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Malcolm X was a dynamic African-American revolutionary who rose to prominence and notoriety in the mid-1950s. As the outspoken national minister of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm opposed the mainstream civil rights movement, publicly called for black separatism, and rejected nonviolence and integration as effective ways to combat racism. In Malcolm X’s opinion, the African Americans’ sole response to racism should be total withdrawal from the culture and society of white America. Malcolm X documented his life experiences in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), a work that is often regarded as the most influential book of his generation.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Racial Conflict and Violence
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925. He was exposed to violent racism, white supremacists, and the black separatist movement at an early age. His father was Earl Little, a Baptist minister. Little was an avid supporter of Marcus Garvey’s ”Back to Africa” movement, which condemned the integration of African Americans and whites, and proposed instead that blacks return to Africa and establish their own free state. Because he was often threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, Malcolm’s father moved the family to Lansing, Michigan, in 1929.
The racial climate in Michigan proved to be no better for the Littles. The family was attacked by another white-supremacist group, the Black Legion, which burned down their home. The group later murdered Malcolm’s father by throwing him under a trolley car. His death was declared a suicide, however, and Malcolm’s mother, Louise, was left to care for their children. After his father’s death, the family fell into abject poverty. Terribly stricken by her husband’s murder and buckling under the demands of raising eight children during the Depression, Malcolm’s mother became psychologically unstable and was institutionalized until 1963. As a result, Malcolm and his siblings were made wards of the state and sent to separate foster homes in 1937.
A Life of Crime
Despite the traumas of his early youth, Malcolm was one of the best students in his class at school. He was also popular—his white classmates elected him president of their seventh-grade class. Yet, when he told an English teacher that he wanted to become a lawyer, the teacher suggested carpentry instead and urged Malcolm ”to be realistic about being a nigger.” Shattered by his teacher’s suggestion, Malcolm dropped out of school at the end of eighth grade and went to live with his half-sister in Boston, Massachusetts. It was here he discovered the city’s African-American underworld. He began to associate with gamblers and thieves and soon acquired a formidable reputation as a hustler, pimp, and drug dealer. A chronic abuser of cocaine and marijuana, he carried out a series of robberies with his longtime white lover until he was arrested in 1946 and given a ten-year prison sentence. The exceptionally long term is thought to reflect the judge’s revulsion at Malcolm’s liaisons with white women.
Prison marked a turning point in Malcolm’s life. Initially, he continued his reckless ways, paying for drugs smuggled in by guards, and his vicious demeanor earned him the nickname ”Satan” from other inmates. Eventually, another convict introduced him to the prison’s library, and Malcolm began reading as many books as possible. He also began studying the teachings of the Nation of Islam (or Black Muslims), an American sect of Islam that extols the superiority of the African-American race. The Nation of Islam’s founder, Elijah Muhammad, counseled his followers—as had Marcus Garvey—to reject white America in favor of an autonomous African-American society.
Muhammad’s doctrine of black pride appealed considerably to Malcolm, who seemed to be the perfect candidate for the Nation of Islam. Muhammad taught that drinking, cursing, fighting, dancing, and using drugs—the mainstays of Malcolm’s young life—kept the black man under the heel of the white devil. Furthermore, Malcolm was bright, and the Black Muslim doctrine of self-improvement and advancement encouraged and challenged him as public school never had.
The Nation of Islam
Upon his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm took the name ”Malcolm X” to signify the loss of the African name that slave owners had replaced when Malcolm’s ancestors were brought as slaves to America. He became a close follower of Elijah Muhammad, with whom he studied briefly at the Black Muslim headquarters in Chicago. After serving as an assistant minister at a Detroit mosque, Malcolm X became a minister in New York, where he was recognized as an articulate, energetic spokesperson for the Nation of Islam. He used this position to attack racism, champion separatism, and preach faith in Allah as the salvation of African Americans. In addition to declaring Christianity an ideology of enslavement, Malcolm X claimed that civil rights, equal opportunity, and integration were all futile within a society that was determinedly racist. As Malcolm X advised blacks to reject white society and unite under Muhammad, the Nation of Islam’s membership increased significantly. Acknowledging Malcolm X’s effectiveness, Muhammad named him the organization’s first national minister.
In the late 1950s, national news media began to focus on the growing numbers of Black Muslims. A CBS documentary entitled The Hate That Hate Produced (1959) offered a selective display of incendiary clips of Muhammad, Malcolm X, and other leading Nation of Islam spokesmen preaching what would become the mass media’s usual depiction of the Nation of Islam’s main message: hate and violence. In response, Malcolm X explained that he merely encouraged African Americans to defend them-selves against racial violence, not cause it.
Although Malcolm X always referred to himself as Elijah Muhammad’s representative, his fiery speeches against white oppression made him the Black Muslims’ leading spokesman. Malcolm rose swiftly in the ranks of the Black Muslims, and in 1954 he was made the head of a major mosque in Harlem. There he achieved a reputation as an articulate, mercurial spokesperson for the radical black community. He denounced integration, nonviolence, and most of the teachings of the more popular civil-rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who used peaceful tactics like sit-ins and marches to demand equal rights for black Americans. Malcolm instead used aggressive language and made radical statements. For example, he famously termed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 as a case of ”chickens coming home to roost”—implying the president had somehow gotten what he deserved. Malcolm later explained he meant only that ”the hate in white men … finally had struck down the President,” but he was immediately censured by Muhammad. ”That was a very bad statement,” Muhammad told Malcolm. ”The country loved this man.” Muhammad ordered him to refrain from public comment for ninety days, and Malcolm complied.
It was around this time that Malcolm X’s growing popularity disturbed some leaders in the Nation of Islam, who worried that he was becoming too powerful. Malcolm’s remark about the Kennedy assassination gave Muhammad an opportunity to expel his national minister from the organization’s hierarchy—indeed, Malcolm had been in conflict with Muhammad for some time. Malcolm had condemned Muhammad’s materialism—his expensive cars and business suits and lavishly furnished estate—and was shocked by allegations that Muhammad had seduced several of his secretaries and sired their children. Feeling estranged from Muhammad, Malcolm canceled the original dedication to his autobiography-in-progress (which he had begun in 1963). It was only at the urging of co-author Alex Haley that Malcolm agreed to not turn his autobiography into a polemic against his former mentor.
Soon after he was censured, Malcolm proceeded to break officially with the Nation of Islam. It was around this time he learned that disgruntled members of the Nation of Islam were planning his assassination. In April 1964, Malcolm traveled to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Once there, he observed people of all races united in their beliefs, which caused him to undergo a spiritual and political transformation. ”Since I learned the truth in Mecca,” he explained in his autobiography, ”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!” In short, the experience was a significant awakening that helped Malcolm gain a greater compassion for people of all races and nationalities. Though he retained his belief that African Americans had to gain control of their own communities and organizations before they could gain their freedom, he dedicated himself to working towards unity and freedom for all peoples. He renamed himself El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and, once back in the United States, founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Malcolm X’s emergence as an independent, revolutionary leader in the fight for African-American rights made him the object of death threats from many groups. Ironically, the threats were overwhelmingly from two diametrically opposed camps—the Nation of Islam and white supremacists. On February 14, 1965, for example, his home was firebombed. Though he and his family escaped unharmed, the house was destroyed. Then, just one week later, on February 21, 1965, he was assassinated while addressing an audience of four hundred in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. In front of an audience that included his pregnant wife and four daughters, three men rose and fired sixteen shots, killing Malcolm. Talmadge Thayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson were apprehended and eventually convicted of the crime. Two of the three were members of the Black Muslims. Although theories about other groups being involved in the murder plot have been discussed, no evidence has ever been produced.
Works in Literary Context
Although Malcolm X’s political and religious organizations were on unsteady ground at the time of his death, the posthumous publication of his autobiography insured that his ideas would never be forgotten. Malcolm showed African Americans that they had the right to be angry, to challenge white domination, and to demand change. Decades after his assassination, the teachings of Malcolm X have remained pertinent in race relations. In addition to the plays and movies focusing on him, new scholarly works about Malcolm X continue to be written. Indeed, the words and thoughts of Malcolm X still encourage Americans to fight racism in all forms.
Black Power Despite Malcolm’s conversation late in his life to more traditional Islamic thought, he remained strident in his conviction that African Americans deserved their legal equality and should fight against racism whenever they encountered it. As part of a legacy of non-integrationists, Malcolm can be viewed as inheritor of Marcus Garvey’s views, and as the forebear of the 1960s and 70s radical Black Power movement. Made popular by the Black Panther group, Black Power sought to aggressively promote black individuality rather than assimilate into white culture. Malcolm’s most famous slogan—”By Any Means Necessary”—illustrates this philosophy. He did not agree with Martin Luther King Jr., whose ideas encouraged African-Americans to resist racism nonviolently and passively. Instead, Malcolm always encouraged active resistance. He believed black Americans were regularly discriminated against by both white institutions and white individuals, and black people should resist on both levels. These convictions are evident in his speeches and writings.
In part, Malcolm X’s legacy can largely be attributed to the fact that his life is preserved in autobiographical form. Besides imparting a sense of immediacy, this firsthand account provides an unflinchingly honest look at the life of a controversial man, from his experiences with violent racism as a youth to his days as a criminal to his role in the Black Muslim movement in America. While the media subjectively portrayed Malcolm X as an enraged activist who demanded violence against whites, The Autobiography of Malcolm X presents a more complete view of him as a human being—a chance to defend himself, some say. As a result, such incidents as the incessant threats against his family that resulted in his father’s death have a much greater emotional impact because they are recounted in his own words.
Furthermore, Malcolm’s book participates in an entire genre of autobiography, particularly of African-American men, which attempts to articulate a kind of double consciousness (so-called by African-American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois). From this perspective, it is said that a white American male’s autobiography needs only to express himself in the world—a black man’s autobiography, however, arguably along with women and other minority groups, must articulate the self in relation to a dominant and oppressive society. His autobiography, then, has a double goal: to envision his true self on the page as well as to erase the negative stereotype placed upon him by American culture. Along with other writers such as Richard Wright, W. E. B. Du Bois, and even Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X both narrates the development of his unique self in his autobiography along with the larger journey of the black man in America.
Works in Critical Context
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is highly regarded by scholars in many disciplines for its moving account of his own experiences with racism, his criminal past, and his years as an activist. During the late 1960s, Malcolm X’s speeches and comments were published in several volumes. Academics agree that, together with the autobiography, these collections offer numerous insights into America’s social climate from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s and articulate the concerns of a significant portion of the black community in those years. As reviewer I. F. Stone notes, ”There are few places on earth where whites have not grown rich robbing [African-Americans]. It was Malcolm’s great contribution to help make us aware of this.”
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published after Malcolm’s death to much critical acclaim. Assessing the work’s importance, Charles H. Nichols declared that The Autobiography of Malcolm X is arguably the ”most influential book read by this generation of Afro-Americans. For not only is the account of Malcolm Little an absorbing and heart-shattering encounter with the realities of poverty, crime and racism. It is a fantastic success story.” He continues, ”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.”
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 importance. Truman Nelson comments:
Viewed in its complete historical context, this is indeed a great book. Its dead-level honesty, its passion, its exalted purpose, even 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.
- Bloom, Harold. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Chelsea House, 1995.
- Brown, Kevin. Malcolm X: His Life and Legacy. Brookfield, Conn.: Milbrook Press, 1995.
- Cone, James H. Malcolm & Martin & America: A Dream or a Nightmare. New York: Orbis Books, 1991.
- Diamond, Arthur. Malcolm X: A Voice for Black America. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 1994.
- Dyson, Michael Eric. Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Lomax, Louise E. To Kill a Black Man. Los Angeles: Holloway House, 1968. Malcolm X, with Alex Haley. The Autobiography of
- Malcolm X. New York: Galantine, 1965.
- McKinley, James. Assassination in America. New York: Harper, 1977.
- Stone, I. F. In a Time of Torment. New York: Random House, 1967.
- Wood, Joe. Malcolm X: In Our Own Image. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
- Nelson, Truman. ”Delinquent’s Progress.” The Nation (Nov 8, 1965): 336-38.
- The Official Web Site of Malcolm X. Home. Retrieved November 15, 2008, from http://www.cmgww. com/historic/malcolm/home.php.
- The Malcolm X Project at Columbia University Retrieved November 24, 2008, from http://www.columbia.edu/cu/ccbh/mxp.
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