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The Autobiography of Malcolm X
As told to Alex Haley

Amazon.com review by Christopher Smith:

The Autobiography of Malcolm X belongs on the short-list of any compilations of best biographies/autobiographies for two reasons. First, the fact that among all the public figures that American history has to offer, Malcolm is undoubtedly one of the most complex. Secondly, Alex Haley does an amazing job of transporting the reader into Malcolm's thoughts and feelings. Praise of this book is not simply praise of the subject; this is also a powerful literary work and a sharp piece of history.

Autobiography is a classic American tale of one of the most misunderstood figures in American history. Malcolm has been and is viewed as everything from an evil racist hate-monger to the champion of modern day militant pro-Black radicals. What he was, in reality, was a remarkably intelligent and charismatic leader who reflected the ills of the society around him, changed throughout his life, and gradually evolved from ignorance to anger to enlightenment. Autobiography should be required reading for anyone who claims to have an opinion on Malcolm.

My strong recommendation is not simply praise for Malcolm; certainly it would be possible to write an uninteresting book on a compelling figure. My recommendation for this particular biography comes for the power and precision of Alex Haley's writing. Haley puts us in Malcolm's schoolroom, amongst the petty criminals of his youth, in the penitentiary, amongst the militants of the Nation of Islam, and in Mecca and Africa, where he underwent his final transformation. We see what Malcolm sees, and we feel what Malcolm feels. This is a critically important element in the success of this amazing biography. Malcolm started as an empty vessel into which the American Black experience was poured – with all of the racism and violence that this implies – and Malcolm reflected his experiences in his convictions and deeds. In that Haley brings the reader face to face with Malcolm's experiences we understand how and why Malcolm became the person that he became; he truly was a mirror to American society.

The great tragedy is that Malcolm's rift with the Nation of Islam brought resulted in his early death, just at the time that he was realizing his true purpose. Commenting on his experience in Mecca, shortly before his assassination, Malcolm comments "I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color." In this statement, and others, he acknowledges that his former view on race was merely a reflection of the American racism which surrounded him, and these are the views that he had internalized.

I'm actually not sure whether to call this book a biography or an autobiography. It's a purely first-person tale, but as a literary work Haley shines. Either way, the mark of a great autobiography/biography is that it allows you to understand the subject – his or her thoughts and motives. This is a daunting task for a subject as complex as Malcolm, and this book brings it off brilliantly. Very highly recommended.

 


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