The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Penguin, 2007, 528pp, £7.69
I remember watching the Malcolm X movie in the early 1990’s and being very affected by the story, (I am referring to the Malcolm X biopic by Spike Lee and starring Denzel Washington). I think from then on I was always on my way to reading the Malcolm X autobiography, but perhaps building up the stamina, as I knew he had had a very difficult life and therefore that his autobiography would not be easy reading. His father, a Baptist Minister, and organizer of a black improvement group was murdered gruesomely by the Ku Klux Klan. His mother ended up being put into a mental hospital after years of struggling financially to care for her children and dealing with meddling from welfare workers who had slowly began to chip away at her sanity by calling her crazy. Malcolm ended up living with a family friend and being separated from his siblings. He fiercely blamed white society for sabotaging his family.
Later in an integrated school where he was the top pupil his teacher asked him what his future plans were for himself. He replied that he wanted to be a lawyer. The teacher told him to forget about that and be realistic. This seemed to be the last straw for Malcolm and from there on he went on a slippery slope to self-destruction. I think this part of his story shows that if people are not allowed to express the best in themselves they will go on to show you their worst, and that when people are oppressed and have their human rights violated it can turn them into monsters. It’s interesting that Malcolm said he wanted to work on behalf of the law, was told that he could not, and so went on to become a criminal (the extreme opposite of what he originally wanted) actually later referring to himself as ‘satan’.
He lived in Boston before moving to New York and descending into the criminal world of Harlem. Some of the passages on Malcolm’s criminal life are the best in the book. Harlem in the 1940’s comes alive and some of Malcolm’s criminal escapades, including a scrape with death, are told by him a certain amount of humour. He basically lives in a drug-haze; robbing houses, getting involved in various street hustles, being threatening with a gun and going to see lots of famous black musicians play in Harlem in his spare time. It has since been insinuated that his autobiography does not show the true extent of his criminal activity and it was actually much more depraved. I heard a story about him working as a rent boy but have no idea if this is actually true.
He tells a funny and moving story of when his life was threatened by a notorious street hustler, only to meet him years later and for the men to get together like two old friends and say they were sorry for the disagreement. They actually really liked each other and were both just obeying the law of the streets in their previous altercation. Although such passages are entertaining they show what happens when angry and oppressed people are lumped together in poverty. The obvious result is crime. After some years of dangerous living on the streets Malcolm lands himself in jail because of robbery. He and his partner in crime land more years that would be expected because they were both dating white girls at the time, and the old judge is outraged by this.
Malcolm goes to prison at about age 21 and comes out in his early 30’s as a transformed human being. During his time in prison he has discovered Islam and found a saviour – Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Black Muslims in the US. Through his conversion to Islam, Malcolm wanted to encourage black unity and improve the lot of black people in America. As soon as he came out of prison he dedicated himself to the Black Muslims and over time rose up as a key political figure of the civil rights movement in the US. It is his transformation from a street hustling junky to a charismatic and intelligent leader, and the transformation of many of his personal views throughout the autobiography, which I find the most engaging about Malcolm X. If he had destroyed himself, in terms of his back story it would have made sense. The fact that he was able to completely re-invent himself, to go from crime and prison to speaking at universities such as Havard and rubbing shoulders with key political figures internationally is pretty dazzling to me. Especially bearing in mind this is someone with very little formal education who came to converse on economics, psychology and other subjects with experts in these areas. I love the story that he gave himself a ‘home-made’ education in prison and that this became the solid foundation that would guide the rest of his life.
I like the fact also that towards the end of his life, after his trip to Mecca where he met Muslims from all over the world, he transformed many of his prejudiced opinions towards white people. I have to say though that in the context of his life and the history of his race in the US, I do not blame him for his previous prejudiced attitudes at all. I do not think it is easy to understand for many of us, in this day and age, what it would have taken for him personally to transcend them.
The one major concern that I had with the autobiography, was in relation to Malcolm’s opinions towards women of whom he seemed to have a deep mistrust and makes some very misguided comments about particularly early in the book. But even these opinions changed and become more respectful with his conversion to Islam and his relationship with his wife Betty Shabazz; a woman of great power and strength in her own right. I think the truth is that he had been so brutalized he had a deep mistrust of everybody – white people, other black people and women were all targets for some of his scathing opinions. He was also not immune to the sexism of the age.
It made me laugh how when he met the man who helped him write the book (Alex Haley, a black author), he told him he trusted him 25%. Some time later he called him in the middle of the night to announce ‘I trust you 75%’ and hung up the phone. The writer confessed that he was deeply moved by this. There are a lot of quirky, but moving stories like this in the book about Malcolm.
I admired Malcolm for not going back and editing his opinions in the book after he had changed them. The book is powerful because you actually watch some of his transformation occurring. I think few public figures have ever been as candid as Malcolm X, if any.
The autiobiography ends with Malcolm saying how he would love to continue to study and maybe even to train to be a lawyer. He was shot shortly after the end of the autobiography (and states throughout the book that he knows death is coming). Ironically he was killed by Black Muslims who had turned on him because of jealousy of his personal fame and success. At the end of the book he says ‘If I can die having brought any light, having exposed any meaningful truth that will help destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America then all credit is due to Allah. Only the mistakes have been mine’. I think he continues to achieve what he intended, through his own life and how his memory lives on in others.
In comparison with Martin Luther King (a peaceful protest leader and integrationist), I think Malcolm X has become the more popular civil rights leader because he said exactly what he wanted to; he was not afraid to hold up a mirror to society and point out all of its flaws. He did this even if it meant putting his own head on the line and saying what was unpopular. I can’t believe how bold he was to come out with some of the things he said in such an oppressive society. I think black people really felt that he was standing up for them and acknowledging exactly what they had suffered through. Also his ‘Any Means Necessary’ slogan, while controversial, let the world know that black people were simply not willing to put up with any more shit in America. It is a misinterpretation that Malcolm X preached ‘violence’ and in his political career he was never recorded as being part of any, he just didn’t feel integrated ‘picnics’ as he called them, were going to solve anything. He wanted a revolution.
I assume it’s obvious that I love him, and the book, from the length of the review! Anyway… it was a sad story for the family that Malcolm X left behind. His wife and children witnessed his bloody shooting and I remember reading that one of his daughters was arrested for attempting to have one of her father’s killers assassinated. His wife also clearly never recovered from losing him. Several years later she had a child with another man which she named Malcolm. I did feel sorry for his family in all this. He died for his people but he spent little time with his family, and from the sounds of things he left them in a state of grief which they struggled to ever really overcome.
This compelling book will be of interest to anyone who is interested in equality and justice for all people, and who desires to live a conscious life. It is essential reading and should be on every school syllabus, everywhere. If you haven’t read it yet, do it now.
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