Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America

by Bruce Perry
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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

Silk-screened T-shirts make his stern face ubiquitous. Slick magazines publish stories about a Spike Lee movie on his life that has yet to be made but is already the subject of intense controversy. Scholars meet at conferences to discuss and debate his legacy. This fall, Paragon House is reissuing his speeches at Harvard (MALCOLM X: SPEECHES AT HARVARD, edited by Archie Epps). Interest in Malcolm X has never been higher—all of which makes Bruce Perry’s biography particularly timely.

Perry’s research began twenty years ago, when he was preparing an article on Malcolm X. The more he learned, the more he became absorbed by the project. Ultimately Perry interviewed more than four hundred people, including Malcolm’s mother (who had been institutionalized for mental illness in 1939) and all but one of his siblings. As a result, Perry is able to provide a detailed account of Malcolm’s entire life, from his birth as Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925, to his assassination in New York on February 21, 1965. The text is supplemented by more than one hundred pages of notes in addition to a selected bibliography, a list of people interviewed, and an index.

The Malcolm who emerges from Perry’s pages is more complex, more fully human than the man portrayed in previous accounts of his life. This is true not only with regard to Malcolm’s private life (especially the formative influence of his childhood experiences) but also his public self. Perry shows how misleading it is to refer to “what Malcolm said” at a given phase of his career, since at every phase he said different things to different audiences.

Because it refutes simplistic images, Perry’s biography has already been denounced in some quarters as a small-minded attempt to cut Malcolm down to size. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perry’s book in no way diminishes Malcolm’s achievements; rather, it deepens our understanding of an extraordinary man and his times.

Sources for Further Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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