This is one of those few books that are disappointingly difficult to review. For this reason: The man, about whom the book sets to tell his story is such a huge figure in history, and the book, even tossing aside its subject, is admirably written – by a Pulitzer winner. Worse is giving such a review fifty-five years after the first publication when so much has been said about it. One ends up -even subconsciously – calling upon the reviews and thoughts they have heard readers before them express. They indulge in an activity no less than re-inventing the wheel. Attempting to abridge such a figure, such an autobiography into a few prosaic words, and still emerge with a just review is a vain exercise. I shall shirk such an attempt from the outset. Be that as it may, I shall proceed to say in my nonetheless hackneyed words, what the book and the person were to me. I shall not fear re-inventing the wheel for this man’s own life was that of re-invention.
Malcolm’s boisterous voice rings throughout the pages of this book with great clarity and courage. He reeks defiance as a young man in the ghetto, a period when his life is sustained by drugs and theft. He daily walks on his coffin and doesn’t mind it. His petty crimes land him in prison where he converts to Islam and joins Elijah Mohammed’s Nation of Islam (an almost cultic group that preaches hatred and total separation) upon release, rising up to be the nation’s spokesman and second Minister. Credited to his efforts and influence, NOI grows a hundredfold in members and wealth. He expresses subservient support for Elijah Mohammed and his misleading stance. He literally worships Elijah Mohammed, attributing his every success in NOI to him until he realizes the man does not represent the epitome of morality to which he had held him. Things become tense between the two. Betrayal swirls in the air. His chickens have come home to roost comment leads to his silencing, one that only worsens an already deepening rift between him and the man he had once admired, a difference that sees his dismissal from NOI. Equipped with a new philosophy, following an eye-opening Hajj to Mecca, he feels equipped to start a rival religious group Muslim Mosque Incorporated, alongside a political front, the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
His final moments are volatile and laden with dilemmas. He is forced to make tough decisions, between his safety and that of his large family. He realizes he has had nothing to his name all this while. No savings. This brings in so many compromises, weakening his character.
In the final chapters of his life, Malcolm seems to have undergone a transformation. One can almost hear his waning voice. His extremist ideals are assuming a different form, sometimes almost amorphous that he himself is unable to lay hold of them. Malcolm is fluid and flexible. He actually says that he was unable to put a finger on what his philosophy was at this time. He even seems to contradict himself. But does he? No, he doesn’t. Malcolm never contradicted himself. Malcolm had one purpose. To free the black man from the white man’s oppression. To impress upon the black man his own importance, his self worth and he was willing to do this by any means necessary. And the philosophy of NOI was all he had known for a better part of his short life. To gain perspective of Malcolm’s thinking one has to consider that this was the religion that had lifted him from the deep pits of darkness to a strong foothold in the American nation. Such a religion, such a philosophy – such a cult, that was able to transform a man that in the prisons was nicknamed Satan, a man that the devil himself would not have had under his roof couldn’t have been that bad after all. And he hoped this for the dirty black Negro that was still groping for purpose in the dark alleys of Harlem.
I set out in these final pages grudgingly – fearing what I would meet. Fearing that with such a remarkable, dramatic narration, I would clearly see Malcolm taking the fatal bullets in Audobon Ballroom. Dreading that I would hear his final words: ‘Cool it brothers, cool it’. And Ossie Davies delivering his eulogy: Here at this final hour, in this quiet place, Harlem has come to bid farewell to one its brightest hopes….Consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all… And I did. I’m not ashamed to admit that I shed tears moping over these passages. I could share in this considerable loss. I could only imagine what this moment was like for those who witnessed it. No words would have sufficed in elucidating what it was like for his widow Betty X.
Malcolm expressed what he was and thought at every stage of life with utmost sincerity. He was not afraid to look back at some of these former beliefs held and discount them. He was ready to look back, at every turn of his life, and regret his past mistakes, but not dwelling too much as to prevent him from doing what he had to at the moment.
Was Malcolm perfect? Did Haley try to represent him as such? No. Malcolm was one of the most inconsistent and mercurial personalities I have so far met. Starting out with a straitjacket philosophy of hate that had no room for any white man willing to love the black man, Malcolm died a man who was willing to consider anything workable, even if it meant unity. His purpose never changed, his strategies did. Because he wanted a solution for the black man’s problem so urgently, so badly. Malcolm died having re-invented himself a hundred times over. I believe Malcolm’s greatest strength also doubled up as his greatest weakness, one of being so loyal to NOI and being so dedicated to a single purpose. Conversely, his greatest weakness of inconsistency still was his greatest strength. Had Malcolm X not been able to adapt to his new-found knowledge of what Sunni Islam taught, I suppose, he would have only left a legacy of hatred, a legacy of pure rhetoric. He would not have met his death the same way he did. If he did, I wager it would have been a different bullet, a different set of assassins. Perhaps he would have lived longer. His flexibility allowed him to make enemies with those whom he had previously agreed with, making enemies on all fronts. In fact, in the afternoon Malcolm was assassinated, presumably by the Fruit of Islam members (the military wing of the NOI) he had intended to announce that he was retracting his earlier statements of owing his death threats to NOI. There was no way to tell how wrong he was, and how foolish he would have felt knowing this very enemy was right under his feet. Malcolm X couldn’t even tell whom his enemy was, after years of articulately preaching to the black man whom his sure single enemy was. What a tragedy!
The Autobiography of Malcolm X bears an unassailable quality. History, and more so the civil rights movement can only but be compared to a crime scene with so many conflicting witnesses. No single person, no single book can and should be able to definitely put Malcolm X where he belongs in history. Malcolm was complex, even to himself. We can only agree on a few things: Malcolm X was a man. Malcolm X was forthright. Malcolm X was ready to re-arrange his thought-patterns previously held and toss aside his previous conclusions.. Malcolm captured the imagination of the black world and redefined the civil rights movement. His was a life of re-invention.
Few men will be able to lay a just claim to the character and personality that was Malcolm X. Few books will be written to the stature of what The Autobiography of Malcolm X is.■