Malcolm X is a figure prominent in discourses of Black Power in the USA, and across the world, having described himself as the “angriest black man in America”.
His autobiography, written with Alex Haley, is a key piece of literature that provides insight into the life of a central figure in the Civil Rights movement.
Malcolm documents his life from his childhood in Nebraska, where his family experienced harassment from the terror group, the Ku Klux Klan, to being incarcerated and eventually a prolific member of the Nation of Islam. The book makes for an interesting read, vividly recounting the struggles he and those around him suffered at the hands of an anti-black USA, and how he turned his head towards activism. His activism is contextualised by the struggles he suffered, first-hand, as a black man in this setting, as well as by his avid interest in reading, reading anything that would give him insight into the workings of the world. He did this during his stay in prison, where he specifically began to read about the horrors of slavery, learning of black history around the world, and contextualising this knowledge in relation to his own experiences.
Born in Nebraska, Malcolm X moved to Michigan at an early age where family tragedy left Malcolm and his siblings to enter foster care. Following imprisonment in 1946, Malcolm X embraced the teachings of Nation of Islam, which promoted black self-reliance and freedom from white domination. However, Malcolm X became disillusioned with the teachings of the Nation, converting to Sunni Islam. In 1965, Malcolm was shot dead, leaving his autobiography as his sole published work.
For many, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was instrumental to their politicisation. As author and University of Manchester chancellor Lemn Sissay reflects, “Malcolm X’s autobiography didn’t change me, it saved me”. Malcolm X articulated an anger at the dehumanisation black citizens in the USA experienced. His anger, and importantly his determination as an activist, is one we can relate and aspire to as time moves on. However, his autobiography is not only an indictment of a fundamentally unequal and unjust society – it also is a tale of self-discovery and evolution. The reader accompanies Malcolm’s recollections alongside him, from the behaviours of Detroit Red, to the divisive preaching of Minister Malcolm X, and finally as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, who took Mecca as an example of the possibilities of racial integration.
It is an honest and open autobiography. Malcolm X does not shy away from the less idealised behaviours of his past. The reader is given the backdrop to understand his journey in becoming an activist and devout Muslim.
Towards the end of his autobiography, Malcolm predicted his own demise, but concluded, “If I can die having brought any light, having exposed any meaningful truth that would help to destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America – then, all the credit is due to Allah. Only the mistakes have been mine.”
He also accredits books as tools of power, with another of his memorable quotes being “Read absolutely everything you get your hands on because you’ll never know where you’ll get an idea from”. Self-sufficiency requires books, because without them, you cannot truly get a wider understanding of the cultural and socio-political landscape we occupy at any time.
Fifty-four years later, The Autobiography of Malcolm X continues to shed light on the nature of US racism.