The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

The Autobiography of Malcolm XThe Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

A gripping account of a divisive life and one of the most important figures in 20th Century America, the Autobiography is a hell of a read. The anger and frustration are articulated in a way that still comes through, nearly 50 years after his death. So does his passion, which evolves throughout the book.

Born Malcolm Little, he grew up mostly in a single-parent family, his father having died when he was young. His mother struggled, often falling into poverty. Children’s Aid workers were often around and X argues their constant prodding and questioning, not to mention playing the siblings against each other, pushed his mother over the chasm into insanity. Soon he was living in a foster home, where he again encountered casual racism: history classes that skipped over cultures, teachers telling him to aim low. It’s death by a thousand cuts, a system that systematically crushed people.

Eventually, he winds up in Boston, hanging with a saxophone-playing friend and shining shoes for a living. But soon his life starts swirling out of control: booze, drugs and the stresses of the nightlife. He goes into debt, starts working as a criminal and a pimp. And he winds up in prison, where he spends him time devouring books and finds religion.

It’s a familiar back-story and Alex Haley tells it with ease: he generally presents Malcolm X as he was at the time he’s covering. His early years in the Nation of Islam is marked with his hard work to build the organization up and a devoted loyalty to its leader. His tone towards white America is harsh and uncompromising. Over the book, it gradually changes. His falling out in the early 60s mirrors a hardening attitude towards the group and his pilgrimage to Mecca shows a wider understanding towards the world and how to enact change in America.

Events are sometimes repeated and presented with a different attitude, reflecting his new beliefs. One comes midway through the book, when a young white woman who asks if there’s anything she can do to help approaches him after a speaking engagement. “Nothing,” he flatly replies, reducing her to tears. Later it’s revisited with a new attitude, where he says he regrets that treatment with a comment on how she could help.

His passion and energy are never far from the surface of the Autobiography. Even at his most uncompromising, he’s absolutely devoted to his words and speaks with an energy that’s absolutely gripping. While he was constantly evolving on a personal level, changing right up until his death, his anger and beliefs never come across as less than absolutely genuine.

The authorial voice of Alex Haley is never too far from the surface. His lengthy afterward doesn’t read much different from the main section and although it goes on a little long – there’s several long accounts of their meetings, how X opened up to Haley and of X’s assassination and more – it shows a little window into how the book came together. I don’t think it’s unfair to wonder how much he shaped the end result, but at the same time I assume it’s reasonable to think X signed off on most of the book, at least in concept.

I’ve recently picked up Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X, a book which sets out to be “the definitive work on one of the most singular forces for social change,” as it’s description reads. Among other things, Marable’s book sets out to correct the image of Malcolm X created by this book. Until I finish it, I’ll reserve a final judgment on this. But by all means, read The Autobiography. It’s a powerful, moving account from a pivotal figure in the civil rights struggle.


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