The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X Study Guide

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Brief Biography of Malcolm X

Malcolm X was born to a rural family in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, Earl Little, had strong views on race relations that drew the ire of conservative whites. This led to racial violence that eventually resulted in Earl’s death and the scattering of the Little family. Malcolm moved to Boston and then New York as a teenager in 1929, where he fell in love with the culture and lifestyle of the urban ghettoes. After making ends meet through a variety of jobs and criminal activities, Malcolm went to prison for burglary in 1946. While in prison, he began to study history and converted to the Nation of Islam through the influence of his siblings. Upon his release in 1952, he became a high-profile minister and spokesman for the Nation of Islam for the next twelve years. Always a controversial figure, he was finally expelled from the Nation after accusations of misconduct. After his expulsion from the group, he travelled to Mecca and throughout Africa, and he began speaking more on a potential brotherhood between races and the Pan Africanism movement. A few months before his fortieth birthday, three men assassinated Malcolm at a public event; the men convicted of the crime were associated with the Nation of Islam. Thousands attended his funeral in Harlem. Alex Haley, who worked with Malcolm X to write his autobiography, grew up in a family that prided its mixed-race background and commitment to education. He was sent to college first at Alcorn State University at the age of fifteen, and then at Elizabeth City State College, but he eventually dropped out. He then joined the Coast Guard for what became a twenty year career. He spent much of his time working as a journalist, where he distinguished himself as an accomplished writer. In 1959, he retired from the Coast Guard and began a civilian career as a journalist. He often conducted high-profile interviews for Playboy Magazine, including one with George Lincoln Rockwell, the leader of the American Nazi Party. Haley ghost-wrote the Autobiography of Malcolm X, with Malcolm playing a significant role in editing the final work. In 1976, Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which chronicles his own family’s history back to the figure Kunta Kinte; adapted into a mini-series, it is Haley’s most famous work.
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Historical Context of The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Malcolm X lived in transformative years in American history. He grew up during the Depression, the largest economic downturn in US history that forced many people, especially minorities and those in rural areas, into poverty. However, the poverty also great affected the economies (both legal and illegal) in America’s cities, as can be seen from Malcolm’s experiences in Roxbury and Harlem. The entry of the US into the Second World War acted as a catalyst to the American economy, but it also drew millions of young men into the military through the draft. We read how Malcolm and Shorty both took dramatic measures to avoid military service. However, millions of other African American men did serve, and their experiences in the military and new expectations of racial equality in the United States helped to feed the discontent among African Americans that eventually erupted into the Civil Rights Movement. When Malcolm exits prison in 1952, these tensions have just begun to simmer, and they will reach their apex with events such as the 1963 March on Washington and the 1964 Harlem riots. Despite the legislative progress of the Civil Rights Act (1963) and The Voting Rights Act (1964), violence and prejudice continued to be directed at African Americans, something Malcolm was certainly aware of towards the end of his life.

Other Books Related to The Autobiography of Malcolm X

In his Autobiography, Malcolm emphasizes multiple times the important role books have played in his life and in developing his thinking. For example, he invested much of his energy into learning history through books such as The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois, or H. G. Well’s The Outline of History, which attempts to give a non-Eurocentric and non-racist account of history. He also read books on the history and atrocity of slavery; these include Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom's Cabin. While Uncle Tom's Cabin has a complicated past for reinforcing certain racial stereotypes, it also played a key role in the abolitionist movement of the 19th century. Malcolm’s own ambivalence regarding the book is evident throughout his autobiography; while he writes, “that’s the only novel I have ever read since I started serious reading,” he also frequently uses “Uncle Tom” as an insulting indictment of other black leaders. The novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison also recounts a story very similar thematically to Malcolm’s own life: Ellison’s protagonist moves from the South to New York, looking to escape racism, but finds it to be an integral part of societal relations throughout the country. And finally, works by the author James Baldwin also speak in conversation with Malcolm’s own ideas. Malcolm greatly admired Baldwin, whom he complimented by saying: “He’s so brilliant he confuses the white man with words on paper.” Baldwin’s novel Go Tell it on the Mountain, for example, tells the story of a young man growing up in Harlem in the 1930s.
Key Facts about The Autobiography of Malcolm X
  • Full Title: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
  • When Written: 1963-1965
  • Where Written: New York
  • When Published: 1965
  • Literary Period: African-American memoir, 20th century memoir
  • Genre: Autobiography, Nonfiction
  • Setting: Primarily Lansing, Michigan, Boston, Massachusetts and New York City, with journeys throughout the US, the Middle East, and Africa
  • Climax: While Malcolm’s assassination occurs outside of the narration, it looms over the book like a shadow, and can therefore be rightly considered the climax.
  • Antagonist: The racial caste system that denies equality and justice to African Americans
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Ghostwriter. A ghostwriter is someone who writes a book on behalf of someone else and generally attempts to mimic their voice. Whether or not Alex Haley is a ghostwriter in the context of the Autobiogrpahy of Malcolm X is up for debate. On the one hand, Malcolm had considerable oversight on the text, rendering it more in line with his own style and language. On the other hand, Haley had considerable influence in convincing Malcolm to allow certain thoughts and feelings to be made public. So, perhaps the Autobiography is best understood as a collaboration, rather than as the product of a ghostwriter.

Film adaptation. Malcolm X (1992), starring Denzel Washington and directed by Spike Lee, was largely based on the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Washington was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor, but lost to Al Pacino’s performance in Scent of a Woman (1992) – a choice publicly criticized by Lee.