BooksThe making and remaking of Malcolm X.by David Remnick
“You’re another of the white man’s tools sent to spy!” Malcolm told Alex Haley when they first met. Photograph by Eve Arnold.
On summer nights, in 1963, Malcolm X drove his blue Oldsmobile from Mosque No. 7, the Harlem headquarters of the Nation of Islam, to an apartment building on Grove Street, in Greenwich Village, where a freelance writer named Alex Haley sat waiting for him in an eight-by-ten-foot studio. There, the two would remain until early morning. Haley sat at a desk typing notes while Malcolm—tall, austere, dressed always in a dark suit, a white shirt, and a narrow dark tie—drank cup after cup of coffee, paced the room, and talked. What emerged was the hegira of Malcolm’s life as a black man in mid-century America: his transformation from Malcolm Little, born in Omaha to troubled parents whose salve against racist harassment and violence was the black-nationalist creed of Marcus Garvey; to Detroit Red, a numbers-running hustler on the streets of Boston and New York; to a convicted felon known among fellow-prisoners as Satan; to Malcolm X, a charismatic deputy to the Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, and the most electrifying proponent of black nationalism alive. “My whole life has been a chronology of changes,” Malcolm told Haley one night, and, in a few months, he would transform himself yet again, becoming El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, a Sunni Muslim.
When Haley first met Malcolm, in 1959, he had recently retired from a twenty-year career in the Coast Guard, and had embarked on a career as a journalist. He soon published articles about the Nation of Islam and Malcolm in Reader’s Digest and The Saturday Evening Post. Haley was not at all in accord with the Nation’s theology or its vehement ideology of racial separatism. He was a liberal Republican, an integrationist, who admired A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—the mainstream civil-rights leaders whom Malcolm denounced as “stooges” and “lackeys.”
“You’re another of the white man’s tools sent to spy!” Malcolm told Haley at their first meeting. Despite their obvious differences, though, Malcolm thought that Haley’s articles had been fair. After interviewing Malcolm for Playboy, Haley persuaded him to collaborate on an “as told to” autobiography. They would split a twenty-thousand-dollar advance from Doubleday.
The first sessions on Grove Street were frustrating, as Malcolm spent countless hours praising the wisdom of Elijah Muhammad, and avoided all mention of his own life. Then came a night when Haley asked Malcolm, “I wonder if you’d tell me something about your mother?” Malcolm’s voice softened. Walking in a tight circle, he said, “She was always standing over the stove, trying to stretch whatever we had to eat.” He began to tell the story of his life, how the family’s house was burned to the ground by the white racists of the Black Legion, how his white teacher told him he could never be a lawyer (“That’s no realistic goal for a nigger!”). They talked until dawn, accumulating much of a first chapter, which Haley titled “Nightmare.”
Haley’s ambition was to write a bestseller; in Malcolm, he recognized not a great man, necessarily, but a great story, even a dangerous one. By 1964, Malcolm had fallen out with the Nation of Islam, and he became convinced, rightly, that he did not have long to live. Followed all his public life by the F.B.I. and the police, Malcolm was now being pursued by the Nation, with its thuggish “pipe squads,” the Fruit of Islam. Haley cared for Malcolm, but he cared for the book no less. “I sometimes think that you do not really understand what will be the effect of this book,” he wrote Malcolm in a long letter. “There has never been, at least not in our time, any other book like it. Do you realize that to do these things you will have to be alive?” In order to fend off deadlines, meanwhile, Haley wrote buoyantly to his agent and editors, insisting that the book would “sweep the market like wildfire”: “For this man is so hot, so HOT, a subject . . . this book is so pregnant with millions or more sales potential, including to make foreign rights hotly bid for!”
On February 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom, in Washington Heights, multiple assassins fired shotguns and pistols at Malcolm as he stepped to the lectern for a speech. Two hours after hearing the news, Haley wrote to his agent, “None of us would have had it be this way, but since this book represent’s [sic] Malcolm’s sole financial legacy to his widow and four little daughters . . . I’m just glad that it’s ready for the press now at a peak of interest for what will be international large sales, and paperback, and all.”
The publisher, Nelson Doubleday, fearing for the lives of his staff, cancelled his deal with Haley; Barney Rosset, the bold and ingenious proprietor of Grove Press, picked up the contract. He would not be sorry. Between 1965 and 1977, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” sold six million copies worldwide, and the book continues to sell briskly, both to general readers and to students for whom it is required reading. In 1992, Spike Lee set off a bout of “Malcolmania,” with his three-hour-plus film. In its wake, people as unlikely as Dan Quayle talked sympathetically about Malcolm. A poll showed that eighty-four per cent of African-Americans between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four saw Malcolm as “a hero for black Americans today.” The video for Public Enemy’s “Shut ’Em Down” put Malcolm’s face on the dollar bill. A vivid but secondary figure in his own time, Malcolm X had achieved the status of an icon. And he did it with a book that he never lived to see published.
For nearly twenty years, Manning Marable, a historian at Columbia, labored on what he hoped would be a definitive scholarly work on Malcolm X. During this period, Marable struggled with sarcoidosis, a pulmonary disease, and even underwent a double lung transplant. Recently, he completed his rigorous and evenhanded biography, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” (Viking; $30), but, in an echo of his subject’s fate, he died on the eve of publication. One of his goals was to grapple with Malcolm’s autobiography, and although he finds much to admire about Malcolm, he makes it clear that the book’s drama sometimes comes at the expense of fact. Haley wanted to write a “potboiler that would sell,” Marable observes, and Malcolm was accustomed to exaggerating his exploits—“the number of his burglaries, the amount of marijuana he sold to musicians, and the like.” Malcolm, like St. Augustine, embellished his sins in order to heighten the drama of his reform.
The literary urge outran the knowable facts even in the most crucial episode in Malcolm’s childhood. One evening, in 1931, in Lansing, Michigan, when Malcolm was six, his father, Earl Little, a part-time Garveyite teacher, went to collect “chicken money” from families who bought poultry from him. That night, he was found bleeding to death on the streetcar tracks. The authorities ruled his death an accident, but Malcolm’s mother, Louise, was sure he had been beaten by the Black Legion and laid on the tracks to be run over and killed. Perhaps he had been, but, as Marable notes, nobody knew for sure. The autobiography (and Lee’s film) presents the ostensible murder as established fact, and yet Malcolm himself, in a 1963 speech at Michigan State University, referred to the death as accidental.
It’s indisputable that the family suffered terribly, from both racism and humiliating poverty. This was an era of lynchings, Jim Crow, and economic depression. Malcolm says he was sometimes “dizzy” with hunger. His mother became a barely functional depressive, given to mumbling to herself for hours in a rocking chair; she was eventually institutionalized. Malcolm, who was sent off to a series of foster homes and an all-white school, scarcely saw her for twenty-five years. Even if Malcolm’s autobiography intensified the colors of his story, the general grimness of “Nightmare”—his sense of deprivation and hurt, his rage at white society—is borne out by Marable’s scholarship.
Malcolm worked for a while on Pullman trains, clowning for the passengers, and eventually landed in Roxbury and Harlem, where he was a small-time gangster, with a conk and a zoot suit, pimping and selling dope, hanging out with musicians, hustlers, and prostitutes at famous nightspots like the Roseland Ballroom and Small’s Paradise. Like Charlie Parker before him, he washed dishes at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack. He not only ran numbers but wagered on them, too: “Every day I would gamble all of my tips—as high as fifteen and twenty dollars—on the numbers, and dream of what I would do when I hit.”
Although the autobiography portrays him as apolitical during these years, this seems to have been a dramatic device to signal ignorance before enlightenment. Marable tracked down a reliable witness who says that Malcolm “would talk often about how his father used to get brutalized and beat up on the corner selling Marcus Garvey’s paper, and he would talk a lot about Garvey’s concepts in terms of how they could benefit us as a people.”
In Boston, Malcolm worked for William Paul Lennon, the son of a successful Rhode Island merchant. In 1944, Malcolm was a “butler and occasional house worker” at Lennon’s house on Arlington Street, near the Public Garden. In the autobiography, he writes about his friend Rudy, who went to see the “blueblood” every week: “He paid Rudy to undress them both, then pick up the old man like a baby, lay him on his bed, then stand over him, and sprinkle him all over with talcum powder. Rudy said the old man would actually reach his climax from that.” Marable writes that, “based on circumstantial but strong evidence, Malcolm was probably describing his own homosexual encounters with Paul Lennon.” When this suggestion first surfaced, in a tendentious 1991 biography by Bruce Perry, the criticism was huge, but Marable insists that the evidence is now more compelling.
The days of Detroit Red came to an end in 1946. Malcolm and another hustler named Shorty Jarvis, along with their two white girlfriends, went on a robbery spree, and Malcolm was arrested trying to get a stolen watch repaired. After the judge gave him and Jarvis concurrent eight-to-ten-year sentences, Malcolm’s lawyer told him, “You had no business with white girls!”
At Charlestown State Prison, Malcolm boasted about his criminal exploits, got high on nutmeg, and met a jailhouse autodidact who convinced him of the virtues of books. Malcolm started reading Kant and Nietzsche, H. G. Wells and Herodotus; he even tried to memorize the dictionary. In 1948, he received a letter from his older brother Philbert saying that he and others in the family had converted to the Nation of Islam—“a program designed to help black people.” After reading up on the Nation, Malcolm sat in his cell and wrote twenty-five drafts of a one-page letter to Elijah Muhammad, pledging his spiritual loyalty. In a welcoming reply, Elijah Muhammad enclosed a five-dollar bill.
If you are a believer (and very few are these days), the origins of the Nation of Islam stretch back thousands of years, to a time when blacks, the “original people,” were assaulted by a mutant white race created by an evil “Big Head” scientist named Yacub. The whites achieved dominion over the earth and blacks “went to sleep,” mentally and spiritually. The purpose of the Nation of Islam was to rouse the black man from his slumber. (Armed spaceships come into it, too.) Such were the teachings of Wallace D. Fard, an ex-con, silk salesman, and eccentric storefront preacher who turned up in a Detroit ghetto around 1930. Fard also had more earthly advice. He told his followers to avoid alcohol, to work hard and save money, to own their own businesses, and to regain a sense of the nobility of their race. His Nation of Islam represented a cultish offshoot of a venerable American movement, black nationalism.
One summer night, in 1931, at a former Garveyite meeting hall in Detroit, a onetime sharecropper from Georgia with a fourth-grade education named Elijah Poole came to hear Fard preach, and afterward told him, “I know who you are, you are God himself.” “That’s right,” Fard said. “But don’t tell it now. It is not yet time for me to be known.” Fard set up operations in Chicago, and Poole became his minister. In 1934, Fard mysteriously disappeared and the apostle, now called Elijah Muhammad, took command of the Nation of Islam.
The Nation that Malcolm joined when he was released, in 1952, was tiny and largely apolitical. Its members, who numbered in the hundreds, were instructed not to vote. Elijah Muhammad, who was remarkably uncharismatic, quickly recognized in Malcolm a dynamic and tireless organizer and speaker, and dispatched him to Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, and, finally, Harlem, to establish new temples. While the civil-rights movement developed in the South, Malcolm went from ghetto to ghetto in the North, the Midwest, and California. He turned white supremacy on its head—whites were “blue-eyed devils”—and urged solidarity with the emerging independence movements of Africa and Asia. His early appeal was based less on the coherence of his political ideas than on the raw excitement of his presence at the lectern, the fierce clarity of his rhetoric, and (for all his verbal ferocity) a certain cool charm, even toward white reporters. For many poor, young, urban blacks, King was too middle-class and genteel, too Southern, too churchly and high-flown; Malcolm had lived as they had. “Nobody could handle Malcolm,” Louis Farrakhan, his protégé and eventual enemy, said. “I never saw Malcolm smoke. I never saw Malcolm curse. I never saw Malcolm wink at a woman. I never saw Malcolm eat in between meals. He ate one meal a day. He got up at 5 o’clock in the morning to say his prayers. I never saw Malcolm late for an appointment. Malcolm was like a clock.” By 1961, according to Marable, the Nation had as many as seventy-five thousand members.
Even outsiders were impressed. Malcolm “is an excellent speaker, forceful and convincing,” one F.B.I. informant said, in 1958. “He is an expert organizer and an untiring worker,” whose hatred for whites “is not likely to erupt in violence as he is much too clever and intelligent for that.”
Malcolm was not above appealing to the worst instincts of his followers. “Jews run the country,” he said. Women were “tricky, deceitful, untrustworthy flesh.” As a way to mock the passive resisters of the mainstream civil-rights movement, he distinguished between the honest masses, the “field Negroes,” and the perfidious “house Negroes,” who were forever looking to their white masters for privilege and approval. (The political scientist Adolph Reed points out that the famous slave-revolt leaders—Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Gabriel Prosser—were house slaves.) Malcolm’s desire to rouse his followers and scandalize the white majority could lead him to disastrous miscalculations: in January, 1961, he met with representatives of the Klan, in Atlanta, confiding to his hooded interlocutors, “The Jew is behind the integration movement, using the Negro as a tool.”
But the former numbers runner had an appetite for the high-stakes gamble. While King sought to enlist the sympathies of the white majority in order to achieve racial integration, Malcolm, the incendiary separatist, freely indulged his penchant for outrage. In June, 1962, a plane crashed in Paris carrying mostly well-to-do white passengers from Atlanta. In front of more than a thousand people in Los Angeles, Malcolm said that the disaster was “a very beautiful thing”: “We call on our God—he gets rid of a hundred and twenty of them.”
By 1959, fissures had emerged between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad. Some of Elijah’s lieutenants resented Malcolm’s fame, his appearances with Mike Wallace and other television interviewers; others worried that Malcolm was angling to take over the Nation when Elijah died. But the tensions took on seamier aspects. In 1958, Malcolm married a woman named Betty Sanders, but by the following year the marriage (which is portrayed sentimentally in Lee’s film) was foundering. Malcolm sent a distressed letter to Elijah Muhammad:
The main source of our trouble was based on SEX. . . . She placed a great deal more stress upon it than I was physically capable of doing. . . . At a time when I was going all out to keep her satisfied (sexually), one day she told me that we were incompatible sexually because I had never given her any real satisfaction. From then on, try as I may, I began to become very cool toward her. . . . She later said she was going to seek satisfaction elsewhere.
Somehow, Elijah’s lieutenants learned about Malcolm’s problems, and did not hesitate to spread humiliating rumors.
Later that year, Malcolm heard that a young secretary at the Nation’s headquarters with whom he had had a romance before he married Betty was pregnant, and, he subsequently learned, with Elijah Muhammad’s child. Indeed, Elijah had impregnated other young women. When the woman asked Elijah for money, he was cruel and dismissive, saying, “You must think I’m a fool or Santa Claus.” When she called again, he told a minister who heard the exchange, “It looks like she will have to be put down.” By the early sixties, Malcolm had confronted Elijah about his sexual behavior, further offending the leadership of the Nation.
Finally, the relationship between Malcolm and his mentor exploded. Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm defied the Nation’s instructions to stay quiet and said that the murder in Dallas represented “the chickens coming home to roost.” He added, “Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad. They’ve always made me glad.” Elijah Muhammad “silenced” Malcolm X. Officially, the punishment was supposed to last just three months, but there seemed no chance of resolution. Malcolm was on his own. “I hadn’t hustled in the streets for years for nothing,” Malcolm told Haley. “I knew when I was being set up.”
In 1964, Malcolm decided to reform his soul, alter his politics, and refashion his public image. After touring Africa and the Middle East for two months, during which he made the hajj, he returned to Harlem an orthodox Muslim, a man in flux. His Garveyite belief in entrepreneurial capitalism shifted to socialism. He disavowed separatism. In a letter to a Times reporter, M. S. Handler, he wrote, “Some of my very dearest friends are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists—some are capitalists, socialists, conservatives, extremists . . . some are even Uncle Toms—some are black, brown, red, yellow and some are even white.”
Malcolm’s shift in the last year of his life, as dramatized in his autobiography, is what allowed middle-class blacks and white liberals to admire him. When Bill Clinton wore an “X” cap, he was not railing against blue-eyed devils; he was gesturing to this late, “humanistic” Malcolm. (He was also making a fashion statement.) Yet even in the final passage of his life Malcolm failed to build a serious political movement or create a coherent point of view. He had only a brief time left to him; everything was not resolved or reconciled. He was still full of contradictions, praising King one day, ridiculing him the next, hailing Elijah Muhammad before one audience, then denouncing him before another. He still could not accept nonviolent revolution. Three days before his death, Malcolm said, “I’m man enough to tell you that I can’t put my finger on exactly what my philosophy is now.”
Malcolm clearly made his deepest impression on the American consciousness through his collaboration with Alex Haley. By joining Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Richard Wright in the act of literary testimony, Malcolm became part of the most essential genre of African-American literature. With its depiction of racism and struggle, with its search for purpose, identity, community, and a name, Malcolm’s autobiography followed a familiar pattern—what the scholar Robert B. Stepto calls the “narrative of ascent.” “Autobiographies do not form indisputable authorities,” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote. “They are always incomplete, and often unreliable. Eager as I am to put down the truth, there are difficulties; memory fails especially in small details, so that it becomes finally but a theory of my life.”
But what do Malcolm’s readers see in him? Writing two decades ago, Cornel West called Malcolm “the skeleton in the closet lodged in the racial memory of most black professionals.” Consider the foremost black professional in the country—the President of the United States. After Barack Obama was inaugurated, he returned to the British government a bust of Winston Churchill that was on display in the Oval Office and installed a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. King is rightly regarded as the singular hero of the era that lasted from the Montgomery bus boycott, in 1955, to his death, in April, 1968. Malcolm was an electrifying spokesman for black dignity and selfhood, a radical prod to the mainstream movement, but his role in the civil-rights movement was marginal.
Yet, when Obama was young and trying to come to terms with his own identity, he read the autobiography and it affected him more deeply than even the works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin. In balmy Hawaii, at the most prestigious private school west of the Rockies, Obama found something in the narrative of a man who was also of mixed race, had lost his father, and needed to create a self. “His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me,” Obama wrote of Malcolm in “Dreams from My Father.” “The blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will.” Obama, who adored his white mother and grandparents, was disturbed by Malcolm’s desire to “expunge” the white blood in him. What he admired was the book’s depiction of Malcolm’s redemptive journey and his redemptive, universalist final year.
“I was never taken with some of his theorizing,” Obama told me last year. “I think that what Malcolm X did, though, was to tap into a long-running tradition within the African-American community, which is that, at certain moments, it’s important for African-Americans to assert their manhood, their worth. . . . That affirmation that I am a man, I am worth something, I think was important. And I think Malcolm X probably captured that better than anybody.”
Obama dealt with black nationalists on Chicago’s South Side both as an organizer and as a state senator. Louis Farrakhan’s headquarters were within his district. When he first got to Chicago, he heard the nationalists on the radio and read their publication The Final Call. He came to see that their message had “twin strands,” one that was an affirmation of pride and self-reliance and one that depended on hatred, a form of “magical thinking” that deluded those who “could least afford such make-believe.” Of course, the complexities of that world reflect Malcolm X’s own complexities, his contradictions and resentments and hopes.
The narrative that Alex Haley crafted is, in certain respects, profoundly comforting: it transforms those twin strands into a distinct before and after. Here was a Malcolm who could still embody the legitimate rage of a humiliated people but also become part of the very cultural firmament he anathematized—a Malcolm who could, and did, end up on a postage stamp. Although Manning Marable may not have succeeded in writing a definitive work, his considerable scholarship does remind us how much is elided by any tale of a pilgrim’s progress. If the autobiography simplified reality, however, it kept faith with its subject’s ambitions. By choosing to entrust his story to Alex Haley, Malcolm assured himself a lasting place in American culture. It was his most brilliant wager. ♦
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