February 21st 1965, New York City – Minister El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, more commonly known as Malcolm X, is assassinated by three members of The Nation of Islam during one of his meetings at the Audubon Ballroom. His devoted wife and mother of his children, Sister Betty Shabazz, witnesses the murder. He never gets the chance to see this book in its entirety – and yet it is one of the most influential and electrifying reads of the twentieth century.
Alex Haley had served in the US Coast Guard for 20 years when he first got a start on his writing career in New York City in 1959. He had proposed an article on the ‘cult’ of The Nation of Islam to Reader’s Digest, and was looking to interview the organisation’s chief of staff, Minister Malcolm X. Haley tells of his first meeting with the outspoken leader in the Muslim restaurant which he frequented. When he asked someone how he could meet with Malcolm, a man pointed out the Minister in a phone booth, who soon approached. After finding out Haley’s intentions, Malcolm X said, ‘You’re just another one of the white man’s tools sent to spy!’
Born Malcolm Little in 1925 Omaha, Nebraska, his story begins with his childhood, recounting the breakdown of his family after his father’s murder, and by the authorities after his mother’s mental collapse. Following his exodus of the Midwest, Malcolm made his way to Boston before heading to Harlem, where he was introduced to a hedonistic life of crime, women and drugs. He was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in 1946, and it was here in prison where he first became aware of The Nation of Islam. From that moment on, the man the world would forever affiliate with civil rights activism, Black Muslims and militancy was on his way to making history, however not without forging some dangerous enemies.
At times it is hard to remember that this autobiography was written ‘as told to Alex Haley’, and that often Haley would collect the handwritten thoughts Malcolm would scribble as he spoke, to aid Haley in his writing approach. Haley’s skill in disguising his own voice in the book and allowing Malcolm’s voice to override, as if he is speaking directly to the reader, shows Alex Haley’s brilliance. The foreword, also written by Haley after Malcolm X’s assassination, sheds light on that air of mysticism surrounding the captivating civil rights leader. Although an extremely polarising public figure who was once labelled ‘the angriest Negro in America’, Malcolm X was much more than just the fear inducing, Black Muslim militant the media portrayed him as. His articulation and insights into the psyche and worlds of the black man and white man are what makes him so magnetic to audiences. An extraordinary and essential read about one of recent history’s most fascinating people.
Image care of Teuila Krause