It could be said that the spiritual journey of Malcolm X began with copying the dictionary. “Aardvark,” he would recall years later in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley.’’ “The dictionary had a picture of it.” Eventually, the man born Malcolm Little would attest, he copied the entire thing.
He had time. Owing to a 1946 burglary conviction, he was living in a Massachusetts prison and would spend seven years behind bars. There, through study and communications with family, he became a convert to the Nation of Islam. His assassination, in February of 1965, left the world with a troubling icon who continues to mold history.
Among the many books on Malcolm X, two qualify as essential: “The Autobiography’’ and Manning Marable’s exhaustively researched 2011 biography, “Malcolm X — A Life of Reinvention.” Toggling between them, readers will encounter a protean figure who was both a repentant street hustler and shrewd promoter.
As wryly noted in “The Autobiography,’’ Malcolm had been called “the angriest Negro in America.” He had good cause. In one of his earliest memories the family’s home was set on fire by white men. He was just 6 when his father, a proselytizer for the black separatist Marcus Garvey, died in an “accident” quite possibly staged by whites. Struggling to care for her large brood, Malcolm’s mother eventually landed in a hospital for the mentally ill. Malcolm was sent to a foster family, but not before enduring the humiliations of poverty. In his assessment, an intrusive state had destroyed his family, subjecting them to a form of modern slavery.
As with most narratives of spiritual transformation, Malcolm’s descent often proves more absorbing than his rise. Educated only through the eighth grade, he left Michigan while a teen to live with his half-sister Ella in Boston. His downward glide began in the Roseland Ballroom, where he found work shining shoes. (He claimed Duke Ellington among his customers, also saxophonist Johnny Hodges who he said stiffed him.)
From the start, Malcolm was more attracted to street life than to what he considered the phony strivings of Boston’s black bourgeoisie. He soon moved to Harlem, where he learned the art of the hustle, selling drugs, gambling, and steering clients to prostitutes.
Malcolm X would later entrust his story to Haley, a sympathetic journalist. (Haley went on to write the bestseller “Roots.”) In his so far definitive biography, the late Marable, a longtime professor at Columbia, strikes a cautious note. He suggests that Haley, attempting to wedge Malcolm X into the mainstream, produced a book that is more Haley than Malcolm. Perhaps for the sake of drama, their account exaggerated Malcolm’s criminal past. Nevertheless, after returning to Boston, Malcolm was arrested for taking part in a burglary ring.
Marable insightfully contextualizes all that came next. He is excellent on how the fledgling Nation of Islam emerged. Around the time Malcolm X became a believer, dropping his surname in accordance with Nation teachings, the separatist movement had only a few hundred adherents. Elijah Muhammad, its Chicago-based leader, was receptive to letters. Consumed with questions and eager to correspond, the imprisoned Malcolm Little pushed himself to become more literate. At the same time, courtesy of the Norfolk Prison Colony’s penal program, he learned to debate.
Soon, Malcolm X was helping to expand Nation membership with his electrifying speeches. Many whites, particularly college students, found themselves agreeing with his withering critique of American racism. Harder to accept was Malcolm’s seeming embrace of violence and of Nation teachings that white people were devils. Equally difficult, today, is the extraordinary vein of misogyny running through the autobiography.
Haley’s account suggests that Malcolm X underwent a second conversion, softening his separatist stance after a pilgrimage to Mecca. Readers interested in this turn might consult “Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements,” edited by George Breitman. Emphasizing the later years, it contains selections from significant speeches and gives readers a feel for the man’s scorching rhetoric.
Increasingly in conflict with Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X split with Nation of Islam in 1964. The death threats that followed, he believed, came from the organization he had so revered. Marable meticulously reconstructs the assassination, suggesting but not proving that Malcolm was right, and in any case documenting a suspect investigation.
Malcolm X was just 39, and much reviled, at the time of his slaying. Since then, appreciation has grown. Many of the books about him are aimed at young readers and students. As part of a series on significant literary works (“Bloom’s Notes”), the critic Harold Bloom compiled “Alex Haley & Malcolm X’s ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X.’ ” Along with Bloom’s wistful take on the man, it offers excerpts from several critical analyses. One, by Henry Louis Gates, returns to the aardvark. Gates marvels that, not long before his slaying, Malcolm stopped by New York’s Natural History Museum, hoping to learn something more about this strange animal. If history indeed brought forth several Malcolms, it perhaps delivered one less than we might have wished.
M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.