The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Introduction by M.S. Handler | Summary

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Summary

New York Times reporter M. S. Handler introduces the book with his reminiscences of Malcolm X. He recalls the first time his wife met him; she compared him to "a black panther." Handler then recalls his own first meeting with Malcolm in 1963. He was covering the civil rights movement for the New York Times and sought out Malcolm because he believed ideas are important in "social struggle." He therefore sought out lesser-known, "underground" ideas like the Nation of Islam. In that first meeting Malcolm argued for black separatism and against integration. Handler was impressed, although he found the Nation of Islam's doctrine about white genetics "stunning ... in its sheer absurdity."

Handler contrasts the reaction of different groups of black people to Malcolm X. Poor and oppressed black people admired him for coming from a background like theirs. Black artists and writers admired him for his "ruthless honesty in stating the case." But "the Negro middle class—the Negro establishment—abhorred and feared Malcolm," says Handler.

Handler says there were three causes for the shift in Malcolm X's "attitude toward the white man" in 1964. The first is Malcolm's contact on his speaking tours with white people "who were not ... 'devils.'" The second is a "growing doubt about the authenticity of Elijah Muhammad's version of the Muslim religion," as well as the shock of finding about "certain secular practices" of Elijah Muhammad's. The third is his trip to Mecca, as well as his trips to African countries. Handler remarks that Malcolm was "redefining his attitude to this country and the white-black relationship" when assassination ended his life.

Analysis

An introduction by a New York Times reporter gives a sense of the stature Malcolm X had attained by the time of his death. Handler is a logical choice for the introduction. He covered the civil rights movement for the New York Times. However, it is a sign of the times in which the book was written that a white reporter for a prestigious paper gives legitimacy to a book written by two black men.

Malcolm X is often critical of the press in the autobiography. However, Handler does not treat Malcolm as an oddity or bait him for quotable sayings about violence. He approaches Malcolm because he is interested in the ideas of the Nation of Islam. He recognizes ideas play an important role in social movements, more so than mass numbers of members or the celebrity of leaders, although Malcolm was not yet a celebrity in white society when Handler first sought him out. Handler also gives a balanced treatment to Malcolm's still-evolving ideas about race relations at the end of his life. He does not say that Malcolm became an integrationist, but rather that he sought to overcome white supremacism. Handler also says Malcolm "no longer inveighed against the United States." This is perhaps incorrect; on his final trip to Africa, Malcolm was persuading Ghanaian parliamentarians to condemn the United States' human rights abuses.

It is interesting that Handler chose to include and even highlight his wife's impression of Malcolm X. After hosting him for coffee and cake, Mrs. Handler tells her husband, "it was like having tea with a black panther." Handler goes on to develop the metaphor for readers. A black panther is "beautiful," "dangerous," and "an aristocrat in the animal kingdom." Malcolm had these qualities, too, Handler remarks. They were talking in 1963 or '64; the Black Panther Party was not founded until 1966. So the black panther comparison only serves to compare Malcolm to an animal. The Handlers meant to ascribe all the panther's noble qualities to Malcolm. But Malcolm probably would have noted that jungle animals do not drink tea; humans do. Malcolm was in fact a leader among black people, not among "the animal kingdom." The Malcolm who had been regarded as a pet and mascot in white society might not have been surprised to hear the comparison from a white couple.

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