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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
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 blacks,
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 blacks 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
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 blacks everywhere.
The lengthy and varied trajectory of his path shows that the poor
race relations between blacks 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!