The Autobiography of Malcolm X (As Told to Alex Haley)

“When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night.”

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925.  He was the fourth of seven children, his father being an outspoken Baptist speaker.  The family relocated to Lansing, Michigan where they were targets of attacks of the Black Legion, a racist group led by whites.  Before Malcolm’s seventh birthday, his father was killed in a streetcar accident, but rumours of the Black Legion’s involvement were rife.  When a relationship with a man she was dating deteriorated, Malcolm’s mother had a breakdown and was placed in a mental asylum where she remained for 24 years.  At fourteen, he began to get involved in all sorts of illegal activity, from gambling, hustling, drug dealing, racketeering, pimping, etc in New York City.  He became a thug and a criminal, hanging out at music halls and smoking “reefers”, living a wild life on the edge:

“Looking back, I think I really was at least slightly out of my mind.  I viewed narcotics as most people regard food.  I wore my guns as today I wear my neckties.  Deep down I actually believed that after living as fully as humanly possible, one should then die violently.  I expected then, as I still expect today, to die at any time.  But then, I think I deliberately invited death in many, sometimes insane ways.”

Finally at 20 years old, an attempted robbery landed the young man in prison, where he finally discovered through one of his brothers, the “natural religion of the black man”, the Nation of Islam.  Through their prophet Elijah Muhammed, a new history of the black man was revealed:  600 years ago everyone was black but a “Mr. Yacub”, a scientist with a large head decided to break the peace.  Exiled to Patmos (the same island were the Apostle John lived when he wrote Revelations), Yacub, embittered towards Allah, made a race of “bleached-out white people” through his followers.  In two hundred years the black people were eliminated, two hundred more and the brown people followed, then two hundred each for the red people and the yellow people (yes, the math doesn’t add up, but I’m just repeating the story).  The new white people were like animals, walking on all fours and living in trees and it was two hundred years before they returned to civilization and made it a living hell.  All the black people’s problems stemmed from this “devil white race”.  History had been completely rewritten by the white man.  X also figured out that because the King James Bible was considered the ultimate in English and the King had poets write it, Shakespeare must have written it.  So in Malcolm X’s mind, King James used the alias of Shakespeare and wrote the Bible to “enslave the world”.   And thus, Malcolm X began to correspond with his siblings & Elijah Muhammend, read any book he could to support his position and to recruit for the NOI (Nation of Islam).  He was successful with converting some followers, but the majority thought their tenants strange, to say the least, and rejected his overtures.

Malcolm X before a press
conference (1954)
source Wikipedia

Malcolm X despised the white race, but he also showed extreme antipathy towards the black elite, or any black person who did not agree with him, calling them brainwashed by the white people, including Martin Luther King, Jr. whom he labelled a puppet of the white establishment.

“Why you should hear those Negroes attack me, trying to justify, or forgive the white man’s crimes!  These Negroes are people who bring me nearest to breaking one of my principal rules which is never to let myself become over-emotional and angry.  Why, sometimes I’ve felt I ought to jump down off that stand and get physical with some of those brainwashed white man’s tools, parrots, puppets.”

Yet with his evangelizing, NOI numbers slowly grew.  His met his wife, Sister Betty X, at his temple and after they were married, she became a good Muslim wife to him, caring for their children and supporting his ministry.  When questioned about his religious philosophy and its proclivity for spreading hatred, the people questioning him would immediately become “breathing living devils” and X would immediately go on the attack, claiming the white man was in no moral position to accuse anyone else of hatred, or he would accuse them of attacking his people because they were black.  As an artist might work in oils, Malcolm X worked in logical fallacies, painting his rhetorical and philosophical landscapes with circular reasoning, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, appeals to fear, tu quoque, and the straw man.

After years of working as Elijah Mohammed’s front man and “minister”, Malcolm X began to act more independently.  Praise was always given to Mohammed, but there were suspicions that his actions were not always pleasing to his superior and that the NOI head resented his subordinate’s popularity.  When Mohammed was accused of sexual impropriety with NOI secretaries, a serious breach of the rules of Islam, Malcolm X attempted to justify his behaviour.  However, with Malcolm X releasing inappropriate comments after John Kennedy’s assassination, in spite of a NOI ban on commenting, the leader felt X had become too independent and prohibited his public speaking for 90 days.  Malcolm X finally left the organization, founding Muslim Mosque, Inc. and in 1964 made a pilgrimmage to Mecca where he was astounded to see believers of all colours. It was the beginning of a change within the charismatic leader and when he returned to the States, there was tone moderation in some of his discourses.

“Yes —- I wrote a letter from Mecca.  You’re asking me ‘Didn’t you say that now you accept white men as brother?’  Well, my answer is that in the Muslim World, I saw, I felt, and I wrote home how my thinking was broadened!  Just as I wrote, I shared true, brotherly love with many white-complexioned Muslims who never gave a single thought to the race, or to the complexion, of another Muslim …….  In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people.  I never will be guilty of that again — as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man.  The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against black ….. (it) was the first time I ever had been able to think clearly about the basic divisions of white people in America, and how their attitudes and their motives related to, and affected Negroes.”

He finally saw that it wasn’t “the American white man who is a racist, but … the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourished a racist psychology in the white man.” His inclusion now did not only cross the boundaries of race but also religion and political philosophy.  Suddenly Malcolm X began to get an inkling that his previous experiences which formed his views might have been based on ignorance, and he strove for a change.  Finally, we see a man struggling with new ideas that perhaps are trying to kick the old ones aside, as he tried to merge his new identity with the old one.  And we get a glimpse of some perhaps insightful self-examination:

“For the freedom of my 22 million black brothers and sisters here in America, I do beliee that I have fought the best that I knew how, and the best that I could, with the short-comings that I have had.  I know that my shortcomings are many.”

Malcolm X defends his house
Photo from Ebony magazine
source Wikipedia

In spite of his new outlook and more moderate thinking, Malcolm X’s rhetoric did not noticably change, other than the added sprinkling of more impartial comments.  It would have been interesting to see where this new-wakening would have taken him but it was not to be.  He knew his time was running out, as his divide with NOI had stirred a pot of vipers.

“Every morning when I wake up, now, I regard it as having another borrowed day.  In any city, wherever I go, making speeches, holding meetings of my organization, or attending to other business, black men are watching every move I make, awaiting their chance to kill me.  I have said publicly many times that I know that they have their orders.  Anyone who chooses not to believe wht I am saying doesn’t know the Muslims in the Nation of Islam …..  each day I live as if I am already dead …..”

In an epilogue added by Alex Haley, we learn of Malcolm X’s demise.  At a conference in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, while addressing the Organization of Afro-American unity, Malcolm X was shot multiple times by three men rushing the stage.  He was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital with 21 bullet holes in his body. The three men, Nation of Islam members, were arrested and imprisoned for his murder.

✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥

This book is brutally appalling and without encouragement from Ruth, I would probably not have finished it.  The vicious hatred and counter-disease of racial prejudice was so palpable it was nearly unbearable, being very similar to Hilter’s discourses in Mein Kampf.  Personally, while I could never condone hatred, I could at least understand animosity against a person who had perpetrated an horrible act against him.  But I couldn’t understand the savage hatred against people who had never done a thing to him but only shared the same colour of skin as those who had oppressed his people.  As I read his speeches and invectives, I did not feel like Malcolm X was speaking for his people; he was simply mentally creating a situation that he wanted to believe and acted on it, his own philosophy being more important than the people he was trying to vindicate.  It was only in the latter part of the book that his views began to be adjusted, and it would have been interesting to learn if they would have become even more moderate and inclusive with time.  Sadly, we will now never know.

The most interesting part of the biography was the epilogue written by Alex Haley. Through him we get a sense of Malcolm X, a man who was distrustful of everyone around him, including himself.  Even his friends were seen a partial enemies and his whole life was spent like a hunted animal, either from his own internal expectations, or real threatening circumstances.  Constant drama surrounded X and he appeared to need to feed on it, as one would food for sustenance.  His moods would swing from jubilant to sullen and back again.  Haley had often to lead and coax the black leader to tell about himself, luring him away frominstead of resorting to diatribes against whomever he felt conflicted with him or his views.  Yet even with the often unbalanced raving tirades and untenable attacks, there is no doubt Malcolm X had a compelling magnetism that garnered attention.

The violence through which Malcolm X lived and appeared to advocate, did not only culminate in his death but resonated throughout his family.  In 1995, his daughter Qubilah was arrested and tried for plotting the murder of Louis Farrakhan, then the leader of the Nation of Islam whom she felt bore the responsibility for her father’s murder.  Two years later, her twelve-year-old son set fire to his grandmother’s house (Betty, Malcolm X’s wife) which caused burns to over 80% of her body and caused her death.  In his 28th year he was found beaten to death in Mexico.

Perhaps Malcolm X did give a type of pride to black Americans but the stain of violence he contributed and left in his wake cannot be seen as a value to anyone as far as I’m concerned.  If those who are advocates for the oppressed act exactly the same as the oppressors, no one benefits and the prejudices and hatred are simply perpetuated.  If it is simply a matter of anger and revenge, we learn nothing.

0 thoughts on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X (As Told to Alex Haley)

  1. I did not know that last bit of info about his daughter and grandson. I wondered how Malcolm's wife died (the same year he did). How tragic. Why Farrakhan is still alive is beyond my understanding. He is such a corrupt, crooked, hate-filled man.

    I also agree with your last statement. Unfortunately, some people want to perpetuate the hate, as if they can gain from it; but it never makes one side better than the other. And I don't think they care either. Sad.

  2. brave of you to read it. stories like X's reinforce my conviction that a person's outlook and behavior are determined during childhood. it's highly unusual, i think, for mental attitudes to change later in life, as did mr. X's. a tragic life, but one appropriate to our modern society, with it's prejudices, hatred, and ignorance…

  3. I really tried to get something positive out of this book but even with his slight change of heart at the end, it was still a very bleak read. Thanks again for keeping me going!

  4. I am really really impressed that you kept at it and managed to read it till the end! You have hit the nail, when you compared this book with Mein Kampf …I mean really, the twisting of facts to suit your own deluded sense of reality is very scary, especially if such people are considered leaders! Hate always propagates hate and there is no end to it! And while I have a lot of difference of opinion with Gandhian philosophy, but I have to say that non violence and acceptance is the only way to go!

  5. His childhood certainly must have had a large effect on his outlook, but there were those with similar experiences who did not exhibit the virulent hatred, the lust for vengeance and the stubbornness he held with his views. It was really excessive. I do wish we could have seen what he would have become. Perhaps he could have turned the hatred he spent propagating into something much more positive and useful.

  6. My compliments for your 'stick-to-it' -ness….I would have abandonded the book, no, I'd never have started it in the first place. But again… bravo.

  7. I honestly almost didn't make it. Parts of it were MUCH worse than anything in Ovid. It is one thing when people delude themselves for power only, but when they are so deluded that they truly believe in their unbalanced objectives, it's very unsettling to say the least.

  8. Reading later biographies like this one have made it so apparent that there is a decided lack of hope and anything positive that people can grasp on to in modern times. It's very bleak and despairing. The faith in the earlier biographies was so uplifting and even when faith started to wane, somehow people still had something positive to hold on to. With the absence of faith there seems to be a real disconnect with forgiveness and empathy for others, and also the realization of our own failings that I think keep us balanced. I'll have to think more about it, but those are the thoughts that have struck me so far.

  9. deep thoughts, and true… one of the things Confucius had to say about maintaining the status quo of a society was that ritual of some sort was imperative, whether it's religion, science, nature, whatever, there must be something for the people to look up to….

  10. C.S. Lewis says, "Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil", and I think this statement is very true. And as useful as science is, I think we have made the mistake of intentionally trying to divorce it from religion, which can rather do more harm than good.

  11. "As an artist might work in oils, Malcolm X worked in logical fallacies, painting his rhetorical and philosophical landscapes with circular reasoning, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, appeals to fear, tu quoque, and the straw man."

    I cannot stand someone who swims in currents of logical fallacies. I CAN understand people unintentionally thinking fallaciously or making fallacious statements from time to time because we are, after all, human and not perfectly logical robots. But someone who oozes fallacy after fallacy strikes me as a lazy mind, at best, and a manipulative mind, at worst.

    "But I couldn't understand the savage hatred against people who had never done a thing to him but only shared the same colour of skin as those who had oppressed his people."

    It's the "us against them" attitude that has perpetuated so many wars over the course of human history. Animals act that way in nature. Human beings should be above this. Although, I do have hope that we are beginning to evolve past this primitive notion.

    "Constant drama surrounded X and he appeared to need to feed on it, as one would food for sustenance."

    Over time, I have come to realize that many people exist that–subconsciously without their realizing–are addicted to drama, and unconsciously attract it into their lives again and again because they do not know what it's like to be drama-free; whenever things are pleasantly calm, they get bored and restless with the unfamiliarity of it.

    Excellent essay on this biography Cleo! Reading books like this is so important, as uncomfortable as they may be. The existence of these books really drive home the truth into our collective psyches, that hates begets hate, and that it leads to darkness not only for ourselves, but all those around us.

  12. a telling point, that about some liking or needing drama in their lives; possibly a substitute for intellectuality? possibly a learned behavior? a fruitful idea at any rate…

  13. Great observations as always, Kenia! Who was it that said "Know Thyself"? …… Okay, I looked it up and it was inscribed outside the temple of Apollo …. for these last few biographies I've felt that either the person didn't really know himself, or something was preventing him from getting to who he truly was.

    "Although, I do have hope that we are beginning to evolve past this primitive notion. "

    This was the principle maxim of Star Trek, and I don't think we've made much progress and in fact we might have gone backwards. The "war" is perhaps not historically recognizable in that the battle lines have shifted, but it's alive and rampant nonetheless.

    Your last paragraph gives me encouragement. At least I can draw something positive about reading this rather disturbing book!

  14. Muddlepuddle, drama as a substitute is an interesting thought. I wonder if it got him the attention he lacked from the disintegration of his family. He didn't appear to need his family as a teenager but who know what was going on in his psyche.

  15. "'Although, I do have hope that we are beginning to evolve past this primitive notion.'

    This was the principle maxim of Star Trek, and I don't think we've made much progress and in fact we might have gone backwards. The "war" is perhaps not historically recognizable in that the battle lines have shifted, but it's alive and rampant nonetheless."

    Yes, I know what you mean. I suppose it depends quite a bit on which part of the world we're looking at. As a whole though, I can see how whether we've moved forward or backward is completely up to debate. Also, I was never a huge Star Trek fan (I'm a Star Wars geek), but that IS one of the main principles of the show! Thanks for reminding me–I never got into it, but I do remember appreciating that aspect.

  16. Mudpuddle, the interesting thing about the drama addiction phenomenon is that it's truly subconscious. In other words, if one were to ask such an individual whether, deep down, there is a part of them that finds comfort in, or even likes, drama, they will outright deny it, and they will wholeheartedly believe the truth in their denial.

    Cleo, it really does come down to "know thyself." Perhaps that higher level of self-awareness was just absent.

  17. in Jungian psychology, they talk about "archetypes", meaning, in part, that humans tend to adapt certain patterns of behavior that serve to cement themselves as individuals into groups. group acceptance, as it were. for instance, in the oilfield, echelons may be establlshed, or social classes as it were, by the type of cowboy boots that are worn. floor hands, the lowest class, wear work boots while working, but don fancy cowboy boots after work to imitate the "important" owners and tool pushers, who dress in a western style as a physical manifestation of their wealth and power. man seems to need this kind of "drama" to fit in with others in the social framework. this kind of behavior seems to be ingrained while very young, and soon becomes part of the personality of most persons. "thinking outside the box" requires abandoning these familiar behaviors and using the senses to understand what is actually happening in the world around them. In Cleo's post, Malcolm seems to have achieved this in later life, or was in the process. so i think he was a bright fellow, but especially because of his violent and disrupted childhood, he was stuck in his own "gestalt" for many years. he deserves to be admired for at least trying to climb out of his box, even though he never quite got there…. imo, of course…

  18. Wow, you've finished so many lists, Carol! I often think that I'm never going to make it, but I am rather thrilled that I'll be starting my last biography from the WEM list. Again, I can't believe how much you've read! Very inspiring!

  19. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a book I have seen all my life – in libraries, book stores, thrift stores, and yard sales. And yet I have always felt a sort of aversion to it. I don't like violence or even conflict particularly. I'm so glad you had the courage to read it and have finally given me the low-down on the book. I'm glad to know what the NOI is all about. Malcolm's story is a sad one but his experience is woven deeply into the painful history of race in my country. I have always tried to be color-blind and take each person according to their individual merit. But some of my African-American friends have told me that isn't quite enough. I have to look more closely at historical context. Of course I know my friends are right. Great review!

  20. Thanks, Carol! I think your aversion is good instinct. To put it very simply, the book was a downer. Malcolm had some horrible experiences in his childhood based on race, but instead of seeing what hate could do and trying to make a difference in a positive way, he took the very thing that had broken parts of him and used it against others. I'm reading The Lord of the Rings at the moment and it reminded me of The Ring. It has great power, but Gandalf and the Fellowship (except Boromir) are wise enough to know that its power is destructive and that they should not/cannot use it for good.

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!