The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

I’ve always considered The Autobiography of Malcolm X to be one of the most important books I’ve read. I don’t know if I’d put it in the top 20 or where exactly, but I think this book constitutes a hugely valuable opportunity to get inside a major and fascinating historical figure, as well as an opportunity to educate oneself about the sociology and politics of things like the criminal justice system, fringe religions, and most especially the experience of living life as an African American during Malcolm’s time. So it is one of those “life and times” biographies that scores big with both the “life” and the “times.”

It’s a no-brainer that African Americans should read this book to better appreciate their history, but I think it’s almost as important that others including white Americans read it as well. They may or may not be receptive to the point of view expressed in the book, but I would hope that a little something would sink in even if they condemn the book and do the usual whining about how any mention of racism constitutes reverse racism.

It’s not only an important book, but it’s a pretty darn engaging read from cover to cover.

Malcolm did so many extreme things, and spoke frankly about so many things, and changed in so many ways throughout his life, that I would think it would be hard for any thinking person to agree with him all the way and treat him as an unadulterated hero, or for that matter to think he was consistently wrong and dismiss him as one of history’s villains. He was a very complex person who merits a very complex assessment (much more complex than I can give in a short piece like this).

So I have a mixed opinion of him. On the whole, though, I see him more favorably than unfavorably.

He’s a very impressive figure. I admire his bravery, his strength, his sincerity. I consider him to have been on the right side of most issues upon which he took a stand.

On the other hand, there are things about him I don’t admire and would not like people to emulate.

Obviously a lot of the rhetoric is disturbing—constantly referring to white people as “devils” for instance. I oppose the way he attributes collective guilt to white people. I find his efforts to deny that there are individual exceptions to the evil of white people intellectually indefensible and morally offensive.

As to the latter, I’m thinking about passages in the book where he tells about white teachers and others who’d passed through his life and treated him well and seemed to genuinely care for him and want to help him. Instead of drawing the conclusion that there are exceptions to the general rule that whites are evil oppressors, instead of appreciating the fact that certain individuals at least partly rose above the societal pressures to hate and mistreat African Americans, he maintains that if you think about each such case enough you can always find some way to interpret what they did into something disrespectful and self-serving. So in his eyes though these specific white individuals might have been better than most at concealing their evil and racism, in the end surely they were as bad as all the others. Which is a ridiculous slap in the face to people who were good to him.

Now certainly there are mitigating factors to be considered before denouncing him for having a simplistic and too universal hatred of white people. Perhaps most importantly there’s the evidence that his views were changing quite a bit in the last year or two of his life before he was assassinated. Maybe some of it is historical wishful thinking, but you can make a pretty good case that had he lived he would have morally evolved into someone who fought against racism and injustice and inequality as hard as ever, yet dropped the hatred of individuals on account of the color of their skin. Whether he would have also moved closer to Martin Luther King’s rejection of violence as a weapon for change I do not know, though it’s plausible.

There’s also the point that it’s more understandable and excusable that an African American would indiscriminately hate and denounce and attribute evil motives to people of the race that is oppressing him, than that the oppressors themselves would hate those they’re oppressing. Just as we would likely be a lot more forgiving of Jews walking out of a concentration camp at the end of World War II expressing bitterness and even hatred toward Germans than we would of Nazi hate propaganda against Jews.

I would agree that in the grand scheme of things Malcolm’s denouncing white people as devils is less outrageous than the Klan saying similar things about African Americans. His reverse racism is not morally equivalent to regular racism. But that’s not much of a standard. Hurray, he’s less egregiously hateful than the Klan!

Needless to say, as a pacifist I don’t join him in his willingness to pursue his goals—even goals I agree with—“by any means necessary,” including violence. I’ll take King’s principled nonviolence instead.

Though even here I wouldn’t oppose Malcolm to anywhere near the degree I would oppose someone willing to use violence to maintain oppression and inequality. Violence in opposition to injustice is certainly less bad than violence that enforces injustice, but nonviolence is superior to both.

Another flaw of Malcolm’s was how long it took him to see through Elijah Muhammad. The Nation of Islam no doubt had some principled and admirable individual members, including Malcolm himself, but for the most part it was an organization with utterly kooky beliefs even by religious standards (which is saying something), that at times functioned like an organized crime syndicate, with totally corrupt leadership up to and including Elijah Muhammad. For Malcolm to have ignored all that and denied all that for all those years is to his discredit.

On a list of Malcolm’s pros and cons, I’d put his intelligence somewhere on the borderline. Reading this book, I see him as a good but not great intellect. Yes, he has the gift of gab, but that’s not an attribute always correlated with true wisdom. There are multiple passages in the book where he triumphantly recounts himself flummoxing an opponent with what he takes to be logically devastating arguments, but in fact sound to me more like forceful rhetorical flourishes that substantively are painfully specious. Either he knows that and is pretending otherwise, in which case he’s dishonest, or he genuinely can’t recognize the difference between a cogent argument and fast talking verbal bullying, in which case his intellect is nothing special.

Co-author Alex Haley offers plenty of interesting observations in the Epilogue. One that caught my eye is that while Malcolm had become a more popular African American leader than Martin Luther King in some circles due to his refusal to tie the hands of oppressed people by ruling out violent resistance, toward the end of his life many who had previously supported him adopted more of a skeptical “put up or shut up” attitude toward him. Superficially his willingness to use “any means necessary” made him seem a dynamic, powerful figure whom the Establishment would have to reckon with, while King’s nonviolence could be dismissed as passivity. But when you get right down to it—in some people’s eyes—Malcolm gave a great speech but didn’t really do much, while King and the nonviolent elements of the civil rights movement were at least marching and conducting civil disobedience campaigns.

Malcolm’s violence turned out to be more potential and theoretical than actual. Ironically, King was more the man of action after all.

Another thing I thought was interesting was how Haley reports he fought to keep the current Malcolm from presenting his younger self in the book as too much what he had become rather than what he was. For example, it was important to Haley—rightly so, for the sake of accuracy—that Malcolm not make it sound like he’d had serious doubts about Elijah Muhammad’s character from early on, if in fact he’d been loyal and trusting to the point of naïveté until quite late in his life.

That being said, I have read conservative critics who claim that much of the book is not in fact accurate, that for instance the opening story of how his father died at the hands of a white mob has been debunked. They contend that the book is largely an exercise in mythmaking.

I don’t know. I haven’t looked into it enough to form an opinion on whether Malcolm and Haley were guilty of significant dishonesty in presenting his life. I will say, though, that there’s a great deal in the book that does not put Malcolm in a favorable light. I would think if you were intending to glorify yourself and hide or de-emphasize your flaws, this isn’t the book you’d come up with.

An important man, and an important book. Strongly recommended.

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