Not only has VIDA released its 2014 numbers, including its first count of women writers of color, but the organization has also published a handout: “Things You Can Do Right Now To Advance Women’s Writing.” The value of the VIDA count (which this year showed more improvement but also persistently low representation of women writers at some publications) has been questioned since it was first produced in 2009. All along the VIDA organizers have insisted that the numbers are intended to spark a wider discussion about why women’s perspectives are undervalued and how change can be effected. Their new list of recommendations is a tangible effort to encourage that change.
The list comprises many sensible actions, encouraging women writers to submit their work “everywhere” and readers to “buy more books by women.” At least one of the recommendations has been challenged by Phoebe Maltz Bovey at The New Republic, specifically the call to writers to “have your female characters say and do important things.” Echoing Katie Roiphe, Bovey argues that telling women they should write about “important” subjects perpetuates the problem that “the small-stakes narratives coming from female authors aren’t treated as serious literature.” Meanwhile white men are given the latitude to write about anything and are treated more seriously, whatever they write about.
Bovey is right, although I doubt the VIDA people were trying to be prescriptive about what writers write. However, her argument raises larger issues about what kind of literature we value and touches on one of the other recommendations in the handout, specifically that teachers “teach books written by diverse authors and featuring diverse characters.” As a professor of American literature who has contributed to the recovery of women writers and argued for their inclusion in the canon, I could not agree more. But it’s not that simple, for the message sent to women that what they are writing isn’t important or serious enough is not a new one. It is as old as literature itself. And its persistence has everything to do with how women’s literature is treated in college and university classrooms and, in turn, how it is treated in the literary world.
According to the VIDA website, the organization began with an email from Cate Marvin that asked, in part, “Has anyone else noticed all these incredibly accomplished women writers whose work seems to go consistently unnoticed and unrewarded by the American literary establishment?” The roots of the problem are deep, as many have indicated. Some have pointed to the largely male cadre of editors running the major magazines and thus assigning book reviews. Others to the classification of women’s literature as “chick lit,” or to its relegation to what Meg Wolitzer called, almost exactly three years ago, “The Second Shelf.”
The real issue, of course, is not the numbers, although they are important. The underlying issue is how we decide what writing has value. For so long as the lives and experiences of women and people of color are undervalued, so will their writing be.
One respondent to Wolitzer’s article called for the end to the gendering of children’s literature, for not only do boys stay away from girl’s stories, but so do “girls come to accept that boys are uninterested in stories by or about women.” The issue is complicated, of course, by many women’s desire to promote stories about girls, the “strong heroine” complex that Bovey decries. But surprisingly little discussion has taken place about how the intense gendering of children’s literature embeds gendered literary preferences in our psyches.
Another respondent to Wolitzer’s article, the literary scholar Marjorie Pryse, pointed to the persistence of all-male or nearly all-male reading lists in colleges and universities. She seems to admit that her efforts (and others’) to revise the canon to include more women and people of color have not yielded substantial results. I would agree. I hear regularly from my students that the vast majority of their literature courses include almost no women’s writing, let alone that of writers of color. One told me just last week that her Victorian literature class had only one woman on the reading list, out of 15 weeks’ worth of reading.
I suspect that my students’ experiences are not unique. Lilit Marcus wrote in a piece for Flavorwire, “[a]s an undergraduate English Lit major, I had several classes where every single author we read was male.” There is no VIDA count for academia, but D.G. Myers, a former English professor at Texas A&M and Ohio State, counted the top 25 writers most frequently cited over the past 25 years in the MLA Bibliography, the primary database of literary scholarship. There were only 5 women on the list, a fair approximation of the percentage of women writers being published and reviewed in some of the most retrograde literary magazines. What is taught and researched by academics impacts what the publishing world values as well. As one indication, Modern Library publishing company’s list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century included only nine books by women.
The understandable result of all of this, in Marcus’s words, is that “there are still many readers in the U.S. who, consciously or subconsciously, believe that men have contributed most of what we know to be literature.” And until that changes, until we collectively (and not just inside of academia) believe that women writers have produced important literature in the past, then the devaluation of women’s writing in the present will persist.
I don’t mean we should simply acknowledge that a few women have produced so-called “great” literature. We are already doing that. What I mean is discovering value in the many, many texts women writers have written since the first novel, The Tale of Genji, was written (by a woman) in the 11th century. Now I hear you saying, well sure, there may have been a lot of writing by women in the past, but it isn’t worth reading now. It was magazine filler or sentimental schlock. There was certainly plenty of that, produced by men and women. But there were hundreds of women writers producing important, significant, even great literature. Ask the dozens of scholars recovering these works and I’m sure each of them could recommend a list of women writers who deserve to be read today and valued.
My own list of largely unknown women writers whom I think deserve wider recognition includes:
Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894), whose stories and novels, many of them published in Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly, show why she was often compared to George Eliot and Henry James. Her story “Miss Grief,” about a woman writer’s frustrated attempts to gain entrance to the male-dominated literary world, should be required reading for every person interested in the VIDA count and the status of women writers today.
Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), whose story “Life in the Iron Mills” is as powerful as anything Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote and is widely considered the first important Realist text in American literature.
Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897), whose slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is as significant as Frederick Douglass’s more well-known narrative.
Elizabeth Stoddard (1823-1902), who has been called “next to Melville and Hawthorne, the most strikingly original voice in the mid-nineteenth-century American novel,” particularly for her complex and challenging novel The Morgesons.
Sui Sin Far (1865-1914), whose stories of Chinese immigrants, such as “Spring Fragrance,” are delightful as well as provocative.
The Sioux writer Zitkala-Ša (1876-1938), whose fascinating stories and essays, including the autobiographical “Impressions of an Indian Childhood,” show how the late-19th-century literary world provided opportunities for a diverse range of voices, not only on the margins but also in the well-respected Atlantic Monthly.
Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930), whose stories, such as “The Revolt of Mother,” are finely wrought tales of thwarted lives asserting their own kind of freedom.
When my students encounter these works in my classes, they don’t question why we are reading them. Instead, they wonder why they have never heard of them before. They also learn to read differently and with different expectations.
As many have noted before me, if we look for the woman writer who wrote the equivalent of Moby Dick, we will be disappointed. We can’t expect women to have written about whaling adventures, or assume that because they didn’t, they haven’t contributed anything important to literature. To raise the value of women’s contributions doesn’t necessarily mean devaluing male canonical texts. It means simply appreciating the perspective of the other half of the population and not hiding behind the idea that only the “great” works of literature deserve to be taught, or that editors only seek to publish the “best” writing (as many of the publications exposed by the VIDA count have insisted they do).
There is much, much more to be said about how the low estimation of women’s writing of the past contributes to the devaluing of women’s writing today. But I think it’s time to begin to recognize that what happens in college classrooms today has an impact on the students, male and female, who will help to create the literary world of the future. Academia tends to assume that it has little influence on the outside world (particularly in the humanities), but there is nothing unimportant about the portrait of the literary past it presents in its classrooms.
Image Credit: Flickr/James Jordan.
In May, I graduated with my B.A. in English. This feels very strange to write in the past tense, but it’s true.
In the course of my studies, I was assigned more than 150 books, from novels to plays to biology textbooks. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that my college experience naturally breaks itself down into books read and unread, loved and hated. I remember reading The Secret History on the campus quad, sitting under a massive oak tree and thinking that this is what college should be like — all shade, dusty books, and lofty conversation, though I certainly didn’t intend to kill any of my new friends. I read selections from my Intro to Philosophy textbook in the basement of my dorm in between loads of laundry, which I had to wring out over a drain in the floor before tossing them in the dryer. I remember rushing through my assigned chapters of Moby-Dick every Sunday night before class, when I would meet with three other students and a professor to discuss symbolism. And I remember my horror when I realized exactly how long “Song of Myself” was at two in the morning. But somehow that horror is gone now, and all that’s left is the quiet joy that came from spending so much time interacting with books I otherwise might never have opened.
In these first few months after graduation, I can already feel myself pulled toward nostalgia, these stories, stresses, and loves. I am not quite ready to let them go. Although I learned from and appreciate all 150, some stand out as particularly defining. Here, in loose chronological order, are some of the most important. My degree in books, if you will.
Don Quixote – My first college assignment was to read five chapters of Don Quixote. I hurried through the chapters and immediately forgot them — the antiquated language escaping me as I read. At the end of my first week of class, I attended a lecture on Cervantes in which a brilliant professor gave a stirring speech about the value of studying the humanities and of the profound life questions Don Quixote addresses. I left feeling that studying English was a noble calling: something I could feel good about, something that would challenge and grow me. I resolved to read more slowly and carefully in the future, so that I, too, could pick out all the profound life questions present in great works and, if I were careful enough, perhaps even some of the answers. But I never finished Don Quixote. It turned out that good intentions and high callings weren’t nearly enough to get me through tangles of plot and language. I later felt grateful that I learned this early—that my first formal reading experience was a failure—because it was only by letting go of some of my grandiose expectations that I was eventually able to force myself through the grunt work of reading difficult books.
Jazz – In my second semester humanities course, I was assigned Jazz by Toni Morrison. I read it, slowly at first and then more and more quickly, until I was sitting in a tiny coffee shop on campus for three hours rushing through the last third of the novel. Jazz has a very particular kind of energy and assumes an agency of its own, and it was this agency that I felt myself responding to and trying to mimic. The narration of the novel seems to be coming from the book itself, a sense that culminates in the stirring final lines: “If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.” They address the reader directly and invite him or her to play with narration, structure, and meaning—to make and remake again and again. Reading Jazz left me feeling hollow and yet full, seeing or imagining that I saw connections between everything, past, present, and future all at once. Jazz is the first book that I truly fell in love with in college, and yet I never reread it, worried that doing so would ruin my connection with the novel and shatter the illusion of perfect storytelling. My classmates thought that I was crazy; none of them liked the novel very much at all, and several didn’t bother to finish it. Asked to identify those last few lines of the book on an exam, one friend misattributed them to The Waste Land. I teased him about this for years.
Looking back, I see that this fast-and-furious method wasn’t a very good way to read, for pleasure or for study. I swallowed all of Jazz in a gulp, rushed through with some growing sense of awe, and then put it down for good. I don’t remember it very well now, just the intense reaction it inspired. Is that enough?
I don’t think so. I wish I had quickly gone back through it, read more closely while that first emotion still lingered, and tried to better understand how the novel was working. I could have learned so much. Funny enough, I feel the same way about that first year of college. I wish I had tried better to understand what was happening, whom I was getting to know, and who I was becoming. I can’t remember what my friends and I discussed until dawn when we were first getting to know one another, or why we drew bad portraits of each other or where they went. I don’t know who lived down the hall from me or remember the name of my history professor. What did we talk about in class when we talked about Jazz? And how was it that, when I went back to Texas, life with my family felt foreign, distant from reality? Now all I have are bits of emotion with little context or cause, which is all I have left of Jazz, too.
Wide Sargasso Sea – In the spring semester of my freshman year, I was allowed to register for my first proper English class. As part of the course, I was assigned both Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s novel that tells the story of Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette. I had read Jane Eyre before, twice, and wasn’t looking forward to having to go through it again; I wanted to read new books and fresh authors, not the same novels I’d been assigned in high school. But reading Wide Sargasso Sea was a turning point in my English career—a moment that I can point to and say, “There. That’s it. That changed it all.” This book taught me that it was possible to critique the classics; I didn’t have to agree with them or accept their versions of their stories. I realized that every book was leaving something out—that there was almost always some other story to explore, some angle that wasn’t at first obvious—and that looking for these would open books wider than I thought possible. I realized that reading is a political act, as is writing. I talked about the book nonstop. Although I never mentioned Wide Sargasso Sea in any major written assignment and was never graded on my understanding of the novel, its influence underwrote all my studies for the next three years.
As I Lay Dying – I was intimidated by Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when it was first assigned, and this turned out to be an appropriate response, though I found myself swept up in the story in spite of myself. I loved and was confused by the novel in equal measure. I liked this story of a family who seemed incapable of understanding each other—driven by a common goal but also by individual desires, hopes, and despairs. I flinched when they tried to set a broken leg in concrete, and again when Dewey Dell was scammed by an unscrupulous doctor’s assistant. I squirmed when I read Addie’s dark chapter and her final words: “People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.” I thought about how everything was words to me and worried that maybe words weren’t enough—no matter how badly I wanted them to be. I saw the book as a kind of puzzle that surely I could put together into a complete masterpiece if only I read closely enough, paid enough attention, was sensitive to subtleties, but then again, wasn’t it just words, too? How could I get beyond that?
For all of this thinking and rethinking, my class only spent a total of three hours discussing the novel. I was left with more questions than I knew how to ask and an unsettling sense that I was not even close to understanding what I had read. I asked questions of this text: How was it that Addie could speak? What happened to Dale’s mind? Why was Vardaman’s mother a fish? Why was all of this speaking and thinking and fish-ing happening together? Then, I tried to answer them on my own. I realized that maybe I wouldn’t be able to put all of the pieces and words of the story into perfect alignment ever, and maybe it was better that way. I began to learn how to accept unknowns and how to live with an imperfect knowledge of things, even as I tried to fill in the gaps of my understanding, that space behind the language.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – I was confused by this poem as much as I was by As I Lay Dying, though in a different way. Although the density and ambiguity of As I Lay Dying felt essential to the work, the Rime seemed to be almost careless—something that was meant to be understood and yet couldn’t be. It’s not that I couldn’t follow the storyline, but that it was impossible for me to interpret it: to fit the images and events of the poem together into something meaningful and satisfying, into a whole. I was assigned to read a collection of scholarly essays on the poem and hoped that these perspectives, which came with names like “reader response theory” and “new criticism,” would help clarify Coleridge. Maybe I didn’t have to live with ambiguity after all. But the criticism only intensified my confusion, and the jumbled arguments of the scholars added a layer of irritation to my interactions with the poem. They didn’t agree with each other, and when I could follow their arguments, I didn’t agree with them either. I began to wonder exactly what purpose literary criticism served—academics writing articles to argue with other academics while readers like me remained confused and overwhelmed. Then I learned that the poem can be sung to the tune of Gilligan’s Island. This was too much; this made no sense. I could not sing Gilligan’s Island and study psychoanalytic theory at the same time. I gave up, but I was humming the song for days.
Medieval Literature in general – I enrolled in a class called Medieval Romance. I had no idea what this meant, and I wasn’t particularly enthused about having to admit that I was studying “Romances,” but it was the only class open by the time I registered. I read Chrétien de Troyes and wrote a harsh critique of the abusive gender dynamics in Erec and Enide, paying attention, for the first time, to specific word choices and the way patterns in action could reveal underlying obsessions in the text. I discovered a talent for reading Middle English. I was assigned a romance titled Richard Coeur de Lion, in which King Richard eats the heart of a lion. I read a long French poem called “Silence,” in which a woman dresses as a man, struggles with the allegorical figures of Nature and Nurture, and becomes a successful and valued knight until Merlin exposes her. I read the Gest of Robin Hood and wrote a long paper on social inequality and status inversions present in its short fyttes.
Through all of this reading, I gradually realized that these medieval writers were asking many of the same questions and struggling with many of the same social issues that I was encountering in my 21st century university. They wondered about the role of government and what made a good leader. They were curious about gender and identity, social structures, and economic inequality. And I, too, wondered about all of these things: how my world was broken and how it could be fixed. I felt more connected with history and recognized myself as part of a large and continuing stream of humanity and culture, but I also realized that I was not cut out to be a medievalist. There is no Middle English language setting in Microsoft Word, and I couldn’t stand the rows and rows of red underlining that appeared whenever I tried to type quotes from Chaucer.
Spring and All – The last semester of my junior year, I approached my Modern Literature professor about completing an additional research paper for Honors credit. She agreed and asked me what writer from our syllabus I wanted to study. I wrote her a long email requesting permission to write about Wallace Stevens because I loved what work of his I’d read and wanted to expand my formal understanding of poetry. Except that instead of typing Wallace Stevens, I got confused and typed William Carlos Williams. Too embarrassed to admit my mistake, I spent a semester studying imagist poetry and the crazed prose of Spring and All. My professor didn’t like Spring and All and couldn’t understand my supposed obsession with Williams, but she tried to be patient with me. When I cautiously offered my explanations of this text to her, she smiled. “Sometimes,” she said, “it really doesn’t mean anything, but nobody will admit it.” I agreed with her completely; no matter how many times I read it I couldn’t force the apocalyptic, manifesto-style prose and the poems about blooming flowers into any relationship that felt very convincing. This made my twelve pages much harder to write. I swore to always double-check author names before sending any more emails, and I learned about how important it is to sincerely love any work that takes more than week to complete. I also learned how to complete work and learn from research I didn’t love at all. I was told that this was good practice for life post-grad.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – I was assigned to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight three separate times during college, each time in a slightly different translation. By the third reread, I began to wish that the Green Knight would just behead Gawain at the beginning of the story and let that be that. I wrote an email complaining to the dean about the sameness of the English curriculum that I never sent. My roommates bore the brunt of my wrath instead and could eventually recite the general plot of the poem without ever having picked up a copy. They loved me anyway. I decided that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a true test of friendship, not chivalry, and at the end of my junior year, I sold all my translations of the poem for a total of $5.
The Book of Night Women – At the beginning of my senior year, I took a class in which my professor paired contemporary books with thematically similar works written before 1900. On the first day of class, she apologized for assigning so many troubling readings and warned us that The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, which she had paired with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and which we weren’t scheduled to begin for another three months, was going to be traumatic. She was right.
The Book of Night Women tells the story of Lilith, a young slave girl on an 18th century Jamaican plantation, and it is unflinching in its portrayal of violence and suffering, of the incredible variety of possible pains, and of people desperate to escape misery. It is about destruction, redemption, and the horrors that good people are capable of, but on the first read, I could only see the horror. Thirty pages into the first reading, I was shaking and nauseated, so I put the novel down for a few hours, then read another thirty pages, and stopped again. In this way, I finished the book over a long and harrowing week. It was brutal but brilliant, and I found myself admiring what James was doing in this work even as I recoiled from its violence and darkness. I worried about these characters and about my extreme sensitivity to reading their stories. I was tempted to think James was being deliberately alarming, but I knew the novel was more than that. Was James challenging 20-something, middle-class white students like myself to understand our history and the suffering it had caused? Was I too thin-skinned, or was mine exactly the response he hoped for? Or was he just telling a story in as honest a way as possible? I was reminded of Wide Sargasso Sea. Reading is political. Stories have power. When I finished the book, I cried.
During the first class period spent discussing the book, my professor joked that she should find us a group therapist. I felt tempted to press her on this. Every student in the room looked shocked, freshly sensitive, all our nerves exposed and raw. I hoped to someday write something as affecting, if different in every other way. More than this, I hoped to stay thin-skinned.
Fun Home – During my last semester, I didn’t take a single English class but instead spent the spring writing my final thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf and Alison Bechdel, particularly on the ways in which they use houses to discuss both creativity and censorship. I kept (and continue to keep) writing personal essays about houses, and I wanted to see how these masters of essay and memoir handled rooms, hallways, facades, and interiors.
Studying graphic memoirs like Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother? turned out to be surprisingly difficult because I didn’t know how to academically describe or explain the way an image works as part of a text. I read books like The Poetics of Space and Understanding Comics in an attempt to figure this out and ultimately did a passable job, but I realized that there are whole genres, entire fields of literature, writing, and study that my formal English degree hadn’t touched. Even so, I feel confident that I have learned enough to figure the rest out in time. This is cheesy, but I feel good about it anyway, though I can’t quite bring myself to reread my final thesis.
Now that I am free from the structures of school, class, and assignments, I feel a little directionless and slightly overwhelmed. I’m not sure where to pick up my life in books, what authors or works to begin, or in what order. My current reading list has contemporary poetry on it, mostly pulled from friends’ recommendations, and some essay collections I’ve been hoarding for a while, but it also has Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve never read Alice Munro or Montaigne. A friend lent me Jesus’ Son four years ago, and I’ve never read it either. Those 150 books aren’t nearly as much as I once thought they were. There is so much writing that I am completely ignorant of, and I’m excited to keep reading.
Image via [email protected]/Flickr
Think 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 Jacobs’ Incidents 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.
The 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.
This 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.
If 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.