Book Review: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Posted: November 17, 2010 in anti-racism, books

One of the reasons I’ve had less time for blogging lately is that I’ve been spending more time reading. I have a long-term project in mind, the details of which I’m still refining (tentative title: Read ALL the Things?), and maybe I’ll write more about that later. But for now, I’m thinking I might use this blog to collect my thoughts on the books I’ve recently read, at least when I’m capable of expressing those thoughts coherently enough to make them worth posting.

I’ve had a tough time conjuring up the proper superlatives for this particular book. It shot right up to my top five before I’d even gotten a third of the way through. What really surprised me is how engrossing of a read it was. Searing, thought-provoking, challenging—those are things I expected this book to be. But I didn’t expect it to be a page-turner.

Time for an embarrassing admission: until recently, I’d never heard any of the recordings of Malcolm X’s speeches. I’d read transcripts, but it hadn’t occurred to me to see what videos might be floating around on Youtube. The book inspired me to seek some of those out. And now, having “seen” him speak, I’d assert that his style really translates well to the page. As a narrator, he maintains his conversational tone without sacrificing any of the vehemence and forcefulness that made him such a compelling speaker.

After reading the epilogue, I appreciated Malcolm’s choice to, as suggested by Alex Haley, leave all of the previous chapters intact even after later events significantly and negatively affected his feelings about Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. It would have been a shame if he’d revised those sections to reflect his later feelings of betrayal, not just because it would have made for a less suspenseful narrative (as Haley argued), but also because I think the book as written really gives the reader a sense of having witnessed a part of Malcolm’s evolution as it occurred.

The most enjoyable part of the book for me was probably his description of his time in prison. I’m fascinated by autodidacts, and by the process of opening oneself up to new information in the search for truth. I don’t necessarily value intellectual malleability for its own sake—convictions are important—but Malcolm did what I think might be one of the hardest things anyone can ever do: he squarely confronted and acknowledged his own ignorance. And later, when the opinions he’d formed on the basis of his hard-won knowledge were challenged, he didn’t react by jealously guarding his intellectual vanity. He took stock again, and eventually discarded the views that couldn’t be supported by an honest accounting of the facts. A commenter on this post at Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog put it best: “His entire life is a case study in positive human evolution.”

Interestingly, and I think somewhat tragically, that quality of Malcolm’s eventually became a source of criticism from his supporters. From the epilogue:

[A] major complaint was that Malcolm X was himself too confused to be seriously followed any longer. “He doesn’t know what he believes in. No sooner do you hear one thing than he’s switched to something else.”

And his ability to communicate to the masses, to reach and to change those who heard him speak, also became something to bludgeon him with:

Malcolm X only talked, but other civil rights organizations were doing. “All he’s ever done was talk, CORE and SNCC and some of them people of Dr. King’s are out getting beat over the head.”

Not to say that these couldn’t have been fair criticisms. But I found them painful to read all the same.

Malcolm X and Alex Haley.

Speaking of criticisms, I suppose I have a couple of my own. Regarding the book itself, I found I had to do a bit of plodding through the chapters related to Malcolm’s conversion to and work for the Nation of Islam, not because I find the NOI uninteresting, but because the incessant glorification of Elijah Muhammad made for boring reading. Fundamentalism in any of its forms always strikes me as a bit robotic and, well, soulless: all mistakes are the fault of the individual, while all glory is due to the deity of one’s choice or his (always his) earthbound representative. That doesn’t leave much room for reflection.

But that’s really a minor complaint; much more disturbing to me was the sexism. It wasn’t unexpected, but somehow I never got quite used to it. This may be because it wasn’t particularly pervasive. Women as a class were largely invisible throughout the book, so there weren’t many opportunities for their denigration. One could (and many do) make the argument that his feelings on women weren’t atypical for the time period, but I always think that’s something of a weak excuse: we can, and should, expect more from political visionaries.

That said, I don’t consider Malcolm’s sexism to be cause for condemnation. I’ve seen its equally ugly counterpart in other contexts, e.g. the racism and classism of the first- and second-wavers, and viewing these failings as part of a pattern inspired some thoughtfulness. I do think we need to resist the temptation to whitewash or even just offer a token acknowledgment of the failings of those we admire, because to do so prevents us from fully recognizing their humanity and—more importantly – the humanity of those who found their own rights and dignity sacrificed on the altar of another group’s struggle. If we elide that reality, we cause even more harm.

But excoriation seems less productive to me, if only because a hyperfocus on individual flaws diverts our attention from another, potentially more useful, conversation about the flaws of movements. Human beings die, and their potential for growth dies with them. That’s never true of a movement. Evolution is always possible. And maybe the leaders of these movements, flawed as they are, can be the impetus for that evolution if we allow their flaws to inform our understanding of power.

But that’s probably a topic for another post.

I think I’ve learned as much from the reactions to this book as I have from the book itself. To many, Malcolm X’s legacy is exactly as he predicted it would be as he faced the inevitability of his own assassination:

Each day I live as if I am already dead, and I tell you what I would like for you to do. What I am dead–I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form–I want you to just watch and see if I’m not right in what I say: that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with “hate.”

Meanwhile, in post-racial America... this still happens.

But I’ve also been surprised to see the book (and Malcolm himself) receive a fair amount of mainstream approval. Surprised because white America doesn’t generally relish confronting its own racism, which suggests to me that to the degree that we do embrace Malcolm X, it’s probably at least partially a result of misunderstanding him, whether willfully or not. And a few hours spent reading reviews on Amazon and Goodreads confirmed my suspicion that, at least to some, this book is in fact a cautionary tale. Not about the legacy of racism, slavery and exploitation in the U.S. and elsewhere—or at least not only about that—but about the supposed excesses of the black liberation movement.

According to those who hold this view, Malcolm X is admirable not because he spoke for blacks who felt that the civil rights movement didn’t truly represent them, or because he forced liberal whites to confront their complicity in upholding racist power structures, or because he challenged the idea that passive non-violent resistance is the only path to justice. No: he’s admirable because he “evolved,” which is here defined as “became less hostile towards whites, thereby allowing us to avoid engaging with white supremacy in any fundamental way.” His assassination is held up as the regrettable but unavoidable outcome of a life spent sowing hatred, and the tragedy lies only in the fact that he was forced to reap that hatred just as he’d come to denounce it. How many of us elevate him only because he’s made it safe for us to do so? Are we just taking what we needed from him and discarding the rest?

Maybe. But I think we’re capable of more. We have the ability, and the responsibility, to engage with Malcolm X’s life and death in a way that precludes comfort or reassurance.

Because if we aren’t allowing his words to challenge us, we aren’t listening carefully enough.

  1. Dani says:

    I do kind of enjoy though the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. grew toward Malcolm X’s better-known philosophies as he got older. It’s like they are superheroes who were turning into each other.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Yeah, the comparison between Dr. King and Malcolm X is an interesting one. I just picked up this book at a used bookstore last week and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

    It seems that we view the two of them as polar opposites to a degree which isn’t always supported by reality. Dr. King had some pretty radical views on economic justice and socialism which we tend to sanitize to make him safer for public consumption, and we ignore the complexity of pre-Mecca Malcolm’s views on segregation and black pride and vilify him as a symbol of “hatred” because he’s useful to us as a foil for Dr. King. We like to have a hero and a villain, accuracy be damned.

  3. Stephanie says:

    Oh, and yes, this:

    “It’s like they are superheroes who were turning into each other.”

    I love that.

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