Book Review

The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley

some thoughts on reading one of the 20th century's most important books

cw: this is a heavy post with discussion of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, genocide, political violence, propaganda and the climate emergency. I sincerely apologise if anyone is offended or upset by the less-than-optimistic way in which I discuss these topics in the notes below.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is an important, engaging and often – but not always – deeply interesting piece of almost novelistically-structured memoir that resoundingly explores and depicts the quotidian horrors of pre-1960s “liberal” USA and one man’s flawed but flexible effort to fight for lasting and significant change.

Malcolm X was, in some ways, extremely lucky: he was charming, confident, brave, adventurous, good-looking, eloquent, quick to learn, loyal to those he felt deserved loyalty and firmly principled, though what his principles were changed and developed throughout his life as he sought to increase freedom, peace, opportunity and self-knowledge. Yes, I am aware that I sound deeply biased towards Malcolm X, fresh from having read his co-authored (it’s not “ghostwritten” if the other guy’s name is on the cover, is it?) autobiography, but those are adjectives and comments bourne out by reality, bourne out by X’s history, by recordings of his speech and by his powerful, significant and iconic legacy that has been maintained for six decades since his murder.

Malcolm X, yes, may have been lucky in some respects, and I’ve chosen to open this post by drawing attention towards those qualities as it is easy – because he was murdered for his progressive political beliefs – to rose-tintedly view X as a tragic figure, a martyr, a pawn, a symbol, a saint.

X was literally a victim of political violence, he was literally a victim of racism, he was literally a victim of brutality and the amassed pressure of centuries of institutionalised prejudice, and his rise to international prominence as a speaker, thinker and public figure was impressive, particularly given his sociohistorical context. What’s more impressive than his success, though, was his unwillingness to take it for granted, i.e. his continuing interest in personal growth and development and the pursuit of more knowledge, more understanding, more hope, more future, more life… He didn’t become famous and plateau, Malcolm X was someone who never considered himself finished.

Malcolm X was also, though – and nothing comes across more doggedly throughout this text (it is perhaps the only idea of his that doesn’t significantly alter between youth and the end of his life) – a misogynist who never changed his generalised sexist ideas, in spite of repeated interactions with individual women he was able to respect, like and even love.

It is especially telling, and especially bleak, that X is able to – and chooses to – articulate relatively early on in this book that when he says “the white man is the devil” that he doesn’t mean that literally every white man is literally a literal devil, yet he is never able to – and never chooses to – offer this generosity towards women.

Perhaps – maybe, probably, almost definitely (?) – were he to have lived and continued to develop his thought and politics and ideologies, X would have grown into a more progressive, compassionate, commentator on sex and gender, and – as a white, masculinised, university-educated individual – it is important for me (scott manley hadley 😎) to acknowledge the pressure exerted from those with power to push resentment from those with less towards people with even less (i.e. “hate women, not your congressman”).

I am not saying that the sexism present in The Autobiography of Malcolm X invalidates it as a progressive text (and would be suspicious of anyone who says it does), but it certainly complicates it, and – especially as this is not a prejudice that is resolved by the book’s end – I can readily believe this may not be as overlookable for women or feminised readers…

There is also, as James Baldwin writes about at length in his essay ‘The Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White’, the (at that point in time) expected anti-Semitism expressed alongside the (at that point in time) expected sexism, and these are not sentiments expressed and felt by young Black men in 1940s and 1950s America by accident: before the Civil Rights movement (“civil rights? What about human rights?” is (I may be paraphrasing) Malcolm X’s fair critique of the phrase) got underway, there were not massed voices encouraging people to see the “bigger picture” and draw a more nuanced understanding of structural inequality. (It’s easier to persuade someone to hate people they see every day than it is to teach them why Jewish people and Black people live miserably together but separate in the same parts of the city.)

(I read somewhere recently – I’m honestly not sure if it was in this book or somewhere else? – that it has been alleged that one of the contributing factors to the beginnings of the civil rights movement was the dissemination of the realities of the Holocaust and the sudden realisation that the “Jews control the world” narrative was demonstrably a lie. The “divide and conquer” politics that are still – and still bleakly fucking successfully – used today to prop up right wing governments were challenged in mass media for the first time at that point and some people – though not enough, never enough – paid attention. Maybe that’s bullshit, though. Who knows?)

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Alex Haley and Malcolm X were working on this book, on and off, for several years, during which time X broke from the Nation of Islam, established a more liberal rival organisation, recanted several of his most divisive opinions (without ever abandoning his opposition to unequivocal non-violence), seemed to began to question his religiosity and was then murdered for his politics. The book tells the story of his life without incorporating the opinions/loyalties he held at the time of writing, rather it documents his growth, change and maturation.

In many ways, this book is the exact opposite of Saint Augustine’s Confessions – rather than the writing of a dirty old man who yearned for the long-denied pleasures of the flesh and has nothing interesting to say about the topics his life was ostensibly spent thinking about, Malcolm X had a wild youth, but it is that part of the book which is by far the least interesting.

It is only when X becomes a man of thought, a man of Allah, a man of learning and education and public speaking and politics – topics that sound more boring than crime, drugs, guns, gals, cons, booze, jazz etc. – that his book takes off.

Malcolm X – unlike Saint Augustine – did not spend his life yearning for a supposedly shameful life he had abandoned, he instead was wise and realistic enough to see that there were pleasures there, but they were not for the man he was to become, the man he had become by the time he and Haley began work on this now-classic book.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is an articulate text about travel and fame and religion and faith and friendship and optimism and power and corruption and hypocrisy and cruelty and the media and politics and the construction of myth.

Malcolm X – other than when writing about women, which I accept may well be a deal-breaker for some – comes across very well here, even in the Afterword, written by Haley after X’s death – a public (!) “assassination” – which goes into great detail about the struggles of working with someone who was so constantly on the move, both physically and intellectually.

Haley’s Afterword depicts X as someone who desperately wants to do right and wants to be done right by, someone who cared about integrity and honesty and pride, someone willing to see the worst of people while able to believe in an unrealistic best. A man of great imagination.

Haley writes about the friction found while collaborating on a text with a public figure whose alliances and sympathies changed every few months, and the compromise they found – keeping the voice of X in the text with same perspective as the X being written about – makes for a memoir with far more plot twists than one ordinarily associates with the genre.

There’s too much at the start about X’s criminal youth, but it feels far more like a “cards on the table, I did this and this and this and this” attempt at clearing the air, at honesty, rather than the bragaddocio most other books would treat this kind of pre-conversion narrative.

It’s definitely an interesting and important text, and its ending is moving and deeply sad. Sadder, still, for the knowledge that X’s death was just one of multiple high profile murders committed against leaders of the civil rights/human rights movement at that time; his wasn’t the first and his wasn’t the last, and the world – even the USA if you can believe it – remains deeply and dangerously divided and divisive, with no real expectation of any positive change happening before climate catastrophe makes great swathes of the world unliveable and mass relocation of human populations is used as justification for yet more genocides.

It’s an interesting and important text, but it doesn’t offer a lot of hope…

1 comment on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley

  1. Years ago, when the movie about Malcolm X came out, I was teaching at a primary African American school in South Carolina.

    To say that an upper middle class atheist and leftist white boy was a fish out of water there is an understatement. I, however, read the book. Because I would never understand the “Black experience” firsthand…maybe I could understand from an intellectual level.

    What impressed me the most was some of which you state. His ability to change, learn and exam what exactly he learned to apply it to his life and make it better. While many of the kids I was trying to teach (and for the most part I believe I failed as a teacher) concentrated on the negative…I tried to make them understand the light.

    It has been several years since I read that book, and I feel it may be worth a rereading. I, for example, simply don’t remember the sexist parts of the book but I’ve no doubt they are in there.

    It is an important book and I’m glad you reminded of that fact.

    Liked by 1 person

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