Fifty-one years after his assassination and the publication of his autobiography, Malcolm X – who would have been 91 this week – has now earned his place in mid-20th century history, alongside Martin Luther King, Fidel Castro and other radical luminaries. Most see Malcolm X, also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, from his “front view” – from “The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as Told to Alex Haley,” the many speeches by him and documentary films on him found on YouTube, and from the biographies on Malcolm X published since the autobiography by, respectively, Peter Goldman, Bruce Perry and Manning Marable, the latter two authors presenting very controversial takes on the human rights leader. But since the divisive and debated Marable biography, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” was published in 2011, more books containing different sides of Malcolm have been published. Reading these new works, thankfully, provide new insights and emphases that move past the biographers.
• “The Diary of Malcolm X: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, 1964” by journalist/historian Herb Boyd and Malcolm X daughter Illyasah Shabazz (Third World Press). This 2013 Black-publisher book, now for the most part only available on Kindle, is an annotated collection of Malcolm’s travel-journal thoughts as he traveled to Saudi Arabia and later several African nations. This book proves that Malcolm was not, as stereotyped, some loudmouth in Harlem who never actually did anything; he was Black America’s unofficial ambassador to the African world, trying to unify newly independent Black and Arab nations against the West.
• “Alex Haley: And The Books That Changed A Nation” by Robert J. Norrell (St. Martin’s Press). This new book discusses in detail how Haley and Malcolm X worked together on the autobiography, and how Haley viewed Malcolm and what both men were doing. This first biography of Haley attempts to save the freelance writer’s posthumous reputation from his many distractors – including Marable, who portrayed Haley as a money-hungry opportunist, indifferent to Malcolm. Norrell points out that the Malcolm autobiography was “the creation of its subject’s life, not a factual recounting of it. That can be said of all autobiographies.”
• “Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X” by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith (Basic Books). The authors back up with documentation their controversial portrayals of both men. Ali is seen as, ultimately, a coward and “puppet in the assassination plot” against Malcolm, and Malcolm detailed as a desperate manipulator of his friend and even a liar. In other words, both men are shown as human beings, warts and all. The authors of this historical depiction of the friendship between the two Nation of Islam followers between 1960 and 1965 provide a gripping narrative that expands the understanding of both men by analyzing their individual and collective lives, one week at a time. Roberts and Smith do a good job in taking both Black American icons down off their pedestals, examining them thoroughly, albeit briefly, and finding them wonderful and wanting.
Regardless of the viewpoint, Malcolm-ology isn’t going anywhere. That’s a good thing, because Black America deserves a full, comprehensive, well-researched Malcolm biography (something that, unfortunately, still hasn’t happened yet), and all the stories and events in which Malcolm was at least peripherally involved. The more information Black America has on its champions, the more discussions it can have within itself on the proper standards of Black leadership.
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.