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Autobiography of Malcolm X

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Published posthumously, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) was written with the assistance of Alex Haley, and, in all published editions, is accompanied by a long epilogue of Haley's that offers his perspective on Malcolm X and the making of the work. Extremely well received by both whites and African Americans, the work helped give voice to the emerging Black Power movement, offered a spectacular example of dedication and accomplishment, and presented an indictment of racism in the United States. The Autobiography covers Malcolm's life from his childhood in East Lansing, Michigan, through his time as a street hustler, prison inmate, Nation of Islam minister, and, finally, his last year as an independent Muslim minister and black nationalist.

As is common with the genre, especially for African Americans, the Autobiography is at once a sociological document and an assertion of individuality. Malcolm X vacillates between presenting his life as representative and as exemplary. His account of his criminal past, in which he sold drugs and prostituted women, displays the degrading effects of racism upon African Americans. His account of his transformation in prison, in which he read extensively and adopted the Nation of Islam's strict moral code, presents a story of remarkable dedication and will.

Like much of the literature of the turbulent 1960s, the text also contains the rhetoric of protest. By utilizing personal experience to argue for a major restructuring of American society, the work echoes a mode of African American literature descended from the slave narratives. The later chapters blend accounts of Malcolm's years as a minister with excerpts from his speeches condemning white America. As the text concentrates less on the incidents of Malcolm's life, the drama focuses on the development of Malcolm's philosophy from the strict “all whites are devils” beliefs of the Nation of Islam to a less rigid, more humanist approach to race.

Because Malcolm's life changed rapidly as he composed the Autobiography, and because he was assassinated before he read and revised the final draft that Haley had sent him, the book, like the life, seems incomplete. The Autobiography captures a mind in flux. Opinions contradict each other in the text, especially those on the Nation, the organization that he credits with saving his life, but that he split from rancorously while he was fashioning his life story. Such contradictions generally enhance the text, for they present an attractive protean self, one willing to learn and change when confronted with new knowledge. The extraordinary blend of so many autobiographical modes, and so many “Malcolms,” deeply enriches both the text and its subject.

Through its immediate and enduring popularity, the Autobiography is primarily responsible for what biographer Peter Goldman calls the “beatification” of Malcolm X, making him an icon for black pride, achievement, and protest. Without his life story, Malcolm X might have been forgotten. The Autobiography guarantees his permanence on the American cultural landscape and arguably stands as the most stunning accomplishment of a remarkable life.

Peter Goldman, The Death and Life of Malcolm X, 2d ed., 1979.David Gallen, Malcolm X as They Knew Him, 1992.Harold Bloom, ed. Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 2008.


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