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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 | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Malcolm X was one of the most prominent and controversial figures of the African American civil rights movement of the 20th century. His autobiography, published posthumously in 1965 shortly after his assassination, chronicles his personal development, shifts in thought, and fundamental dedication to improving the lives of black Americans. Throughout the autobiography, Malcolm X discusses the formation of his identity as a civil rights leader as well as his commitment to eradicating white supremacy. His views led many to consider him violent as contrasted with other civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X was coauthored by the journalist Alex Haley, who acted both as a ghostwriter and literary consultant on the project. While the bulk of the text is based on Malcolm's own words from interviews between the two, Haley's epilogue—written immediately after the assassination—describes the collaborator's own views on Malcolm's life and work.

1. Malcolm X's father may have been murdered by white supremacists.

Malcolm X's father, Earl Little, was a prominent civil rights activist. During Malcolm's childhood, the family was forced to move several times because of threats from white supremacist organizations. Malcolm later described an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan:

When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home ... Brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out.

After the family had relocated to Michigan, the body of Malcolm's father was found on the town's train tracks. At the time, the death was considered an accident, but Malcolm always surmised that his father had been killed by the white supremacists who had terrorized his family for as long as he could remember.

2. Malcolm X turned against his Nation of Islam mentor for having multiple affairs.

Malcolm X was a prominent member of and spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, an African American civil rights organization founded in 1930 in Detroit, Michigan. The organization's leader, Elijah Muhammad, was a mentor to Malcolm X and heavily influenced Malcolm's thought and activism. However, Malcolm became disillusioned with Muhammad after learning of his multiple extramarital affairs. The Nation of Islam prohibited adultery and sex outside of marriage, so Malcolm was shocked by his mentor's hypocrisy. Muhammad asked Malcolm to cover up his affairs as well as the existence of the many children Muhammad had fathered out of wedlock, but Malcolm refused to defend him. In March 1964 Malcolm officially ended his relationship with the Nation of Islam.

3. Malcolm X copied the entire dictionary to improve his writing.

Malcolm X was imprisoned at Norfolk County Prison on charges of larceny and breaking and entering in 1946, at age 20. While incarcerated, Malcolm dedicated himself to improving his reading and writing. To do this, he spent hours reading through a dictionary. He went far beyond simply using the dictionary as a reference tool, however, transcribed the entire document word for word, allegedly "down to the punctuation marks."

4. During meetings between Alex Haley and Malcolm X, Haley encouraged Malcolm to draw on paper napkins.

Alex Haley, who collaborated with Malcolm X on the autobiography, met with Malcolm frequently to discuss the project. Often, their meetings were held in the middle of the night and were more akin to "therapy sessions" than literary workshops. Haley would purposely put out paper napkins for Malcolm to use with his coffee so that Haley could collect the doodles and miscellaneous notes that Malcolm would scribble on them. Haley then collected these napkins, along with other etchings and notes that Malcolm would provide, and kept them in a special folder to analyze during the writing process.

5. Spike Lee directed a film based on the autobiography—and encouraged kids to skip school to see it.

Spike Lee's 1992 film Malcolm X is primarily based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, chronicling the activist's life in a three-hour epic. Upon releasing the film, Lee encouraged children to skip school to see it. The director claimed that the film was just as educational as, if not more so than, anything being taught in schools about American history and that if students wrote reports about the film, "the teachers can't hold that against them."

6. Author James Baldwin wrote a screenplay about Malcolm X's life—but it was quickly forgotten.

The famous African American author James Baldwin was approached to write a screenplay about Malcolm X shortly after the activist's assassination in 1965. The composition of the screenplay, however, was tumultuous and disastrous, as various groups and prominent figures demanded to have a hand in the writing. Baldwin insisted that he would tell the story "my way or not at all" and released a script entitled One Day When I Was Lost in 1972. Warner Bros. bought the script, but the final product was never screened for the public and was eventually lost. Baldwin later reflected on the project, lamenting:

I would rather be horse-whipped, or incarcerated in the forthright bedlam of Bellevue, than repeat the adventure.

7. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is often compared to St. Augustine's Confessions.

Malcolm X's autobiography is often compared to another confessional and personal memoir that was published more than 1,000 years beforehand: The Confessions by Saint Augustine of Hippo, written between 397 and 400 CE. The Confessions—often considered the first true Western autobiography—details Augustine's personal life and relation to sin and spiritual development. Scholars note that both autobiographies focus on the subjects' regrets and mistakes early in life, while moving toward conclusions of spiritual revelation and societal understanding. Both texts are extremely personal, yet they also include broader philosophical contemplation.

8. Time magazine called Malcolm X "a cocaine addict and a thief" in an article after his death.

In his time, Malcolm X was not necessarily viewed as an honorable activist, as was made clear by obituaries published immediately after his assassination in 1965. Time magazine slammed Malcolm X, calling him violent and immoral. The article read:

Malcolm X had been a pimp, a cocaine addict and a thief. He was an unashamed demagogue. His gospel was hatred: "Your little babies will get polio!" he cried to the "white devils." His creed was violence: "If ballots won't work, bullets will."

Other publications followed suit—the New York Times ran a headline that read "Malcolm X Lived in Two Worlds, White and Black, Both Bitter" and described him as "an extraordinary and twisted man, turning many true gifts to evil purpose."

9. The ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated is now a museum honoring him.

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated while speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York City, dying of multiple gunshot wounds. The building, owned by Columbia University, now serves various functions, including a memorial center honoring Malcolm X and his wife, Dr. Betty Shabazz. The Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center opened in the building's lobby in 2005 with the goal of preserving Malcolm X's legacy and chronicling his contributions to the civil rights movement.

10. Poet Maya Angelou said she "had never been so affected by a human presence" as she was as when she met Malcolm X.

Maya Angelou, famous poet and author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), met Malcolm X while she was living in Ghana. At the time, Angelou was working as a journalist and an administrator at the University of Ghana, living in a community of expatriate scholars and activists including African American historian W.E.B. Du Bois. Angelou recalled that as Malcolm X approached her, "all [her] brain would do for [her] was record his coming." He prompted her to return to the United States in 1965. The two planned to contribute to Malcolm's project, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, but Malcolm was assassinated shortly after Angelou's return.

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