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books The Missing Malcolm X

Our understanding of Malcolm X is inextricably linked to his autobiography, but newly discovered materials force us to reexamine his legacy.

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Malcolm X, Image: Marion S. Trikosko/Wikimedia Commons // Boston Review

More than fifty years after his death, Malcolm X remains a polarizing and misunderstood figure. Not unlike the leader he is too often contrasted with—Martin Luther King, Jr.—he has been a symbol to mobilize around, a foil to abjure, or a commodity to sell, rather than a thinker to engage. As political philosopher Brandon Terry reminded us in these pageson the fiftieth anniversary of King’s death this year, “There are costs to canonization.” The primary vehicle of canonization in Malcolm’s case has been The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which has been translated into thirty languages and has been widely read—by students and activists alike—across the United States and abroad.

The project first took shape in 1963, when Malcolm signed an agreement with journalist Alex Haley to co-author the book for Doubleday Press. (It was the first book for both writers.) The contract stipulated that Malcolm would have ultimate say over the final version: “Nothing can be in the manuscript, whether a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter, or more that you do not completely approve of.” But Malcolm would never see the final book, which was published instead by Grove Press after his assassination in 1965. Fearing it would be too controversial, Doubleday withdrew its contract after Malcolm’s death in what biographer Manning Marable called the “most disastrous decision in corporate publishing history.” The book sold six million copies by 1977 and would later serve as the basis of Spike Lee’s influential 1992 biopic. It has shaped generations of activists and helped to define our collective understanding of race in the United States. The book is viewed as a crystallization of Malcolm X’s political vision, yet that vision is all too often overshadowed by—or conflated with—the man himself, portrayed in the book as a charismatic leader defined by dramatic personal transformation and tragedy.

That understanding—both of the person and of the politics—now stands to be reexamined. This summer previously unpublished materials that had been seized from a private collector, who acquired them at the sale of Haley’s estate in 1992, were auctioned to the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The items acquired include various notes from Malcolm, a draft 241-page manuscript of the autobiography with handwritten corrections and notes from both Malcolm and Haley, and—perhaps most importantly—a previously unpublished 25-page typewritten chapter titled “The Negro.” (This week, the Schomburg Center made these items available to the public by appointment.) There have long been rumors of three missing chapters among scholars; some think Haley cut them from the book following Malcolm’s assassination because their politics diverged or the book had transformed during his tumultuous last year. Whatever the reasoning, “The Negro” is a fragment of the book Malcolm intended to publish—a book that would be virtually unrecognizable to readers of his autobiography today. We will never fully know that book, of course, but “The Negro” chapter forces us, finally, to engage with it.

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The published book charts a series of personal transformations: from his birth in Omaha, Nebraska, as Malcolm Little to his nickname “Detroit Red” (he had reddish hair) in Harlem, then “Satan” while he served time in prison, to Malcolm X when he embraced the Nation of Islam, and finally, after making the pilgrimage in 1964, to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Spanning five hundred pages and nineteen chapters, including an expansive epilogue by Haley, it is a story of dramatic metamorphosis. Malcolm Little, born one of seven children in 1925 to disciples of Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey, was imbued with black self-reliance during his childhood in Lansing, Michigan. His father, Earl, was killed under suspicious circumstances—many suspect the Black Legion, a white hate group—when Malcolm was six years old. When his mother, Louise, was admitted to a mental institute in 1938, Malcolm first went to foster care and then to his half-sister’s home in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. Traveling back and forth between Roxbury and Harlem, the young Malcolm met musicians and entertainers and became involved in a life of petty crime before being arrested and sentenced to 8–10 years for a string of home robberies. In prison, the published autobiography relates, Malcolm undergoes a religious and political awakening that culminates with his conversion to Islam; he became the chief minister of Harlem’s Temple No. 7 in 1954. Seven years later, he was named the Nation of Islam's national representative and had become its public face. The book concludes at a dizzying pace as Malcolm experienced the turmoil of his ouster from the Nation of Islam, his founding of two independent organizations (Muslim Mosque Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity), his travels abroad in 1964, and eventually his assassination in early 1965.

Haley originally intended this narrative arc—comprising the full scope of the published autobiography—to fill only three brief chapters that would merely serve to introduce the book’s main author. According to the original chapter outline, after the biographical details, Malcolm would tell the story of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s life in a lone transitional chapter before writing the bulk of the book: eleven speech-like essays on a range of topics, including “The Liberal,” “The Brutal Police,” “The Farce on Washington,” “The Potential Twenty Million Muslims in America,” “Questions I Get Asked” and the Nation of Islam’s ten-point program “What We Muslims Want. . . What We Believe.” While these themes appeared in many of Malcolm’s speeches and were interspersed throughout the final book, the chapters as originally titled were never realized.

Instead, Haley delivered “The Negro” to Doubleday in October 1963. A month and a half later, after Malcolm called President John F. Kennedy’s assassination a case of the “chickens coming home to roost,” Elijah Muhammad publicly chastised Malcolm and forbade him from public speaking for three months, which proved to be the most productive period of the autobiography’s writing. Haley would type as Malcolm spoke aloud, gathering napkins he had surreptitiously placed for Malcolm to scribble his thoughts. Around this time, Haley wrote his editor and agent that Malcolm was “tense as the length of his inactivity grows—and it eases him when I come and talk the book with him.”

Malcolm began to reflect more openly about his past, likely ballooning the personal narrative at the expense of the essays, and Haley began to describe the “first half of the book” as “the man’s life story.” With his restlessness producing more material, “The Negro” was now intended to be one of three, rather than eleven, essays for the remainder of the book. The others would be “The End of Christianity” and “Twenty Million Black Muslims”—the three essays serving to summarize Malcolm’s religious and political point of view.

With the book, Malcolm had hoped to subvert the generic conventions of autobiography that elevate the singular, private person over the collective, political public. Personal storytelling could be a means for collective liberation. Indeed, the weight given to Malcolm’s political vision in the book at times led to tensions with Haley. Just months after Haley and Malcolm signed the contract with Doubleday, Haley requested that his role be changed from “co-authored by” to “as told to.” “Co-authoring with Malcolm X,” he wrote, “would, to me, imply sharing his views—when mine are almost a complete antithesis of his.” He remembered Malcolm scolding him: “A writer is what I want, not an interpreter.”

Malcolm wanted his autobiography to be the story of a people and the social forces that shaped their lives, but in the end it became the story of an exceptional man’s life. Marable’s own Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Malcolm, twenty years in the making, grew out of his frustrations that the autobiography did not accurately represent Malcolm X’s political thought. Both during his life and after his death, Malcolm has often been reduced to a bare vessel of emotion, caricatured as an incisive critic who lacked a solution to the structural racism he so eloquently denounced. The autobiography itself was first marketed this way, as the story of “America’s angriest black man.” James Farmer, one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement, once quipped at Malcolm during a debate: “We know the disease, physician, what is your cure?” Marable had speculated that the unpublished chapters would reveal a more holistic political vision, and “The Negro” partly fulfills that hope. Indeed, in its twenty-five pages, Malcolm X both outlines sicknesses and, quite explicitly, offers potential cures.

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Haley excitedly wrote that “The Negro” was “guaranteed to upset the NAACP and [White] Citizens Councils, alike.” But the chapter, crucially, is more than just provocation. Today the essay’s title may sound like the product of a bygone era, but to Malcolm the term was always outdated, an ideological fiction of white supremacy. The “Negro,” he wrote, was a “white creation”:

Part of the ‘Negro’s’ survival technique until this day has been to let the white man hear what he knew he wanted to hear from his creation, and to show him the image he wanted to see. And the white man has gullibly believed the Negro survival ruse. It has helped him not have to face the enormity of his crime.

A classic lecture Malcolm gave as minister of Harlem’s Mosque No. 7 traced the root of “Negro” back to the Greek word for death, “nekro.” This folk etymology pointed not only to the Nation of Islam’s conviction that 85 percent of black people were “dead” in the sense that they were “deaf, dumb, and blind” to their own history, but also to its contention that the necessary and proximate death of the “Negro” race would lead to the rise of the Earth’s “original people.”

There is rage in “The Negro,” but it is accompanied by reason. It argues for politics over personality. The chapter is a kaleidoscopic tour through Malcolm’s searing critiques of black political leadership, integration, liberal incrementalism, and white philanthropy. The tone throughout is characteristically pointed, speech-like, and conversational:

One of the white man’s favorite tricks, through his ‘liberals’ and through his puppet ‘Negro leader’ mouthpieces, is to keep flooding the black masses and the rest of the world with propaganda that the black man here is getting better off in America in every way, every day. But the true nature and the true intent of the former slavemaster is glaring every way and every day in the headlines:

You Can’t Enter Here

You Can’t Ride Here

You Can’t Work Here

You Can’t Play Here

You Can’t Study Here

You Can’t Eat Here

You Can’t Drink Here

You Can’t Walk Here

You Can’t Live Here

At the center of Malcolm’s analysis in “The Negro” is the farce of liberal incrementalism. As an identity, “Negro” elevated a few black leaders to speak on behalf of all black people, propping up liberal narratives of incremental racial progress through tokenism and the facade of inclusion. Malcolm argued that racial integration was predicated on a discourse of inferiority: “sittin-in and kneeling-in at the bottom of the ladder, looking up and hollering ‘I’m just as good as you.’” He saw white philanthropy and civil rights leadership as a “black body with white heads.” And for those who said the Nation of Islam preached hate, he reminded that the “white man is in no moral position to ever accuse any black man of hate.”

Buried in the last three pages of the chapter are its greatest revelation. “‘First things come first,’ we are taught by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” Malcolm writes. That first step, however, will come as a surprise to many: political bloc strength. Malcolm and the Nation of Islam are often characterized as having been antagonistic to procedural politics—voting, legislation, and the like. But here Malcolm suggested that the black voting bloc could “overnight, take hold of the black man’s destiny in America.” He goes on to credit Muhammad as “advising the black masses to activate America’s greatest untapped source of political bloc strength.” Indeed, a year earlier Muhammad had declared that the future of black Americans “lies in electing our own.” The Muhammad Speaks newspaper claimed that the Nation of Islam might soon endorse candidates and participate in a nationwide voter registration drive in preparation for the 1964 election.

“The Negro” thus complicates narratives of rupture which position Malcolm’s foray into electoral politics as his first major shift after leaving the NOI. Even as Malcolm composed the chapter in 1963, a shift toward black bloc voting, voter registration drives, and black political parties was already underway. The all-black Freedom Now Party had been established in August 1963 during the March on Washington. The next year the activist Fannie Lou Hamer delivered her historic speech on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which sought seats at the Democratic National Convention. Soon after Kennedy’s assassination, Barry Goldwater announced his candidacy as the Republican challenger in the 1964 election, and throughout the election Malcolm would return to one of his favorite folk metaphors: the fox and the wolf. Like Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson was a liberal fox who would eat you with a grin. Goldwater, by contrast, was a vocal opponent of the Civil Rights Act, the wolf who would eat you with a scowl. But both the fox and the wolf, Malcolm was fond of pointing out, belong to the same family. In “The Negro,” he called Democrats and Republicans “labels that mean nothing” to black people. Elsewhere he noted how in the United Nations, there are those who vote yes, those who vote no, and those who abstain. And those who abstain often “have just as much weight.” A sign of political maturity, he believed, was to first register black people, then organize them, and vote only when a candidate represented their interests.

This analysis culminated in one of Malcolm’s most famous addresses, “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Delivered in April 1964 shortly after breaking with the Nation of Islam and forming his independent organization Muslim Mosque, Inc., Malcolm told a Cleveland audience, “A ballot is like a bullet. You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket.” Many historians have seen the speech as Malcolm’s first ideological break from the Nation of Islam, an index of his developing political thought. “The Negro,” by contrast, shows this thought as an extension of the Nation of Islam’s political development rather than a departure. Even the title of his speech may have been borrowed from the pages of Muhammad Speaks; in 1962, a front-page story about the struggle in Fayette County, Tennessee, to register black voters was subtitled: “Fayette Fought For Freedom With Bullets and Ballots.”

Similarly, the outline of black bloc voting in “The Negro” was a precursor to Malcolm’s later, more expansive goal of bringing the United States before the United Nations. In 1964, he connected a domestic black voting bloc to a global “African-Asian-Arab” one. “Today,” he urged, “power is international.” Electoral engagement was a tool, but hardly a panacea, for collective liberation.

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What significance does this revised understanding of Malcolm X and his autobiography have for social movements now?

By reanimating the autobiography’s original aim to tell the story of a people, not just a single person, the newly uncovered materials let the air out of the persistent myth that we should look—and, by implication, wait—for this generation’s King or Malcolm. This was always a convenient fiction, relying on the marginalization of women and grassroots activists. “The movement made Martin,” as Ella Baker pointed out, “rather than Martin making the movement.”

Indeed, today’s activists are mostly decentralized, group-centered, and hyper-local. They eschew—in many cases, outright discourage—cults of personality and dependence on a singular spokesperson. They have insisted that they are not leaderless, they are leader-full. Historian Barbara Ransby writes in her new book, Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century, that “this is the first time in the history of U.S. social movements that Black feminist politics have defined the frame for a multi-issue, Black-led mass struggle that did not primarily or exclusively focus on women.” Today’s activists are as likely to draw on Baker, Assata Shakur, Audre Lorde, and the Combahee River Collective as on Malcolm X.

Some students and activists still bemoan the absence of charismatic leaders, but the new materials emphasize how quickly autobiography shades into hagiography when we erase the collective political context. Malcolm X has come to look exceptional and distinct, disconnected from the political tradition handed down by his parents: his mother Louise wrote for the Universal Negro Improvement Association newspaper Negro World, and his father Earl was a Garveyite preacher. Properly contextualized, these new materials reconnect Malcolm to the intergenerational black nationalist tradition that he hoped his personal story might embody.

The rediscovered material reminds us that Malcolm sought a politics that was collective, and not solely reliant on his—or anyone’s—leadership. Just two months before his assassination, he introduced Hamer to a Harlem audience and pledged they would soon launch a massive voter registration drive to register black people as independents. “Policies change, and programs change, according to time,” he told a crowd that same day. “You might change your method of achieving the objective, but the objective never changes. Our objective is complete freedom, complete justice, complete equality, by any means necessary.”

[Essayist Garrett Felber is a scholar of twentieth-century African American history at the University of Michigan and co-editor with Manning Marable of The Portable Malcolm X Reader : A Man Who Stands for Nothing Will Fall for Anything (Penguin Classics).]

Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum, is a nonprofit reader-supported publication from which this essay is reprinted, The review is committed to staying free for all its readers. As such, it counts on its readers for support. If you liked what you read here, help support the review by making a donation. No amount is too small. To make a contribution, go HERE. To subscribe, go HERE.