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About Malcolm X

J. D. Scrimgeour

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Born Malcolm Little (and later also known as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz) in Omaha, Nebraska, on 19 May 1925, Malcolm X was the fourth of eight children of the Reverend Earl Little and his wife, Louise. Soon after Malcolm's birth the Littles moved to the outskirts of East Lansing, Michigan. When Malcolm was six, his father died, presumably murdered by the Black Legion, a violent racist group similar to the Ku Klux Klan, and the Little home life became more and more difficult. Louise was eventually placed in the state mental hospital, and her children were declared wards of the state. In 1941 Malcolm moved to Boston to live with his half sister, Ella. He became caught up in the nightlife of Boston and, later, New York. After a few years in the underworld of Harlem, selling drugs and working for call-girl services, Malcolm began a burglary ring in Boston. In 1946, at the age of twenty-one, he was arrested for armed robbery and sent to prison.

During his six years in Charlestown Prison, Concord Reformatory, and Norfolk Prison, Malcolm underwent a spiritual and intellectual transformation. While interred he corresponded with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the African American sect, the Nation of Islam. He converted to the Nation, attracted by its idea that whites are devils. In prison he also undertook a rigorous process of self-education, which included copying every page of the dictionary.

Upon his release he changed his name to Malcolm X, the X representing the unknown name of his African ancestors and their culture that had been lost during slavery. After personal meetings with Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm became a minister for the Nation. From 1952 to 1963 Minister Malcolm X helped build the Nation of Islam from a tiny sect to a significant force in urban black America. His commanding stage presence, quick wit, and erudition, combined with the authenticity of his experience as a street hustler, made Malcolm a remarkable orator and a dynamic leader.

In 1963 jealousy in the Nation of Islam over Malcolm's increasing celebrity, and Malcolm's discovery of violations of the Muslim's strict moral code by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad precipitated a painful and bitter split. Once out from the strict teachings of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm drifted from the primarily spiritual philosophy of the Nation to a more political black nationalism and, tentatively, to a more internationalist philosophy--Pan-Africanism. Malcolm's position on race relations in the United States at the time of his assassination on 21 February 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem has not been resolved. His major literary achievement, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), composed during the last two years of his life with the writer Alex Haley, contains a montage of Malcolm's perspectives and only invites speculation as to which direction Malcolm's philosophy would have taken.

The Autobiography, published posthumously, stands as a major twentieth-century African American literary work. Its orality, its political intentions and ramifications, and its promise of unspoken truths about the African American experience all place it firmly in African American autobiographical traditions. The Autobiography, however, also resembles more general autobiographical models, most notably the spiritual narrative (his documentation of his conversion experience) and the success story of the self-made man. In fact, it is the text's remarkable meshing of so many modes, and so many "Malcolms," that may be its most significant achievement.

Malcolm X’s speeches, found in such collections as Malcolm X Speaks (1965), edited by George Breitman, and Malcolm X: The Last Speeches (1989), edited by Bruce Perry, are his other contribution to African American literature. His enduring speeches, such as "Message to the Grass Roots" (1963), were given in the last two years of his life and center on the political and social conditions of African Americans. In them, Malcolm blends set pieces and improvisation, and he is especially deft at using analogy to express the African American's plight in America.

Malcolm X also carries tremendous weight as a cultural icon, most notably in the films of Spike Lee. He has been used to symbolize an alternative, more militant vision of social protest than Martin Luther King, Jr.'s nonviolence, and his name appears in rap and other African American poetry as a symbol of black pride.

See also: C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America, 1961. John Henrik Clarke, ed., Malcolm X: The Man and His Times, 1969. Peter Goldman, The Death and Life of Malcolm X, 2d ed., 1979. James H. Cone, Martin and Malcolm and Amerca, 1991. David Gallen, Malcolm X As They Knew Him, 1992. Michael Eric Dyson, Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X, 1995.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright 1997 by Oxford University Press.

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