Malcolm X and Alex Haley: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”

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Malcolm X wrote his famed autobiography in collaboration with African American journalist Alex Haley (most famous for his epic book Roots: The Saga of an American Family). If you are one of the many Americans who believe Malcolm X espoused violence, even hate, I urge you to read this compelling book. It reveals Malcolm X as a much more nuanced thinker and leader than depicted in mainstream media.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X resonates with so much other American literature before and after its publication in 1965 after Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21 of that year. Writing his first slave narrative more than a century earlier, Frederick Douglass emphasized literacy as the crucial key to freedom. Malcolm X, too, speaks of the transformation he experienced in prison when he came under the influence of a fellow inmate who inspired him to read voraciously and thereby educate himself. But Douglass also indicates that the physical act of fighting back against the slave breaker Mr. Covey was a turning point in his life as well. Similarly, Malcolm X, rather than promoting violence, reserved the right to self-defense, to fight back physically if pushed into a corner. Douglass’s story of transformation is pivotal not only because it tells how his journey to literacy liberated him but also because it was at the moment he defeated Covey that Douglass became a man. Malcolm X builds on the tradition Douglass established.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X also looks forward to Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir, A Place to Stand. In this book and in the film based on it, Baca tells a similar story of slowly, methodically, hungrily learning to read and write bit by bit while incarcerated in the infamous Arizona State Prison. Baca literally learns to read and write from scratch. Although Malcolm X was already literate when he entered prison, he had not finished school, and his passion for reading, learning, and gaining knowledge grew exponentially during his imprisonment. Both Malcolm X and Jimmy Santiago Baca were deeply changed when their prison time opened them up to larger ideas via the written word.

Malcolm X has usually been portrayed as the polar opposite of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is true that Malcolm X, who espoused self-defense, even if that self-defense is violent, disagreed for most of his life with Dr. King, who espoused nonviolent direct action. But after his trip to Africa and to Mecca in 1964, Malcolm X repudiated the Nation of Islam and spoke out against racism while continuing to call for black self-determination and black self-defense.

Malcolm X and Alex Haley worked on The Autobiography of Malcolm X between 1963 and 1965, before and after the trip to Africa and Mecca. That time span gives readers the opportunity to witness a spiritual conversion of sorts, as Malcolm X ultimately calls for black pride. Moreover, he calls for white allies to be “out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is—and that’s their own home communities. . . . That’s where the sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have got to work.”

The transformative experience of gaining literacy and thus gaining a kind of inner freedom, the tale of an incomparable man’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, the story of a journey from the Nation of Islam to Mecca to an embracing of nonracist black pride – The Autobiography of Malcolm X is this and so much more.

Too often, Americans, especially white Americans, equate Dr. King with love and Malcolm X with hate, Dr. King with nonviolence and Malcolm X with violence. But as James H. Cone shows in Martin & Malcolm & America, the two men’s journeys brought them closer together in their thinking toward the end of their lives, both of which were cut short by assassination. Next week, I’ll offer a look at Cone’s book.

To learn more about Malcolm X, read his autobiography – and also make time to watch Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington. You may also want to watch all or part of PBS’s outstanding Eyes on the Prize documentary series; the episode titled “The Time Has Come (1964-1965)” features Malcolm X. The book, the biopic, and the documentary will all give you insights into this fearless civil rights leader.

Watch:Watch this Great Books episode on The Autobiography of Malcolm X.


Image Credit: Malcolm X in 1964, Library of Congress, public domain,