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Alex Haley first hears about the Nation of Islam while in San Francisco in 1959 and first meets Malcolm X in New York in 1960. He writes two articles on Malcolm X and one on Elijah Muhammad before a publisher proposes to Haley the idea of a biography. Having won the trust of Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad with the earlier pieces, Haley gets them both to agree to the project.
Haley gains Malcolm X’s trust over a long period of interviews. Malcolm, who suspects all reporters, including Black ones, of serving white America, is at first very cautious about Haley’s project. After almost giving up because Malcolm refuses to produce anything but Nation of Islam rhetoric, Haley observes that Malcolm often scribbles on scraps of paper around him with a red pen. Haley then starts laying out note cards before each interview and collecting them afterward with Malcolm’s scribblings on them. These fragments of Malcolm’s private thoughts prove instrumental for Haley in understanding Malcolm.
Slowly, after numerous interview sessions with Haley in New York City, Malcolm opens up. Haley begins work on the autobiography shortly before Malcolm’s falling out with Elijah Muhammad, and the epilogue traces the last two years of Malcolm’s life from Haley’s point of view. Haley emphasizes the tension and violence surrounding Malcolm’s final days and describes in detail the death threats that precede Malcolm’s assassination.
On February 21, 1965, three audience members at a lecture at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, which Malcolm has been renting to use for his new organization, shoot and kill Malcolm X. Police arrest three suspects, all with Muslim affiliations, who are later convicted. However, comments that Malcolm made in his final days suggest that somebody more powerful than the Nation of Islam may have had a hand in the killing. Haley describes Malcolm’s funeral, which is attended by thousands of Black people, whites, Muslims, and non-Muslims. The funeral rites are performed by, among others, a sheikh, or Arab man, from Mecca. The sheikh ends with a description of the Islamic view of life after the Day of Judgment, thereby hinting that Malcolm has ascended to paradise.
The epilogue raises the question of whether or not The Autobiography of Malcolm X is more autobiography or biography. In describing his unusual collaboration with Malcolm X, Alex Haley shows that the work is a product of both of their minds. Though Haley is one of the most famous African-American nonfiction authors of the twentieth century, questions have arisen about his scholarly integrity. Some critics have dismissed his later work, Roots, in which Haley attempts to trace the generations of his own family from Africa to the present day, as poorly researched. Although The Autobiography of Malcolm X involves much more straightforward research, and Malcolm X did approve most of the text before his death, some critics nevertheless lament that the autobiography’s voice appears to be as much Haley’s as Malcolm’s. They fear that the collaborative nature of the work may have stifled Malcolm, who was as eager to teach others as he was to learn.
The slips of paper on which Malcolm scribbles unconsciously at each interview reveal that Malcolm maintained an independent and open-minded current of thought, free of the rhetoric that he publicly embraced and propagated. The first slip of paper Haley recovers, written at the peak of Malcolm’s submission to Elijah Muhammad, reveals a fiercely independent mind reaching out to understand hate in another context. Its musing that “[i]f Christianity had asserted itself in Germany six million Jews would have lived” reflects a religious tolerance that was unacceptable by the Nation of Islam’s standards. Despite his commitment to the Nation’s goals, Malcolm broadened his concern beyond prejudice against Black people to prejudice against all people. The next scribbling, recovered by Haley in the tumultuous period of the break with Elijah Muhammad, further underscores Malcolm’s dedication to his true beliefs even when they went against the Nation’s. Its statement that “you have not converted a man because you have silenced him” resonates with both its immediate and general circumstances. The immediate circumstance was Elijah Muhammad’s silencing of Malcolm after Malcolm made unpopular remarks about President Kennedy’s assassination. While the Nation of Islam remained respectful to the slain leader, Malcolm viewed the assassination as the logical outcome of U.S. social turmoil. The general circumstance surrounding this quote was that while Malcolm had been censoring himself and deferring to the word of Elijah Muhammad for a long time, he never truly subjugated his principles.
Malcolm’s comment, made during his conversion to a more tolerant vision of Islam, that “my life has always been one of changes” alludes to his lifelong trajectory toward global tolerance. Though simple, this observation points to Malcolm’s openness to change, which in turn points to the sincerity of his quest to resolve the race issues that have always surrounded him. When, as Malcolm Little, he can no longer tolerate being treated as a pet, Malcolm leaves for the big city to explore his Black identity. As Detroit Red he becomes notorious with musicians, gamblers, and hustlers in Boston and Harlem, but he eventually gives himself up after recognizing the emptiness of this fast lifestyle. In prison, Malcolm matures from a vicious inmate known as “Satan” into a voracious intellectual. He emerges as Malcolm X and, committed to getting people politically active, extends the Nation of Islam across the United States. Late in his life, as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm focuses on developing a global unity between oppressed peoples, finally convinced that a cooperative effort on the part of many groups can improve the lot of Black people everywhere. The lengthy and varied trajectory of his path shows that the poor race relations between Black people and whites in the United States constitute a complex problem with no easy solution.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Autobiography of Malcolm X!