Malcolm X

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Malcolm X 1925–1965

(Born Malcolm Little; changed name to Malcolm X; later adopted religious name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) American autobiographer, orator, and speechwriter.

The following entry provides an overview of Malcolm X’s career through 1994.

An influential African-American leader, Malcolm X rose to prominence in the mid-1950s as the outspoken national minister of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad. He opposed the mainstream civil rights movement, publicly calling for black separatism and rejecting nonviolence and integration as effective means of combatting racism. In the 1960s, however, Malcolm repudiated Muhammad and the Nation of Islam and embraced conventional Islam. He documented his various experiences in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), a work prepared with the help of American writer Alex Haley. Published after his assassination, the Autobiography has been called a “compelling and irreplaceable book” comparable to the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass.


Biographical Information

Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm was exposed to white racism and the black separatist movement at an early age. His father, Earl Little, was a Baptist minister and a follower of Jamaican-born, black nationalist Marcus Garvey. When the Littles lived in Nebraska, the Ku Klux Klan tried to prevent the Reverend Little from conveying Garvey’s teachings. The Littles consequently left Nebraska, eventually settling in Mason, Michigan, where they found the racial climate no better. In 1929 members of the Black Legion, a white supremacist group, reputedly burned down the Littles’s home and later murdered Malcolm’s father. His death, officially labeled a suicide, left Louise Little to care for the children. Unable to cope with the financial and emotional demands of single parenthood, she was placed in a mental institution, and the children were sent to separate foster homes. Despite the traumas of his early youth, Malcolm was among the best students in his class. Malcolm soon became angry toward his white teachers and friends, whom he believed viewed him not as their equal, but as their “mascot.” His interest in academic study waning, he quit school after completing the eighth grade. Living in Boston, New York City, and later Detroit, he held several low-paying jobs. To fit into his new urban environment, Malcolm altered his outward appearance, treating his hair with corrosive chemicals to straighten it and frequently wearing a zoot suit. As “Detroit Red,” a name derived from his fair complexion and red hair, he made his living as a hustler, pimp, and drug dealer. Malcolm was arrested in early 1946 and sentenced to ten years in prison. Another convict, Bimbi, introduced him to the prison’s extensive library, and Malcolm became an avid reader. When his siblings revealed to him that they had become followers of Elijah Muhammad—the leader of the Nation of Islam, popularly known as the Black Muslims—Malcolm pored over Muhammad’s teachings and initiated a daily correspondence with the man. Upon his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm became a follower of Muhammad. He took the name “Malcolm X” to signify the loss of his true African name and to reject the “slave name” of Little. In 1953 Malcolm was appointed assistant minister of Detroit’s Temple Number One of the Nation of Islam. He believed that every black person would gravitate to Muhammad’s teachings, for “when he thinks about his own life, he is going to see where, to him personally, the white man sure has acted like a devil.” Malcolm rose swiftly in the ranks of the Black Muslims, becoming Muhammad’s national representative and, in 1954, the head of a major mosque in Harlem. There he became known as an articulate spokesperson for the radical black perspective. In addition to denouncing integration, nonviolence, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm “identified whites as the enemy of blacks and cheered at tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, airplane crashes, even the Kennedy assassination—anything that might cause them anguish or pain.” Malcolm termed the killing of John F. Kennedy a case of “chickens coming home to roost”—a statement that severely damaged Malcolm’s career. He later explained that he meant only that “the hate in white men … finally had struck down the President,” but he was immediately censured by Muhammad. Muhammad ordered him to refrain from public comment for ninety days, and Malcolm complied. But his remark about the Kennedy assassination gave Muhammad an opportunity to expel his national minister from the movement’s hierarchy, for Malcolm had been in conflict with the leader of the Nation of Islam for some time. Malcolm had privately condemned Muhammad’s materialism—his expensive cars and business suits and lavishly furnished estate—and was shocked by allegations that Muhammad had seduced several women and sired their children. Proceeding to break officially with the Nation of Islam, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, taking the religious name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. In Mecca he underwent a transformation in his beliefs: “Since I learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends have come to include all kinds—some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists! I have friends who are called capitalists, Socialists, and Communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists—some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white!” On a diplomatic trip to Africa, Malcolm began the work of uniting blacks across the world, later establishing the Organization of Afro-American Unity in the United States. However, Malcolm now believed that the Nation of Islam saw him as a threat. “Now I’m out,” he said. “And there’s the fear [that] if my image isn’t shattered, the Muslims in the movement will leave.” Indeed, Elijah Muhammad wrote in his periodical Muhammad Speaks that Malcolm was “worthy of death.” On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated while addressing an audience of four hundred in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Three men associated with the Nation of Islam—Talmadge Thayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson—were apprehended and eventually convicted of the crime.


Major Works

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which details Malcolm X’s life from infancy to the time of his assassination, was published posthumously, and although some critics questioned Alex Haley’s influence over the work’s production, commentators generally agreed that the story is Malcolm’s own. Several of Malcolm’s speeches have also been published, including Malcolm X Speaks (1965) and Malcolm X: The Last Speeches (1989), but his autobiography remains by far his most noted contribution to literature. As Malcolm X has increasingly been recognized as a leading figure in the African-American struggle for recognition and equality. The Autobiography of Malcolm X has grown in stature. In 1993, filmmaker Spike Lee directed a widely-known screen version of the Autobiography.


Critical Reception

Of the importance of Malcolm X’s memoir, Charles H. Nichols asserted in 1985: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X is probably the most influential book read by this generation of Afro-Americans…. It is a fantastic success story. Paradoxically, the book, designed to be an indictment of American and European bigotry and exploitation, is a triumphant affirmation of the possibilities of the human spirit.” In the decades since its initial publication, the Autobiography has prompted diverse critical readings, including analyses of its properties as a political and rhetorical text, as a conversion narrative reflecting Malcolm’s search for identity, and as a work that both affirms and challenges the tradition of American autobiography. Truman Nelson concluded: “its manifold unsolved ambiguities will make it stand as a monument to the most painful of truths: that this country, this people, this Western world has practiced unspeakable cruelty against a race, an individual, who might have made its fraudulent humanism a reality.” Malcolm X’s abilities as an orator have drawn much praise from commentators who have applauded his capacity for eliciting in his audiences the intensity and dedication that he demonstrated for his beliefs. It has been noted that whether those who heard him speak agreed with his contentions did not determine whether they would be profoundly affected by the delivery of his message, if only in the sense that they marveled at the dynamic wordplay, imagery, and symbolism used by the speaker. John Illo, in an essay published in 1966, illustrated Malcolm X’s skill as an orator, and asserted that Malcolm X “emerged from dope, prostitution, burglary, prison, and a fanciful sectarianism to enter a perennial humanist art, to achieve a brilliant facility in oratory and debate, in less time than many of us consume in ambling through graduate school…. In the full Aristotelian meaning he was a rhetorician, who, to be such, knew more than rhetoric: ethics, logic, grammar, psychology, law, history, politics; and his best speeches might be texts for students of that comprehensive science and art.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X [with Alex Haley] (autobiography) 1965
Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements (speeches) 1965
Malcolm X on Afro-American History (speeches) 1967
The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard (speeches) 1968
Malcolm X and the Negro Revolution: The Speeches of Malcolm X (speeches) 1969
Malcolm X Talks to Young People (speeches) 1969
The Speeches of Malcolm X (speeches) 1969
By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and a Letter by Malcolm X (speeches, interviews, and a letter) 1970
The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches by Malcolm X (speeches) 1971
Malcolm X: The Last Speeches (speeches) 1989

Bayard Rustin (review date 14 November 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “Making His Mark,” in New York Herald Tribune Book Week, November 14, 1965, pp. 1, 8, 10, 12, 16-17.

[In the following review, Rustin offers a favorable assessment of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, summarizing the content and providing an analysis of some of Malcolm X’s political and social beliefs and strategies.]

[The Autobiography of Malcolm X, t]his odyssey of an American Negro in search of his identity and place in society, really begins before his birth 40 years ago in Omaha, Neb. He was born Malcolm Little, the son of an educated mulatto West Indian mother and a father who was a Baptist minister on Sundays and dedicated organizer for…

(The entire section is 3,602 words.)

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John Henrik Clarke (review date Winter 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “The Man and His Mission,” in Freedomways, Winter, 1966, pp. 48-52.

[In the following review of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Clarke indicates a high regard for Malcolm X’s personal accomplishments and notes while the autobiography would have benefitted from “editing and pruning,” it is effective in imparting the nature of Malcolm X and his achievements.]

The man best known as Malcolm X lived three distinct and interrelated lives under the respective names, Malcolm Little, Malcolm X and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Any honest attempt to understand the total man must begin with some understanding of the significant components that went into his making. The…

(The entire section is 2,041 words.)

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John Illo (essay date Spring 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “The Rhetoric of Malcolm X,” in Columbia University Forum, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring, 1966, pp. 5-12.

[In the following essay, Illo analyzes and applauds Malcolm X’s skill as an orator.]

In a nation of images without substances, of rehearsed emotions, in a politic of consensus where platitude replaces belief or belief is fashioned by consensus, genuine rhetoric, like authentic prose, must be rare. For rhetoric, like any verbal art, is correlative with the pristine idea of reason and justice which, if it decays with the growth of every state and jurisprudence, now has developed into an unreason that aggressively claims the allegiance of the national mind.

(The entire section is 5,950 words.)

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Robert Bone (review date 11 September 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “A Black Man’s Quarrel With the Christian God,” in New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1966, pp. 3, 14.

[In the following review, Bone demonstrates the use of Malcolm X’s autobiography as a means of understanding the intentions and convictions of the proponents of the concept of “Black Power” in the civil rights movement during the latter half of the 1960s.]

In the month of June, 1966, the Negro protest movement entered a new phase. For the first time, during the so-called “Meredith march” to Jackson, Miss., the younger activists raised the slogan of “Black Power!” In the same month, less than a year after its initial publication, Grove Press brought out…

(The entire section is 1,724 words.)

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Marcus H. Boulware (essay date November 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “Minister Malcolm Orator Profundo,” in Negro History Bulletin, Vol. 30, No. 7, November, 1967, pp. 12-14.

[In the following essay, Boulware delineates Malcolm X’s career as an orator and religious and social leader, complimenting his achievements and declaring: “People enjoyed his speaking whether or not they agreed with him, because he made speaking an appealing art.”]

The expanding prestige and stature of the Black Muslim movement attracted hundreds of adherents, and many of them were brilliant like the late Malcolm Little whose pseudonym was “Malcolm X.” Opponents labelled him protestor, panelist, Muslim minister, and orator profundo. Numerous…

(The entire section is 1,704 words.)

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R. L. Caserio (essay date Winter 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “Malcolm X,” in Cambridge Quarterly, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 84-94.

[In the following essay, Caserio analyzes The Autobiography of Malcolm X, using the works of other modern African-American writers as a means of comparing and contrasting the views expressed by Malcolm X with those of his contemporaries.]

In 1963 Malcolm X was asked by a free-lance writer named Alex Haley to tell the story of his life, so that it could be published as a full-scale autobiography. Malcolm X was at that time the chief of staff of an American religious sect called the Nation of Islam, whose members were identified as ‘Black Muslims’ by the national press. Its…

(The entire section is 4,823 words.)

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Mel Watkins (review date 13 April 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: A review of The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard, in New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1969, pp. 24-5.

[In the following review, Watkins asserts that The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard effectively conveys the essence of Malcolm X’s “radical viewpoint” and “approach to the racial problem.”]

Malcolm X, prior to his death in 1965, found most of his support in the urban ghetto masses. His growing posthumous appeal to the élite of the black community reflects the pervasive character of the black man’s militancy; Malcolm X has become, to many black Americans, the symbol of manhood. This volume, [The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard,]…

(The entire section is 303 words.)

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Time (essay date 23 February 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “Malcolm X: History as Hope,” in Time, Vol. 95, February 23, 1970, pp. 88, 90.

[In the following essay, published on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of Malcolm X ‘s assassination, the critic provides a synopsis of Malcolm X’s life and works, and attempts to assess his legacy.]

He was assassinated five years ago this week. Since then, assorted parks, streets and ghetto playgrounds have been named after him. His bespectacled face, ballooned to twice life-size, gazes owlishly from the walls of innumerable schools and youth clubs. Though he is sometimes described as an apostate and a monster, these days he is more often invoked, especially by young whites and…

(The entire section is 1,614 words.)

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Angela Blackwell (review date May 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: A review of By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews and a Letter by Malcolm X, in Black Scholar, Vol. 1, No. 7, May, 1970, pp. 56-7.

[In the following review, Blackwell applauds By Any Means Necessary, maintaining that the volume offers insights into the spiritual and intellectual development of Malcolm X, and also illuminates aspects of “the man” himself.]

George Breitman brings us a little more of Malcolm in the form of several previously unprinted speeches, interviews which appeared in periodicals, and a letter from Cairo. By Any Means Necessary is really a continuation of Malcolm X Speaks, also edited by George Breitman. It…

(The entire section is 1,070 words.)

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Julius Lester (review date 16 May 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: A review of The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches by Malcolm X, in New York Times Book Review, May 16, 1971, pp. 4, 22.

[In the following excerpt, Lester offers praise for The End of White World Supremacy, declaring that “these speeches are the best examples in print of why, even dead, [Malcolm X] is a man to measure one’s self against.”]

All praises are now given to the name and memory of Malcolm X. In his person he represented the apotheosis of blackness; but, except for the last 11 months of his political career, he articulated the aims and ideals of the Nation of Islam as the number one spokesman for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad….

(The entire section is 687 words.)

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Ross Miller (essay date Summer 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “Autobiography as Fact and Fiction: Franklin, Adams, Malcolm X,” in Centennial Review, Vol. XVI, No. 3, Summer, 1972, pp. 221-32.

[In the following essay, Miller uses the autobiographies of Malcolm X, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Adams to illustrate the patterns in and the course of American autobiographies, which, he asserts, represent “a coherent American literary tradition which in addition to saying something about the country, has always challenged conservative and confining notions of what is taken to be the separate realms of fact and fiction.”]

The autobiographies which fill the bookstores today mark a departure from what I see as a classic line of…

(The entire section is 4,086 words.)

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Thomas W. Benson (essay date February 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “Rhetoric and Autobiography: The Case of Malcolm X,” in Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 60, No. 1, February, 1974, pp. 1-13.

[In the following essay, Benson offers an analysis of Malcolm X’s Autobiography based on the principles of rhetoric, and contends that The Autobiography of Malcolm X “achieves a unique synthesis of selfhood and rhetorical instrumentality.”]

Rhetoric is a way of knowing, a way of being, and a way of doing. Rhetoric is a way of knowing the world, of gaining access to the uniquely rhetorical probabilities that govern public policy and personal choice for oneself and others; it is a way of constituting the self in a symbolic…

(The entire section is 6,547 words.)

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John D. Groppe (essay date Winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “From Chaos to Cosmos: The Role of Trust in The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” in Soundings, Vol. LXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 437-49.

[In the following essay, Groppe employs the developmental stage theory of Erik Erikson to demonstrate Malcolm X’s “growth into trust” as it is related in The Autobiography of Malcolm X.]

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a story of the loss, and then the regaining, of the capacity to trust. According to Erik Erikson, trust is the foundation on which the personality is developed. The basic trust of the newborn is elaborated and refined into more conscious, more articulated, and more complex modes of relationship. In…

(The entire section is 5,267 words.)

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Hank Flick and Larry Powell (essay date June 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “Animal Imagery in the Rhetoric of Malcolm X,” in Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, June, 1988, pp. 435-51.

[In the following essay, Flick and Powell explore Malcolm X’s use of animal imagery in his rhetoric as a means of changing the prevailing conceptions held by black Americans about white Americans.]

The history of the black man in America emanates from the edifice of slavery and its subsequent effects on both white and black Americans. Over the years a number of rhetors have analyzed such a situation for the purpose of identifying those rhetorical devices that had been employed to regulate blacks to a lifelong position of servitude in America….

(The entire section is 5,400 words.)

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Lawrence B. Good heart (essay date Autumn 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “The Odyssey of Malcolm X: An Eriksonian Interpretation,” in Historian, Vol. 52, No. 1, Autumn, 1990, pp. 47-62.

[In the following essay, Goodheart examines the identity of Malcolm X—as set forth in The Autobiography of Malcolm X—using the theoretical framework of Erik Erikson.]

The black search for identity in the United States has been well put by the poet Robert Perm Warren: “Alienated from the world to which he is born and from the country of which he is a citizen yet surrounded by the successful values of that world, and country, how can the Negro define himself?” At the heart of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1950s and 1960s…

(The entire section is 5,261 words.)

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John Locke (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “Adapting the Autobiography,” in Cineaste, Vol. XIX, No. 4, 1993, pp. 5-7.

[In the following essay, Locke discusses director Spike Lee’s film adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.]

At the core of Spike Lee’s [film] Malcolm X is The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a story that draws from the breadth of twentieth-century African-American experience. Like any narrative contemporaneous with a past era, the autobiography contains elements that most moviegoers today would find antiquated or irrelevant. From the outset, then, Lee’s intent to tell history is at odds with the needs of a mass market, and the film’s transformation of Malcolm X to meet…

(The entire section is 2,861 words.)

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Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (essay date 21 February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “Malcolm, the Aardvark and Me,” in New York Times Book Review, February 21, 1993, p. 11.

[In the following essay, Gates relates his persona! experience of reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a young man.]

One of the most gratifying effects of Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X is that its success has prompted the restoration of Malcolm’s autobiography to the best-seller lists. The country is reading the 1965 book once again, as avidly, it seems, as it is seeing Mr. Lee’s movie. For 17 weeks The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with the assistance of Alex Haley, has been on the New York Times paperback best-seller list, and…

(The entire section is 978 words.)

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Nell Irvin Painter (essay date April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “Malcolm X Across the Genres,” in American Historical Review, Vol. 98, No. 2, April, 1993, pp. 432-39.

[In the following essay, Painter examines (he facts and events involved in the story of Malcolm X’s life as they are presented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and two films adapted from that book, both entitled Malcolm X.]

The historian in me distrusted a dramatic early scene in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X that is set in Omaha. The Ku Klux Klan comes pounding up to the Little family’s house on horseback. Initially, the scene seems menacingly authentic—hooded white supremacy in its most recognizable guise bent on terrorizing a helpless black…

(The entire section is 4,101 words.)

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Chris Roark (essay date Fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: “Hamlet, Malcolm X, and the Examined Education;” in CEA Critic, Vol. 57, No. 1, Fall, 1994, pp. 111-22.

[In the following essay, Roark outlines the use of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a means of illustrating to students the effect of external influences on their perceptions of the world.]

Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, taught in conjunction, are useful texts for encouraging first-year writing students to examine how their educations are often a mix of conflicting influences. Both works can be used to provoke not only arguments and counter arguments regarding those…

(The entire section is 4,846 words.)

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Criticism

Abbott, Philip. “Hustling: Benjamin Franklin. Malcolm X, Abbie Hoffman.” States of Perfect Freedom: Autobiography and Political Thought, pp. 27-57. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Asserts that “taken together” the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin, Malcolm X, and Abbie Hoffmann—to whom Abbott refers as “hustlers”—exhibit a particular type of personality and also provide insights into the nature of American politics and society.

Barbour, John D. “Christianity and ‘The White Man’s Religion.'” Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith, pp. 85-105….

(The entire section is 407 words.)

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Previous:Essays and Criticism


Homework Help

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Malcolm X Homework Help Questions

  • What are some possible thesis statements and supporting evidence for an essay on “Learning to…

    “Learning to Read” is an excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In this essay, he speaks about how he learned to read and understand what he read in prison and how his alma mater, or the…

  • What did Malcolm X mean by “homemade education” in his essay, “Homemade Education”? What did he…

    In his essay, Malcolm X refers to how he became knowledgeable and informed through what he calls “homemade education.”
    In fact, as you mentioned, Malcolm’s essay is titled “A Homemade Education.”…

  • To what is Malcolm X referring when he speaks of “ballots or bullets?”

    Malcolm X was, in his early days especially, a person who held very different opinions than Martin Luther King, Jr. did.  King believed in nonviolent resistance.  Malcolm X did not.  That is…

  • For each of the four names Malcolm X used throughout his life, what did each name represent in…

    At birth, he was given the name Malcolm Little, son of Rev. Earl and Louise Little.
    While in jail on burglary charges, Malcolm Little became a follower of the Nation of Islam, a religion that…

  • Why was Malcolm X less significant than Martin Luther King Jr.?

    If one were to build a case that Malcolm X was less significant than Dr. King, I think that one aspect would be based on national significance.  While both leaders were known around the nation,…

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Colin Kaepernick at Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco, in 2016.CreditCreditEzra Shaw/Getty Images

Given the fiery responses to Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem — taking a knee, a gesture now being adopted by a wave of professional athletes — you would think that it was a militant motion, full of anger and menace, akin to the Black Power salutes raised by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. But kneeling during the national anthem is a gesture of humility, not ominous ire.

In youth sports, players take a knee when another player is hurt. It is an acknowledgment of the vulnerable humanity that, for the moment, has been obscured by the intense competition of the game. Taking a knee in that context is, like a religious genuflection, a gesture of self-surrender before the greater reality of human suffering.

Likewise, when black players take a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence against African-Americans, they are making a gesture of pain and distress. They are putting America in a more honest context — our “Star-Spangled Banner” dimly seen through the mists of deep injury. It is like flying an American flag upside down in a moment of emergency.

Still, black players kneeling in this way has a disorienting quality. Clearly, however humble and sincere Kaepernick’s intentions, his critics have decided that he is disrespecting a growing list of American institutions: the flag, fallen service members — even the perceived line between playing professional sports and speaking out on issues of national importance.

Perhaps that is why so many players, eager to sympathize but wary of joining Kaepernick completely, have instead stood and locked arms. Yet by doing so, they have, deliberately or not, diluted the original gesture of kneeling.

Standing with linked arms during the national anthem could signify any number of things, from protest against racial injustice, to a gentle dissent from a style of protest that has alienated so many people. Likewise, the decision of some teams to stay in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem is ambiguous. Even players raising their fists lacks the relevance, and the unsettling resonance, of the Black Power salute from which the gesture is derived.

The unique gesture that embodied a cry against, primarily, the murder by the police of unarmed black citizens — and, as an extension of those actions, a criminal-justice system that countenances those murders — has now been customized, if you will. The primal act that has incited so much passion has been marginalized as a gesture of protest.

President Trump seemed to understand the significance of variation as concession when he announced Sunday afternoon that standing with linked arms was acceptable, while kneeling was not. There was something disquieting about Shahid Khan, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and a Trump supporter who contributed $1 million to the president’s inaugural committee, joining arms with his players, who were standing, not kneeling.

Trump’s dispensation for standing with linked arms must have come as a relief to the white team owners who, despite their loud defenses of the players’ right to air their views, still have yet to make a job offer to Kaepernick, a very talented quarterback, effectively blackballing him.

Three-quarters of the players in America’s most popular and most brutal sport are black. There is something gladiatorial about professional football, for all the money being made by athletes whose wealth will be of little use to them should they sink into dementia, beginning as early as their retirement in their mid-30s. Here are these black athletes about to be hurt for the enjoyment of so many white fans, even as the white world tolerates the “lawful” injury of ordinary black people.

Such a situation could well incite a fury of anger and frustration. Yet with the act of kneeling, these rare, gifted, often doomed human beings are shrouding their protest in a kind of self-abasement; a display of vulnerability and piety in the face of iron injustice. It is a humility couched in a majesty of pride, dignity, strength and unusual accomplishment. Kneeling in protest is out of the playbook of Dr. King, not Malcolm X.

Lee Siegel is the author, most recently, of “The Draw: A Memoir.”

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