then set off on the pilgrimage to Mecca. The reader who is uncomfortable with the racist statements of Minister Malcolm is relieved by the vision of unity of all races that Malcolm X had in Mecca, but to move quickly to the vision is to overlook the growth process that made the vision possible. To get to Mecca Malcolm X had to borrow money. Although he was a man conscious of the importance of language, he went to Mecca ignorant of Arabic. He had to surrender his passport at Jedda. He recalled that he "never had felt more alone and helpless" since he was a baby, yet none of his hustler self-protectiveness emerged. He was learning to trust in a different world. All during his trip he received kindnesses, each of which was "another of Allah's signs, that wherever I turned, someone was there to help me, to guide me." In such a world one could be helpless and yet not be in need. The God who cared for one cared for all humankind. He had journeyed beyond self, beyond clan, and now beyond nation and race. To the identification he shared with his family and the ghetto masses and to the care for their needs he had already amply demonstrated, he now added wisdom. He told a press conference in Cairo that what impressed him most about the Hajj was, "The brotherhood! The people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one!" It had proved to him "the power of the One God." This new stage of his growth was also signalled by a name change—El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz—that indicated that he had been fulfilled. He recalled later, "In my thirty-nine years on this earth the Holy City of Mecca had been the first time I had ever stood before the Creator of All and felt like a complete human being."

To be a complete human being is not to be separate from the world, but to be part of it. The new Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, had acted in his own name to declare a place within the world. Yet he was also able to acknowledge his dependence on others, for example his wife. Shortly before his death, Malcolm X told Sister Betty as he was leaving the house:

"We'll all be together. I want my family with me. Families shouldn't be separated. I'll never make another long trip without you. We'll get somebody to keep the children. I'll never leave you so long again."

He was able to admit his limitations. He told Haley that he lacked a formal education and that he had an unsatisfied thirst for knowledge:

"You can believe me that if I had the time right now, I would not be one bit ashamed to go back into any New York City public school and start where I left off at the ninth grade, and go on through a degree. Because I don't begin to be academically equipped for so many of the interests that I have. For instance, I love languages. I wish I were an accomplished linguist. I don't know anything more frustrating than to be around people talking something you can't understand."

He could deal openly with the fear of failure and still take the risks of defeat and shame. Haley recalls:

A few days later, however,… [Malcolm X] wrote in one of his memo books this, which he let me read, "Children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so 'safe,' and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure."

He could rely on others without qualification. Haley recalls that when be brought Malcolm X a contract for the foreign publication rights of The Autobiography, Malcolm X hesitated.

He looked suspiciously at the contract, and said, "I had better show this thing to my lawyer," and put the contract in his inside coat pocket. Driving in Harlem about an hour later, he suddenly stopped the car across the street from the 135th Street Y.M.C.A. Building. Withdrawing the contract, he signed it, and thrust it to me. "I'll trust you," he said, and drove on.

He could accept his own death.

Anyway, now, each day I live as if I am already dead, and I tell you what I would like you to do. When I am dead—I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form—I want you to just watch and see if I'm not right in what I say: that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with "hate."

This acceptance stance was different from the stance of the gun toting street hustler who also lived as if he were a dead man. As a hustler he was ready to die, but he was also ready to take the lives of others with his dying energies. As the leader of the Muslim Mosque, Inc., as the husband and father of a family whose home was fire bombed, he did not threaten to take others with him when he died. The hustler has only himself. When he is gone, there is nothing left. Malcolm X had come to identify with and to trust others.

He had come to accept a world larger than his own ego. Vague and indistinct though it may have been, this world participated in the timeless. Nothing could destroy it. In spite of his violent death, Malcolm Little X completed his pilgrimage from self to cosmos, each step of which was an act of ever increasing trust.

Hank Flick and Larry Powell (essay date June 1988)

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SOURCE: "Animal Imagery in the Rhetoric of Malcolm X," in Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, June, 1988, pp. 435-51.

[In the following essay, Flick and Powell explore Malcolm X's use of animal imagery in his rhetoric as a means of changing the prevailing conceptions held by black Americans about white Americans.]

The history of the black man in America emanates from the edifice of slavery and its subsequent effects on both white and black Americans. Over the years a number of rhetors have analyzed such a situation for the purpose of identifying those rhetorical devices that had been employed to regulate blacks to a lifelong position of servitude in America. Rhetors noted the different devices that were employed to maintain and then tighten the shackles of slavery to the limbs of blacks as they migrated from the plantations of the old South to the urban centers of America. One rhetor who analyzed such a situation was Malcolm X.

Malcolm X's rhetoric was designed to modify the image that many blacks had of white America. Such an image had white America seen as a people who were humane in their interests and treatment of other people. White America was perceived by blacks as being a moral people who had the courage to deal effectively with those injustices that had been perpetrated against blacks. In seeking to modify such an image, Malcolm faced a situation wherein he made use of several rhetorical devices. One such device was his use of animal imagery.

The rhetoric of Malcolm X was born of societal conflict. In fact, his rapid persuasive messages—dotted with short sentences and quick and cutting answers—were the means by which such conflict was perpetuated. Any examination of the rhetoric of Malcolm X might be seen as a logical result of crisis conditions that have been developing for more than a century in the black communities across America as blacks were forced to give form to their own set of experiences in the midst of a white culture.

In seeking to modify the image many blacks had of white America, Malcolm faced a situation where one culture acted in a supraculture. Black Americans operated within a system wherein most everything was defined, given form, and controlled by white America, Malcolm envisioned the history of the United States as a personal historical chronicle of white people, written by white people, and immortalized for white people. Against such a semantic backdrop, Malcolm's words must first be heard and then understood.

The purpose of this article is to study Malcolm's use of animal imagery in relation to his goal of freeing blacks from their image of white America. In regards to this purpose, this article has (1) identified the image that many blacks had of white America, (2) identified Malcolm's paradigm for the use of animal imagery, (3) discussed this paradigm in relation to how animal imagery was employed by Malcolm to modify an image, and (4) identified what can be learned from Malcolm's discourse in terms of facing future images that are in need of change.


A person's image of him- or herself, the world he or she lives in, and his or her place in that world is determined by a person's subjective knowledge. An image is nothing more than the sum total of a person's beliefs and perceptions of self and other. What a person thinks he or she is, what he or she sees others as being, what he or she thinks the world is like goes to form a person's image of the present and his or her expectations of the future. The image a person holds of him- or herself is not one-dimensional. It is a multidimensional "something" that serves to place people into a time-space relationship with other persons. This image serves to stimulate and guide people's behavior.

Over the years, white America has acquired a series of public images of their own. [K. E.] Boulding, [in The Image, 1956,] claims that such an image begins in the person's mind and then becomes public when it is transmitted and shared with others. One specific public image that has survived the passage of time was that white America was a humane and moral people. Within such an image whites were considered superior to others by reason of their sensitivity to the positions and needs of others.

The effect of such an image upon blacks was that many blacks came to view both black and white interests as being congruent in nature. Blacks felt that white America was concerned with their plight and were working to eradicate many of the impoverished conditions blacks faced. The trust that blacks had in white America supported and protected the image of white America. In terms of effect, by trusting in white America, blacks occupied a passive stance in terms of speaking to and dealing with their own problems.

Malcolm's rhetoric was characterized by his attempt to unify blacks. Through unification Malcolm hoped to bring blacks together so they could seek out and formulate solutions to their own problems. To accomplish this goal, Malcolm sought to modify the image blacks had of white America. For as long as the image of white America remained intact, blacks would look to others to solve their problems. So that blacks would occupy a more active stance in dealing with conditions endemic to blacks, Malcolm worked to modify the image that blacks had of white America. Malcolm sought to effect such a change through his use of animal imagery. To understand how Malcolm employed elements of animal imagery a three step paradigm is first presented and then analyzed in terms of its impact on image modification.


Malcolm's use of animal imagery came into being as a response to conditions blacks faced. His discourse can be judged rhetorically significant by noting the situation it spoke to, the conditions it emerged from, the change it sought to effect, and the paradigm it promulgated to effect such a change. This paradigm can be seen as a model for facing future images in need of change and the steps a rhetor might follow to effect the needed image change.

The situational nature of Malcolm's rhetoric noted those controlling devices within a situation and prescribed a series of steps a rhetor could follow to alter an image. These steps were (1) identification (method/author), (2) depiction and arousal, and (3) action.


Malcolm's paradigm for the use of animal imagery can be seen as proceeding through a series of rhetorical shifts designed to allow a rhetor's claim to maintain a balance between the familiar, reasoned analysis, vivid reductive imagery, and a call to action to effect the behavior of those people within that situation. Malcolm's use of animal imagery can be seen as a response to the situation and conditions blacks faced. It was designed to prepare blacks for future rhetorical action. Whether such action was to be immediate or delayed was not significant. What was salient was that, through this action, the future relationship between the races was to be effected to the point where black perceptions of white America were revised.

In his analysis of the conditions blacks faced, Malcolm reasoned that blacks needed to initiate specific corrective action in order that present conditions would not continue. While his use of discourse was directed toward identifying, sensitizing, and arousing blacks to the point where they would act on their own behalf, Malcolm's use of animal imagery was an attempt to invert the images that blacks had of white Americans. Malcolm's paradigm offered his auditors a design by which they could be abstracted to new positions of dignity and respect, while demoting whites to a position wherein they were recognized as active agents of evil.

identification (method/author)

Malcolm's paradigm initially focused upon the identification of the method used to define blacks and of identifying the author of such tactics. His accounts were analytical in nature by reason of their examination and discussion of how images were developed and then used to regulate the behavior of self and others. Time was devoted to labeling white America as the architect of such tactics and to discussing their use of verbal artifacts to control existing and future conditions. White America was seen as having the ability to control and define the images of self and others by reason of their ownership of the rights to define the world according to their own rhetorical purposes.

Time and precedent had always allowed groups to name themselves and in turn to be named by other groups. But blacks were never afforded such an opportunity. The job of coding and defining blacks was left entirely in the hands of white America. As a result, blacks came to form their identities on the basis of what white America prescribed. This process had the effect of conditioning blacks to react to what they viewed their images and positions to be.

The coding of blacks by white America had its genus in the white belief that blacks were animals and amoral beasts of the field. Blacks were recorded as playing the role of a domesticated animal of the field with a "violence to murder, [and] ravaging sexual impulses" [A. F. Poussaint, "The Negro American: His Self-image and Integration," The Black Power Revolt, 1968]. Word pictures of this kind defined blacks as being deficient in human qualities. The christening of blacks as animals abstracted blacks to a position above that of whites and sanctioned feelings of superiority in one race and inferiority in another. The fusion of idiom and imagery placed the races in polar positions. These positions served to endorse in the minds of whites their own version of apartheid and legitimized past and future perceptions of, and behavior toward, black Americans.

The importance of this process was captured by [A. L.] Smith [in Rhetoric of Black Revolution, 1969] when he commented that the "namer of names is always the father of things." Along with such a practice, [R. M.] Weaver maintained [in Language Is Sermonic, 1970] that to have the ability to define the world and the images located within, allowed one to exert his or her influence and control over that world. Weaver contended that people's ability to manipulate symbols was their own private instrument by which they could order the relationships between people. Weaver claimed that people's overlordship of their world "begins with the naming of the world."

White America's command of language had the effect of first coding blacks and then teaching them to respond and live out such labels as if they were true. Malcolm envisioned the short-term effects of such a practice when he stated, "When you let yourself be influenced by images created by others, you'll find that oftentimes the one who creates these images can use them to mislead you and misuse you" [The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard]. Smith summarized its long-term effects when he commented, "To be defined by whites is to remain a slave."

Malcolm identified the use of image-controlling devices as not existing in its own right, isolated and independent. To Malcolm, such a process was to be seen as only a part of a larger system by which control could be exerted. Image making was objectified as a unit itself within a larger system of white control and manipulation. It was identified as a device within a system to develop an awareness of the method to be used by which a situation may be defined. Therefore, the initial step of his paradigm was to understand the situation itself and the many devices that could be employed within that system. To become cognizant of the larger system meant to understand its overall purpose and the devices within that can be employed to define and control the situation in which a person lives.

Rhetoric does not exist independent of an individual. It is a person who engineers and employs it to support his or her own rhetorical purposes. An awareness of the system or method an individual has created does not in itself constitute a complete statement of that situation. A rhetor, to be rhetorically effective, must identify and record not only the method and the purpose for which it was employed, but also its architect and against whom it is to be used. To make known one group as the causal agent of the suffering of another creates an active opposition and oppressive element that can later be vilified. The process of making known both method and architect allowed Malcolm to understand the specific forces present and to then, with the assistance of discourse, seek to modify conditions that have resulted from such conditions.

depiction and arousal

Malcolm's initial step focused upon enlightening blacks as to what devices had been used to capture their presence and to imprint upon the minds of blacks who was responsible for such acts. Malcolm believed that the fusion of method and author could best be understood if it was followed by a presentation of the effects of such a merger in terms of life experiences. To Malcolm, a rhetor must develop and present his or her own "theater of the mind." Such an artifice was constructed with an appropriate and balanced blend of reasoned analysis followed by the presentation of affective imagery. A playhouse of this nature was erected for the purpose of allowing an audience the opportunity to see how such events truly applied to them. Past and present conditions under which blacks lived were vividly transported across time and set down in front of his black audience. Malcolm brought such conditions to the attention of his auditors for the purpose of awakening their feelings. The specific device he used to accomplish this task was his use of animal imagery.

Malcolm's use of animal imagery redefined both the situation in which the races lived and the images of the races. Conditions were not simply replayed for his audience but were translated into the life experiences of his auditors so that they could vicariously feel the depths of that situation. In redefining the situation and images of the races, Malcolm selectively downgraded the images of whites while he portrayed blacks as victims of a cruel and racist white society.

Malcolm's rhetoric located both races as occupying disparate positions within a jungle like atmosphere. This jungle atmosphere, Malcolm believed, had the effect of bringing out in an individual the lowest and most base parts of his or her character. Operating within such a jungle, wolves, snakes, and sheep roamed free. Survival was based upon the principle of the fiercest and strongest animals fleecing and living off the weaker animal [The Autobiography of Malcolm X]. Whites were coded as wolves, foxes, and snakes, while blacks were cast as sheep.

Within Malcolm's animal compound, whites were pictured as roaming free and brutalizing anything and everything that stood in their way (black Americans) [The Autobiography of Malcolm X]. Malcolm differentiated between the roles of whites when he stated:

Let me tell you the only difference. The white man in the South is a wolf. You know where he stands. When he opens his mouth and you can see his teeth, he looks vicious. Well, the only difference between the white man in the South and the white man in the North is that one is a wolf and this one is a fox. The fox will lynch you and you won't even know you have been lynched. The fox will Jim Crow you and don't even know you're Jim Crowed [The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches by Malcolm X].

While noting differences between whites, Malcolm claimed that both wolf and fox were of the same genus. Consequently, Malcolm identified both orders of canines by assigning them similar objectives. Malcolm explained, "The objective of the fox and the wolf is the same…. They want to exploit you, they want to take advantage of you" [The End of White World Supremacy]. Similarly, Malcolm claimed, "both are enemies of humanity … both humiliate and mutilate their victims" [J. Clarke, editor, Malcolm X: The Man and His Times, 1969].

Rhetoric of this nature served to debilitate whites to the point that they were no longer considered human. Having been reduced in size and power, whites were no longer considered superior to anything or anybody. In explaining the motive force behind such rhetoric, Malcolm asserted [in his Autobiography], "I [have] … participated in spreading the truths that had done so much to help the American black man rid himself of the mirage that the white race was made up of 'superior beings.'" In response to such a revelation, Malcolm requested blacks to revolutionize their own thinking so they could open their eyes and "never again look in the same fearful, worshiping way at the white man" [The Autobiography of Malcolm X].

Having demystified white America, Malcolm turned to arousing black anger and hatred of whites. To accomplish this task, Malcolm portrayed blacks as the victims of a cruel and ruthless white society. As sheep within an alien environment, blacks were portrayed as the constant victims of the ruthless attacks of more aggressive white wolves and foxes. Such acts of violence were labeled as criminal and cowardly in that they were perpetrated by a strong and fierce predator upon a more docile and domesticated prey. No longer did the wolf and the fox seek out prey of equal strength; instead, they gorged themselves upon the blood of the helpless. The end result of such acts of violence resulted in, claimed Malcolm, white America having its hands "dripping with blood … of the black man in this country" [A. L. Smith and S. Robb, editors, The Voice of Black Rhetoric, 1971].

The recounting of such acts, while symbolic in nature, sought to unify blacks in their hatred of white America. By his use of such vivid imagery, blacks were allowed to see themselves as victims rather than as the victimizer. This approach appeared to be effective. Smith noted [in Rhetoric of Black Revolution] that such statements needed no further support and documentation for blacks because such experiences had been regular segments of their daily lives within America.

In seeking to arouse his audience, Malcolm's discourse provided his auditors with a four-dimensional experience. In depicting life experiences, Malcolm sought to arouse his auditors by making use of the elements of (1) specification, (2) illumination, (3) confrontation, and (4) intensification.

Every situation contains an audience that was influenced and affected by that situation. A fixed audience had to be specified from the total corpus of hearers who merely happen to be present. To be rhetorically effective, Malcolm envisioned that this grouping must be shown how the present situation affects their lives and how such a context will continue to affect, define, and regulate future behavior if left unchecked. Real-life experiences were to be illuminated and vividly left in the minds of this audience through the use of vivid reductive imagery. Abstract situations and previously employed rhetorical devices and methods of control were to be translated through reasoned analysis and the medium of language into a series of concrete life experiences that were congruent with their own experiences.

Malcolm noted that every situation contained a series of constraints that worked within that situation to restrict the action needed to modify conditions and affect change. Malcolm identified these constraints as beliefs, attitudes, traditions, images, and self-interests. These constraints worked to perpetuate and support the status quo. When such constraints were operative, a rhetor's own call for action and change could be delayed or abated. To transcend such barriers and stimulate action, Malcolm foresaw the need for the introduction of animal imagery of a highly charged nature. In lieu of such a claim, Malcolm offered his auditors a vision of a face-to-face confrontation with those forces that sought to use and control them.

Malcolm's use of highly charged imagery was a tactic by which future adjustments to new situations could be brought about, and by which disparate positions could be identified, illustrated, examined, and made more intense. In accentuating the disparate images within a situation, Malcolm stylistically displayed elements of antithesis and hyperbole. Both rhetorical devices were employed to sensitize and awaken an audience by locating opposing images within a single frame. Conflicting styles of behavior were dramatized in order to contrast and distort the relations between and images of the races.

In Malcolm's paradigm, discourse was summoned into existence for the purpose of intensifying a vision of white manipulation of blacks in the minds of his audience. Reasoned analysis, emotional appeals, and stylistic devices were conspicuously displayed to promote understanding and to provoke a response. The idiom employed to intensify experience was pictured as one that an audience could identify with, that captured their treatment within such a situation, and that unified blacks in terms of future behavioral responses. The use of vivid reductive imagery, invective, aphorisms, and caustic verbiage was employed to allow an audience an opportunity for catharsis, to vilify an alien element, and to provide life to a situation that may have had little previous meaning. The use of such imagery served to unite blacks in their anger and hatred of whites, to demystify and dehumanize white America, while resurrecting the images of blacks.

The idiom employed by Malcolm was checked by the powers of the situation itself. Imagery of this nature was presented to blacks for the purpose of producing change. It served to prescribe and legitimize Malcolm's responses to such a situation. This response came in the form of discourse. Discourse was prescribed by Malcolm as the result of previous white control and manipulation of the image-making process. This discourse was in itself a response to that situation. It became a mode of action that specified future human behavior that could effect change within that situation.


Malcolm's words became his cues for behavior. His verbiage became his remedy, the prescribed antidote, and the answer to that situation. The labeling techniques that Malcolm employed were designed to divide the immediate world so that reality could be defined in a manner that was in line with the rhetor's own rhetorical purpose. Within this world, whites were coded as animals. Such a process, [K.] Burke claimed [in Attitudes Toward History, 1959], had the effect of controlling the behavior of man. Burke explained that in coding people according to your own purpose and perceptions "we form our characters, since the names embody attitudes; and implicit in the attitudes are the cues for behavior."

In the past, both blacks and whites reacted to blacks according to the language and imagery white America developed to represent blacks. Malcolm sought to use the same process to label whites according to their past deeds. This process was directed toward influencing future black responses toward the larger white community. In assigning whites the image of an animal, Malcolm lowered the white man to a base level of existence. In essence, by calling the white individual a wolf, Malcolm directed blacks to be on their guard when "the wolf" was in their presence.

Malcolm's discourse simplified reality. Alternatives were restricted that in turn directed and regulated black behavior. By calling whites animals, blacks were charged with reacting and responding to such a label. Blacks were energized to act in relation to the labels that whites were carrying. Such labels were fixed to whites by Malcolm's use of animal imagery. Burke explained this process when he said:

Names shape our relations with our fellows. They prepare us for some functions and against others, for or against the persons representing these functions. The names go further; they suggest how you shall be for or against. Call a man a villain, and you have the choice of either attacking or cringing. Call him mistaken, and you invite yourself to attempt setting him straight.

The imagery of past brutality in animalistic terms provided Malcolm with a vocabulary. This vocabulary was used to force his black auditors to feel the pain and view the scars they had encountered at the hands of white America. The continued repetition of experiences was recaptured and vividly presented so that no audience member could escape its grasp.


Malcolm X's probe of black-white relations centered upon identifying and explaining the process of white image making and the effect it came to have on the identities, perceptions, and behavior of black Americans. Malcolm's rhetoric stressed that blacks could no longer retain an air of patience and allow themselves to be defined by extrinsic forces. Images that had been assigned to them had and would continue to condemn them to live and die trapped in an affective domain within the urban centers of America unless they would face the task of redefining the situation in which they lived and the personages located within that situation.

What can be learned from Malcolm's use of animal imagery? First, to be rhetorically effective one cannot allow another to code and define the situation in which you live. To do so is to allow rhetorical opponents the right to regulate one to positions that are advantageous to him or her. Second, the right to define oneself and the situation in which one lives is an elusive privilege. It is seldom given voluntarily by one group to another, or by exploiter to exploited. It was to be attained when a rhetor would create and present to an audience discourse of such a highly charged and vivid nature that the audience itself, in thought and action, could be so engaged in that discourse that its own experiences became the mediating agent of the needed change itself. Third, the power to act is based upon a rhetor's ability to awaken his or her auditors to the tragedies of their own lives. Action was seen as resting upon the rhetor's ability to awaken the feelings of his or her audience. Identification and depiction were identified as antecedents of action. While words were seen as static in nature, a rhetors use of those words must be active. The descriptions of the past deeds of others against another were to be objectified to the point whereby an audience could see itself in relation to these deeds. In transporting abstract life experiences across time and space, an auditor not only could identify those devices that have been employed to record his or her presence, but he or she was allowed to see the subsequent effects of such tactics. The use of animal imagery supplied an audience with a new perspective by which they could see themselves. While such imagery had the effect of awaking and rousing feelings within an audience, it also served to transform an audience from a passive to a more active state.

Aside from these four principles, Malcolm's use of imagery illuminated two other working principles that a rhetor need consider if a rhetor hopes to employ animal imagery effectively. Malcolm's rhetoric stressed a blending of reasoned analysis and vivid reductive imagery. Within his design, reason was pictured as not having the power by itself to modify an image or to move an audience to action. Reason and emotion are noted as needing to cooperate with each other while working to evoke understanding, feeling, and dedication from an audience. To Malcolm, reason was employed to develop and help maintain an image, but it was the use of emotion that gave that image meaning and life. Finally, to affect change in the image of another, the imagery that a rhetor employs must be given a contextual meaning that identifies an agent and his or her purposes for employing rhetorical devices. Words such as manipulation, cruelty, exploitation, violence, and humiliation have a denotative meaning in themselves, but unless they are rhetorically fused to a specific agent and a series of life experiences, they will drift free and lose their meaning. This agent and context will give the words an identity of their own while identifying how each factor defined the other.

In studying Malcolm's rhetoric, several questions surface. Can a rhetor through use of imagery lessen the hurt that others have inflicted upon him or her through the use and manipulation of language? Can a rhetor through use of highly charged imagery change or reorganize the perceptions of his or her auditors toward themselves, others, and the situation in which they both live? Can a rhetor through use of imagery guide the future relationships between groups of people? Before considering the answers to these questions, let us consider another point.

As children we are told to tell other children who call us names that "sticks and stones may break our bones but words can never hurt us." While such a statement seems harmless, it does serve to reveal an important principle. By purchasing a health insurance policy, individuals find a way to protect themselves from any injuries they may endure from future extrinsic forces. But how can individuals protect themselves from semantic damage?

In probing the effects of semantic damage upon blacks, it is important to note that one can never find a proper insurance policy that will protect him or her from the verbal "sticks and stones" thrown by others. Semantic wounds, like other wounds, take time to heal. But even if time is granted, words can and do leave scars. Malcolm's use of animal imagery sought to deal with the scars that the years of white image control had left on the minds of black Americans.

While Malcolm's words could not eradicate the pains that blacks had endured at the hands of white America, it did lessen the effects of such a condition by rhetorically allowing blacks to change semantic environments. Malcolm's words imposed a new order upon the black world. Within this world, blacks occupied a more active position in defining their own humanity and the inhumanity of white America. No longer were blacks to take the verbal record of the past for their description and prescriptions of the present. To effect change, blacks were exposed to rhetoric that inverted and reorganized previous images of white Americans while adding features to the image of black Americans.

Malcolm's rhetoric attests to the proposition that an individual's behavior is dependent on his or her image of self, other, and the world they both share. One's image, in large part, can be seen as being determined by his or her subjective knowledge. His or her feelings toward self and other, what he or she knows, what he or she feels, go to make up his or her image. This image directs individuals to act and think the way they do. To control the process of image making then is to have the ability to control and direct the behavior of others.

Images can and do change. While some images are resistant to change, others can and do readily change as incoming messages are received and processed. If such incoming messages support the possessor's original image, the perceptions of those images are strengthened. But if this information is inconsistent with previous images, a degree of change may be produced. So if a man has an image of his friend Bill as trustworthy and then hears Bill lying to his boss, his image of Bill might be revised. If blacks are given an image of whites as humane and are shown through the employment of vivid reductive imagery that whites are and have been cruel in their treatment of others, such a previous image might also undergo revision.

In Malcolm's scheme of things, for change to occur, incoming information needed to be vivid in nature. Images could be modified or changed only when such incoming messages were so vivid in nature that they served to cause an auditor to reformulate his or present image of things radically. In vividly capturing what he considered to be the essence of the black/white experience, Malcolm transported life experiences across time and space to affect change in the manner blacks perceived white Americans. To modify the image that blacks had of whites meant to cause future behavioral changes that would affect the future relations between and perceptions of the races.

Lawrence B. Good heart (essay date Autumn 1990)

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SOURCE: "The Odyssey of Malcolm X: An Eriksonian Interpretation," in Historian, Vol. 52, No. 1, Autumn, 1990, pp. 47-62.

[In the following essay, Goodheart examines the identity of Malcolm X—as set forth in The Autobiography of Malcolm X—using the theoretical framework of Erik Erikson.]

The black search for identity in the United States has been well put by the poet Robert Perm Warren: "Alienated from the world to which he is born and from the country of which he is a citizen yet surrounded by the successful values of that world, and country, how can the Negro define himself?" At the heart of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1950s and 1960s was the defining of the individual and collective identities of members of the largest racial minority in the United States. During what recently has been labeled a "Second Reconstruction." critical constitutional, legal, and federal-state relationships were reordered to promote equality under the law regardless of race. At the same time, there was a psychological revolution, a popular transformation of African-American identity from a culturally sanctioned racial inferiority to a black assertion of pride, beauty, and power.

The odyssey of Malcolm X was a search for "a definition of himself and his relationship to his people, his country, and the world," according to sociologist John H. Clarke. When Malcolm stated that "the black man in America has been robbed by the white man of his culture, of his identity, of his soul, of his self," he conflated his own experience with that of his people; his odyssey represented the militant black search for identity in the early 1960s. His individual rage spoke directly to the frustration of other African-Americans, especially urban ghetto residents—the black underclass—for whom the promise of civil rights legislation and racial integration offered little prospect of improving their degraded living conditions.

Public fascination with Malcolm cut across class and racial lines: The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) has sold over two million copies and has become established as a modern classic. Together with his extensive speeches, interviews, and recollections by associates, the Autobiography as narrated to Alex Haley captures the dramatic changes in Malcolm's life. Haley's empathy for Malcolm served to capture the style and substance of the public man. After an initial period of suspicion and distrust, the Malcolm-Haley collaboration developed into what resembled a psychoanalytic session. As Haley patiently prompted him, Malcolm recalled his past. Despite distortion, inaccuracy, and what historian Stephen J. Whitfield calls "impression management," the Autobiography is useful for the psychological reality it uncovers.

Psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson defined the psychological core of an individual as identity—"a subjective sense of an invigorating sameness and continuity." Yet he was careful to stress that the development of a person's identity over time is subject to change that must be understood within a broad cultural context. His biographies of Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi emphasized the interconnection between the life history of the subject and the historical moment, a linkage that could be momentous when an individual's psychic needs were resolved in a manner that crystallized communal aspirations. Similarly, the shaping of Malcolm's sense of self as a counterpart to the historic oppression of African-Americans constitutes a central theme in his life and lends itself to Eriksonian interpretation. Erikson's categories do not precisely fit Malcolm's life, particularly the months before his murder, when Malcolm was an isolated figure whom the white establishment feared, civil rights organizations shunned, and Black Muslims damned. Malcolm's resolution of his lifelong quest for a meaningful black identity in the United States was thus only partially achieved. Nevertheless the Eriksonian model, if applied selectively, illuminates the common ground where individual action, collective aspirations, and the historic possibility for change converge in the four major stages of Malcolm's identity, appropriately marked by name changes: "surrendered identity," Malcolm Little; "negative identity," Big Red; "fundamentalism," Malik El-Shabazz; and "beyond fundamentalism," El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

Surrendered Identity:

Malcolm's "earliest vivid memory" was as a four-year-old in 1929 "being suddenly snatched away into a frightening confusion of pistol shots and shouting and smoke and flames." The Lansing, Michigan, equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan had burned his family's house down. Malcolm's recollection is a violent example of what Erikson termed a surrendered racial identity, historically "the fate of the black citizenry who were kept in their place so as to constitute what slaves meant besides cheap labor—the inferior identity to be superior to." Malcolm's childhood memories reveal a life representative of the collective African-American experience as he became ensnared in the racist perversion, as Erikson described it, of "light-clean-clever-white" and "dark-dirty-dumb-nigger."

His father, Earl Little—a tall, very dark-skinned man from Georgia with little formal education—used his itinerant Baptist ministry to preach the racial pride of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association. In contrast, his mother, Louise, "looked like a white woman" and was educated. Her shame was her father, an unknown white rapist. The mark of this grandfather was visited on Malcolm; of eight children, he stood apart with his reddish-brown color.

Earl and Louise behaved towards Malcolm in antithetical ways because of his color. Of all his children, Earl took only Malcolm to Garveyite meetings, while Louise told him, "Let the sun shine on you so you can get some color." Earl saw Malcolm's complexion as a blessing in the spirit of the adage that "white is right; if you're brown, stick around; but if you're black, step back." Louise, however, favored her dark-skinned children and disparaged Malcolm's lighter color as an unwanted reminder of her white father. Malcolm's acute analysis of the effect of racism on the African-American psyche may well have developed out of his childhood experience of being alternately favored and censured for his complexion.

When Malcolm was six years old, vigilantes killed Earl, the fourth of six brothers to be killed by whites, for his Garveyite activities. As an adult, Malcolm's advocacy of the right to aggressive self-defense and his disavowal of nonviolent resistance developed from such memories of black victimization. Widowed, Louise exemplified the plight of impoverished female heads of household during the Great Depression. Racial discrimination, menial women's work, and rampant unemployment meant starvation for the Little family in 1934. As Malcolm remembered it, "We would be so hungry we were dizzy." Unable to provide for her offspring, Louise turned to state relief, a degrading condition that led to her eventual commitment to a public mental institution. Her children, including twelve-year-old Malcolm, became wards of the state.

The difficulties of growing up black in white-dominated communities provided Malcolm with a perspective that later caused him to denigrate the civil rights goal of racial integration as woefully naive and illusionary. Whites so routinely called him "nigger" that he thought it normal. Under the supervision of a white couple who ran his detention home, Malcolm was treated kindly but condescendingly. He remembered, "They didn't give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position." He also learned as a part of a growing sexual and racial awareness, through "some kind of psychic message," that he was not to dance with white girls at school parties.

Yet he knew that furtive interracial sexual liaisons occurred in town. Malcolm was in white society but was restricted to its margins.

Nevertheless Malcolm performed well through seventh grade; he was elected class president, played basketball, and was a good student. Then his English teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, ended Malcolm's adolescent dreams of becoming a lawyer by saying, "We all here like you, you know that. But you've got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer—that's no realistic goal for a nigger." The teacher suggested carpentry as the trade appropriate for Malcolm. The experience, Malcolm later reflected, was "the first major turning point of my life." Even though he believed that he was smarter than nearly all his white classmates he understood that his options were limited. The white man had initiated the black boy into a racial rite of passage. The term "nigger" predestined Malcolm's consignment to the nether world of the racial caste system of the United States.

Negative Identity:

The encounter with Ostrowski marked an identity crisis, a racist preemption of young Malcolm's self-perception. Erikson explained that the adolescent "must detect some meaningful resemblance between what he has come to see in himself and what his sharpened awareness tells him others judge and expect him to be." Knowing that his efforts to aspire to white standards were futile, Malcolm fatalistically responded to Ostrowski's pronouncement. He fled Michigan for a relative's home in the Boston ghetto, a migration route to the urban East traditionally followed by alienated Midwestern youths. During his late teenage years, he immersed himself in the hustling subculture of the Roxbury and Harlem ghettos where the lanky Malcolm was called Big Red.

The Autobiography, Malcolm cautioned, was not intended to "titillate" the reader with "how bad, how evil" a hustler Malcolm was but to show that "in every big city ghetto tens of thousands of yesterday's and today's drop-outs hold body and soul together by some form of hustling in the same way [he] did." The ghetto institutionalized racism, not only socially and economically but psychologically as well. High unemployment, deteriorated housing, inadequate health care, blighted schools, drug addiction, and rampant crime turned the American dream into a living nightmare. Historically, the European-American community has often defined its success by comparison with African-American failure and subordination; in effect, Northern ghettos replicate antebellum Southern plantations. Erikson discussed the nature of racial victimization: "The oppressor has a vested interest in the negative identity of the oppressed because that negative identity is a projection of his own unconscious negative identity." Blacks served whites as psychic scapegoats, readily identifiable and culturally sanctioned.

As Big Red, Malcolm embodied what Erikson termed "the evil identity of the dirty, anal-sadistic, phallic-rapist 'nigger.'" Slavemasters of the Old South had projected their own fear of racial revenge for black subjugation and wanton sexual abuse of slave women onto the black males. The exploitation of blacks in the United States created an uneasy dialectic for whites: racial degradation sowed the seeds of racial retaliation. The provocative title of Julius Lester's book, Look Out, Whitey, Black Power's Gonna Get Your Mama (1968), and Eldridge Cleaver's justification of the rape of white women as a "political act" in Soul on Ice (1968) exemplified the enduring menace of the black male in the white mind.

Barred from emulating dominant cultural ideals, the ghetto hustler of the twentieth century sought self-respect through illicit activities on the margins of society. Sixteen-year-old Malcolm spurned the hard-earned bourgeois respectability of Roxbury's Hill Negroes for the sensual pleasures of the dance-hall crowd at Roseland. Shorty, an older Michigan emigrant, instructed his young protegé in the hustler's craft. As a shoeshine boy, Malcolm not only snapped a polishing cloth but satisfied his customers' needs for alcohol, marijuana, condoms, and prostitutes. He eventually graduated into numbers running, drug selling, specialty sex, and armed robbery—all part of an underground economy based in the ghetto. Under Shorty's tutelage, Malcolm was metamorphosed into a hipster, the "Harlem jigaboo archetype." He flaunted his zoot suit with its punjab pants, dangling gold chain, and long coat. A wide-brimmed hat and pointed orange shoes completed his defiant caricature of formal dress and rejection of middle-class standards. Using a homemade concoction that included lye, he painfully straightened his kinky hair to make it look "regular," like a white man's hair. It was, he later remembered, his "first really big step toward self-degradation." On one desperate occasion when the winter cold had frozen the water pipes, he had to wash the burning lye off his scalp by dunking his head into a toilet. The image of becoming excrement itself, disgusting black refuse that should be flushed away from the sight of decent people, was not lost on the older Malcolm. Outrageous adornment served to mark Big Red's entry into an underworld and outwardly compensated for his sense of racial inferiority.

This type of negative identity, Erikson wrote, is "a desperate attempt to regain some mastery in a situation in which the available positive identity elements cancel each other out." In the absence of a culturally acceptable identity, the ghetto hustler became a symbol of heightened masculine aggressiveness and sexuality. Armed, angry Big Red used the threat of violence to gain deference, if not actual respect. In successfully resisting military conscription during World War II, he acted out a drama for the examining army psychiatrist: "I want to get sent down South. Organize them nigger soldiers, you dig. Steal us some guns, and kill up crackers!" Big Red had the same unsettling effect on the psychiatrist as Malcolm X's advocacy of militant self-defense later had on white society and black civil rights leaders.

Further, he exploited the imagery of the "big black buck" to affirm his self-worth in a society that at once denigrated and feared him. He abandoned Laura, a sheltered and studious black girl, for Sophia, a blond white woman. Big Red then "paraded" Sophia, who was "a status symbol of the first order" among black men in the ghetto. By attracting a white woman, he had validated himself as the equal of any white man. In turn, Sophia sought the "taboo lust" personified by the ghetto hustler. Each responded eagerly to the culturally forbidden pleasures the other represented. In addition, as a "steerer" to specialty sex assignations in Harlem, Malcolm directed white "johns" to black prostitutes who catered to their clients' racial fantasies about heightened black sexual potency and promiscuity. Malcolm's experiences in the netherworld of interracial sexual liaisons led to disgust with the moral hypocrisy of whites, to the adoption of a puritanical code of conduct, and to a persistent suspicion of women.

Although Big Red defied white society, the hustler's life was short and self-destructive. The common predatory allusions in Malcolm's rhetoric and his lifelong habit of never sitting with his back to a door dated from these combative days on the ghetto streets. Pursued by police, gangsters, and Sophia's irate husband, he felt "everything was building up, closing in…. [He] was trapped in so many cross turns." Drug addiction muddled his thought; the ever-present pistol foreshadowed a violent end. "I had gotten to the point," he reflected, "where I was walking on my own coffin." Finally, carelessness led to his arrest. A Massachusetts court sentenced him to ten years incarceration for burglary—an excessive sentence, Malcolm believed, to punish him for his relationship with Sophia. Not quite twenty-one years old, he had "sunk to the very bottom of the American white man's society." Big Red had been walled in.


Seven years spent in prison forced the young man to turn inward. His incarceration approximated what Erikson defined as a psychosocial moratorium, a period of delaying adult commitments and experimenting with roles in a youthful search for a social niche. Although the options offered in the penitentiary were restricted, Malcolm likened prison to an intense college experience, an environment conducive to self-education and self-examination. In 1947, Malcolm came under the influence of an older black convict, Bimbi, the prison's scholar and sage. The respect Bimbi gained with his reasoned arguments made Malcolm realize the futility of his own thoughtless rebelliousness. With Bimbi's encouragement, he took correspondence courses to improve his command of language. In addition, Malcolm became a "fanatic fan" of Jackie Robinson, who had broken baseball's color barrier. Malcolm began to appreciate that there were more effective ways to cope with a racist society than his previous dead-end roles.

In 1948, Malcolm underwent a momentous religious conversion. His brothers and sisters gradually won him over to the teachings of the Nation of Islam, presented as the "natural religion for the black man." Malcolm said, "The first time I heard the Honorable Elijah Muhammad's statement, The white man is the devil,' it just clicked." The powerful appeal of Elijah Muhammad to the black underclass derived from the origins of the Nation of Islam in Detroit during the Great Depression. The Nation of Islam preached black supremacy, racial separatism through the formation of an African-American nation, social uplift, and economic self-reliance. Believing that divine wrath would soon destroy the evil white race, Elijah Muhammad became the savior of America's blacks trapped in a white Babylon.

Elijah Muhammad's teachings were a fusion of bourgeois aspirations with the millenniarism of racial redemption. According to the demonology of the Nation of Islam, white devils had been created to spite God and his favored people, the black tribe of Shabazz. This dogma provided an affirmation to blacks by a denigration of whites; the oppressed projected their negative identity onto the oppressor where it could be scorned. Elijah Muhammad had imaginatively inverted the axioms of white racism.

The doctrine of the Nation of Islam represented a fundamentalist world view, which Erikson called "totalism" and defined as "something you can totally identify with or against, a stable reference point against which you can know who you are." The Black Muslim's ideological certainty spurred Malcolm to turn against his past. The sense of being saved gave Malcolm the emotional strength to remake himself. He read voraciously, studied the dictionary, and devoured words to fill an internal void. He joined the prison debating society and learned to use language to expose the white conspiracy against blacks. His extraordinary rapport with audiences of the black underclass derived from the power of rhetoric, a modern example of the oral tradition of African-American culture. In his powerful oratory, words were weapons.

The doctrinal message of the Nation of Islam was accompanied by the personal regeneration of its downtrodden members, beginning with deletion of the slavemaster's surname; Malcolm Little became Malcolm X. The faithful practiced what Malcolm preached in 1960 to a Harlem street audience of several thousand: "Stop fornication, adultery, and prostitution. Elevate the black woman; respect and protect her. Let us rid ourselves of immoral habits and God will be with us to protect and guide us." Thus was created a gospel of personal cleanliness, hard work, and small business entrepreneurship that acculturated drug addicts, exconvicts, prostitutes, and others of the ghetto underclass into bourgeois behavior patterns.

After his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm increasingly served as the principal spokesman for the reclusive, asthmatic prophet, whom he revered as his personal redeemer: "He had rescued me when I was a convict; Mr. Muhammad had trained me in his home, as if I was his son." There was, however, an ambivalence in their emotionally charged relationship, which resembled that of father and son. The older man, prodded by envious leaders in the Chicago headquarters, resented Malcolm's growing prominence, while the dynamic young man had matured beyond the simple fundamentalism of his withdrawn mentor. By 1959, the mass media had discovered the electrifying presence of Minister Malcolm X and the alarming doctrine of the sect they called the Black Muslims, as exhibited in a CBS television documentary, The Hate That Hate Produced.

Malcolm's espousal of the Muslim doctrine of racial separation, black superiority, and the right of violent self-defense clashed with the emerging mainstream civil rights movement represented by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The image of white racists assaulting defenseless blacks who proposed "to love their enemy" and "to turn the other cheek" perpetuated in his mind the stereotype of the passive Negro, the Uncle Tom. He later explained, "Any time you know you're within the law, within your legal rights, within your moral rights, in accord with justice, then die for what you believe in. But don't die alone. Let your dying be reciprocal. This is what is meant by equality."

By the early 1960s, Malcolm was clearly frustrated with Elijah Muhammad's policy of inaction, premised on the chiliastic dogma that the chosen people needed only to await Armageddon for their redemption from racial oppression. He admitted to a journalist that "the rest of us have not seen Allah: we don't have this divine patience, and we are not going to wait on God," and that "the younger Black Muslims want to see some action." Added to the jealousy, ideological differences, and organizational rivalry was a sexual scandal. Malcolm confronted Elijah Muhammad in 1963 about a long-standing rumor that he had fathered a number of children with his young secretaries. Elijah Muhammad admitted his adultery but excused it as part of his divine fulfillment of Old Testament practices. Malcolm, who had read his own brother Reginald out of the Muslims for a similar sexual infraction, was emotionally shattered. In his words, "My faith had been shaken in a way that I can never fully describe." The exposure of Elijah Muhammad's low moral character finally broke the fundamentalist hold that he had over Malcolm.

Beyond Fundamentalism:

The schism became formal in December 1963 when Elijah Muhammad suspended Malcolm for ninety days from speaking in public. The ostensible reason for the ban was Malcolm's unauthorized comment to the press that President Kennedy's assassination was a case of "chickens coming home to roost"—a controversial remark about endemic violence in American society. Malcolm submitted to his leader's orders until he learned that Elijah Muhammad had secretly called for his execution. The "spiritual and psychological crisis" of Elijah Muhammad's betrayal escalated into a question of survival. As Malcolm recalled. "The first direct death-order was how, finally, I began to arrive at my psychological divorce from the Nation of Islam."

The following March, Malcolm announced his break with the Nation of Islam and the creation of a rival organization, Muslim Mosque, Inc. The narrow sectarianism of the Nation of Islam had transformed the hustler but had constrained him in an ideological strait jacket. "I was a zombie then—like all Muslims—I was hypnotized," he remembered, "pointed in a certain direction and told to march." After that realization, Malcolm sought to think and act anew. From an Eriksonian perspective, the schism provided the occasion to restructure his identity from a "totalism" characterized by absolutes and conformity to a "wholeness" able to tolerate tension and diversity. He spent nearly half his last year in Africa and the Middle East, seeking solutions in the Old World to problems in the New. As a result, he abandoned Elijah Muhammad's caricature of Islam and embraced Sunni orthodoxy; he also changed his understanding of racism from a crude demonology to a sophisticated cultural analysis.

Malcolm noted: "Around 1963, if anyone had noticed, I spoke less and less of religion. I taught social doctrine to Muslims, and current events, and politics." Although he supported Elijah Muhammad's goal of a separate black nation, he was immediately concerned that "twenty-two million of our people who are still here in America need better food, clothing, housing, education and jobs right now." He further modified Elijah Muhammad's doctrines by stressing the power of the black ballot in the 1964 presidential election and by extending the olive branch to other black leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. However, Malcolm's advocacy of the right of self-defense still prevented any alliance with the middle-class civil rights organizations. In addition, he placed the African-American struggle in the worldwide context of colonial liberation movements and demanded a United Nations' investigation of the violation of black human rights in the United States.

Having established a tentative political credo for Muslim Mosque, Inc., Malcolm sought to anchor the new organization within the Islamic faith. In April 1964, he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Uncertain if he would even be accepted as a legitimate Muslim, he was overwhelmed by the gracious treatment accorded him. He wrote:

There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.

The pilgrimage experience led to "a radical alteration in [his] whole outlook about 'while men.'" The prefix El-Hajj, added to his name in honor of the hegira, marked a "spiritual rebirth." Shortly after his return to the United States, he announced, "I'm a human being first and foremost and as such I'm for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole."

Denouncing Elijah Muhammad's demonology, Malcolm argued, "The white man is not inherently evil but America's racist society influences him to act evilly." He abandoned what Erikson labeled a "pseudo-species mentality," one that ignores or denigrates the humanity of others. In Erikson's words, "Nobody can really find his most adult identity by denying it to others." The challenge therefore was to change the psychology of racism and the system that nourished it, not to fantasize devils.

In June 1964, Malcolm founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which captured his affinity for pan-Africanism. A subsequent eighteen-week trip to Africa and the Middle East further broadened his outlook. As he told an African summit meeting, "Our problems are your problems. It is not a Negro problem, nor an American problem. This is a world problem; a problem for humanity." Malcolm dropped the phrase black nationalism in describing the OAAU program because of its racial exclusiveness. Malcolm's desire to forge a broader African-American identity was in keeping with Erikson's observation that "the alternative to an exclusive totalism is the wholeness of a more inclusive identity."

Much of Malcolm's thought was provisional. As he told an audience in November 1964, "I don't profess to have a political, economic or social solution to a problem as complicated as the one which our people face in the Stales, but I am one of those who is willing to try any means necessary to bring an end to the injustices our people suffer." While skirting doctrinaire commitment, he indicted "the American 'system,'" including U.S. foreign policy in the Congo and Vietnam as he linked the government's opposition to revolutionary nationalism abroad with racial oppression at home.

During the three months remaining in his life after his return to the United States, there was further modification of his views. In contrast to his earlier distrust of women, he linked national progress in Africa with the emancipation of women. He no longer supported a black state in North America or condemned racial integration and intermarriage. He endorsed black voter registration and political involvement but emphasized that civil rights legislation had not defused the "social dynamite" in the ghetto. He correctly predicted, "1965 will be the longest, hottest, bloodiest summer of the entire black revolution."

Malcolm's remarkable evolution of thought left him alienated. Black Muslims stalked him, the FBI monitored his activities, and the "Red Squad" of the New York City police infiltrated his bodyguards. "They won't let me turn the corner," he complained of his critics. After being unexpectedly barred from France where he was to address African students, he returned to New York only to experience a fire-bombing of his home in the early morning of 14 February 1965. Suspecting CIA involvement, he fatalistically told a reporter on February 18, "I live like a man who's already dead." Three days later he was shot down in a hail of gunfire from assassins in the audience as he spoke to an OAAU rally at the Audubon Hall in Harlem. A jury found three Black Muslims guilty of the murder, but speculation remains about the guilt of two of the convicted men and about the complicity of the New York City police and the FBI.

In an Eriksonian perspective, Malcolm's overall significance lay in the congruence of his life and a pivotal moment in time. Yet, such a broad generalization needs qualification where the fit between model and subject is imperfect. Erikson's concepts of "surrendered identity," "negative identity," and "fundamentalism" are more precise in describing Malcolm's earlier stages of development than is the final category, "beyond fundamentalism,"because Malcolm spent the final months of his life in a state of flux: he admitted to a reporter shortly before his murder, "I won't deny I don't know where I'm at." In assessing Malcolm's legacy, it is essential to come to terms with what he accomplished and what was left unfinished during the fifty weeks that remained of his life after the break with the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm's success in articulating black rage was the source of both his strength and his weakness. The militant black identity Malcolm embodied meant the end of psychic inferiority and demanded a radical readjustment of racial relations. He taught that "a person who is fighting racism is well within his rights to fight against it by any means necessary until it is eliminated." As Erikson observed, "Revolutions have to be shocking in order to really unhinge existing identities." Malcolm's scathing indictment of racial hypocrisy and injustice made him a riveting public figure. The night of his death, his widow lamented, "He was honest—too honest for his own good."

Malcolm's candor and charisma were, however, difficult to institutionalize. The major failure of his career was that after his schism with the Nation of Islam, his evolving conception of a new black identity and the social programs needed to facilitate its emergence were not incorporated into a viable organization. The program of the OAAU was inchoate, its administration in disarray, its membership limited, and its funds minimal. Malcolm's extensive foreign travel and hectic personal schedule left little time for organizational duties. His militant posture barred cooperation with well-established groups such as SCLC, NAACP, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Martin Luther King. Jr., Roy Wilkins, and James Farmer could best use Malcolm as a foil, who, by comparison, made their civil rights programs look more palatable. Malcolm told a Harlem street rally, "They charge us with being extremists but if it was not for the extremists the white man would ignore the moderates."

In Erikson's estimation, "The best leader is the one who can realize the actual potentials in his nation, and most of all the more inclusive identities which are ready to be realized in the world." Malcolm met Erikson's prescription only in part. His spiritual enlightenment in Mecca and abandonment of the goal of black nationalism significantly broadened his world view. "I am not a racist." he said repeatedly after his break with Elijah Muhammad. "I do not subscribe to any of the tenets of racism." He also stressed the inclusive identity of the black diaspora, pan-Africanism, and ultimately human solidarity.

Malcolm was most effective as a moral critic and an exemplar of a new black identity. "When we stop always saying yes to Mr. Charlie and turning the hate against ourselves," he explained, "we will begin to be free." He lacked the systematic program—not to mention white liberal support—that the middle-class leadership of the civil rights movement had gained. A month before his death, he acknowledged, "I would be hard pressed to give a specific definition of the overall philosophy which I think is necessary for the liberation of the black people of this country." Nevertheless, he captured to a degree unattained by anyone else the frustration of the ghetto underclass whose degraded position remains largely unchanged since the Second Reconstruction. Two days before his death, Malcolm gave what in effect was his epitaph: "It's a time for martyrs now. And if I'm to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood. That's the only thing that can save this country."

John Locke (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: "Adapting the Autobiography," in Cineaste, Vol. XIX, No. 4, 1993, pp. 5-7.

[In the following essay, Locke discusses director Spike Lee's film adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.]

At the core of Spike Lee's [film] Malcolm X is The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a story that draws from the breadth of twentieth-century African-American experience. Like any narrative contemporaneous with a past era, the autobiography contains elements that most moviegoers today would find antiquated or irrelevant. From the outset, then, Lee's intent to tell history is at odds with the needs of a mass market, and the film's transformation of Malcolm X to meet contemporary expectations has significant consequences for historical accuracy and dramatic impact.

The story is fundamentally tripartite in structure: a man leads an aimless, self-destructive life; he experiences enlightenment; he is redeemed. Since enlightenment occurs nearer the middle of the story than the end, Malcolm's prison conversion to the Nation of Islam (NOI) becomes the fulcrum on which the story teeters. Before prison, he is Malcolm Little, humiliated beyond his comprehension by a racially prejudiced society; after prison, he becomes Malcolm X, with the prerogatives of indignation as the impetus to his claim on spiritual confession and political discourse.

For Malcolm's life to make sense in the film, his post-enlightenment anger must be evenly balanced—justified—by the cruelties of his earlier years. Indeed, his childhood is sufficiently traumatic—family harassed by the Ku Klux Klan, house burned down by the racist Black Legion, father murdered, mother driven insane. The film covers these events in flashback, however, relegating them to memory. In the film's present, the adolescent Malcolm seems to be having a pretty good time, despite his involvement in various criminal activities, so the causality between past experience and present behavior, carefully explained in the autobiography, is unclear.

Putting it another way, the film distinguishes injuries inflicted by others and those which are self-imposed. One speaks to circumstance, the other to character. Lee depicts with clarity the horrors of racism that were beyond Malcolm's control, but he minimizes what Malcolm portrays in the autobiography as self-degradation, the acts of an animal. We know Malcolm 'conks' his hair 'to be white;' we see him acting comically hip in public. More serious issues of drug addiction and criminal behavior are glamorized. In the centerpiece drug scene, West Indian Archie introduces Malcolm to cocaine, but the feel is festive, not ominous. We never see Malcolm getting high in order to face his sordid occupations. Lee dampers the gravity of crime by playing the burglary racket for amusement, as when Malcolm perilously slides a ring from his sleeping victim's finger. When the gang members are sentenced for their crimes, Malcolm warms up the scene with chuckles and Shorty delivers the punchline when he mistakes concurrent for consecutive sentences. While entertaining, the light treatment of Malcolm's purported sins undermines his future role as a man returned from the brink.

In the autobiography, Malcolm's white girlfriend, Sophia, represents his repudiation of blackness through his desire for whiteness, a manifestation of self-hatred. That she was a status symbol proved the disease was endemic among his peers. In Malcolm's view, Sophia, too, acts from psychologically suspect motives, to the point of enduring his beatings. But excepting a brief exchange in which Malcolm expresses mistrust of her intentions, the film omits the complexities of their relationship, relieving Sophia of all but her color. Had the film been made in Malcolm's day, scenes of affection between an interracial couple would have shocked the audience. Today, with the taboo diminished, the mere depiction of the otherwise cordial relationship fails as a symbol of his debasement. The meaning of the scenes is cloudy.

Is the film demonstrating a problem that Malcolm will have to overcome; is it establishing his rebelliousness; or is it praising his natural egalitarianism in order to subvert his salvation by the elitist NOI? (As a preacher, he disparages his past dating of white women, but whether that expresses some poignancy in addition to parroting NOI teachings is unclear). As their relationship ends, Malcolm notes that the white judge inflated his burglary sentence to punish him for consorting with white women, completely shifting the import of the relationship from internal to external, from Malcolm's psyche to the injustice of the legal system.

The mystique of the gun weaves thematically through the film. The occasional punctuation of gunshots on the soundtrack—as when Malcolm and Shorty play cops and robbers—ring out Malcolm's destiny, elevating his death by gunshot from circumstance to inevitability. The theme counterpoints the tired association of Malcolm X with violence. We discover throughout the film that, despite Malcolm's reputation and defiant rhetoric, he was far more scholarly than violent. But while dispelling one myth, the film falls back on Hollywood stereotypes that cast the gun as a symbol of power and manhood. It begins with Malcolm's father who fires his pistol over the heads of the men who have torched his house, proclaiming, "I'm a man!" Malcolm receives his first gun in a solemn rite of passage from Archie. The gift of the weapon—Archie's first, as well—bestows the power accruing from Archie's trust and guidance. Later, Malcolm takes control of the burglary ring by bluffing his rival in Russian roulette. After the matter is resolved, and tension relieved, Sophia whispers to Malcolm, "I love you," further endowing the gun with the powers of masculinity. Rather than highlighting Malcolm's fall from civility, as the autobiography portrays this part of his life, these scenes serve the more conventional purpose of boosting the heroic stature of the role. It is not until the assassination itself that the veil of glamor falls from the gun and the prior ill-use of the theme becomes apparent. We see gunplay in all its ugliness as Malcolm is mutilated by the bullets tearing through his body.

The errant poetry of moonlit Klansmen on horseback and the other mythic images from Malcolm's childhood don't register his terror enough to establish a basis for the anger that will eventually burst forth, and what power they do contain is nullified by his guns-and-fun adolescence. For too long a period, he seems to have broken the continuum of adversity and put the past behind him. What remains is a kind of romantic victimization that protects Malcolm's image from the ravages of true degradation. We're told of his suffering but we don't have to see it. Conked hair and a white girlfriend stand in as philosophical surrogates for true pain. Lee grants Malcolm 'star quality' when the drama requires he forgo his dignity, making him special when perhaps he should be pathetically ordinary.

Rather than challenging us to oppose suffering, the glamorization of Malcolm tempts us to covet his suffering as a means toward a fabled existence. To compensate for the dearth of provocations, the film later attempts to connect Malcolm's anger with his past by having him (and others) refer to the degradations caused by his drug abuse, his pimping (which we never see), or his thievery. At one point, Baines asks Malcolm to consider whether he has ever met any whites who weren't evil. Malcolm's apparently confirming thoughts are represented by quick flashbacks of white faces, some of whom, including Sophia, have been favorably portrayed. Such techniques retroactively make his youth seem more damaging than actually shown. Pain is reduced to a debating point.

In prison, with Malcolm's rebirth looming, the film attempts to make up for lost time by putting Malcolm through the hell of solitary confinement in a bare, unlit cell. His life instantly hits bottom where the perfunctory conversion to the NOI can raise him back up. At this point, Malcolm X replaces Malcolm Little and the NOI becomes his focus.

Despite its name, the Nation of Islam is an American original and borrows little from true Islam. Its beliefs encompass an invented history of the races and the goal of self-sufficiency for African-Americans including, most abstractly, a separate black nation. Malcolm's thorough embrace of the Muslim beliefs and practices constituted much of his preaching as a minister in the organization. As in the scenes prior to Malcolm's incarceration, Lee cautiously chooses what to associate with Malcolm. Most of the NOI's more curious concepts, which include the machinations of mad scientists in the shaping of history, and which Malcolm discusses freely in his autobiography, are omitted from Malcolm's dialog. Lee does acknowledge this aspect of the NOI, however, through the words of Baines and Elijah Muhammad, men who will later discredit themselves—and thus their views—by betraying Malcolm. For example, Baines explains to Malcolm that pork should not be eaten because the pig is "a filthy beast, part cat, part rat, and the rest is dog," even though it's Malcolm's observation in the autobiography. In general, the film burdens others with the peculiarities of the NOI and leaves Malcolm with the universal messages of pride and self-discipline, though in reality Malcolm covered the spectrum.

Those who know almost nothing about Malcolm X probably know that he described Caucasians as "white devils." The oft-used term was one of the most biting expressions in his oratory. More than invective, though, the idea that all whites are devils is fundamental to Muslim doctrine. It rationalizes the plight of African-Americans and justifies separatism. Since it became so strongly identified with Malcolm X, it's interesting to see how Lee employs the term. In fact, Malcolm says "white devils" only once in the film, in a narrated letter from prison that, in other ways, amusingly demonstrates Malcolm's naiveté as a fresh convert. Afterwards we hear the term only from other Muslims. Malcolm does refer to "devils" a few times—"the devil's newspaper," "the devil's chickens" (coming home to roost)—but the closest he comes to using the term as a Muslim leader is in response to a reporter's question, "I've said white people are devils," the past tense leaving his current views ambiguous.

By separating the "white" from the "devil," Lee removes the racial philosophy underpinning the NOI's concept of evil, further distancing Malcolm from the 'religion' of the NOI. It implies his weak conviction for the NOI's counter-prejudice, thus preparing him for the idealistic high ground in his later break with the organization. Taken with the down play of Malcolm's (and the NOI's) disparagement of women and Jews by class, the overall softening of his rhetoric increases the chance that a contemporary film audience, drawn from diverse quarters, will find Malcolm appealing.

Malcolm X's departure from the NOI and its aftermath shaped the last year and a half of his life, a fittingly dramatic crisis and conclusion for the story. Superficially, Malcolm's confirmation of rumors about Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad's illegitimate children and Malcolm's tactless remarks about JFK's assassination caused the schism. But whether Malcolm 'quit' or was 'fired' is beside the point. The NOI had developed twin summits of power—Elijah Muhammad, the center of religious authority, and Malcolm X, the center of attention. Eventually one had to give way. The source of the fissure can be traced to Malcolm's mind, a division between his religious and political selves. He began as a preacher but his grass roots recruiting and lightning rod eloquence drew in many followers and the implied threat of a personal constituency. The division in his mind widened into a division in the organization. The threat might have remained benign had not his maturation as a leader within the NOI coincided with the most volatile years of the civil rights movement. While the NOI, and loyal Malcolm, eschewed political activity (calls for an unspecified black state not withstanding), the eyes of black America increasingly looked to Washington for justice. Malcolm's affiliation with the NOI threatened to render him irrelevant as an African-American spokesman. The times pressured him to make the difficult choice between his religious and political inclinations. It was his personal dilemma; it becomes the film's critical issue. If Malcolm X is to claim contemporary relevance, it cannot relegate its hero to a historical sideshow.

Malcolm's second conversion, to true Islam, resulting from a pilgrimage to Mecca, pulls the issue in two directions at once. It affirms his identity as a religious figure; it also allows him to forge an identity apart from the NOI and seek a secular political role. From a religious perspective, a second conversion begs a peculiar question: If God reveals His truth a second time, was He lying the first? What 'was' the vision of Elijah Muhammad, animated and speaking, that brings Malcolm to his knees for the first time? No such supernaturalism lifts the hajj above ritual. As shown, the principal change to Malcolm is a broadening of his outlook to recognize the fundamental equality of people. Now the seeds planted by the earlier presentation of Malcolm bear fruit. Though acknowledged as a full participant in the NOI, the film never fully dramatized his participation. Malcolm may have outgrown the absurdities of the NOI but the film never rooted him in them. He never preaches the NOI version of racial history, the theory of white devils, or any number of extreme views (although he does advocate separatism in one speech). Moreover, the film suppresses the wide differences between the NOI and true Islam. By softening the NOI and by further softening Malcolm's commitment to its philosophy, Lee 'politicizes' the second conversion by reducing it from a sweeping exchange of religions to a more palatable maturation of opinion, a maturation that moves him away from an exclusively religious perspective and towards the mainstream of the civil rights movement. The film allows Malcolm to be seen as having represented the good in the NOI, but an impractical good given the constraints; the separation from the NOI frees him to practice the good while absolving him of a bad he never seemed to believe in anyway.

When Malcolm left the NOI, he entered a political limbo between the organization he could not return to and the civil rights movement he could hardly step into after years of denouncing its proponents. His untimely death resolves his life ambiguously, leaving open forever the question of what he might ultimately have accomplished, and freeing the film to define his potential.

The assassination itself blunts the drama of the conclusion. That Malcolm was murdered by black men is anticlimactic to his movement toward a higher political consciousness. He had been a soldier on the battle lines of race but in the end was killed by his own kind. His demise fails as an opportunity to validate his threat to entrenched white power, his longstanding pessimism toward racial relations, or his status as spokesman for the race. Lee seems to recognize this because he takes a number of steps to invite the possibility that (white) agents of the government sponsored the assassination. A pair of CIA agents trail him in Egypt; we see images of rolling tape recorders, a 'bug' in a lamp shade, FBI agents listening to his phone calls; Malcolm himself blames "larger forces" for the fire-bombing of his house, after first blaming the Muslims; he speaks of, but never specifies, a harassment beyond the NOI's capabilities. None of these facts prove the authorities had Malcolm killed but the implication further raises his viability as a civil rights leader—it sanctions him with the government's fear; it makes him look too dangerous to live.

The autobiography chronicles a series of transformations to the character of Malcolm X but, in true self-reflexive literary fashion, is itself another transformation, an attempt to redefine the past to justify a current posture. Bruce Perry's well-researched recent biography, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America, assembles a more complete account of his life. It becomes clear from this version that the autobiography is part religious testament (to the virtues of the Muslim life) and part political tract (speaking out as an African-American Everyman), while its historical aspects have been transmuted for the purposes of the broader agenda.

Lee's Malcolm X does no better as history than the autobiography, but refines the book's agenda for a modern audience needing contemporary relevance and streamlined heroes. The Malcolm X of the film is less self-conscious, less square, more romantic, less dogmatic, and less divisive than the autobiographical Malcolm X. Near the end of the film, American and South African school children jump up from their desks to cry, "I am Malcolm X!," and we know they speak of the latter ecumenical man and not the Muslim separatist who came before. The film has forgiven and forgotten the hostile rhetoric of Malcolm's past as his America would not.

Then the film goes on to suggest a new transformation. As Malcolm's visit to the deteriorated, once proud Archie hinted at what an unrepentant Malcolm would have become, so does the appearance of Nelson Mandela, perhaps the world's most respected black leader, propose what Malcolm would have become had he lived to this day. Through the conceit of giving Mandela Malcolm's words rather than letting him speak his own. Mandela becomes the film's living embodiment of Malcolm X, a last-ditch effort to rescue Malcolm from history.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (essay date 21 February 1993)

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SOURCE: "Malcolm, the Aardvark and Me," in New York Times Book Review, February 21, 1993, p. 11.

[In the following essay, Gates relates his persona! experience of reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a young man.]

One of the most gratifying effects of Spike Lee's film Malcolm X is that its success has prompted the restoration of Malcolm's autobiography to the best-seller lists. The country is reading the 1965 book once again, as avidly, it seems, as it is seeing Mr. Lee's movie. For 17 weeks The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with the assistance of Alex Haley, has been on the New York Times paperback best-seller list, and for 10 of those weeks it was No. 1. Today, on the 28th anniversary of his assassination. Malcolm's story has become as American—to borrow H. Rap Brown's famous aphorism—as violence and cherry pie.

Malcolm first came into my life some three decades ago, when I was 9 years old and Mike Wallace and CBS broadcast a documentary about the Nation of Islam. It was called The Hate That Hate Produced, and it showed just about the scariest black people I had ever seen: black people who talked right into the faces of white people, telling them off without even blinking. While I sat in our living room, I happened to glance over at my mother. A certain radiance was slowly transforming her soft brown face, as she listened to Malcolm naming the white man us the devil. "Amen," she said, quietly at first. "All right, now," she continued, much more emphatically. All this time and I had not known just how deeply my mother despised white people. The revelation was terrifying and thrilling.

The book came into my life much later.

I was almost 17, a junior in high school, and I was slowly and pleasurably devouring Ebony magazine. More precisely, I was reading a profile of the Roman Catholic basketball player Lew Alcindor, who was then a star at U.C.L.A. and who later became a legend with the Los Angeles Lakers as the Muslim basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In the profile he said that The Autobiography of Malcolm X had meant more to him than any other book, and that all black Americans should read it—today.

Today was not possible for me, since I lived in a village in the hills of West Virginia where nobody carried such things. I had to go down to Red Bowl's newsstand, make a deposit and wait while they sent away for it. But when the book arrived, I read it straight through the night, as struck by its sepia-colored photograph of a dangerous-looking, gesticulating Malcolm as I was by the contents, the riveting saga of a man on the run, from whites (as the son of a Garveyite father) and blacks (his former mentors and colleagues at the Nation of Islam, after his falling-out with Elijah Muhammad).

I loved the hilarious scene in which Malcolm is having his hair "conked," or "processed" ("relaxed" remains the euphemism); unable to rinse out the burning lye because the pipes in his home are frozen, he has no recourse but to dunk his head in a toilet bowl. A few months before, the benignly parochial principal of our high school had "paddled" my schoolmate Arthur Galloway when Arthur told him that his processed hairstyle was produced by a mixture of eggs, mashed potatoes and lye. "Don't lie to me, boy," the principal was heard saying above Arthur's protests.

What I remember most, though, is Malcolm's discussion of the word "aardvark":

I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study…. I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary's pages. I'd never realized so many words existed!… Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that "aardvark" springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.

Years later, near the end of his life, Malcolm found himself heading to the American Museum of Natural History in New York to learn more about that exotic creature, even while trying to figure out how to avoid an almost certain Muslim death sentence. "Boy! I never will forget that old aardvark!" he had mused to Alex Haley. What manner of politician was this, I wondered, in this the year that Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton, Ron Karenga and Amiri Baraka, simultaneously declared themselves to be the legitimate sons of Malcolm the father, to linger with aardvarks when his world was collapsing around him?

Although Malcolm proudly avowed that he read no fiction (he says he read only one novel "since I started serious reading," and that was Uncle Tom's Cabin), he still loved fiction—"fiction" defined as a making, a creating, with words. His speeches—such as the oft-repeated "Ballot or the Bullet" or "Bandung Conference"—are masterpieces of the rhetorical arts. More than Martin Luther King Jr., more than any of the black nationalists or the neo-Marxists, Malcolm X was a writer, a wordsmith.

In 1968, my English teacher told me that in years to come, long after the civil rights struggle was a footnote in history, this man would be remembered—like St. Augustine, like Benjamin Franklin, like Henry Adams—because of his gift with words. High praise: and yet the teacher's observation, I must confess, didn't go down well with me at the time. Imagining the book stretched on the autopsy slab of purely literary analysis, I somehow felt that the overriding immediacy of Malcolm's experience—and my special relation to it—had been diminished. Despite Malcolm's cautious if heartfelt moves toward universalism, I felt that part of him would always belong to African mammals like aardvarks, like me.

Nell Irvin Painter (essay date April 1993)

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SOURCE: "Malcolm X Across the Genres," in American Historical Review, Vol. 98, No. 2, April, 1993, pp. 432-39.

[In the following essay, Painter examines (he facts and events involved in the story of Malcolm X's life as they are presented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and two films adapted from that book, both entitled Malcolm X.]

The historian in me distrusted a dramatic early scene in Spike Lee's Malcolm X that is set in Omaha. The Ku Klux Klan comes pounding up to the Little family's house on horseback. Initially, the scene seems menacingly authentic—hooded white supremacy in its most recognizable guise bent on terrorizing a helpless black family—but as soon as one recalls that this is supposed to be Omaha, Nebraska, in the 1920s, the sense of realism breaks down.

I assumed this to be yet another employment of the iconography of southern white supremacy, which Americans still think of as the real white supremacy, to advance a narrative of black life anywhere in the United States. Spike Lee's Malcolm X, like the 1972 documentary of the same name and countless other evocations of black life, uses photos and footage from southern history to hammer home the plight of black people in American life generally. Considering that in Lee's film, a still photograph from 1936 of a Florida lynch victim appears between cuts of the violence that met civil rights activists in Birmingham in 1963, it is hardly surprising that the need to show the Klan as always coming on horseback and riding off into the full moon triumphs again over regional and chronological logic. Once more in film, or so it appeared, D. W. Griffith's images cancel out the unlikelihood of twentieth-century, midwestern, urban Klansmen making their rounds by horse.

But I was wrong to think that Spike Lee had followed the dictates of film school; the image was not Lee's at all. The Autobiography of Malcolm X opens with this very scene. Lee and his screenwriters were following Malcolm X as though what he had said was history, which it was not. According to Bruce Perry's Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America, the story was Malcolm's own invention. This vignette encapsulates the confusion about historical truth that surrounds the figure of Malcolm X in the two genres through which he is best known: his autobiography and Spike Lee's film.

Both The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the film Malcolm X simulate history by purveying autobiographical rather than biographical truths, for the source for each representation is Malcolm's own recomposition of his life from the vantage point of 1964. Alex Haley shaped the autobiography and took it from conversation to publication. A screenplay by James Baldwin, Arnold Perl, and Spike Lee recasts the published autobiography for the 1992 film. While each of these retellings invents a new narrative, neither the book nor the film is congruent with the life that Malcolm Little/Malcolm X lived, day by day, between 1925 and 1965.

The transubstantiations work on several different levels. First of all, autobiography, even when it is not "told to" another but is written by the person who lived the life, reworks existential fragments into a meaningful new whole, as seen from a particular vantage point. Even when the autobiography is not a collaboration, the narrator passes over much in silence and highlights certain themes that become salient in light of what the narrator concludes she or he has become. When the subject is racialized, the narrative nearly always aspires to {acquires in the marketplace) metonymic stylization, as captured in the dust jacket blurb of The Autobiography of Malcolm X from 1965, which still serves to promote the Autobiography today: "In the agony of [his] self-creation [is] the agony of an entire people in their search for identity. No man has better expressed his people's trapped anguish." If Malcolm X is to work as a racial symbol, it is best not to look at him too closely.

The process of transforming an individual into a racial symbol alters the subject's life (with its false starts and, above all, with its intra-racial conflicts) into a narrative whose plot is coded in black and white. Usually, the black protagonist faces "white society" or the "white power structure." Such stark dichotomies are hardly the sign of history that is written sensitively. History grows out of evidence, the more the better, we say—or at least so we said until the late twentieth century, when evidence in absurd abundance threatened to paralyze historians by swamping the research phase of the work.

The best drama, in contrast, is spun out of the fewest number of documents, the least amount of detail and nuance. For the sake of theater, the less we know of thoroughly racialized figures like Malcolm X, the better. When we know enough about a man to analyze his childhood family dynamics, as Bruce Perry has done, then we know enough to realize that what happened between self, parents, and siblings counts as much as—more than?—the oppressiveness of segregation in the public sphere. It is hardly surprising that Spike Lee's movie has reached millions, while Bruce Perry's debunking biography, a 1991 imprint by a small publishing house called Station Hill, is hardly known at all. Even though the makers of Spike Lee's film conducted many interviews, for the purpose of the drama they chose to use a univocal source: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The movie should have borne the same title, for it is autobiography rather than history.

As a means of buttressing the historical claims of his film, Spike Lee takes the process of stylization a step further and plays havoc with the distinction between feature and documentary. The results are mind boggling. At crucial junctures, the narrative, which is shot in color, is punctuated with scenes in which Denzel Washington, the actor who plays Malcolm X, appears in black and white—in the press conference in which Malcolm announces his departure from the Nation of Islam, as well as on the stretcher that bears his bullet-ridden body away from the Audubon ballroom and to the hospital. This faux footage replicates documentary technique like that in the 1972 documentary of Malcolm X by Marvin Worth and Arnold Perl, whose authority was also The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Spike Lee is so skilled at fabricating documentation that when Nelson Mandela appeared at the end of Malcolm X, I questioned his authenticity! The movie's credits reveal more faux footage, as in the black-and-white scene of the Kennedy assassination that is cross-cut poststructurally with Denzel Washington's/Malcolm's reaction to the assassination.

This movie is not a documentary, but it wraps itself in manufactured images of documentary truth. When the images are real—as in footage of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s remarks after the assassination of Malcolm X, the effect can be chilling, for viewers know that King would be the victim of assassination three years later. The verisimilitude of Spike Lee's faux footage is intensified by the cameo appearances of the Reverend Al Sharpton and former Black Panther Bobby Seale. Their roles as street-corner speakers establish a continuity of black nationalist leadership from Malcolm X in the 1960s to the Panthers in the 1970s to Sharpton in the 1980s and 1990s. Given the relative stability of black political grievances, notably police brutality and official harassment, this film may well reopen questions about the role of police and government in Malcolm X's assassination. If so, such an inquiry would underscore the political role of film in African-American life and further blur the line between art and life, between symbolism and history.

Viewed as an artifact of this time rather than of the 1960s, Malcolm X subordinates certain aspects of the problem of realism and accentuates others. Spike Lee's film heightens Malcolm's confrontation with the police over the beating of Brother Johnson, as though it were a major turning point rather than one of many steps (sideways and backward as well as forward) in the emergence of the Nation of Islam. For a 1993 audience, Denzel Washington is a good-enough Malcolm X: he looks and talks like Malcolm did in the 1960s; and, from this vantage point, it only matters slightly that Washington is significantly darker-skinned than Little/ X and much older than Malcolm during much of the action. Although Washington is in his mid-thirties, Malcolm was a teenager during his years as a hustler. He went to prison before turning twenty and was only twenty-seven when he emerged from incarceration in Massachusetts and went to work as an organizer for the Nation of Islam. These are trivialities in racialized drama, where the conflict is posed mainly in terms of black and white and other questions are less intelligible. When what happens outside the black-white nexus is not of much interest, the black protagonist needs only enough family influence and youthful experience to foreshadow the anguish that will come of being black.

In the movie, Malcolm X's siblings lose the roles they played in his personal and intellectual trajectory, roles that were clearly acknowledged in the Autobiography. In life, four of his siblings joined the Nation of Islam before he did, and his family, particularly his brothers Philbert and Reginald, brought him into the fold while he was still in prison. Later on, when Malcolm was acting as Elijah Muhammad's national representative and building the Nation of Islam from 400 to 40,000 adherents, part of the hostility he encountered derived from the fear that by promoting the interests of his brothers, who were also ministers in the Nation, he was building a family dynasty intended to rival that of Elijah Muhammad. After Malcolm left the Nation of Islam in early 1964, his half-sister Ella, a businesswoman in Boston, underwrote his pilgrimage to Mecca. While he spent months on end abroad in 1964–1965, Ella Little took over the leadership of his ephemeral new organizations, the Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, continuing to head them after his assassination. Given the kind of roles allotted to women in the Nation of Islam and in this and Spike Lee's other films, the effacement of the strong and complicated figure of Ella Little is hardly surprising.

Even though their roles are circumscribed, the female characters in Spike Lee's film have bigger parts than they did in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. His girlfriend Laura's place in the autobiography is narrowly circumscribed, although Alex Haley notes in his epilogue that Malcolm blamed his own shoddy treatment of Laura for her eventual ruin (which seems unlikely unless his role in her life was far larger than the autobiography or Perry's biography indicates). In the feature film, the figure of Laura reappears at several junctures, first as the proper young black woman whom the teenaged Malcolm deserts for a white woman named Sophia. Laura sharpens the point that the Autobiography makes obliquely by telling Malcolm. "I'm not white and I don't put out, so why would you want to call me, Malcolm?" Young Laura's purity contrasts with the figure she presents as the film progresses. When Malcolm arouses her sexually, she becomes willing to jettison her grandmother's prohibitions. Later, she is naïvely vulnerable to the manipulation of a freeloading junkie boyfriend. Finally, as a prostitute at the bottom of the pit of degradation, Laura is seen giving a white john a blow-job in a Harlem doorway. (Spike Lee does not explain how she gets from Boston to New York.)

At other points, Lee phrases succinctly the patriarchal gender values of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm admonishes his wife Betty not to raise her voice in his home. A scene at a Savior's Day Rally hammers home the message, as the audience sees a banner stretched across the balcony in which the sisters are sequestered. It reads: "We must protect our women, our most valuable possession." Is Spike Lee using this prop ironically? I'm not sure, for popular black nationalism, in the 1990s as in the 1960s, often espouses precisely this sort of gender ideal. Lee may be using the Nation of Islam to preach a gospel that he also finds appealing.

Spike Lee's Malcolm X captures the strengths of the Nation of Islam in redeeming poor, black incarcerated men for useful lives. Elijah Muhammad wrote to black inmates, many of whom lacked Malcolm's family, and the Nation played a unique role in educating and empowering the most vulnerable men in American society. The content of the Nation's beliefs is not well explained, however, and Lee's film (like the biography and documentary film) glosses over the weirder themes in Elijah Muhammad's doctrine, which he learned from Master W. D. Fard in Detroit in 1931. (Fard's portrait appears on the walls of Elijah Muhammad's house in the feature film. Fard was even more light-skinned than Muhammad.) Fard taught that when blacks separated from whites, they would enter heaven on earth, after four hundred years of hell on earth under the control of white devils. Fard and Muhammad said that the black man was the original man, and that whites had been purposefully bred out of the original man six thousand years earlier in order to put black people through hell. The end of time was near, and on a day of judgment Allah would defeat whites and vindicate blacks through racial separation.

Both the feature and the documentary films mention the Nation of Islam's apocalyptic vision of racial redemption, but neither fleshes it out. The Nation's solution to American racism, the creation of a black state out of Georgia and Alabama, is similarly phrased in terms that are suitably vague. Spike Lee's film reveals why so many black Americans were drawn to the Nation of Islam through Malcolm X's preaching of black beauty and power; but, by deleting the inane portions of the creed, it eliminates the mystery of why so intelligent a person as Malcolm X would stay twelve years in such a narrow-minded movement. Answering that question means stepping outside the framework of Spike Lee's film.

The Nation of Islam is a combination of two intellectual traditions: first, holiness religion of the sort that is commonly found in working-classblack neighborhoods and that appeals primarily to women and, second, the masculinist tradition of black nationalism continued by the Black Panthers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Within urban Afro-American life, the first tradition is strongly class-based, the second is highly gendered.

Holiness religion is perfectionist and apocalyptic, maintaining that the end is near and the faithful must prepare for judgment by purifying their thoughts, behavior, and bodies. Black Muslims, like acolytes of holiness churches, must take baths frequently, dress modestly, and eat healthfully (little or no meat, no pork, lots of fresh fruits and vegetables); they must not smoke, drink alcohol, use drugs, curse, gamble, steal, or fornicate. Men wear white shirts and suits, women wear long dresses, head coverings, and no make-up. Both holiness Christianity and the Nation of Islam have saved thousands of poor blacks from the snares of vice-ridden neighborhoods.

Critics of the Nation of Islam have sometimes remarked on the paradox of black nationalists' adopting the trappings of "the white middle-class," but that designation is flawed. Muslims, like many other people of color in similar clothing, are dressing for respectability, not for racial transmogrification. Respectability, like the putative characteristics of economic class, are for many Americans color-coded: the stereotypical vices of the poor (intemperance, laziness, fecklessness, immorality) are in the United States the stereotypical vices of blacks; the supposed virtues of the middle class (thrift, hard work, sobriety, moral rectitude) are associated with whites.

Racial stereotype, which has long tended to lump all blacks together, regardless of their class, gender, or region, deeded black nationalism an intellectual inheritance with many of white supremacy's serious flaws. Malcolm X, in autobiography, documentary film, and feature film, exhibits one such weakness, a preoccupation with whiteness, in three different guises. On the most obvious level, whiteness provides the measure of beauty and desirability for young Malcolm Little, who undergoes excruciating pain in order to conk (straighten) his hair. In the film and in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Malcolm and his composite sidekick, Shorty, display white girlfriends like trophies. In Malcolm's case, whiteness alone does not quite suffice. In the Autobiography, he emphasizes Sophia's elegant clothing. Her relatively elevated class standing is also indicated in the feature film, as Sophia presents herself as a classy dame who is better than the trashy poor white women, "harps" (Irish-Americans) with whom black men were more likely to associate.

In the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X outgrows the aesthetic of whiteness, but the gaze of the superego figure he terms "the white man" remains steady. While "the white man" is the devil and "the white man" has done only evil in this world, Malcolm X seems to agree with the judgment of "the white man" with regard to the self-destructive behavior of poor blacks. Minister Malcolm X hectors his audience for ingesting the white man's poisons: pork, cigarettes, white women. "The white man sees you and laughs," says Malcolm, calling on the scorn of strange white people to induce dietary and sexual reform.

At the very end of the Spike Lee film, "the white man" goes from stem parent to Islamic brother. After his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz/Malcolm X wrote an open letter to the Muslim Mosque, Inc., in New York that is quoted in both films and reproduced in the Autobiography. In the letter, Malcolm marvels at the color blindness he encounters in Mecca and reports that he has prayed and eaten and slept with brother Muslims whose skin was the whitest white and whose eyes were the bluest blue and whose hair was the blondest blonde. (Those white Muslims may have been Bosnians, the very people whom Serbs are slaughtering and raping today in the name of "ethnic cleansing.") The geography of the Muslim world is such that fair-skinned pilgrims in Saudi Arabia would have formed a small minority, who were remarkable to Malcolm X because the figure of "the white man" had acquired such salience in his own ideology. The great majority in Mecca would have been more or less brownish people from Asia and Africa.

In 1964 and early 1965, as Malcolm traveled widely and came into contact with pan-Africanism and anti-imperialism, he grew intellectually and began to situate American racial issues within a broader context. Had he lived, he might well have outgrown the intellectually constricting aspects of black nationalism. But in 1964, he knew he would not live much longer. The Nation of Islam (with official support?) assassinated him, in a spectacular and tragic example of black nationalism's inability to tolerate intra-racial diversity. During most of his public life, Malcolm X, too, subscribed to the unifying tenets of the Nation, which lacked language with which to manage dissent or conceive of difference within the race.

The rhetoric of the Nation as preached so effectively by Malcolm X dwelled endlessly on "the white devil" and "the black man." Interracial conflict was not nearly so dramatic in Malcolm's own life, for he was as much the victim of poverty as of racism. Spike Lee emphasizes the dramatic parallel between the burning of the Little family's home in Lansing, Michigan, and the fire-bombing of Malcolm's family home in New York, but the parallel, no matter how spectacular, is flawed: Malcolm called the Lansing fire a white-on-black crime, while he blamed the conflagration in New York on the Nation of Islam.

The leading theme in Malcolm's life was actually intra-racial conflict, which, in the last analysis, took his life. Like Americans who lack a conceptual category for black respectability, Malcolm X (and black nationalists generally) found it difficult to envision a Negro race made up of people of different classes and clashing convictions. Malcolm much preferred to speak in the singular, as though all twenty-two million African Americans had identical interests and needs. The Nation of Islam offered solutions to "the black man," no matter what "his" education or income. Women in the Nation were to accept the interests of Muslim men as their own.

Racial unity is the great ideal of the various strains of black nationalism, and it is usually considered an attainable goal. If black people were united, so the reasoning goes, they could challenge racial oppression effectively; if black people were united, they could advance economically; if black people were united, they would represent a potent political influence. In this ideology, the impediment to unity is not the implausibility of tens of millions of people without their own governmental institutions or police power acting together in unison. Instead, racial unity is seen as being prevented by the actions of traitors who are in cahoots with whites. Malcolm X identified race traitors as educated blacks and house Negroes, and he usually treated these two kinds of people as one.

While he was proud of his own self-education and wanted young black people to educate themselves, Malcolm X denied that formal education was good for African Americans. He labeled black Ph.D.s "Uncle Thomases" and called them fakes and traitors, asking his audiences what a black man with a Ph.D. was called. Answer: "A n―er!" As if to say that for a black person, formal education serves for naught.

For Malcolm X before 1964, formal education served for less than naught, because he saw a close connection between blacks with education and what he called "the house Negro," the slave who loved his master better than himself or other black people, that is, the traitor to his race. These lines always got a laugh when Malcolm appeared on television or on college campuses, and they still do in the movies that have appeared since his assassination. Even those who were skewered managed to laugh at their own expense, for, despite his harsh rhetoric, Malcolm X remained a good-humored man whose razor wit never became personal. This, at least, is my memory of seeing him in the early 1960s.

When he spoke at the University of California at Berkeley, I was one of a handful of black students in his audience, and I recall my realization that he was not really talking to us. Malcolm X spoke around us to white people, even though educated blacks like us were his rhetorical bêle blanche. Like "the white man," we were a stereotype, but we were not nearly so interesting. As stereotype, we had a part to play in the drama of foiled race unity, but his real engagement was with the vast majority of his audience, whom he could bait and smile at with devastating effectiveness. As sidelined players in his American drama, we nevertheless relished Malcolm's appearance, for he was able to discomfort white people with an enviable skill that we did not possess. He was smart, assertive, funny, and, all in all, very entertaining. After he left the Nation of Islam, he realized what we had hoped, that he could do better than tailor his analysis to fit the demands of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad's creed.

The second and last time I saw Malcolm X was in West Africa in the fall of 1964. Perhaps because ideologically he was becoming more like us—the well-educated Afro-American community sheltering in Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana—our existence seemed to annoy him no longer. He was at home intellectually, but he was also utterly exhausted physically. When he returned to New York, Malcolm tried to implement what he had learned by founding new organizations that were still black nationalist. He also moved to the left politically, which, had he lived, would have ultimately strained his racial ideals.

Given the Nation of Islam's willingness to shed blood, I doubt it would have been possible for Malcolm X to survive much longer. He certainly felt, when he finished his work with Alex Haley, that he would not live to see the publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and he did not. Had he somehow managed to preserve his life, his intellectual trajectory would probably have continued leftward and away from black nationalism. Would he still have inspired Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to found the Black Panther Party, which repeated much of the Nation of Islam's tragic history? Probably not, for by 1966–1967, Malcolm X would have seen the danger inherent in a fascination with guns and come to resemble the Nelson Mandela of the late 1980s. Nelson Mandela, another symbol of race and manhood, is the figure with whom Spike Lee closes his film. The vision—still pan-African—raises hopes for another round of consciousness-raising among black nationalists.

Chris Roark (essay date Fall 1994)

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SOURCE: "Hamlet, Malcolm X, and the Examined Education;" in CEA Critic, Vol. 57, No. 1, Fall, 1994, pp. 111-22.

[In the following essay, Roark outlines the use of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and William Shakespeare's Hamlet as a means of illustrating to students the effect of external influences on their perceptions of the world.]

Shakespeare's Hamlet and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, taught in conjunction, are useful texts for encouraging first-year writing students to examine how their educations are often a mix of conflicting influences. Both works can be used to provoke not only arguments and counter arguments regarding those influences but also practical action on the insights derived from such study. The usually debilitating "double consciousness" that permeates the thoughts of both Hamlet and Malcolm X can also suggest attitudes and techniques useful for student argumentative writing, especially when such a habit pushes both students and teachers to confront contradictory evidence, thus undermining the urge to distort or simplify experience. After briefly reviewing the unusual ways these two works mirror each other, I will discuss how passages that offer conflicting evidence imply a structure for class discussions. This approach in class also offers a method for student autobiographical and argumentative writing, which in turn aims at self-examination and right action. I'll conclude by describing what are, admittedly, the idealistic aims of the project, discussing how such work can lead to the possibility of more autonomous and informed behavior by students. Like the two figures under consideration—who must reconcile their complex perceptions of the world with their desire to take direct action against wrongs—the difficulties and yet the necessity of moving from reflective, critical thought to action can hardly receive too much attention.

Though my purpose here is not to dwell on a comparison of the two works, a few of the parallels between Hamlet and The Autobiography deserve mention. Both Hamlet and Malcolm X grapple with archetypal problems of violence and political action inextricably tied to family experiences; each struggles with the unexplained death of a father and betrayal by a substitute father who seeks his death; each experiences the appearance of a ghost who seems to offer direction; each rejects a female figure and, it could be argued, drives her to self-destruction; and both have premonitions of death that, when played out, partially resemble suicide. The two men also possess a keen sense of self-presentation, viewing their worlds as theaters in which a public self driven to achieve or complete an action often hides and conflicts with a private self. Thus, both sometimes self-consciously project public images of themselves as madmen with the potential to undertake imminent violent action, using these images to manipulate various audiences.

Yet both figures also struggle privately with substantial psychological problems. Both also, finally, depend on mediators, Horatio and Alex Haley, to tell their stories aright to the unsatisfied, raising again the problem of presenting the self to various public audiences. Indeed, when Ossie Davis eulogizes Malcolm X as "our own black shining prince" [in The Autobiography of Malcolm X], he echoes Horatio's eulogy of Hamlet, the "sweet prince." The often-private, confessional nature of Hamlet's soliloquies parallels the confessional nature of parts of The Autobiography, suggesting similarities in the two different forms of self-presentation and self-analysis. Thus, within the frameworks of poetic tragedy and conversion narrative, the two figures sometimes partially escape consideration of an immediate public audience and its influence and yet still remain aware that they are offering a "show" for others. Both also experience moments when identity and evidence seem clear, so that action can seem right. Yet these moments are exceptions, and for the most part we see both figures in the fullness of warring influences (for example, conflicting religious beliefs) that resist understanding and impede action.

Rather than lecturing to students about such things, I let these issues arise in discussions based on passages students select and prepare for class. The approach to the two works takes place within the context of argument and counterargument, and class discussion introduces the methods required in later argumentative writing. Students prepare for class by selecting two passages from one text that offer conflicting evidence about an idea or issue. For example, one student juxtaposed these two passages from The Autobiography:

They were good people. Mrs. Swerlin was bigger than her husband. I remember, a big buxom, robust, laughing woman, and Mr. Swerlin was thin, with black hair, and a black mustache and a red face, quiet and polite, even to me.

They liked me right away, too. Mrs. Swerlin showed me to my room, my own room—the first in my life.

The devil white man cut these black people (slaves) off from all knowledge of their own kind, and cut them off from any knowledge of their own language, religion, and past culture, until the black man in America was the earth's only race of people who had absolutely no knowledge of his true identity.

This student's selection focuses on a consistent conflict in the work: evidence that sometimes offers a sympathetic view of whites in contrast to evidence that defines the "white man" as the devil. I asked the student whether she thought Malcolm X's behavior could be influenced more by what is described in one passage than by what is reflected in the other. Her response was to begin to contextualize the quotations, arguing that his earlier age at the time of the first passage could make it a greater influence. Another student suggested that "good people" (here white) can also be part of what cuts Malcolm X off from his "true identity." We also discussed his early life with the Swerlins in contrast to what he learns later from books. After more remarks about the context and specifics of these quotations, along with passages prepared by other students, we moved on to the section that describes Malcolm X's learning in prison and continued to discuss the influence of books versus the impact of actual experience on his behavior.

Discussions based on student selections can take many paths, but often the paths intersect, and always our remarks are ordered by efforts to seek details that counter an idea from an initial passage. Here, working to understand the development of Malcolm X's shifting perceptions of whites is crucial not only to interpreting The Autobiography's final chapters but also to the debate about his final political philosophy. This contrastive approach also invites the students to review details and consciously seek, with each new passage, to argue even as they immediately complicate initial perceptions with contrary evidence. It becomes clear that Malcolm X is often inconsistent and self-contradictory. We can argue that the contradictions potentially undermine the work for us or that they seem to humanize Malcolm X and point to his attempts to change, find the truth, and take right action.

Hamlet and The Autobiography, as their critical history shows, invite a focus on the nuclear family to understand the central figure's problems with his identity and actions. Yet to assume that this is the heart of the mystery for both men is to ignore pervasive problems with, for one thing, conflicting religious beliefs that are also very much a part of these texts. Students often touch on these ideas with their passages. A student pointed out that much of Hamlet's first soliloquy focuses on his mother ("Frailty, thy name is woman"). Searching for a possible counterargument, he noted that Hamlet also thinks about Christianity here ("that the Everlasting had not fixed / His cannon 'gainst self-slaughter"). I asked which influence seems to have the greater effect on Hamlet's behavior here, his family or his religious beliefs. After more discussion, a student noted that Haley describes Malcolm X's initial inability to speak about his family, yet this is eventually broken down when Malcolm X is asked about his mother. I asked, "Do the troubling family structures in The Autobiography and in Hamlet seem more or less important than uncertainty about religious beliefs, especially as these things influence the two figures' actions?"

As students seek contradictory evidence, they also begin to confront problems with methodology important to literary critics and biographers, who themselves privilege certain influences over others, or one above all. Considering conflicting evidence offers not only a structure for class discussion but also a structure for student essays, in which each passage supporting one view can be confronted not just with a counterargument but with specific textual evidence that complicates or, again, contradicts that initial evidence. Crucially, because students seek evidence that both supports and contradicts an argument, they learn that there are no certain or facile answers to questions regarding primary influence or methodological issues. As others have argued, too often we "aid in their educated self-deception" by not making this point repeatedly and forcefully to students [James S. and Tita French Baumlin, "Knowledge, Choice, and Consequence: Reading and Teaching Hamlet," CEA Critic, Vol. 52, Nos. 1-2, 1989], Thus, requiring students to argue for the relative importance of various influences, such as religious belief versus the nuclear family, means they must qualify their arguments in light of contradictory evidence, continually grapple with the details of the works, and understand that such questions do not lead to single answers so much as to more questions and the necessary habit of review.

As the example of the two mothers' influence implies, the works mirror each other in ways that are useful for classroom discussion. For problems students raise from Hamlet, parallel issues arise from The Autobiography, and the class begins to see how such diverse and different texts "talk" to each other. Usually, the class works for two weeks on Hamlet, begins to read The Autobiography during the second week of Hamlet, and for a third and fourth week finishes reading The Autobiography as well as working on comparing the texts in class. After the students find conflicting evidence about a problem in one work, I have them find passages for a similar problem and conflicting evidence in the other work, and I ask whether the texts offer any mutual illumination. One student compared the difficulties both men have with women. She noted that Hamlet's tendency to generalize—"Frailty, thy name is woman"—seems like Malcolm X's generalization that "a woman's true nature is to be weak," even though his admiration of his half-sister Ella offers one instance of substantial counterevidence to this habit of mind. For many issues in both works, the central tension is between a generalization the figure makes and evidence regarding a specific person or problem that contradicts or complicates that generalization and throws doubt upon related action.

Indeed, problems that both Hamlet and Malcolm X face reflect a central dilemma for first-year writers as well as for most other writers. Both figures share with writing students the wish to simplify the evidence of experience, sometimes with generalizations, so that a path of action or argument will seem clearer. Therefore, my aim is to put problems to students in a manner that compels them to respond to the complexity of those problems. Thus, in conjunction with studying these two figures, I ask students first to write their own "autobiographies," works that narrate their day-to-day lives in school for a month, and then to write an argumentative paper based exclusively on evidence from their autobiographies. Though the initial writing is also like a journal, I use the term "autobiography" to lend more seriousness to the undertaking and to invite students to see the relationship between their writing and The Autobiography. That is, I encourage students to be opinionated, to reflect on causes, and to pinpoint events that seem to have meaning for them. With their autobiographies, students narrate responses to their current classes, their studies, and other related experiences; then, in the argumentative essay, they attempt to get out of their skins and analyze their autobiographies. With this follow-up essay, they must argue for the value, or lack thereof, of their current college education. So that the evidence in the autobiography will not consciously be slanted toward one argument or the other, I don't tell them they will eventually write arguments based on their autobiographies until this initial writing is completed.

As with the approach to the works in class, students must build their arguments on evidence that presents both sides of various issues. To encourage attitudes that are both exploratory and argumentative in the follow-up essay, I require students first to state a thesis based on questions before stating which way they will argue. For example, "What evidence from the autobiography suggests that the (student's) education helps develop discipline, risktaking, unrestricted questioning, and self-confrontation—things that characterize Malcolm X's and Hamlet's pursuits? What evidence implies that their education is failing to develop such habits?" After viewing their experience from the inside by writing autobiographies, students examine the evidence from the outside by constructing arguments, with their autobiographical texts as their evidence.

Periodically, when they are writing their autobiographies and before they turn to argument, I have students write in response to these questions and directions: (1) "How is your perception of the material in a given class different from, or similar to, your teacher's views?" (2) "How are influences (such as religious or political beliefs) that you observe in The Autobiography and Hamlet like or unlike influences acting in your own life?" (3) "Identify places in your autobiography where these influences could affect your descriptions of your education, or perception of 'facts,' as we often see happening with Hamlet and Malcolm X." These questions are meant to make students think about the myth of objective consciousness, to begin to see that "often we invent the world around us" [David Schuman, A Preface to Politics, 1981]. Their reading of Hamlet encourages such reflection. Hamlet, at one point, desires to know the world and himself from the mirrorlike, and thus seemingly objective, reflection of drama. So he offers:

… the purpose of playing, whose end, both at first and now, was and is to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image.

Yet he later seems to question this, when, regarding his conflict with Laertes, he remarks that "by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his." Here, "image" and "portraiture" imply that Hamlet, while striving to know himself and Laertes, senses the subjective and interpretive aspects mediating this process.

Janet Varner Gunn comments on the important influence of autobiography on the self-awareness of readers:

The reader experiences the autobiographical text as an occasion for discovery: of seeing in the text the heretofore unexpressed depth of the reader's self—not as a mirror image, nor even as a particular manifestation of some shared idea of selfhood, but as instance of interpretive activity that risks display.

Hamlet and Malcolm X offer habits of mind and perception that need to be interpreted because they are often in conflict. Similarly, each student's autobiography displays not a true mirror reflection of the student but a self-in-depth that demands interpretation. As Hamlet and Malcolm X both strive to know themselves but often are also conscious of the limits of their perceptions, so also students begin to see that the perceived selves and education described in their autobiographies are something they are as much making with their biases and uses of evidence as finding in the "facts." David Schuman, following William James, clarifies this point:

Nothing—no part of our experience—has self-evident meaning. Once we are conscious of something, we add meaning to it. Not only that, we get those meanings from our surroundings. The myths of our society, the values of our parents and peers, the kind of day we're having, all contribute to how we make sense and meaning of events around us. We make meaning within in the context of meaning; we make history within history.

Schuman's clear and no-nonsense approach to James and epistemology, combined with Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," is a useful introduction for students first studying these issues. In a later work, Schuman outlines epistemological positions that encourage students to reflect critically on the evidence of their day-to-day education. He quotes Alfred Schutz:

Philosophers as different as James, Bergson, Dewey, Husserl, and Whitehead agree that the commonsense knowledge of everyday life is the unquestioned but always questionable background within which inquiry starts and within which alone it can be carried out. [David Schuman, Policy Analysis, Education, and Everyday Life: An Empirical Re-evaluation of Higher Education in America, 1982]

Perhaps what unites Hamlet and Malcolm X as much as anything else is their habit of questioning what we take to be common-sense knowledge of everyday life.

After students determine the questions for their argumentative essays, I ask them to speculate, in view of the evidence from their autobiographies and the influence of teaching techniques, both about problems and about ways to improve their day-to-day education: "What helps and what inhibits developing a thirst for critical understanding in your classes?" "What would you change about a class and your own behavior that would enable you to recapture (since most have it as children) 'the craving to be mentally alive,' as Malcolm X describes it?" "Considering Malcolm X's self-education in prison or Hamlet's isolation, how much should learning be a painful and often solitary struggle (as Plato seems to argue in his 'Allegory'); how much pleasurable and communal?" I assume that students need to examine such questions and that the snapshots of their autobiographies become clearer when pasted on the wider backdrop of such issues.

Even the most rudimentary recording of experiences when combined with an argumentative essay reveals vexing conflicts and evidence that cannot be easily resolved. One student's autobiography had short entries, many of which simply listed the days' events. This lack of effort in itself could be evidence against the value of the student's current education. But when the student reflected on his autobiography, he realized that the argumentative paper, in contrast to the autobiography, revealed that his education encourages him to confront himself, to question the value of his education, and to argue from day-to-day evidence that is hardly abstract. Another student argued against the usefulness of her current education, questioning institutional practices (especially a writing class whose procedures are so regimented!). According to an article in College English, the most useful arguments are often conscious of the institutional context in which an essay is produced, rebelling against the usual model of student as apprentice and demystifying institutional authority [Ronald Strickland, "Confrontational Pedagogy and Traditional Literary Studies," College English, Vol. 52, No. 3, 1990]. Ironically, therefore, the student who sees this creates an argument that can, to the extent it is persuasive, be evidence for a valuable education based on self-confrontation, since the writing class offers the means for this critique. My comments on this second student's essay encouraged her to revise her arguments, considering the essay itself as evidence in the analysis. Likewise, other students discover they have difficulty writing convincing arguments if their autobiographies present only positive descriptions of classes and study, since the subsequent essay would probably argue that there is no significant conflicting evidence about the student's education in the autobiography. Yet this lack of conflict itself may testify that the student is not being encouraged to know the limits of his or her classroom experience and that there may be important problems with that experience.

I enjoy using the students' own evidence and arguments against them when commenting on their essays and consciously aim to do so. In a course evaluation, one student wrote, "His comments agitated me so much that in my revision I quoted and attacked them as much as they attacked my argument." The structure of the autobiography/argument exercise—similar to the structure of The Autobiography as conversion narrative and to the structure of poetic tragedy—thus creates a situation in which the exercise "informs against" the students, a situation in which conflicting evidence regarding the value of their actions and environment exists and requires argument. In other words, the autobiography combined with an argument about the value of one's education puts students in a paradoxical situation that makes them conscious of their medium, like our two figures.

I assume that most students live with a double consciousness, similar to but less intense than that described by W. E. B. DuBois for black Americans. That is, in college, students often slip into uncomfortable roles that seem to bear little relation to how they perceive themselves or their needs; instead of finding Dewey's crucial continuity of experience, a student finds that a semester can seem more like "five courses, five truths, five selves" [John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938; and Schuman, Policy Analysis]. This double consciousness can be debilitating; DuBois writes of "the longing … to merge his double self into a truer self," echoing Hamlet's desire to express "that within which passes show," a substantial identity beyond the roles one plays for others. Yet the examples of Malcolm X and Hamlet not only imply this desire for a united self but also show how the double consciousness can be transformed into a positive quality to encourage "knowing" and "objectivity," as Richard Wright suggests. In response to DuBois, Wright comments, in his novel The Outsider,

They are going to be self-conscious; they are going to be gifted with a double vision, for, being Negroes, they are going to be both inside and outside of our culture at the same time.

Part of the aim of the autobiography/argument assignments is to take the students' unrealized position that they are by turns both inside and outside of their education and to make this position a site for critical reflection. Instead of trying to resolve each student's divided self, the purpose is to use a student's conflicting experiences to encourage more objective understanding through documenting and arguing about that conflicting evidence.

Thus, one student asked, like Hamlet and Malcolm X, "Am I more trapped or liberated by these different roles I play at school?" Here, the essential question is not so much "Who am I?" as "Where am I?; where do I belong?" As Gunn comments, "The question of the self's identity becomes a question of the self's location in the world." James Baldwin, writing about students in his essay "A Question of Identity," remarks,

[T]he American confusion seem[s] to be based on the very unconscious assumption that it is possible to consider the person apart from the forces that produced him.

Is it not foolish, if we fail to encourage students to question the education working to form them and to know the limits of that education, to profess that we educate students toward self-knowledge? Indeed, it is through a knowledge of both the limitations imposed by their worlds and their own shortcomings that Hamlet and Malcolm X, albeit briefly, rise above those limitations.

The process outlined here hinges on the paradox that students, in order to assess evidence from which they can begin to develop a greater objectivity that can lead to more informed actions, need first to confront themselves and to see evidence as inevitably contradictory. I should emphasize that "greater objectivity," if it is achieved, is also developed paradoxically, by repeatedly seeing that our perceptions are value-laden and always subject to revision. As the class works to understand the contradictory details of Malcolm X's life and Hamlet's tragedy, they simultaneously see the details of their own experience as equally messy, and are inspired, I hope, with a thirst for learning and right action similar to that shared by Hamlet and Malcolm X. One student wrote, "Because it was accepted that questions didn't have certain answers, I was willing to raise harder questions." Ideally, I provoke students to pursue the questions that inhabit their own thoughts and emotions. I say "ideally" here because trying to do such things inevitably makes me self-conscious of the long distance between one's ideas about teaching and putting those ideas into action in class, as well as the short distance, as one colleague puts it, between the lesson plan and the garbage can. To be sure, an assessment of my plans-in-action may reveal results as mixed as the students' assessments of their education.

In this respect, I also have students consider their experience in my writing class—its problems and limitations. Is it best that received institutional practices (tests, essays, etc.) in this class often encourage students to think alone? Should class discussions be the kind of polemical exchanges that characterize Malcolm X's public appearances and parts of The Autobiography? Or should the class be more collaborative, as we see in the friendship between Malcolm X and Haley, a relationship that began as confrontational but evolved into what was arguably a mutual confrontation with racism? How much and in what context should the teacher/ student relationship take the form of a master/slave relationship, with students as receptacles of a teacher's ideas or techniques—a relationship similar to Malcolm's relationship to Elijah Muhammad? When does the regimentation of the autobiography/argumentassignment seem to pay off, and when is it too restrictive? Does the evidence suggest we can change the master/slave relationship between teacher and student by assessing such a thing? And how much with this particular assignment are the students at the mercy of a manipulative teacher and thus, perhaps, only playing the game to get the desired grade rather than grappling with the evidence to honestly learn? The limitations of the class itself provide some of the best sites for recognizing conflicting evidence and undertaking critical thinking.

Because of these limitations, I view the classroom and our work less as a site for change and action than as a place to play with possibilities. Yet, within this play, as the students work on their journals and arguments, I posit as a goal the possibility of changing, to the extent we can, the passive role students often take toward teachers and education. What can the students teach me, in class discussions and as they write their autobiographies and arguments, about what it means to be a student from a specific ethnic or social background and with particular goals at this university? How can they overcome a passive approach to education so that their writing and thoughts become a means of changing and bettering this class, or any class, making themselves not just in a class, but of it? As Hamlet and Malcolm X struggle to unite thought with purposeful action, the students' work with these exercises can be a first step toward a clarification of consciousness. And this clarification, in turn, can lead to attitudes that foster practical action in the present, addressing students' limitations as well as those of the environment, and influencing, for example, their curriculum choices, their behavior and effort in classes, and even the decision whether higher education is right for them at this point.

Here again, though, there is a paradox: Students gain some autonomy through a recognition of their close relationship to the strong and sometimes negative influences of their education, which are themselves constantly in flux. I suspect that some of our best students have more energy because they sense that a class is not just a place where they learn but a place of drama where they are both making themselves and being made. Hamlet and Malcolm X recognize that they must struggle to understand how they are being made by their respective worlds while simultaneously attempting to create themselves to take action in those worlds. Both also show an intense consciousness of their limitations when it comes to addressing wrongs, and yet they also understand the necessity of action against those wrongs, though they know that no course of action is certain, much less guaranteed. Furthermore, both works cut to the heart of many of our puzzling experiences with race, family, the opposite sex, and school, a place where a humanly purposeful identity is something students often work for in spite of our institutional condition. Both works inspire me to re-examine myself and what it means to attempt teaching when the aim is to help students explore who, what, and where they are now, encouraging practical habits so they may rethink their perceptions, actions, and relationships to others. To be sure, attempts to court and badger students to live lives based on critical understanding are useless unless we also offer the techniques to do so. Fusing autobiographical writing with argument offers students a chance to evaluate themselves and to critique their education while it develops attitudes necessary for both argument and research, especially a conscious search for contradictory evidence that undermines the urge to simplify. By examining the conflicting details of their own experiences along with those of Malcolm X and Hamlet, students begin to see the difference between self-serving and more objective reasoning, as well as to develop a respect for, and doubt of, both words and facts. Perhaps they also develop a hunger for freedom—defined as the need for dignity and responsibility—that is the heart of a living university community.


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