The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | On Malcolm X by Ossie Davis | Summary

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Summary

A magazine editor asked actor Ossie Davis why he gave the eulogy at Malcolm X's funeral. Davis gives his answer in "On Malcolm." He begins by noting many people have asked him that question, and yet "no Negro has yet asked me that question." On the contrary all the letters Davis has gotten from black people praise Malcolm "as a man" and praise Davis for giving the eulogy.

Davis and the black letter-writers say, "Malcolm was a man!" Davis says a white man's manhood is not in question in the United States, but a black man's is. Black men need someone to remind them that they are men. Black people have a tendency, he says, "to stand back and let the white man talk." He contrasts this meekness with Malcolm's insistence on speaking fearlessly. Malcolm told other black people to speak up for themselves, too, Davis says.

Davis speaks of what Malcolm knew. He knew "every white man in America profits directly or indirectly from his position vis-a-vis Negroes." This is true whether the white man personally holds racist beliefs or not, Davis adds. Malcolm also knew every black man who did not speak out about acts of racism was "an Uncle Tom and traitor."

Davis adds, "we knew all these things as well as Malcolm did." But Malcolm said them. "He kept shouting the painful truth we whites and blacks did not want to hear," and his outspokenness made him "a howling, shocking nuisance ... to both Negroes and whites." Malcolm's truth-telling upset everyone who was used to getting along with lies.

Davis speaks of Malcolm's effect on people. He would make them angry and also proud. One came away from a conversation with Malcolm "with the sneaky suspicion that maybe, after all, you were a man!"

Davis comments on the change in Malcolm, before and after his trip to Mecca. It was clear after Mecca that Malcolm had "abandoned racism, separatism, and hatred," but Malcolm still made "shock-effect statements." He was still impatient for everyone to have freedom, and "he still delighted in twisting the white man's tail, and in making Uncle Toms ... thoroughly ashamed."

Davis comments that Malcolm would still be a worthy man even if he had never gone to Mecca and changed. He compares Malcolm to John Brown, who fought fiercely for the end of slavery in the United States. Two years before the beginning of the Civil War, Brown led an armed raid on a federal arsenal in the slave state of Virginia. Brown died in the attack and became a martyr to the anti-slavery cause. Davis says Malcolm stands in relation to "responsible" civil rights leaders as Brown stood to responsible, law-abiding abolitionists. Just as Brown is revered as a hero and a martyr, so should Malcolm be.

In conclusion Davis admits that he was "too chicken" to praise Malcolm when he was alive. Now that Malcolm was gone and could no longer agitate the white folks, he, Davis, could at least offer a "salute to that brave, black, ironic gallantry ... that shocking zing of fire-and-be-damned-to-you." Davis admires these qualities because they are "absent in every other Negro man I know."

Analysis

When Davis says no black people have asked him why he praised Malcolm X, he implies Malcolm X's worth is obvious to black people. They do not have to ask why. They also admire Malcolm for being a man in a society that makes that difficult for a black man. Davis does not say exactly what it means to him to be a man, but he does mention "balls, and guts" as the traits of a man. He attributes bravery and fearlessness to Malcolm.

Davis points out that white people benefit from institutional racism, although he does not use that phrase. He says, "every white man in America profits directly or indirectly from his position vis-a-vis Negroes." That is, white people benefit from the laws and institutions that give them a position better than that given to black people. This institutional racism benefits white people "even if [they] do not practice or believe in it." In a subtle way Davis is distancing himself from the idea that white people and black people think in different ways because they have different positions in society. This explains why white people ask Ossie Davis a question no black people ask him: Why praise Malcolm?

Davis also points out how Malcolm made black people uncomfortable. He made the "Uncle Toms, compromisers and accommodationists" ashamed of their hypocrisy, the way they smile in order "merely to exist in a world whose values we both envy and despise." Davis counts himself among the compromisers. He also says the qualities Malcolm had are "absolutely absent in every other Negro man I know." Davis speaks of humbly. He does not say, in effect, "Malcolm was a great man, just like me." Rather, Davis shows how unworthy he and all other black people are of the great man who has passed.

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