The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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Malcolm X and Alex Haley | Biography

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Collaboration

Black activist Malcolm X, who was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, collaborated with writer Alex Haley (1921–92) in the creation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley, who was born on August 11, 1921, first met Malcolm X in 1960. Haley was writing an article for Reader's Digest about the Nation of Islam. Haley's article was called "Mr. Muhammad Speaks." It was the first portrait of the Nation of Islam in a national magazine. The 41-year-old Haley had recently retired from 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard and was embarking on a new career as a writer. The 35-year-old Malcolm X was gaining fame and notoriety as Elijah Muhammad's "ubiquitous spokesperson," as Haley wrote in Reader's Digest. In 1963 Haley followed up the Reader's Digest article with an interview of Malcolm X for Playboy Magazine. A publisher then approached Haley with an offer for a book about Malcolm X's life story.

After getting permission from Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, the two began their interview sessions. Their contract said Haley could not take out anything Malcolm said and Malcolm could review the book before publication. It also stipulated that Haley could write an epilogue that Malcolm would not review. The interviews lasted until shortly before Malcolm's assassination on February 21, 1965. This span of time covered Malcolm's successful career in the Nation of Islam, his split from the Nation of Islam, and his transformative experiences in Africa and the Middle East. Haley's epilogue recounts the events of Malcolm's last days, the assassination, and the funeral.

Publication and Reception

Initially Malcolm X's assassination made it doubtful the book would see the light of day. Fearing scandal and violence, the publisher, Doubleday, canceled Haley's book contract three weeks after the assassination. Grove Press picked it up and The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published to critical acclaim in October 1965, although it did not immediately become a best seller. The New York Times called it "a brilliant, painful, important book." In the New York Review of Books I.F. Stone wrote that both the autobiography and a collection of Malcolm X's speeches would have "a permanent place in the literature of the Afro-American struggle." The 1968 paperback edition became a best seller.

In 1992 American filmmaker Spike Lee believed the book important enough to direct a three-hour film adaptation of the same name. But black scholar Manning Marable claimed Malcolm X's legacy had been distorted by the conservative, integrationist Alex Haley. He claimed that the book had downplayed Malcolm's radical politics in favor of sensational details about his life. In 2011, after nearly 20 years of research, Marable published Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Marable's book also sparked controversy by claiming Malcolm had been a sex worker for white men in his Harlem days. However, Marable also drew fresh conclusions about the assassination, relying on diaries and FBI surveillance records. Foreign Affairs said Marable's book did "a signal service in ... replacing the simplified version of his life ... with a more complex and accurate portrait." Sociologist Michael Eric Dyson told the New York Times that the later book gave "a richer, more profound, more complicated and more fully fleshed out Malcolm" than previous biographies.

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