My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Only such real, meaningful actions as those which are sincerely motivated from a deep sense of humanism and moral responsibility can get at the basic causes that produce the racial explosions in America today. Otherwise, the racial explosions are only going to grow worse.” ~ Malcolm X
Before I offer an opinion of this text, there is something which I feel I must confess. I am not Will Smith. I did not read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” like 3 times (see episode where Aunt Viv lectures to Will’s Black History class). I did read it once before around the age of 18 and even then not very thoroughly, but because I was a pre-teen experiencing my formative years during the opening of Spike Lee’s film, I certainly felt I had the scoop and the insight on who Malcolm was and what he represented (as ill formed and incomplete as that opinion might have been).
I have identified with him mentally (and perhaps physically) since my attendance at the opening of the film in New Orleans when I was 12 years old. I had perhaps heard chatter prior to then that I bore him some resemblance, but it was never more true to life and form than when I saw Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm’s firebrand eloquence in the theater. From then on I would search for ways that I might carve out my personality more in tune with his likeness intellectually. I was a reader before then of Fear Street fiction and other such youthful exploits, but I immediately parted ways with those childish pursuits in favor of Ralph Wiley, Chancellor Williams, Marcus Garvey, Stokely Carmichael, and self identification with Islam.
While I never went full bore into the final stage of conversion to Islam of any form, pursuit of the personal philosophy of Malcolm X would inform my future relationships and organizational engagement for the next 18 years. What is the relevance of my personal story to this text? It is one of evolution and identification; of change and the challenges of growing. The mere fact that I can take this very same text and read it with two, ten, or twelve years between readings and draw starkly different conclusions each time speaks to Malcolm X as an entirely evolutionary (and by extension revolutionary) figure.
I think that my brother Kamau Rashid stated it best when he noted that upon his first reading of the text, he was a sympathizer, but now he can be fully objective and critical of the text because he has developed greater nuance in his thinking and positions. Not unlike Malcolm as we began to reach the close of this text and his life. He wanted the world to understand that his philosophy was evolving and growing in a number of ways, but perhaps because we as humans are not as evolutionary in scale as we would like to think, we could not get away from the first Malcolm that we knew rapidly enough to embrace his second coming.
I want no one to be confused about the fact. Malcolm was still the most strident contender that a seething racist American undertone would ever encounter in his generation. His view on the situation in America for Black people was still unhindered by his insight from traveling the world, but America’s nativist tendency was unable to confront the tarnish of world opinion on a just and stable field.
Malcolm was splashed with the lead paint of his past speakings. He was tarred and feathered so well by the same system which would later literally manufacture evidence to convict Geronimo Pratt and all of the other victims of COINTELPRO that even in the face of the FOIA documentation we can have someone like Kevin Williamson state on NPR Tell Me More that “Well, I think that we had an opportunity at that time to take things socially in a slightly different direction, and Malcolm X and the movement that he stood for, I think, probably did more damage to the cause of fully integrating blacks in American public life and American private life than it did good.”
I think the unfortunate nature of literature in America is that more people don’t subject texts such as “The Autobiography…” to multiple critical readings. Don’t read the book to say that you have read it or so that you may have an argumentative jump off point to slander Malcolm’s intellectual progeny in debate. Read it and understand what manner of system can create the man and the mind. Read it and understand how personal evolution can make that which once was destructive become instructive. Read it and recognize how much you need to change so that the world can change.
No matter what is written of this text now or in the future, there will be no other biography of Malcolm that matters as much. The first person narrative here and acute detail for the length of Malcolm’s life is far too gripping and overwhelming to be undertaken by any study, no matter how deep or insightful, of Malcolm’s life and legacy. This is Malcolm. Our Malcolm.