A smiling Malcolm X.
A smiling Malcolm X.

I was a girl when I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Malcolm wasn’t a figure that I learned about in school but as someone coming of age in the ’90s, his name was referenced in rap songs and references were being made to him through the Xs emblazoned on t-shirts and baseball caps sported as popular fashion. I wanted to know who this guy was that seemed to be so popular for the older teens of my generation so I picked-up a copy of his autobiography–the one I still have all these years later.

I don’t know too many schools that assign The Autobiography of Malcolm X as required reading, but they should. His story, as told to Alex Haley, has music in it. As I read it, I heard jazz, my grandfather’s music, as the backbeat of his life’s story. I don’t know that I can explain where the sound comes from for me in the text, but the book definitely resonates acoustically. Perhaps the changes that Malcolm was forced to endure, initiated himself, and inspired others to make influenced the text’s sound. These changes certainly are what make his life an interesting one to contemplate. As critical of America as Malcolm was, the self that he fashioned from the losses that he endured, the home he was forced to give-up and remake, and the trials he suffered through to become a public person who tried to lead a moral and purposeful life makes for a very American story.

I’m currently reading James H. Cone’s book Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare so Malcolm has been on my mind lately. I’ve always thought about Malcolm through the lens of change but because Cone highlights the changes King makes in his own thinking about America towards the end of his life, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how public and open Malcolm’s changes appear when compared to King’s. King expanded his ideas about how and where suffering occurs, as a matter of class and not just race, he was not forced to admit that he was wrong in the way that Malcolm had to in his blind support and commitment to Elijah Muhammad; in his effort to build coalition through religion. Malcolm changed course in a very public way. He lived learning out loud.

My father was a great admirer of Malcolm’s. I think he was drawn to the in-your-face, assertive, confrontational form of masculinity that he offered. Towards the end of his life, my father liked to voice his own criticism of America through what I took to be his own Malcolm-like posture. My father wouldn’t have been a very good preacher, but what I appreciated about him in relationship to Malcolm was how publicly he lived out his faults and attempted to correct his mistakes. I’m sure it’s easy for certain kinds of personalities to boast and speak out with great volume, but no matter who you are, admitting that you’re wrong in that same pitch requires courage. As I saw with my father, it can also be very generous to share your faults, your humanity, with other people; I appreciate them both for that.

I’ve written here before about speaking to a group of college honors students about Malcolm. What I didn’t say in that post is that while the students on the panel were there to discuss Manning Marable’s wonderful biography about Malcolm, they all did so while noting that they had not read Malcolm’s autobiography. Apparently, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is not required reading for honors classes and though you would expect honors students to be curious enough to go and read the work for themselves, that isn’t happening…and I think that’s a shame. Reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X is certainly worth your time.

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