Authors: Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Date Published: 1965
Malcolm X’s blazing, legendary autobiography, completed shortly before his assassination in 1965, depicts a remarkable life: a child born into rage and despair, who turned to street-hustling and cocaine in the Harlem ghetto, followed by prison, where he converted to the Black Muslims and honed the energy and brilliance that made him one of the most important political figures of his time – and an icon in ours. It also charts the spiritual journey that took him beyond militancy, and led to his murder, in a powerful story of transformation, redemption and betrayal.
My impression of Malcolm X before reading his autobiography was that he represented the extremist side of the black civil rights movement in 1960’s America – like a ‘dark’ Dr Martin Luther King. Some would see this appraisal as correct; I see it as having elements of truth, but also being a far too simplistic portrait of a man whose life was anything but.
I get nervous when writing a review about an autobiography – this was a real person after all, who would have been far more complex than any book can describe. However, I think that there is merit in discussing the presentation, historical precedence and opinions expressed in ‘The Autobiography’. After all, if not for discussion, then for what purpose would a memoir serve?
First off, the introduction by Paul Gilroy has some good points on ‘The Autobiography’, but the tone is almost laughably ill suited to the rest of the book. It is written in the manner of a University paper – a way of communicating Malcolm X was especially critical of. It is peppered with terms I became familiar with while learning about essays during high school, such as ‘mechanisms’, ‘captured in the prism of Malcolm’s life’, ‘this curriculum was the culmination of an education’ (basically, the art of using big, intelligent sounding words in order to prop up your claims. I find that the true masters of essay, such as George Orwell, usually write in the plainest manner. The reader shouldn’t feel like they are digesting a thesis.) Please skip this introduction until you have finished the book.
Alex Haley’s foreword is a story within itself and quite long (67 pages). It was interesting to read an outsider’s impression of Malcolm X. The foreword gives ‘The Autobiography’ some form of grounding and embellishes on additional details (the 75% story was touching). He finishes his foreword with a lengthy description of Malcolm X’s assassination, gathered from eye witness and police reports.
Autobiographies are always an excercise of ego, point of view and heavy bias (even if the narrator claims differently) and it is wise for the reader to keep this in mind. Despite this prior warning, the first thing that struck me about the actual autobiography was the biting wit, charisma and native intelligence of Malcolm X. His words leap off the page and are arresting in their decisive delivery. He recreates the different periods of his life with clarity, seeming honesty and frankness. More than just recounting the events, he seems to capture his past thoughts and emotions precisely.
The first half of ‘The Autobiography’ describes his tumultuous childhood and teenage years as a drug dealer. Any temptation to gloss over his horrid actions and state of mind during his Harlem ghetto days seemed to have been stifled. The culture of 1940’s Harlem is described in great detail, from the zoot suits, conks, slang and music scene to the tricks of the underground crime trade.
From prison onwards ‘The Autobiography’ really takes off and its meatyness as a book comes into play. The simultaneously loved and hated public persona of Malcolm X starts to really develop. His speeches (in prison, in the mosques and on tv) are quoted with vast explanations, which adds to the context and understanding of some of his more radical quotes. This however does not remove the racist and sexist nature of his opinions – in fact they are magnified and sharpened by the lack of interruption. Some of these opinions Malcolm X revises or comes to completely disagree with by the end of ‘The Autobiography’ (such as segregation and the concept of there being ‘no good whites’), others he retains. This caustic aspect of ‘The Autobiography’ is perhaps its greatest achievement – to exclude these remarks, and their reasons, would rob the text of all historical accuracy and power. To put down the book due to offense, without attempting to understand the social forces that contributed towards his reactions, I think would be a grave mistake.
As an atheist, part of me bridled against his constant exhalation of Islam. I experience the same reaction when reading Christian texts or characters who constantly reference the power of Jesus. Given that once Malcolm X converted he seemed to conduct himself with sincere dedication to Islam it was easier for me to read. At times it was interesting to peer through the mind of someone who experiences the love and reassurance of religion. I couldn’t help but share Malcolm X’s elation at the brotherhood of Mecca and his first experience of a society where dignity and respect wasn’t determined by skin colour.
The teachings of Elijah Muhammad about the natural roles of man and woman – men being strong and women being inherently weak – obviously didn’t go down well with me. ‘The Autobiography’ is littered with misogynistic commentary, which will cause frustration and disgust for any female reader. Near the end Malcolm X’s views seemed to cautiously shift in an indirect fashion. He honours his sister, Ella, and his wife’s strength of character – whether or not he would have followed these thoughts to their inevitable conclusion is no ones place to guess.
Another theme of Malcolm X is the two-faced nature of the intellectual elite and their methods of keeping the blacks down by placating the masses with Civil Rights bills, whilst simultaneously reinforcing a climate of restriction and hatred. As with ‘The Nazi Doctors’, it surprises me how the intellectual elite are often integral in to the process of repression. A particular example of this is ‘The March On Washington’, where a potentially explosive protest organised by the black populace of America was manipulated into being an occassion for everyone, thus defusing the situation and giving the effect of reconciliation (it made disturbing comparisons to the National Apology to aboriginals in Australia). It reminds me of the posturing and back patting of such events as Earth Hour. In the words of Malcolm X ‘…this monumental farce is another example of how much this country goes in for the surface glossing over, the escape ruse, surfaces, instead of truly dealing with its deep-rooted problems’.
Whether you agree or disagree with his opinions, ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ is a powerful book. Alex Haley’s diligent collection of information and beautiful delivery are a credit to his skills as a journalist and author. ‘The Autobiography’ could be read as an incredible tale of metamorphosis of the most extreme caliber, a notion that is fundamentally important in human nature and repeated throughout literature. An interest in politics, America or history will help, however I feel that there is enough in the vibrance of Malcolm X’s words to keep any reader’s attention.
♥♥♥♥½ – 4½/5