Sunday, October 11, 2020

Review: The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley

 Rating: 4/5 stars

There were parts of The Autobiography of Malcolm X that I really struggled with, but overall, it was an interesting peak into a fascinating man whose premature death was really a loss for the world.

I wish that I had known before reading it that the autobiography was written during the years before and after his split from the cult-like hate group Nation of Islam, and about how much his views and rhetoric changed during the last couple years of his life. I found the surprisingly uncritical chapters extolling the virtues of Mr Mohammad/Nation of Islam to be rather tedious while I was reading it; but the later chapters, written after his split from the NoI and after his trip to Mecca (and his shifting viewpoints as relayed by Alex Haley in his epilogue) more than redeemed these chapters. Malcolm X was a thoughtful man with a lot of integrity and an admirable and assiduous capacity for reflection and change and the humility to admit error. This autobiography captured this period of dynamism beautifully.

I found Malcolm X's rhetoric towards women to be off-putting; towards the end of his Harlem period, I found it so pervasive and unquestioning that I considered putting down the book. At the encouragement of a friend, I sought out some writing by Black feminists to see how they interpreted the paternalism, sexism and misogyny of Malcolm X. I read several essays that helped me feel less alone and frustrated in struggling with this part of his autobiography, and contextualized his opinions. For example, at the time of his death/autobiography, Malcolm X was a devout Muslim, and it's likely he wished to portray publicly the (hierarchical) family structure recommended by his religious beliefs. However, Betty Shabazz's recollection of their marriage was far more equal than Malcolm's recount:

We would have little family talks. They began at first with Malcolm telling me what he expected of a wife. But the first time I told him what I expected of him as a husband it came as a shock. After dinner one night he said, "Boy, Betty, something you said hit me like a ton of bricks. Here I've been going along having our little workshops with me doing all the talking and you doing all the listening." He concluded our marriage should be a mutual exchange.

Still, it is always odd to see someone so good at identifying power imbalances and stereotyping and the impact of a lifetime of oppression on someone's behavior and psyche..... so unable to translate those insights from one social justice issue to another.

Malcolm X's curiosity about the world and his impressive ability to identify social dynamics and deftly argue his opinions shone through this book - particularly in the first few chapters about his upbringing and the final third of the book about his disillusionment with the NoI and his visit to Mecca. Many of his observations were not entirely new to me; there has been a ton of fantastic writing about the overt and subtle ways racism manifests in America in the five-and-a-half decades since the writing of this autobiography. Many insights were just painfully relevant to 2020 discourse:

[W]hite people have created a benevolent image of themselves as having had so much “good-will toward our Negroes,” every time any “local Negro” begins suddenly letting the local whites know the truth—that the black people are sick of being hind-tit, second-class, disfranchised, that’s when you hear, uttered so sadly, “Unfortunately now because of this, our whites of good-will are starting to turn against the Negroes….It’s so regrettable…progress was being made…but now our communications between the races have broken down!”

In a [press poll after the March on Washington], not one Congressman or Senator with a previous record of opposition to civil rights said he had changed his views. What did anyone expect? How was a one-day “integrated” picnic going to counter-influence these representatives of prejudice rooted deep in the psyche of the American white man for four hundred years?


Where the really sincere white people have got to do their “proving” of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is—and that’s in their own home communities; America’s racism is among their own fellow whites. That’s where the sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have got to work.

Malcolm X, circa 1964/1965, would probably be the first to caution against holding any one human being up as an ideal, and he was certainly a flawed person. Still, I came away from the autobiography just incredibly frustrated at how he has been portrayed in the years since his death, and saddened that he wasn't allowed a few more years on this world to change it.

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