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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Chapter 15 : Icarus | Summary



As Malcolm X makes more appearances, he receives more mail. "Ninety-five percent of the letters were from white people," he says. There is a small amount of hate mail and many letters criticizing his ideas. The phrase "white devils" in particular angers his letter-writers. Malcolm explains the term "devil" refers to "the collective white man's historical record" and "the collective white man's cruelties, and evils, and greeds."

In the media people criticize Malcolm X for "polarizing the community" and "over-generalizing." Malcolm says his black critics, especially, try to take him apart. This is due, he says, to the institutions his black critics work for: the media and universities. "The white man signed their paychecks," Malcolm says. He regrets the black people lucky enough to get an education only use it for "parading a lot of big words." Malcolm talks about the historical record of white people in their relations with nonwhite peoples all over the world. Reporters are eager to quote Malcolm criticizing Martin Luther King. Instead of giving reporters what they want, criticism of a black leader, he delivers an unwelcome message, criticism of white people.

Southern newspapers play up Malcolm's criticisms of the Civil Rights Movement. Segregationists find Malcolm's critique convenient, as when he scoffs at "Northern white and black Freedom Riders going South to 'demonstrate.'" He says, "ultra-liberal New York had more integration problems than Mississippi." Moreover, northern liberals are "the world's worst hypocrites" when they criticize Southern segregation. Remarks like this anger liberals in the North.

Just as Southern newspapers print select comments by Malcolm, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm give the white Southerner credit for being honest. The white Southerner "bares his teeth to the black man," Malcolm says, while the white Northerner grins. Integration, according to Malcolm, is "a foxy Northern liberal's smoke screen." Only a few "integration-mad" black people want to live with white people, he says. What black people actually want are "Human rights! Respect as human beings!" Malcolm compares the false desire for integration to the false idea that black men desire white women. It is obvious black men do not want white women, he says. He quotes a "black brother" as saying, "Look, you ever smell one of them wet?"

Black and white people would benefit by telling each other the "raw, naked truth," Malcolm says. He himself is honest: "I'm telling it like it is!" White people have surrounded themselves with "Negro leaders" who are yes-men, Malcolm says. These leaders told the white man everything was fine, right up until "Negroes did start revolting in America." This revolution is international, he says. All over the world "black and brown and red and yellow peoples have ... become ... sick and tired of the white man's heel on their necks."

Malcolm offers assimilated German Jews as an example of the illusion of integration. German Jews considered themselves Germans, Malcolm points out, but such integration did not prevent genocide in Nazi Germany. What is more, the "self-weakened, self-deluded Jew" could not fight back because integration weakens and deludes a people.

Malcolm then criticizes the March on Washington, a 1963 Civil Rights demonstration demanding jobs and justice for black people. The march was also the occasion of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Infighting, the power of white money, and status-seeking ruined the march, according to Malcolm. He calls it the "Farce on Washington" and says it does nothing to change "deep-rooted problems."

Malcolm likes speaking to college audiences and all-black audiences. He says he enjoys "battling with ideas." He can also "feel [his] audiences' temperaments." This is a "psychic gift" of public speakers with "mass appeal," he says. He can also recognize a Jew or a bourgeois negro by the type of question he or she asks, he says.

Malcolm then gives examples of the "raw, naked truths" he told his audiences. He says, "the whole world knows the white man cannot survive another war." It is time for the nonwhite peoples "to draw closer to each other."

Malcolm recalls being invited to speak at Harvard Law School, and he reflects on the course of his life. He could have ended up dead, or he could have become a bitter old hustler, "an old, fading Detroit Red." Instead he is a rising star, speaking at Harvard. What saved him is the religion of Islam. At Harvard, waiting to speak, he recalls the story of Icarus. In Greek mythology an inventor named Daedalus gives his son, Icarus, wings made of wax. When Icarus flies too close to the sun, his wings melt and he falls to his death. For Malcolm Icarus is a fable about remembering your rise is due to someone else's help. "Any wings I wore," he says, "had been put on by the religion of Islam."


Malcolm's interpretation of the Icarus myth is unusual. Typically the lesson drawn from the story is that Icarus wanted too much; he should have trimmed his ambitions to fit his capacities. Malcolm's interpretation emphasizes the person who helped Icarus to rise, his father. However, when Malcolm points to the source of his own wings, he does not name a person. He does not name Elijah Muhammad, whom he called "this little, gentle, sweet man" in Chapter 12. He does not even name the Nation of Islam as his source of help. Instead Malcolm gives credit to the religion of Islam. This shift in emphasis, from Nation of Islam to the Islamic religion, foreshadows Malcolm's eventual split with the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad. The shift in emphasis also leaves Malcolm alone. He interprets the Icarus story as meaning no person succeeds alone, but then he portrays himself as alone, supported only by a religion. Icarus is the story of a man and his father; at this moment Malcolm's story is of himself and Allah.

It is easy to see why the press flocks to Malcolm. He is combative and fiery, and he gives excellent quotes. His criticisms also isolate him. He is impatient with mass protests, such as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march took place on August 28, 1963, when 200,000 people gathered near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Malcolm criticizes the march as a symbolic action. In politics symbolic action is sometimes contrasted with real action. If a crowd of people storms the palace gates and arrests the king, that is a real action. If a crowd gathers in a public square shouting "down with tyranny," that can be called a symbolic action. However, the distinction is not always clear, because a symbolic action can have real consequences. A large crowd of people can bring the legitimacy of a government into question or demonstrate a demand for justice. For some historians the symbolic March on Washington had the real consequence of pressuring President John F. Kennedy and Congress to strengthen a pending civil rights bill. Nonetheless, Malcolm criticizes the "Farce on Washington" as purely symbolic. Even his nickname for the protest, "farce," points to theater. (A farce is a comic stage play, usually with ridiculous events.)

Malcolm's criticisms have a point when he says "the original 'angry' March on Washington" was changed. This can be seen in the involvement of John Lewis, then a leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating a Committee (SNCC), a civil rights group active in the South. Lewis's speech for the march was circulated in advance. His speech criticized the drafted civil rights legislation as "too little and too late." If the legislation was not improved he said there would be a "'march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did." In the Civil War, from November 15 to December 21, 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman led 60,000 Union troops on a march from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia. All along the 285-mile route they destroyed Southern farms, burning down barns and stealing livestock and food. It was a terror campaign, intended to convince the civilian population to give up their loyalty to the Confederacy. So when John Lewis referenced Sherman's march, he was referencing a non-symbolic march with acts of real destruction and violence. Lewis's draft speech was objected to by Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers union; Burke Marshall, head of the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice; and Patrick O'Boyle, the Catholic Archbishop of Washington—all white men, as Malcolm would probably have noted. In response Lewis, Martin Luther King, and another SNCC leader, James Foreman, met to discuss the speech. Lewis agreed to rewrite it, eliminating the references to Sherman and other objectionable phrases.

Malcolm is at least partly right in his criticisms of the Freedom Riders. Segregation was a problem in the North, and political leaders in the South would readily make openly racist statements. For example, Alabama governor George Wallace promised to stand in the doorway himself rather than let a black student in to the university. In the North a politician would seldom openly espouse such views, but schools and housing in the North were racially segregated in practice, if not by law. As Malcolm remarks, "I believe my own life mirrors this hypocrisy." He lived in the North but his family was threatened by the Klan and his father was murdered by the racist Black Legion. However, Malcolm seems not to realize the effect of his criticisms of Freedom Riders. The existence of racism in the North does not make fighting racism in the South unimportant.

At this point in his life Malcolm believed race was the only way human beings mattered to each other. Every other connection or association—religion, ideology, profession, nationality—was only on the surface. As he says, "not ideologies, but race, and color is what binds human beings." This is evident in his remark about Jews: "I don't care what a Jew is professionally ..."first he, or she, thinks [as a] Jew." It is one thing for the nonwhite peoples of the world to unite in struggle. It is another to install race as the one central axis of association among people. After his trip to Mecca Malcolm would rethink these ideas.

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