Solving for X: Malcolm X and White Readers

June 7, 2011 | 7 books mentioned 4 9 min read

covercoverThink of classic books by black Americans, particularly those written before the Civil Rights Movement, and you’ll come up with a lot of autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; Harriet JacobsIncidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Richard Wright’s Black Boy; and James Baldwin’s lightly fictionalized Go Tell It on the Mountain. There’s a good reason for this. From Frederick Douglass to Barack Obama, African Americans wanting to enter a national literary conversation dominated by white writers have first had to make the more basic assertion that their voices deserve to be heard, and for much of American history they have done that by telling their life stories. But for almost as long as African Americans have been writing autobiographies, white critics have been claiming the black authors didn’t write the books that bear their names. Early slave narratives often included phrases like “written by him/herself” in the title to reassure readers they were getting the straight story, and in the case of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, some scholars mistook Jacobs’ memoir for a polemical novel written by her white editor, Lydia Maria Child.

covercoverThe Autobiography of Malcolm X presents quite the opposite problem. The cover of the book states clearly that someone else – namely, Alex Haley – wrote the text, but since it was published in 1965, most readers have naturally assumed they were hearing the unfiltered voice of Malcolm X. In his new biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, the late Manning Marable argues that “[i]n many ways, the published book is more Haley’s than its author’s.” Marable claims that Haley, a liberal Republican who favored racial integration, tempered Malcolm’s more extreme positions, particularly his anti-Semitism. In addition, Marable argues, Haley helped to idealize Malcolm, smoothing over the bumps in his sometimes rocky marriage to Betty Shabazz and skirting possible homosexual behavior in Malcolm’s past as well as an adulterous affair Marable contends may have continued right up until the last night of Malcolm’s life.

coverThis is potent stuff for those who care about Malcolm X and his legacy. Marable’s biography, which has earned largely positive reviews from the mainstream press, has drawn blistering attacks from critics like Karl Evanzz, author of The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad, whose review calling the Marable book “an abomination” was so incendiary it had be withdrawn from the journal that commissioned it. But whether The Autobiography represents the true testament of a martyred black icon or a sly act of ventriloquism by his more moderate collaborator, the book presents, to my mind, a more puzzling literary conundrum: how did the story of a man who for most of his adult life considered white people “devils” become a classic beloved as much by the very white readers it attacks as by the black readers it champions?

The answer no doubt has something to do with Haley, who wrote for white-owned mainstream magazines and knew how to shape his subject’s story for a white audience. But I would argue that the book’s enduring transracial appeal has far more to do with the singular journey Malcolm X takes in the Autobiography from fiery black separatist minister who describes himself as “the angriest black man in America” to a profoundly religious man gunned down by his former followers for, among other things, daring to profess that white people are not devils. This narrative arc soothes the conscience of white readers laboring under the weight of historical guilt, putting them in the novel position of rooting for a black martyr against the forces of intolerance, and more subtly, offering them a route to racial absolution. If the “angriest black man in America” no longer hates you, the book seems to say to white people, then maybe you’re not all bad.

Whoever wrote it, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a hell of a book. First, there is the story itself, which remains in its broad outlines unscathed by Marable’s scholarly sleuthing. Malcolm Little’s father, Earl, was a Baptist minister and committed black separatist in Lansing, Michigan who was cut almost in half by a runaway streetcar – whether by accident or at the hands of racist whites, no one can say for sure. After his father’s death, Malcolm’s overwhelmed mother slowly lost her grip on reality and landed in a mental institution, causing young Malcolm to quit school after the eighth grade and strike out for the East Coast, first to Boston, and then to New York’s Harlem, where he became a pimp, drug dealer, and burglar. The memoir paints an indelible portrait of 1940s Harlem where Malcolm seemed to know everyone, from musicians Sonny Greer and Billie Holiday, to colorful hustlers like West Indian Archie, a mathematical prodigy and numbers runner capable of keeping hundreds of his customers’ lottery picks in his head without resorting to pen and paper.

Ultimately, though, the most fascinating character is Malcolm himself. By his own admission, he was a feral figure during his Harlem days, operating with “a jungle mind,” scamming everyone he met to get what he needed:

I believed a man should do anything he was slick enough, or bad or bold enough, to do, and that a woman was nothing but another commodity. Every word I spoke was hip or profane. I would bet that my working vocabulary wasn’t two hundred words. 

It is this attitude, borne out by the book’s descriptions of Malcolm’s hustler persona, that makes his later prison transformation so riveting. When he first arrives in prison, Malcolm is so angry and violent his fellow inmates call him “Satan,” but within months of his introduction to the Nation of Islam, he discovers both a deep religious faith and a latent intellectual passion. These passages, the famous scenes of Malcolm in his cell reading Spinoza by the dim light coming through the bars, are among the most memorable in the book – and, I would argue, offer clues to the enduring appeal of the book for educated white readers. For one thing, his metamorphosis from functional illiterate to world-class intellectual seems to confirm the liberal white piety that all poor black people lack is education, while at the same time taking the onus for providing this education away from white society. After all, the man was in prison. No special program was required, no tax dollars had to be expended to send him to college. All Malcolm needed – and in a certain kind of white reader’s mind, all any poor black man needs – is some time and a little self-motivation.

More subtly, though, the prison section draws educated readers because it offers them an unexpected emotional connection to an angry, uneducated black felon. I’m sure this is true for readers of all races, but it seems to me it’s uniquely true for whites, who, if they are anything like me, first encounter The Autobiography in college. The first time I read it, between my junior and senior years at NYU, I was myself awakening to a deep hunger for books and knowledge. I still remember sitting on the fire escape of my squalid shared apartment in Hoboken, reading the passage in which, discovering he can barely read, Malcolm assigns himself the task of copying the entire dictionary word for word. “I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened,” he writes,

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 the 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 a book with a wedge. 

This was deeply moving to me. This former ghetto hustler and thief could not have been more different from me, but he was experiencing the same intellectual transformation and feeling the same intellectual excitement that I was. It wasn’t just that I admired Malcolm in these passages. I wanted to be him. For fifty-odd pages, this white college kid from the California suburbs identified with – idealized, even – the angriest black man in America, and I’m going to guess I wasn’t alone.

There is, of course, a fundamental callowness in this. Malcolm was reading to save his very life, whereas I was reading to finish college and follow my parents into a secure white-collar profession. Still, the primal power of this emotional identification with Malcolm can’t be underestimated, because from the prison section onward readers like me aren’t just following the interesting adventures of a historical figure – we’re traveling with him. We feel his triumph as he races around the country establishing mosques for the Nation of Islam. We relish his public jousting matches against racist whites and “Uncle Thomases Ph.D.” Most importantly, we begin to see the world through his eyes. We go with him back to the Harlem streets he once knew and meet the ruin that West Indian Archie has become, a ghostly figure “in rumpled pajamas and barefooted” living a cheap rented room. And because we have come to trust Malcolm’s razor-sharp mind, we begin to draw the same conclusions that he does, that white people are to blame for this tragedy, and for the wider tragedy of black poverty in Harlem and around the nation. That most illogical of propositions – I am evil – begins, in the pages of Malcolm X’s memoir, to seem the only rational conclusion one could draw.

This is why the ending, both Malcolm’s abandonment of his black separatist ideology and his eventual martyrdom, is so crucial to the story’s appeal. The great enigma of the book is Malcolm’s attachment to Elijah Muhammad, the quiet, gnomic nonentity at the head of the Nation of Islam. If Malcolm is so smart, the reader wants to know, how can he be taken in by this obvious charlatan with his cockamamie racial origin theories and his sad parade of pregnant secretaries? There is, I think, a deeply personal answer to this question. The memoir begins with the death of Earl Little, whom Malcolm both feared and idealized, and Elijah Muhammad, for all his flaws, serves as the proud black father figure Malcolm lost when he was six. But it is also true that Muhammad spoke to the darkest side of Malcolm’s rage. Muhammad’s theology, with its slapdash mix of ersatz sharia law and tent-show hokum, makes no sense at all, and his political philosophy of total disengagement from white society is a dead end. But what makes sense to Inmate “Satan” locked away in a Massachusetts state prison, is the image of white people as “blue-eyed devils” bent on destroying a once proud race of black people.

coverIf the book had ended there, with Malcolm fulminating about “blue-eyed devils” and “so-called Negroes,” The Autobiography likely would have shared the fate of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, another popular 1960s memoir by a radicalized former convict, which is now little more than a museum piece. Instead, The Autobiography has sold millions of copies, inspired a major Hollywood film starring Denzel Washington, and remains even now, 46 years after its publication, a staple of college syllabi. All this, I would argue, is due to Malcolm’s final separation from the Nation of Islam.

The break with Elijah Muhammad officially followed Malcolm’s public comment that the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy was a case of “chickens coming home to roost,” but really it turned on a far more intimate matter: Muhammad, the great moral arbiter of the Nation of Islam, had impregnated a string of secretaries, including, Marable claims, one of Malcolm’s former girlfriends. Once unseated from his powerful perch in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm became The Man Who Knew Too Much, and was marked for death by his former co-religionists. His response to this betrayal displayed an almost superhuman moral courage. First, he organized a group to carry on his fight against discrimination in America, and second, he decided to take his Islamic faith seriously and make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Malcolm X’s journey to Mecca is the stuff of legend. He completed the Hajj, the ritual visit to the most holy sites in Islamic culture, and in the days leading up to it, he was treated with respect by Arabs who, had they been Americans, would have been considered white.

That morning was when I first began to reappraise the “white man.” It was when I first began to perceive that “white man,” as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it described attitudes and actions. In America, “white man” meant specific attitudes and actions toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men. But in the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been.

It is odd, to say the least, for an American in 2011 to read of devout Islam as a bastion of tolerance, and Malcolm, who knew little about the Middle East, vastly underestimates the seething tensions that have riven that part of the world for centuries. But for a white reader pre-9/11, Malcolm’s about-face on the moral capacity of white people offered an escape from the bind presented by the rest of the book. White people are not evil by nature, Malcolm now says, but become evil through social conditioning, which means that a white person can choose not to be evil.

In its content, this message is no different than the teachings of Martin Luther King and other black leaders of the period, but here it is the source that matters. Just a hundred pages earlier, when a young white woman sought Malcolm out after a speech to ask what she could do, he told her flatly, “Nothing.” Now, he says he wishes he could find that girl again and tell her what she can do, which, he emphasizes, is not to join hands with black people in the ghetto for a few rousing choruses of “We Shall Overcome.” Instead, he calls on white people to go “out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is – and that’s in their own home communities.” This, finally, is what is so potent in the story of Malcolm X for white readers: he grants us our moral agency. He is not asking for our pity. He is not asking for our money. He is asking us, in the plainest way possible, to exercise moral courage in our own lives just as he has done in his. A few dozen pages later, when he is gunned down by Nation of Islam thugs during a speech at the Audubon Ballroom, he is, in one sense, dying in the defense of the proposition that people of all races possess that moral courage, and that if they exercise it they can change the world.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022