The Autobiography of Malcolm X

As told to Alex Haley

Reviewed by John Cowan


This is a difficult book to review. First because Malcolm X Shabazz (1925 to 1965) was huge, and then because the book itself is huge. (500 pages) and then many of my readers have read this autobiography long ago and already have their own knowledge and opinions.

Malcolm had a quick start to the tough life. His family fell apart. He was sent to a foster family, good people. Started school. Was elected eighth grade class president. A supportive, caring teacher asked him what he wanted to become. When he said that he wanted to be a lawyer, the teacher tried to shield him from ultimate and painful defeat and told him that a nigger (sic) could not make it in the professions. He should consider a trade, for instance being a carpenter.

With that road closed, his ability to recognize his anger grew. In a few years, saying “nigger”(sic) around him was a mistake, to the surprise and consternation of the targets of his anger. “Everybody says that. What is the problem?”

By age sixteen, aided by his height, intelligence and forcefulness he was a gang leader, a successful thief. Still in his early manhood he was sent to prison. For years the successful schoolboy had abandoned learning from books in favor of learning from other hoods. Now he had the ideal setting in which to catch up. He read voraciously, sending a stream of letters to family members to provide books because he had read the prison library dry.

On his release in his early twenties he discovered the leader of the Black Muslims, Elijah Mohammed, a charismatic speaker with a fourth grade education, a significant following and a simple message. The black man is oppressed and the source of the oppression is the white man. The white man is the devil.

That simple message explained life as Malcolm esperienced it. For years he followed Mohammed with adoration and brilliant service. With him as second in command the movement grew from a substantial one city operation to a multi-location national organization. Malcolm became even more famous than his venerated leader. And Mohammed became ever more suspicious and jealous.

After many years of speaking the message and organizing the movement, becoming a famous man, an international speaker, Malcolm went on pilgrimage to India. He was surprised to find that while he was warmly received his message of hate did not fit either the words or deeds of the followers of Islam. Islam is a religion of peace. People of all colors, including white, worshipped together, ate together, worked together.

His experience in the States of speaking at colleges where young white people treated him with respect and interest, and meeting many whites committed to the good of his race, was already chipping at his philosophical foundations. In India he discovered that most white people were not the devil. (A couple of times prior to his change of heart he had said it was the white system he was speaking about, not the individual. But that message seems to have been lost in the shuffle. At the time I know I thought he was talking about, not a system, but me.)

He returned no longer a Black Muslim. While he tried to make the separation peaceful, Elijah Mohammed made it war. Which led to Malcolm’s assassination. Mohammed hated him enough to have a funeral service for him featuring an hour and half of Mohammed denigrating Malcolm.

The great need of the black man in Malcolm’s time was to discover that he was a man. Malcolm was a flaming image of what that could mean. Further the black man should be angry. The world, white society, was dumping on him, and he should be fighting back. Malcolm was the picture of what others needed to become.

When Malcolm was cut off from the Black Muslim movement he had created, the crowds grew smaller and questions were raised about his effectiveness. “He just talked, he did not do anything.” And now with his softer stance even the talking was not as captivating.

I wonder how Martin Luther King and his thoughtful campaign of loving and lawful confrontation would have fared if the ghettos were not aflame with the torches of angry black men.

I am not endorsing his approach. In the long run I think hatred crippling to the soul and a lousy strategy for change of the oppressor. Malcolm at the end was happy to be beyond those days.

Still, what would it have been like without him?

Post Scripts:

I do not discuss black women as leaders in the movement because he didn’t.

The actual writer of the book was Alex Haley. Malcolm instructed him that Alex was to be the writer, not the interpreter, and Malcolm himself pored over and annotate the drafts. This was serious business for him. He always spoke the truth as he knew it, and was intent on continuing blunt honesty. He spoke as straightforwardly about lives he had ruined as he spoke about success.

Towards the end of the writing Malcolm began to request changes in his earlier praise of Elijah Mohammed. Alex talked him out of it. The reader needs to hear how you felt then in order to be caught by the journey to what you feel now. Good show Alex. But then one might expect as much from the author of “Roots.”

In his dealing with the powerful of his time, I enjoy Malcolm’s awe of them, and his gratefulness that they would take him seriously. I bet they were pretty happy that he wanted to see them. Went home and told the family, “You will never guess who I saw today.”

I used the word “nigger” where Alex and Malcolm used it. The correct word I think to indicate the casual and unintentional contempt the black man was held in.

There is no Index. Drive a guy nuts trying to find anything again. 500 pages!