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The Autobiography of Malcolm X ()

The Hungry Mind Review's 100 Best 20th Century Books

    I am not a racist in any form whatever. I don't believe in any form of racism. I don't believe in any
    form of discrimination or segregation. I believe in Islam.
               -Malcolm X

This was the final triumph of Malcolm X and the resolution that makes his life story into a classic American tale: that in the end, he was able to move beyond the chrysalis of his racial hatred and emerge an integrated enlightened being.  I'm sure most everyone has either read this book or seen Spike Lee's excellent biopic, so we need not rehash the story too thoroughly.  Anyway, what matters are the essentials.  Malcolm Little was a street punk when he was exposed to the Nation of Islam in prison.  This exposure, and the racial pride and anger that went with it, lead him to educate himself and get involved with the Nation, where he became one of the most effective spokesmen and organizers.  A confrontational proponent of racial separatism and black self-reliance, during the Civil Rights struggle, he was yin to Martin Luther King's yang (or as I read somewhere, he was the Old Testament figure, King was a figure from the New)--the constant reminder to whites that if King's nonviolent methods failed to produce results, millions of righteously resentful young black men were waiting in the wings.  But, when Malcolm X made a hadj to Mecca, he discovered that there were Moslems of all races, worshipping together peacefully, and that racism played no part in traditional Islam.  And so, in the closing days of his life, he split from the Nation of Islam, adopting true Islamic beliefs and practices and earning the enmity of Nation leaders who had him assassinated.  The arc of this story--from the gutter, to a redemptive anger, to a cleansing understanding, to violent death--is like something from Greek myth or Shakespeare, but it is a uniquely American tragedy.

I remember, as a kid, it was truly this easy: Martin Luther King was a good black guy; Malcolm X was a bad black guy.  Upon reflection, I think that, even at his most inflammatory, Malcolm X defied this easy categorization.  Who is to say that if he & the Black Panthers hadn't been willing to hold out at least the threat of violence, that whites would have moved to solve the Civil Rights issues as quickly (relatively speaking) as they did?  More importantly, suppose the shoe was on the other foot, if you were a young black man in 1960's America, whose message would have had more appeal, Martin's or Malcolm's?

Actually, I have often wondered if black America might have been better served by a more violent tone to the struggle.  Civil disobedience works precisely because it depends on the fundamental decency of the oppressor and the certainty that he will yield.  But one result of the yielding party's giving in, is that they can end up imbued with a sense of their own magnanimity  and sink into a deceptive mood of self congratulation.  It might be better for the oppressed if there was more of a sense that they had taken what was theirs, rather than that it was given to them.  I don't truly know.

Of course, the ultimate historic irony is that King, the peacemaker and accommodationist, was gunned down by a racist white man, while Malcolm, the rabble rouser and confrontationalist, was killed by rival blacks.  Reading his life story, it is hard not to believe that Malcolm X's career was really just beginning.  It seems possible, even likely, that the inner peace he had found in the true Moslem religion would have given him the moral and spiritually grounding which, combined with his oratorical gifts and incisive intellect, might have lead him to accomplish great things.

Martin Luther King is justly celebrated; he is an easy hero for white America to embrace.  Malcolm X is more problematic, he has sharper edges, but is no less deserving of admiration and honor.  His life story belongs on the shelf with Benjamin Franklin and Booker T. Washington and Whittaker Chambers and the other handful of great American autobiographies of self made men.


Grade: (A+)


Malcolm X Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Malcolm X
    -OBIT: Malcolm X Shot to Death at Rally Here Malcolm Knew He Was a 'Marked Man' (Theodore Jones, 2/21/03, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: With MLK and Malcolm X revelations, Alex Haley’s legacy takes new hit: Before questions about his Playboy interview with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Haley faced charges of plagiarism and inaccuracy in ‘Roots’ (Gillian Brockell, 5/13/23, Washington Post)
-ESSAY: On Malcolm X (Russell Kirk, December 14th, 2012, Imaginative Conservative)
-REVIEW: of THE DEAD ARE ARISING: The life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne (Clifford Thompson, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of The Dead are Arising (Brandon M. Terry, NY Review of Books)

Book-related and General Links:
    -INTERVIEW: The original Playboy Interview by Alex Haley
    -Official Site of Malcolm X
    -Eulogy by Ossie Davis: Our Shining Black Prince
    -Malcom X, El-Hajj Malik al-Shabazz
    -ESSAY: by  SHELBY STEELE Malcolm X
    -Malcolm X and Black Power (short bio from Let's Find Out)
    -The Grandmaster's Pages: Malcolm X  ...a documentation by Alexander Boese
    -Malcolm (Kansas City Star)
    -Malcolm X - An Islamic Perspective
    -MALCOLM X (1925-1965):  African American Activist (African American History)
    -Beyond Fad and Fashion: Understanding The Essence of Malcolm X (Ron Daniels, The Black Collegian)
    -Daily Dose of Malcolm X
    -CYouSee A to Z:   X is for Malcolm (quotes, Links, etc.)
    -Malcolm X: Elke's Homepage
    -SPEECH: by MANNING MARABLE  By Any Means Necessary: The Life and Legacy of Malcolm X ( Metro State College, Denver, Colorado)
     -PARANOID...Web (images & sound)
     -Malcolm X Today (dischord)
     -MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND MALCOLM X The Same, or Different? (Courtney James,  Afro 1011, Intro to Afro-American Studies)
     -The Legacy of Malik Shabazz:  Reassurance for seekers of Truth ( Ama F. Shabazz)

     -REVIEW: by Stephen Hunter, Spike Lee matures with magnificent "Malcolm X"
     -REVIEW: MALCOLM X  By Roger Ebert

     -The Nation of Islam (group profile) (Religious Movements Homepage, U of VA)
    -REVIEW: of The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad by Karl Evanzz (JONATHAN RIEDER, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: How Elijah Muhammad Won (Daniel Pipes, Commentary)