Alex Hailey - Autobiography of Malcolm X

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Why The Movie Isn't Enough

Jul 7, 2005 (Updated Jul 7, 2005)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:amazing story, easy to read, powerful stuff

Cons:language, some blurring between injustice and the man's own built-in prejudices

The Bottom Line: This is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the Civil Rights movement from the trenches, not from the privileged suburbia that produced MLK.


This is a remarkable book. It's a story told with urgency, by a man who knows he's marked for death. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the story of the legendary civil-rights icon, as told to Alex Haley, who shared his notes with Minister Malcolm before publication, to get it right.

And yes, the book is better than the film.

Where Spike Lee narrowed the focus, dropping facts and compositing characters to "streamline" a film that plays out like mythmaking at its finest, the book goes out of its way to "tell it all" - or at least all Malcolm could remember. And he remembered a lot more than you'd think.

AMX begins in the final days before Malcolm X's murder by henchmen from the Nation of Islam, an organization he helped take worldwide, an organization he practically put on the map, an organization that didn't flinch before deciding that Minister Malcolm had to go - six feet under.

As if he'd know it was a great opening for a movie, the jittery Malcolm tells the long tale of how he went from obscurity to stardom, and from street-hustler cynicism to innocence and from innocence to despair, and then hope, for a wider world than the one he had traveled - either as Detroit Red or Malcolm X.

When he died, he was El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and he had a dream, too.

I don't want to retell the whole story but the early facts are these. Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little, the son of a proud follower of Marcus Garvey, the famous African nationalist who dreamed of a world of African businesses, African independence and an African renaissance - all before his shoddy business practices made it easy for the feds to prosecute him, and then deport him back to Jamaica.

Fearing his father's preachings, the Nebraska Klan terrorized his family and tried to burn down his house. When his father held them off with a shotgun, he later ended up dead - bashed in the skull and run over by a street car, with his hands tied behind his back. The insurance company ruled it a suicide and refused to pay off the claim. Left with a house full of children to raise on her own, Malcolm's mother slowly succumbed to depression. As Malcolm and his brothers got into more and more trouble, state welfare people began to ship the kids off to relatives and then foster homes.

Malcolm's life would never be the same.

This is the kind of information Spike Lee's film delivers in flashbacks, from a storyline set in the last days of freedom for "Detroit Red," Malcolm's street identity. It was a name he earned in part because of the conk he put in his hair - that burned his scalp. But it was also because Malcolm was lighter than the other children (a trait he despised). While the rest of the family gave him preferential treatment - out of deference for the authority of the white man - Malcolm's mother took a dimmer view toward what she called the traces of the white man who had raped her mother. Malcolm's hair was red.

Here, the story is told in greater depth and with less concern for hammering the theme of a three-hour film. Malcolm ended up in somewhat privileged circumstances, in part because of his lighter tone and in part because of his raw, marvelous intelligence. As a youth, he had dreamed of being a lawyer, but was discouraged from doing so by a white school teacher (at a prep school where he was the token negro). Going by the "conventional wisdom" of a segregated America, his teacher suggested he learn a trade. It was another one of those moments of pain that would turn Malcolm into Detroit Red.

Malcolm dropped out of school, went through a series of foster homes and eventually ended up with his older sister, Ella, who lived in Boston. He got work as a shoeshiner, which got him close to some of his heroes, including Duke Ellington.

But it was in Harlem where he would become a hustler, known as Detroit Red. He ran numbers, lived with hookers, got into all kinds of trouble - and carried a gun. One of his mentors was Shorty, who, in a way, taught Malcolm how to "be black" - and fit in. Another was West Indian Archie, a numbers runner who kept everything locked inside that magnificent brain of his. Detroit Red became Boston Red, before becoming Washington Red, and getting a job on a commuter train between Washington, New York and Boston.

In Malcolm's world of the streets, life turned on a dime. He had to be quick on his feet, ever the hustler, ready to play a hustle, throw a punch or run for his life. He was enamored with the hustling, bustling world of Harlem - whose population seemed so much more sophisticated than their less urbane counterparts. But Malcolm's impulsiveness - and stupidity - would outrun his luck. He'd end up at odds with West Indian Archie, who wanted him dead over a disputed win Malcolm claimed he had hit, but Archie couldn't verify. On the run, Malcolm ended up burgling houses in the Harvard area, before being busted and sent up.

As Malcolm saw it, it wasn't the burgling that hung him out to dry. It was his preference for white women. Malcolm had developed a reputation as a dapper guy, and a good dancer, who could have his pick of the ladies. Given a choice between a "nice, clean girl" he'd go for the edge, in this case, a white woman named Sophia, whom he secretly despised because of her weakness for black men.

In Malcolm's prison-house lawyer's knowledge of sentencing, the burglaries should have gotten him time, but not ten years. What killed him was the corruption of two white girls by himself and Shorty, by involving them in their crimes (They used the white women to find easy marks). And so, before he could realize what had happened, the days of Detroit Red were over.

One of the facts you won't find mentioned in the Spike Lee movie, but comes up here in the book, is the help Malcolm got from relatives, even when going up the river. Through their assistance, Malcolm went from serious ugly lock-up to at least a milder form of the same thing. It was while he was in prison that his family sent him letters, telling him of what they had found in the Nation of Islam, a cult established by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, a follower of Wallace Fard Muhammad (a/k/a Wallace Dodd Ford, a/ka/ Wallace Dodd).

The movie never really prepares the viewer for just how sinister and criminal this organization really was. Instead, Spike Lee, like a Gospel writer of old, is more interested in poking fingers at the Feds, who kept close tabs on Malcolm and the Nation, for reasons that are not unlike their tracking of lots of disenchanted groups today.

Perhaps it's a projection of how Malcolm saw things, for in his view, the Feds were out to get him for "telling the truth about the white man," a compelling truth about racial injustice and complacency, couched within a world of comic-book nonsense about black divinity, white devils, the creation of the first white people by an evil scientist and a spaceship waiting to destroy all white people at the appointed time. Following a murder scandal, Fard disappeared - though it's still unclear whether he fled the country or was killed by his disciple, Robert Poole, who went by the name of The Prophet Elijah Muhammad.

Whatever the case, Malcolm received the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad while in prison, and his conversion was so powerful, it changed the street hustler into a man with a mission. Diving into the writings of Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm reeducated himself, even reading and rereading the dictionary as a source of divine truth. When he left prison, he ceased to be Malcolm Little and became Malcolm X.

It was within the Nation of Islam that Malcolm X found a rehabilitative post-prison occupation. Treating his newfound faith like a career, he spent countless hours, preaching and teaching, hustling and promoting, to fill Detroit's Temple Number One. Promoted by Elijah Muhammad, he went off to organize Temple Number Two, and eventually became the spokesman for the Nation of Islam.

What probably made Malcolm stand out was a gift for public speaking, and an instinct for combat. Rather than running from a fight, Malcolm charged toward it, with a conviction that impressed the people of Boston, Washington and Harlem. In a world where the sound bite was still a concept in progress, Malcolm X picked his battles with shrewdness - and with rhetoric designed to make front pages and top stories. In an 11-year period, he is credited for helping the Nation of Islam grow from 500 members (in 1952) to 30,000 (in 1963).

But Malcolm's prominence got him into trouble with the other ministers, who were jealous of the attention he was getting. In fact, behind the scenes, it was Elijah Muhammad who was most concerned, fearing that Malcolm would threaten his position as the head of the movement. Following the death of JFK, Malcolm X referred to it as "chickens coming home to roost" and that "Chickens coming home to roost never made me sad. It only made me glad." The comment, which caused a public outcry, led to his censure by the Nation of Islam, and a 90-day ban from public speaking.

Malcolm took the heat and remained faithful to Elijah Muhammad. But what caused him greater difficulty were rumors of affairs between Elijah Muhammad and various young women. Investigating the rumors, Malcolm X discovered them to be true, a fact he at first tried to defend but eventually came to see for what it was.

In 1964, Malcolm announced a break with the Nation of Islam to form his own New York City group, Muslim Mosque, Inc. Later that year, he flew to Egypt and took the hajj, or spiritual pilgrimmage to Mecca, where he had an epiphany of sorts. Aided through a series of misadventures involving bureaucratic red tape, Malcolm saw Muslims in Mecca who were of every race - with whites and blacks worshipping together in harmony. As it would turn out, Malcolm X would never be the same.

Taking up a new name – El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) - Malcolm X returned to New York to announce the founding of a whole new organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. This group would be open to people of all faiths to bring justice and hope to black people everywhere.

It was a great idea, but he never lived to see it flower. Throughout 1964 and 1965, Malcolm became a man on the run. His home was firebombed. His life was threatened. He never knew, from moment to moment, which friend of his would turn against him.

As the book's epilogue tells us, Malcolm X was gunned down on February 21, 1965, while giving a speech in Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom. Three young men were charged and convicted of the murder, though it's still unclear whether the conspiracy stopped with them.

It's fascinating to read the words of Malcolm X, particularly during the last moments of his life, when he felt like a rabbit on the run. It's hard not to see the parallels between his life and that of Jesus of Nazareth, who also saw his time drawing to a close, felt the sting of betrayal and ended up run over by political intrigue between an occupying power and the sibling rivalry of jealous conspirators within his own community.

I have often considered this a terrific book for anyone, especially young people trying to get a sense of the world. Malcolm is so open and honest about his convictions and his shortcomings. At the same time, where fact blurs into paranoia or prejudice, that part of the man is also present. Malcolm X was no saint, but he was certainly a man with observations that survive him and inspire others - both black and white - to build a better world. His demise is also a reminder that life is a jungle, one where telling the good guys from the bad guys is easier said than done.


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