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Malcolm X: Make it Plain | Article

The Autobiography of Malcolm X


It was a literary rarity; an "autobiography" written by someone else, an intimate look into the life of an internationally known man composed during the very period he was most famous. One other thing set The Autobiography of Malcolm X apart: its subject would not live to see book published — just as he had predicted.

A Very Poor Start
Alex Haley retired after 20 years with the Coast Guard in 1959, the same year Mike Wallace's documentary The Hate That Hate Produced aired. Haley then moved to New York and started a career as a civilian writer. When he suggested an article about the Black Muslims for Reader's Digest, the magazine agreed, but Malcolm X was reluctant, first accusing Haley of being the white man's spy and then deferring any decision to Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad agreed and the piece was published in 1960, attracting attention and earning favorable reviews from Malcolm, who subsequently allowed Haley to interview him for Playboy magazine. In 1963 Haley was approached by a publisher interested in getting the story of Malcolm X's life, and although both men agreed to the project, in Haley's words, "we got off to a very poor start." Malcolm was stiff and formal, spouting propaganda while revealing little of himself. "You, I trust about 25 percent," he said, and Haley began to think the project might have to be abandoned.

Telling the Tale
Then Haley, who had noticed how Malcolm often scribbled thoughts on any handy piece of paper, read something Malcolm had written on a napkin and asked him about it. Malcolm started to talk more freely, and he opened up further when Haley asked one night about Malcolm's mother. What Malcolm said became the basis for the book's opening chapters, and, Haley recalled, Malcolm "never again hesitated to tell me even the most intimate details of his personal life." Malcolm would visit Haley's studio in Greenwich Village for several hours at a stretch, Haley taking down what Malcolm had to say, and later Malcolm would review each page of the manuscript. Haley also began to accompany Malcolm to speeches, meetings, and other events, witnessing Malcolm's elation after addressing college students and his fury after being silenced by Elijah Muhammad. The extent of what Haley called their "mutual camaraderie" became apparent when Malcolm telephoned the writer at 4am one morning. "I trust you 70 percent," he said before hanging up.

Under Pressure
As the book progressed, Malcolm came under increasing pressure from the Nation of Islam. Where at first he had specified that all proceeds would go to the Nation, he asked Haley to change that so they would now flow either to Malcolm's new organization, the Muslim Mosque Incorporated, or, if he died, to his wife. At one point Malcolm started to re-write earlier chapters praising Elijah Muhammad, but Haley talked him out of it. Even as he spoke of new attitudes towards whites stemming from his pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm also told Haley in the last chapter of his book that "black men are watching every move I make, awaiting their chance to kill me.... I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form." Malcolm X was right; he was assassinated in February 1965, and the book was not published until later that year.

As Large as Life
Convinced that he would not live much longer, Malcolm X saw his Autobiography as a chance to shape the way he would be perceived by posterity; the book's final pages show an acute awareness of how others would try to label him. But no man can completely control his own legacy, particularly when he dies at age 39. At the end of Spike Lee's 1992 biopic of Malcolm, Nelson Mandela presides over a classroom of children declaring, "I am Malcolm X." But in the words of his attorney Percy Sutton, "he left, most of all, a quandary as to who was Malcolm X." Claimed by many different sides of the political spectrum, Malcolm X remained larger than life, a trend writer Maya Angelou decried because "young people, hearing about him — this larger-than-life person — will be led to think they could never be like him, you see. He's not accessible, then. The truth is, the man was as large as life, a man of great profundity, with a wonderful sense of humor and a loving sense of his people." Perhaps Malcolm X's greatest legacy, in activist Sonia Sanchez's words, was that "He expelled fear for African Americans," saying out loud what they had been thinking. "That's why we loved him. He said it out loud, not behind closed doors. He took on America for us."

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