I first became acquainted with Malcolm X’s life through the movie by the same name starring Denzel Washington. I found it intriguing but it didn’t really fire me up then. I later bought an autobiography of Malcolm X written by one of his followers named Benjamin Karim. It changed my life. I was inspired by the way Malcolm X transformed his life from being a criminal to become one of the most intelligent black men in America and leading lights of the Civil Rights Movement. I was intrigued by the way Malcolm X transformed his life, studying in prison and reading the dictionary from A – Z. From that point on, I decided that I too would transform my life through study.
If you haven’t read The Autobiography Of Malcolm X by Alex Haley, I strongly recommend you do. It offers an intriguing insight into one of the most intelligent, powerful and outspoken black men of the Twentieth Century. It is written in the first person narrative and provides an intimate glimpse into the life of Malcolm X, charting his early life shortly before he is orphaned after his father is murdered by the Ku Klux Klan for spreading the teachings of the United Negro Improvement Association which was formed by Marcus Mosiah Garvey. The young Malcolm is later placed with foster parents after his mother suffers a mental breakdown due to the death of her husband and the consequent problems she faces trying to raise a large family.
The book then follows Malcolm X early life living in the care of the state and the various challenges he faces with racism which culminates in him dropping from school in the eight grade after a white teacher tells him that his dream of being a lawyer is not a realistic goal for a nigger. His teacher’s advice drives the young Malcolm to join his half sister Ella in Harlem where he learns about life in the city. He works a few jobs before he eventually drifts into a life of criminality and adopts the moniker Red which later changes to Detroit Red.
He provides a very colourful narrative of the times and some of the colourful characters he meets along the way such as the great comedian Red Foxx. It is here that he picks up a number of bad habits as he admits:
“The first liquor I drank, my first cigarettes, even my first reefers, I can’t specifically remember. But I know they were all mixed together with my first shooting craps, playing cards, and betting my dollar a day on the numbers, as I started hanging out at night with Shorty and his friends.”
It is also around this time that he gets his first conk and zoot suit, spelling his spiral down into a fast life of crime. Malcolm X eventually ends up selling drugs, carrying guns and housebreaking. After a few brushes with death, he ends up in jail. It is in jail when he comes across a criminal named Bimbi who intrigues him. He makes such an impression on Malcolm that he begins to review his life. Malcolm describes the effect Bimbi has on him:
“He would have a cluster of people riveted, often on odd subjects you never would think of. He would prove to us, dipping into the science of human behavior, that the only difference between us and outside people was that we had been caught. He liked to talk about historical events and figures. When he talked about the history of Concord, where I was to be transferred later, you would have thought he was hired by the Chamber of Commerce, and I wasn’t the first inmate who had never heard of Thoreau until Bimbi expounded upon him. Bimbi was known as the library’s best customer. What fascinated me with him most of all was that he was the first man I had ever seen command total respect… with his words.”
It is after advice from Bimbi and Malcolm’s sister that he finally enrols for a correspondence course in English. He finds it difficult because the streets had erased all the stuff Malcolm learnt in the eighth grade so he has to start from the beginning. He also enrols on a course in Latin and under Bimbi’s guidance he eventually begins to build up his knowledge.
Malcolm is later transferred to another prison in 1948. It is at this time that his older brother Philbert writes to him informing him of the Nation of Islam. His other brother Reginald also writes to him instructing him to stop smoking cigarettes and eating pork because he is also a member of the NOI. His decision to quit pork causes a stir in the prison and the rebirth of Malcolm X begins. He strikes up correspondence with the Honourable Elijah Muhammad where he learns more about Islam and the horrors the Black Man has suffered in America,including his brainwashing. This strengthens his belief. He devotes himself to studying Islam and begins the long road to transformation as Malcolm puts it in his own words:
“I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Muhammad’s teachings, my correspondence, my visitors-usually Ella and Reginald-and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.”
After release, Malcolm doesn’t look back and becomes an active member of the Nation of Islam. It is still a relatively small movement and Malcolm is dissatisfied with its membership. He requests permission from the Honourable Elijah Muhammad to go “fishing” for new recruits on the streets. Because of his experience as a hustler on the streets, Malcolm X is successful in winning new recruits and eventually helps to grow the membership of NOI.
He relates how one particular incident brought him to the attention of the authorities and the press. A Muslim brother has been beaten by racist white policemen and detained. Malcolm X and a number of Muslims in crisp suits march in a disciplined military style down the street, stopping traffic until they reach the police station where the brother iss detained. The gathered crowd is in the mood for a riot. However, Malcolm X demands to talk to the chief of police and negotiates with the police. After they reach an agreement to take the brother to hospital, he disperses the crowd with a single wave of his hand. The police are astonished by his power. The Muslim brother later goes on to win a record compensation from the police force with Malcolm X assisting him and so begins his meteoric rise to fame.
The Autobiography Of Malcolm X continues to chart his rise and courting of the media while he represents the Honourable Elijah Muhammad. It takes us through his gruelling media appearances, talks and speeches at colleges and universities, taking us to the moment of his suspension and expulsion from the Nation of Islam. Malcolm goes on to narrate about his association with Cassius Clay and his preparation for his big fight with Sonny Liston. Clay later goes on to become the new world heavyweight champion of the world and changes his name to Muhammad Ali. He declares to the world that he is a Muslim.
The later stages of The Autobiography Of Malcolm X breaks down Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca and Africa and his transformation that would change his views and the trajectory of his life including his embrace of orthodox Islam and his views of white people. It was on his pilgrimage that he had the new vision of the movement [Organisation of African Unity] he was going to set up and focus more on the civil rights movement and fight for Black Liberation. He also narrates his encounters with some of the most powerful men in Saudi Arabia and Africa such as Kwame Nkrumah [former President of Ghana]. The book ends with an afterword by Alex Haley breaking down his relationship with Malcolm X and their collaboration on the autobiography.
The Autobiography Of Malcolm X provides an insight into one of the most engaging leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and puts the times and fight into perspective, giving us glimpses of various players such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr. and others who were also involved in the struggle. It makes great reading as a story or the personal testimony of a man who was in search of the truth and freedom. The book helps us to understand Malcolm X’s motivations and what led him to become the man he was at various stages of his life. The autobiography gets us into the mindset of what it meant to be a Black Muslim and provides a perspective of how it grew to become such a powerful movement.
Most importantly, The Autobiography Of Malcolm X dispels the media image of the demagogue, racist, violent man with clenched teeth calling for violence against white people. Rather, it provides an articulate message illustrating the injustice black people suffered for over 300 years in America and Malcolm X’s story illustrates that injustice through his narrative. The autobiography puts Malcolm X’s militant speeches into perspective and puts many of his quotes such as “by any means necessary” into context. After reading this narrative, you cannot fail to understand how the media distorted both the message and image of Malcolm X to achieve their own means.
The Autobiography Of Malcolm X is an important historical text which provides an insight into the life of an icon of the Civil Rights struggle plus a conclusive historical account of America from a different perspective. It annihilates the single story. It is a fun way of learning and understanding that history. The autobiography is very inspirational and it is one of those accounts you will definitely want to come back to again and again. It illustrates how you can change your life if you put your mind to it and Malcolm X is living testament to it. I give it six stars out of five. Read it and you will understand why. The Autobiography Of Malcolm X is a book every young black man should read and it will make a wonderful present for someone this festive season. Get it!