Essay, Research Paper
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
The book The Autobiography of Malcolm X was not only a depiction of the life for Malcolm X but it also provided and look at the issues present during his life. Many of the problems that faced Malcolm X also faced many African Americans of his time. A large part of the book showed and described the hardships faced by Malcolm X and other members of minorities like him. This book also showed the struggle of civil rights and the tremendous changes of the time. I can think of no other person who changed, or rather was changed, more by the civil rights movement.
Early in the book the tough problems facing Malcolm X, his family, and African Americans as a whole were readily shown. It was also shown that prejudice and racism were not exclusive to the South but were rather a nation wide epidemic. Malcolm X, originally Malcolm Little, was born May 19, 1925, in Omaha Nebraska. His father, Earl Little, a Baptist Minister who preached that all African Americans should go back to Africa for their own good, was constantly threatened with violence from the Ku Klux Klan. Fearful for his family, he moved to Lansing Michigan hoping that the racism would be less severe in the North. This was not the case. It was there in the North where Earl Little was killed by white racists who tied him to the railroad tracks and claimed that it was suicide.
The next thing the book shows us are the limitations placed on African Americans at the time. “Malcolm was not a product of the segregated south. His experience was Northern.” (”Atlantic”, 150) It was here in Northern schools where Malcolm X faced prejudice. Malcolm X had intentions on becoming a lawyer until the eighth grade when a teacher told him “You’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger.” (”Newsweek”, 133) His dreams being crushed, he dropped out of school and went looking for a job. The only trouble was that nobody was willing to give a job to a black kid with an eighth grade education.
Trying to find a way to survive Malcolm X moved in with his half sister Ella in Boston and became a shoeshine boy. Now in addition to facing racism, Malcolm X also had to deal with “the burdens of the urban life.” (”Atlantic”, 151) Realizing that he could not make a living as a shoeshine boy he turned to the only option he saw available to him, namely crime. The African American community got a bad name at the time because so many black kids who were faced with the same limitations as Malcolm X followed the same path to crime in order to survive. Malcolm X started his life of crime by selling drugs.
Another common view of the times was that in order to succeed you must be white. This thought was so strong that even many people in the African American community believed it. Understanding that he could not be white, Malcolm X did the next closest thing; he tried to look white. Not only did he die and straighten his hair and dress like white men but he also dated white women.
There was at least one issue not related to race addressed in this book; namely the evils of urban life. Many people, both black and white, saw the enormous amount of money to be made illegally in the large and growing cities and could not help jumping for it. Seeing this possibility for enormous wealth Malcolm X moved to Harlem, New York and became a thief, a pimp, and a drug dealer. It was in Harlem where he became an official hustler and got the new name “Detroit Red.”
Another message, possibly the most important message in the book, is that people need something to believe in. Most often people imbue this belief in their religion. Religion, especially at this time, was a very strong influence in peoples’ lives, as it would be for Malcolm X. Religion gave people both hope and focus. Soon after moving to Boston and continuing his life of crime he was arrested for robbery and sentenced to seven years in prison. It was in prison were he first turned to religion. Malcolm X was introduced to the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam was a religion that believed that white men were evil and white society was set up to suppress African Americans. Having been given hope of freedom from white society Malcolm X turned his life around. Now focused on changing both himself and society, he read the encyclopedia, studied continuously, and followed the codes of the Nation of Islam strictly. It was in prison where he took on the name Malcolm X, wishing to rid himself of his slave name Little.
After his parole he became even more involved with the Nation of Islam. He set up a number of mosques where the beliefs of the Nation of Islam could be preached. Through the leadership of Malcolm X the number of “Muslims grew from 400 to 40,000.” (Nelson, 337) It was during this time that he became a public figure and a leader in the eyes of many African Americans looking for an end to racism. Because he was such a good speaker he soon became a larger public figure than even Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam.
This brings up another theme in the book, the desire for power and recognition. This battle for power eventually weakened the Nation of Islam. Although Malcolm X was effectively spreading the word of the Nation of Islam Elijah felt spiteful towards him for the popularity he had gained. It was these jealousies that prompted Elijah to censor Malcolm X and in turn caused Malcolm X to break away from the Nation of Islam.
Before this point in time most of the actions taken by Malcolm X were religious. Now he saw that he would have to work through politics and the white society in order to make a large lasting change for African Americans. It was at this time that Malcolm X formed his own group to spread his beliefs. He called this new group Muslim Mosque, Inc. Through this organization he urged other African Americans to work politically in order to change things. Specifically he urged them to vote, or rather vote for other African Americans, and also to take and active part in the government by running for office at all levels.
Another message found late in this book was that violence is not always the way to change things. In fact, using violence did two things. First, it distracted from the actual message they were trying to spread. Secondly, it gave the racists a reason to retaliate and further repress all civil rights activists. It was around this time when Malcolm X made his pilgrimage to Mecca. It was here, for the first time in his life, he saw whites and blacks living peacefully together.
A final message of this book is that people are afraid of change. This is especially true when the thing that is being changes is an intricate part of society, just as racism was during this period of time. People were afraid of the change that Malcolm X was supporting. One person was so scared they were driven to kill Malcolm X rather than submit to the changes he advocated. Malcolm X was murdered February 21, 1965. If this did nothing else for the civil rights movement it proved that proved the existence of extreme fear that could only come from the knowledge of imminent change.
The first major theme of this book was that racism was widespread and deeply ingrained in society before the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. This is especially evident through the first part of the book in Malcolm X’s childhood. First he and his family were terrorized in Kansas. Then the move north to Michigan where they still face racism and violence to the extent of murder. This proves that racism was not a regional issue but rather a national issue. Malcolm X again finds racism in his school. Even though the school was integrated it still provided less for him as an African American than the it did for the average white student. He was discouraged from advancing himself in his dream to become a lawyer. Then again he faced prejudice when looking for a job where he could only find the options of a shoeshine boy or a life of crime.
The other major theme behind both this autobiography and the life of Malcolm X was the power of the civil rights movement and of the African American population as a whole. The power of the civil rights movement can be seen in many parts of this book. It was the religion of the Nation of Islam, based on the civil rights movement, that enabled Malcolm X to change from a criminal to a leader. The fear of this civil rights movement lead to the death of Malcolm X (and Martin Luther King, Jr.). Most importantly, the civil rights movement, lead partially by Malcolm X, united African Americans. As a united whole they gained power they otherwise would never have achieved. They used this power to change or reform society through its laws, institutions, views, and beliefs.
I believe that this period of reform for the advancement of African Americans was the most drastic other than possibly the period immediately following the civil war, maybe more drastic, and definitely longer lasting. Many of the changes following the civil war were overturned by the courts and others were either ignored or bypassed by the states. During this period of reform further advancements were made and unlike the past these changes would stand the test of time. Not only did this civil rights movement change the laws it also changed peoples’ views. The most important difference between this period and the period immediately following the civil war was the ability to continue progress. This ability to retain the new rights given to the African American community was gained through the uniting of their people.
The goal of Malcolm X was exactly that, to unite the African American community. The best way he knew to unite people was through religion. This is only logical because most peoples’ strongest bond is in their religion. If he could, as he did, use the bond of people to their religion to create a common bond among the African American community they would finally have the power to implement and protect their positive reforms.
Although I found this book to be exceptionally well written and interesting there were some lesser points. The weakest point of the autobiography was the description of the later part of his life and the effects of his life and death after his murder. The vagueness of this autobiography began around the time of his departure from the Nation of Islam. The specific reasons behind his departure were never fully addressed. I also believe that a much larger portion of the book should have been focused on the changes and reforms he was responsible for after the forming of his own group, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. There also could have been more emphasis on the positive and lasting reforms fully or partially credited to Malcolm X.
There are many more positives to this autobiography than negatives. “This is indeed a great book” (Nelson, 338) in its entertainment, effective writing, and historical implication aspects. A key to any book weather a fiction novel, poetry book, or autobiography is its ability to capture the interest of the reader. This autobiography is simply thrilling. Never have I known any persons’ life, death, and legacy to be as interesting and changed as that of Malcolm X.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X does not fit the traditional definition of an autobiography. “The text was prepared with the assistance of Alex Haley, who fashioned it into a coherent book.” (”Atlantic”,150) The best example of the quality of the writing is seen in the language and dialect used throughout the book. While a hustler slang is used. When speaking of the Nation of Islam religious words of praise are used. Finally, when referring to the rallies he spoke at powerful words of anger are used. Another thing that makes this book effective is that it is written as though Malcolm X is speaking to the reader, even though the majority of the autobiography was mostly written by Alex Haley.
The best part of this autobiography was the insight it gives into the this period of history. The first, and probably the most vivid, historical explanation dealt with the widespread racism and prejudice. As was the case often times throughout the book, I could feel the hate depicted in the violent murder of Earl Little in the northern city of Lancing Michigan. I could feel the deeply ingrained prejudice and racism in the book. This prejudice was most evidently shown when Malcolm X was told, “You’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger” (”Newsweek”, 132) concerning his desire to become a lawyer. It was very evident through the context of this book that racism and prejudice were widespread, accepted, and ingrained into society.
Another historical depiction his autobiography gives is that of the dramatic changes that occurred in the lifetime of Malcolm X, especially in the 1960’s. Malcolm X was a perfect symbol and a strong leader of the changes that occurred during this time. Malcolm X, having changed so dramatically throughout his life from a criminal to a leader of many African Americans, was the perfect symbol of positive change. As a leader of reform he helped the primarily African American religion of Muslims grow “from 400 to 40,000″ (Nelson, 337). In addition to the Muslims he helped unite he also many other African Americans to gain pride and fight for their rights through his famous speeches. The autobiography showed the fear many white people had of the changes gaining power through the likes of Malcolm X and other civil rights leaders. “He was talking now like a member of a revolutionary majority,” (Nelson, 337) which is exactly what the civil rights movement seemed to be at the time, “a revolutionary majority.” (Nelson, 337)
A final depiction of this time concerned the determination and hope civil rights leaders and African Americans shared. Finally the people discriminated against found leaders in both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As a united whole they finally possessed the power to make changes. Things changed because people like Malcolm X wanted or needed it to and people were tired of being held from their dreams. Near the end of his life Malcolm X said in reference to his dreams, “I do believe that I might have made a good lawyer.” (”Newsweek”, 130)
I believe that Malcolm X would be very proud of his autobiography and what is has represented and accomplished. This autobiography refuted the many negative views of Malcolm X and showed the reader what Malcolm X really stood for. Malcolm X was an advocate of change. He was a supporter of uniting African Americans so they could gain the power to fight for the rights they deserved. The Autobiography of Malcolm X gave the public a different, a positive, a correct view of the civil rights leader known best as Malcolm X.
Haley, Alex, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Grover Press, 1965.