This week the late Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X was quite rightly awarded the Pulitzer Prize in History. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention gives us as clear a portrait of the man as we’re ever likely to have, and in the process sifts through many of the stories and myths that Malcolm X told about himself. Many of those stories are best known through Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malclom X, an absolute classic of American letters that now sees itself superseded as historical document by Marable’s work. In the piece below, excerpted from A New Literary History of America, David Bradley considers the life of The Autobiography as spark of a movement, mainstay of colleges and prisons both, social science, prophecy, and postmodern literature. A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, is available in paperback this spring.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. The Saturday Evening Post, though it had published an excerpt from the forthcoming Autobiography, eulogized him as “a violent and baffling young demagogue” and wondered “did he really have a major role to play?” Time magazine pronounced him “an unashamed demagogue” whose “gospel was hatred” and “creed was violence.” Doubleday terminated the contract for his autobiography.
Enter Grove Press. And when The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published, enter Eliot Fremont-Smith, in the New York Times, calling it “an eloquent testament.” And enter I. F. Stone, in the New York Review of Books, predicting for it “a permanent place in the literature.” Enter also Truman Nelson, in the Nation, lauding “its dead-level honesty, its passion, its exalted purpose.”
Nelson also praised Haley who, he said, provided “the great revelation” in an epilogue, written with Malcolm X’s permission but independent of his control. In fact, the epilogue offered a series of revelations: that the interviews, which took place late at night, when Malcolm was usually exhausted, often seemed more like interrogations or therapy sessions; that when Haley served coffee he purposely provided only paper napkins, so he could later analyze Malcolm X’s doodlings; that he kept two sets of notebooks, one for Malcolm X’s thoughts, one for his own.
The epilogue, more than the narrative, revealed a faceted Malcolm X, who, certain the room was bugged, initiated interviews with, “Testing—one, two, three,” who “went jubilantly lindy-hopping around, his coattail and the long legs and the big feet flying,” who cried out in frustration, “We had the best organization the black man’s ever had—niggers ruined it!” It revealed also a subplot, in which Malcolm X, who once called Haley “one of the white man’s tools,” came to trust him “twenty-five per cent,” and finally said simply, “I’ll trust you”—while the middle-class, ex-military Haley, whose Playboy interview suggested a distaste for Malcolm X, confessed, “I tried to be a dispassionate chronicler. But he was the most electric personality I have ever met.”
And the epilogue told the story Malcolm X could not tell: how he “walked out onto the stage, into the applause” . . . and the gunfire; how he was carried to a hospital on a makeshift stretcher, where “surgeons cut through his chest to attempt to massage the heart”; how “the effort was abandoned at 3:30 p.m.”
According to Time magazine he had been, “in life and in death . . . a disaster to the civil rights movement.” Certainly many who’d grown impatient with nonviolence heard in his voice a cadence more compelling that King’s “soul force.” In June of 1966, Stokely Carmichael, a six-year veteran of the nonviolent trenches, survivor of two dozen arrests, punctured the orotund rhetoric of yet another peaceful march with the Malcolm-esque cry, “Black Power!” The civil rights movement, and its rhetoric, would never be the same.
But Malcolm X’s voice was heard beyond the political arena. The day after his death, playwright LeRoi Jones, later Amiri Baraka, formed the Black Arts Repertory Theater, the crucible of a Black Arts movement that would influence two generations of black writers. Three years later, at a celebration of Malcolm X’s birth, a group of musicians later known as the Last Poets fused percussive rhythm with politics-and profanity-laced lyrics into a sound that came to be called rap.
Recorded and amplified by The Autobiography, Malcolm X’s voice spoke to black men languishing in prisons in language they could comprehend, inspiring some to their own tough, uncompromising eloquence: Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Etheridge Knight’s Poems from Prison, Bobby Seale’s Seize the Time, George Jackson’s Soledad Brother.
It spoke also to young blacks who, under the aegis of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were enrolling in historically white colleges and universities in increasing numbers. Some of those students came seeking not only education but an identity different from the Negro of the past. “Colleges,” wrote Joseph A. Banks in 1968, “must facilitate this identity quest by allowing and encouraging students to read works such as A Raisin in the Sun, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” In 1970 Time magazine lamented, “Malcolm X seems likely to endure in literature . . . The book has already sold 1.2 million copies and is used in schools and colleges all over the U.S.”
That use was and is problematic. Now, as then, The Autobiography is often presented as social science. Certainly Malcolm X’s life story retains significance, but now that significance is historical; of more immediate significance is what once was prophecy. “Thicker each year in these ghettoes is the kind of teen-ager that I was, with the wrong kinds of heroes and the wrong kinds of influences,” he said. “As the Christian Crusade once went East,” he wrote, “the Islamic Crusade is going West.”
And now, as then, when The Autobiography is taught as literature, it is often presented in the context of a racially isolated narrative tradition. Certainly it has elements in common with Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. But it also has elements in common with more canonical autobiographies, like The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and The Confessions of St. Augustine. And it has elements that make it more literary than any simple autobiography. Malcolm X’s decisions to first withhold and then confess his knowledge of Elijah’s sins make him a complex first-person narrator, whose reliability changes in the course of the narration. Haley’s epilogue introduces a second first-person narrator who comments on the first narrator and the process of composition. These postmodern effects, frequently noted in such 1960s novels as Heller’s Catch-22, Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, had rarely been seen in nonfiction.
Malcolm X referred to himself as a demagogue, using the term in the classic sense: a speaker for the common people. His detractors used the same term with a more modern connotation: a speaker who will use any means necessary, including fallacies and lies. But the French philosopher Michel Foucault suggests another term: parrhesiastes, a speaker who “uses the most direct words and forms of expression” to express “as directly as possible what he actually believes.” Such a speaker, according to Foucault, plays a vital role, speaking truth to a powerful elite that does not wish to hear it, risking “death to tell the truth instead of reposing in the security of a life where the truth goes unspoken.”
Malcolm X accepted the risk, because he too had a dream: “that one day, history may even say that my voice . . . disturbed the white man’s smugness, and his arrogance, and his complacency.” In February 1965, Malcolm X was silenced. But in October, Grove Press published The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
(Electronically reproduced from A New Literary History of America, by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, eds, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2009 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.)
For more about A New Literary History of America, and for the full text of another handful of its more than two hundred essays, visit www.NewLiteraryHistory.com