The Autobiography of Malcolm X (2)

North America Project 2022

Continuing on from Melanie’s essay, Malcolm X was one of those names emblematic of the great revolution occurring in America in the sixties when I went up to university in far away Melbourne, Australia. But my interest was in the anti-Vietnam War movement and I couldn’t have told you anything about Malcolm X the man except maybe the words ‘Black Rights’ and ‘Nation of Islam’.

So basically it has taken me half a century, and a big shove from Melanie, to rectify that, to listen to Malcolm X’s life on Audible (read by Laurence Fishburne).

Although the cover above – I wonder if it is the original – doesn’t say so, the autobiography is an “as told to” compiled by Alex Haley, a decade later the author of Roots, from interviews conducted with Malcolm X in 1963,4. Haley was a journalist and the style of writing reflects that, clear and straightforward with no literary flourishes. Wikipedia (here) gives a very good account of the “as told to” process, and while it is clear Malcolm X maintained control over the content, the construction and writing is all Haley’s.

Malcolm Little was born in 1925, the fourth of seven children, and grew up in Lansing, Michigan. His father, a preacher, had his his house burned down and was subsequently bashed and pushed under a streetcar, officially suicide, but more likely the work of white racists. This was the Depression and without the father’s income the family were in desperate poverty. Under constant harassment by state welfare, the mother had a breakdown and the children were dispersed to orphanages and foster homes.

As an older teenage Malcolm moved to Boston, to his older half-sister Ella who lived in the relatively middle class Black suburb, Roxbury. Malcolm I’m sure appreciated Ella’s support, but throughout the book he is scathing about Blacks with even a little bit of money, who are ‘Tame Negroes’, if I remember the wording correctly, more concerned with integrating into white America than they are with asserting themselves.

Malcolm got into the fringes of the Black music industry, graduating from a shoeshine stand to marijuana supplier, becoming a notable lindy hop dancer, hooking up white men and black women and vice versa, and ending up with a white (later married) middle class girlfriend of his own, of whom he is completely contemptuous.

When the US enters WWII he manages to dodge the draft, dope dealing becomes difficult, and he forms a burglary gang, with his white girlfriend and her teenage sister scouting for likely targets, until they are finally caught. Malcolm believes that the appropriate sentence would have been two years but because white women were involved he got ten.

In jail he resumes his education, mainly through extensive non-fiction reading, and becomes a follower of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, which preaches obedience to Allah with Elijah as his most recent prophet. There’s a lot of sciency stuff about the origins of mankind, Black of course, in Africa, to which I paid little attention. As a religion it seems unexceptional, arguing against Integration for a separation of the races. Socially, it was very conservative, the husband ruled his family, and adulterers and pregnant single women were expelled.

Interestingly, Malcolm and all the preachers, were given the surname X to signify their disowning of the surnames which their slave forbears had taken from their owners.

Malcolm rose through the ranks, setting up new congregations throughout America. Eventually he was made the leader of the Harlem congregation, and there became a prominent spokesman in the national press, while Elijah Muhammad and his sons established The Nation of Islam’s headquarters in Chicago.

Malcolm X’s increasing prominence, and the discovery that Elijah Muhammad had been getting all his secretaries pregnant led to a break, followed by Malcolm making a pilgrimage to Mecca and being taken up there by ‘official’ Islam.

The autobiography ends with him still speaking highly of Nation of Islam but attempting to set up his own organization while living in anticipation of attacks from his former fellows.

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Malcolm X, Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, first pub. 1965


On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom when a man shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun and two other men charged the stage firing semi-automatic handguns. Malcolm X was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm, shortly after arriving at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The autopsy identified 21 gunshot wounds to the chest, left shoulder, arms and legs, including ten buckshot wounds from the initial shotgun blast.

One gunman, Nation of Islam member Talmadge Hayer (also known as Thomas Hagan), was beaten by the crowd before police arrived. Witnesses identified the others as Nation members Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. These three were convicted and given life sentences. Hayer disputed Butler and Thomas’ involvement and named four others who were never charged. Butler and Johnson were finally pardoned in 2021, well after they had been released on parole. (Wiki) (NYT).

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

North America Project 2022

My friend Melanie at Grab the Lapels is an American, a generation younger than me and was for some years a professor teaching creative writing where she would use Malcolm X’s story “as told to Alex Haley” as a teaching aid. She persuaded me to include it in my reading North American Black and First Nations writers project this year with the promise to write up her own experience. And here it is…


In the U.S. we are incapable of acknowledging our history and healing from it. When the oppressed have had enough, they make a lot of noise, leaving conservatives confounded. After so many years of Confederate soldier statues scattered throughout the country, especially in the South, why are protestors mad now? Does it desecrate the memory of a war leader whom some revere that others see as a symbol of hatred? History belongs in a museum, activists said. And when conservatives did not listen, activists turned to property damage, toppling monuments and leaving them in pieces. Is not a decorated white leader someone to turn to when racism makes a racist feel bad?

I began my education in 1990, and not once during that time can I recall hearing the name Malcolm X. A contemporary of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X could not be packaged nicely like the wise Southern pastor who included men and women, black and white, Southern and Northern in his group of supporters. In contrast, Malcolm X felt that African Americans do not want to live where they are not wanted and advocated for reparations in the form of land for the descendants of slaves. Any effort to integrate was a ruse, he thought, a way for “the white man” or “the white devil” to infiltrate black neighborhoods, steal their resources and abuse the residents, and then leave for the white side of town.

The fight over Critical Race Theory raging in the U.S. today appears to lean into the idea that white children will be made to feel bad if they learn that adults who look like they do were also adults who did everything in their physical, legal, and financial power to exploit human beings based on the darker color of their skin. Malcolm X begins his autobiography, as told to Alex Haley, with a story from before he was born. While his father was out of town, the local KKK attacked Malcolm’s mother and older siblings. Only her pregnancy — that was Malcolm — kept them from murdering the family. Later, under suspicious conditions, Malcolm’s father is found beheaded, but because it was set up to look like a suicide by train tracks, the insurance company did not pay out on the father’s life insurance plan. Plummeting into starvation and incessant visits from white social workers who attempted to pit the children against their mother left Malcolm’s mom in a mental health crisis from which she never recovered.

Sometimes life is so awful it’s hard to believe the stories of those who experience blatant discrimination, but Malcolm X writes a convincing narrative explaining how his youth, from his parents being torn apart to teachers discouraging him from learning because he’s just a black kid, led him into a remorseless young adult life of crime. Righteous folks like to claim we always have an option, but a person’s environment has loads to say about his level of education, empathy, and experience. After his time as a numbers runner, drug dealer, and then thief who dared cavort with white women, Malcom X was sent to prison where he learned to read, devoured the well-stocked prison library, and found the Nation of Islam. The NoI, developed by a black African American man from the South, is a form of Islam that Malcolm later realizes Middle Eastern Muslims to not recognize as true Islam.

Between his studies in prison and discovering that the NoI was not what he thought, Malcolm X developed intellectual political, economic, and social theories about how “the white man” is “the devil” harming the black community. Nothing he saw nor experienced proved contrary. Using the rhetorical savvy of a lawyer and supported by ten years of intense study of languages, history, and philosophy while incarcerated, Malcolm X exploded into the media, terrifying white people with his “hateful” statements about white communities. He served as an antithesis to Dr. King, an example of what an “angry black man” looks like when folks should just all get along (and be compliant). For as much as Malcolm X was in the media, to not know his name after I attended public education is baffling until I think back to how Malcolm X supported segregation. He doesn’t fit into a warm and fuzzy narrative about slavery being over, about how the Civil Rights Movement made everything alright and we can now feel good about our white selves.

After Malcolm X took his first trip to Mecca and learned about true Islam, which had worshippers from every country and skin color, he completely changed his mind. The white man is not the devil, he realized. “White” is a state of mind, not a skin color, hence the “Uncle Tom’s” in politics. And so why did I, a white woman in her thirties, teach The Autobiography of Malcolm X for five years, semester after semester? What would compel me to give this book as a gift at high school graduation parties rather than the expected $20? The ability to change with more information.

In the U.S. change is a slur we use to shame people we don’t like. We call them wishy-washy, flip-floppy, and even suggest they are lying. We hold a record of change against public figures, especially politicians and how they voted, even if it was twenty years ago. But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that with more information comes a need to change. Doubling down on facts from last year, last month, last week, even, could kill us. But looking at the bigger picture, holding fast to outdated information has led Americans to a stubborn place marked by ignorance. And if I can teach change through the narrative of a prolific American leader and thinking like Malcolm X, if only one person at a time, I’ll do it for as long as I can.

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Malcolm X, Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X , first pub.1965

Thank you Melanie. I’ll put up my own review in a couple of days, Bill

Roots, Alex Haley

Over the past month I’ve been engaged with Liz Dexter and Buried in Print in reading Alex Haley’s seminal, important, groundbreaking 1976 novel of the history of a (his) African American slave family. They will I’m sure put up reviews shortly but having a gap in my schedule so to speak, I’ll put up my initial thoughts now while the main elements of the book – which I listened to while they were reading – are still in my head.

I missed Roots when it was on TV, though of course I didn’t miss the hype, so I’m only now realising why it was so important. And that is that Black Americans were for the first time seeing themselves centre stage, taken seriously, with documentable genealogies.

To start at the end, Haley, a relatively middle-class boy from Tennessee, sat at the feet of his great aunts before WWII and heard the oral history of his mother’s family which began with an ‘African’, Kunta Kinte, captured by slavers as a young man in the late 1760s, transported across the Atlantic, and sold for plantation work on arrival at Annapolis, Maryland.

In the final chapters, Haley describes how some of the names of places and objects, indeed the Kinte name itself, which had been passed down for nearly 200 years, could be identified as from the Mandinka nation of The Gambia, a literate, Muslim people. That this history is now, and was almost immediately, challenged does not affect my reading of the novel.

Roots is a long book, a family saga covering the stories of one or two people over four generations, from before the War of Independence to the period following the Civil War. There are 120 chapters, so we read and discussed between ourselves 30 chapters each week. Which suited me as I could listen to my 7-8 hours each weekend while I was driving, then write it up when I got home.

Haley spends a long time, the first quarter of the book, establishing Kunta as a boy and then young man, learning to read and count, memorizing the Koran, being taught his responsibilities, taken on journeys, meeting people from other tribes with other customs (and languages). He is aware that white men, with the assistance of Africans, are taking people away, overseas, possibly to eat them, but he is not particularly cautious and at about age 18 he is captured.

The voyage to America is horrific, chained in pairs, lying damp and stinking on shelves below decks, frequently whipped, badly fed, a thirty percent death rate. Haley I think does a good job not just of telling the story but of imagining what Kunta must have been thinking and feeling.

In the US Kunta is sold onto a plantation, he is a frequent runaway, and just as frequently recaptured until at last he attacks one of his captors and his foot is chopped off. We then have a long period – 20 years – where Kunta comes to terms with being a slave, living with people who have been slaves for some generations already. Finally he marries, a cook, Bell, and they have one child, a daughter Kizzy.

At 18 Kizzy helps her boyfriend escape. He’s recaptured. She’s sold as a field hand to a small plantation further south (we hear no more of Kunta), is raped by the owner and has a son, George. Unfortunately for us, the new owner makes his money cockfighting, George grows to become his principal trainer, and we learn far too much about ‘chickens’ and the sport/industry surrounding them.

George in turn marries Matilda who is a much better woman than he deserves and they have a whole host of kids. No. 3 (I think) is Tom who apprentices as a blacksmith and grows to become a responsible man and father and head of his family.

This brings us up to the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. The family is largely unaffected by the War but soon afterwards, George who has been away, returns and on his word of a ‘promised land’ in Tennessee, 17 Black families (and one white couple) make their way there in a wagon train, and take up 30 or 40 acre plots on rich soil just opened up for settlement. Tom, despite opposition from the local whites, opens up for business as a blacksmith. And the families settle down to prosper.

That, more or less is the end of the saga. In the space of a chapter or so, Tom’s youngest daughter marries a Haley, who has a lumber business, and so in a couple of generations more we have young Alex.

The prose is undistinguished, just words enough to propel us through the story. We are forever being updated on ‘background’, ie. US history, by slaves telling each other what they had overheard or glimpsed in newspapers, which the other two found less intrusive than I did.

I think Haley’s intention was to do with being Black and proud. The survival of ‘the African’ in his family’s history. What I got out of it was firstly the centrality of the matriarch in each generation, holding the family together, despite the stories mostly revolving around the men; and secondly, once Kunta had been beaten down, the slaves mostly just got on with life, rather as you would with a tedious job you were never able to leave.

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Alex Haley, Roots, first pub. 1976. Audiobook read by Avery Brooks, 2011. 30 hours

see also:
Adventures in reading, running and working from home (Roots review coming)
Buried in Print (Roots review coming)
Buried in Print, Slavery: Past and Present #280898 Reasons (3.5 of 4)
The Australian Legend, Project 2022 – Reading North American Black & Native American Lit.