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?
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.
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 autobiographyto 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.• • • 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just provocation.Today the essay’s title may sound like the product of a bygone era, but to Malcolm the term was always outdated, an ideological fiction of white supremacy.” Marable had speculated that the unpublished chapters would reveal a more holistic political vision, and “The Negro” partly fulfills that hope.Indeed, in its twenty-five pages, Malcolm X both outlines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.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.Whatever the reasoning, “The Negro” is a fragment of the book Malcolm today.We will never fully know that book, of course, but “The Negro” chapter forces us, finally, to engage with it.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.