The Autobiography of Malcolm X

In this autobiography (as told to Alex Haley), Malcolm X says “My whole life had been a chronology of changes.” Yet, too often, he, like so many historical figures, gets frozen in amber, depicted in a single moment in time, when, in reality, people’s ideas evolve over time, and no one moment is likely to be representative of the whole.

That is certainly true of Malcolm X, and well-captured in his autobiography, which was published in 1965, months after his assassination. He goes from shining shoes in clubs to dealing drugs on the streets to finding Allah in prison. And then he becomes a powerful spokesman for the rights of Black Americans. That part is well known. But I think a lot of people, especially white Americans, don’t realize just how much his views about race also evolved.

So often, Malcolm X is presented as the violent counterpoint to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The latter preached love and unity, while the former preached hate and separation. But most who are familiar with the full story know that when Malcolm X went on pilgrimage to Mecca, he was transformed, almost as thoroughly as he was in his prison conversion to Islam. It’s not that he ceases having sharp words for American whites or being willing to respond to violence with violence. He just recognizes that whites are not, by definition, the devil, and some are indeed willing to support Black people’s fight for their rights.

I realize that all this makes it sound like, as I white lady, I came to like Malcolm X only because he stopped preaching hate toward white people. The truth is, that probably does enter into my feelings about him. But I also liked him all along for his curiosity and discipline and willingness to throw himself into whatever he was doing. The chapter where he starts reading in prison is riveting — he’s so alive with curiosity! His passion makes him seem like an intense person to know, but also someone worth at least knowing about.

But it’s in the latter half of the book, where the beliefs he’s built his life on start to fall apart, that he becomes a truly remarkable person. His crisis of conscience when he realizes that Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, was not the man Malcolm thought he was rings true to anyone who has been disappointed by a once-respected leader. Yet, here again, Malcolm’s curiosity and discipline see him through and take him to Mecca for the Hajj, where he is able to see people of different races interact peacefully and lovingly. And it is his willingness to respond to new information that really impressed me.

In the book, he says:

Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.

What important words!

Haley structured the book so that we experience Malcolm’s evolutions in thinking right along with him. In the chapters where he is committed to Elijah Muhammed, we read only words of respect and admiration, with only the slightest hints that it won’t last. In the epilogue, Haley explains that he had to convince Malcolm that this was the right approach, and I think it was. It allows us to see how thoroughly he was changed when we’re right there with him.

Yes, he continued having sharp words about America and the systemic racism that endures in our country, but time has shown how much he got right. He even condemns the use of the term “reverse racism” at one point. I had no idea that phrase had been in existence for so long! He also got right how he would, sadly, be remembered by too many:

He [the white man] will make use of me dead, as he has made use of me alive, as a convenient symbol of “hatred” — and that will help him to escape facing the truth that all I have been doing is holding up a mirror to reflect, to show, the history of unspeakable crimes that his race has committed against my race.

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10 Responses to The Autobiography of Malcolm X

  1. I can’t remember when I read Malcolm X by Alex Haley. I remember the librarian informing me that an autobiography could not be written by someone else – lol. I think this was in the 1990s? Anyway, more recently – like about 10 years ago when it won Manning Marable the Pulitzer.
    The book is called Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. They’re both excellent and your review is great – thanks for the memories.

    • Teresa says:

      I was glad that Alex Haley explained in the afterword how the collaboration worked. It made sense to see it as an autobiography while crediting him as the writer.
      And a friend just mentioned that bio on Twitter the other day, so I’m going to look into it.

  2. Elle says:

    There’s a full biography of Malcolm X that’s now out, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Les Payne (and his daughter Tamara, who finished it from Les’s notes when he died). It challenges Malcom’s own self-presentation in the Autobiography, but it also gives a really good sense of not only how, but why, his thinking on race relations in America changed. I didn’t love the writing style, personally, but it’s worth seeking out if the topic interests you!

  3. lauratfrey says:

    As a Canadian I probably hear/know a lot less about Malcolm X than the average American, I only had a vague idea about his life. This makes me want to know more though. Great review.

  4. Lory says:

    I’ve been meaning to look into this since reading Maya Angelou’s memoirs (in which she memorably depicts both MLK and Malcolm X) and now I definitely need to read it. Thanks!

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, I wasn’t aware of any connection with Angelou, but I’ve only read one of her books and it was decades ago. I’m feeling a desire to go down a rabbit hole and explore all of these connections!

      • Lory says:

        It was a fascinating personal journey through the Civil Rights era and beyond (including time she spent in Africa). Highly recommended.

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