Portrait of Malcolm X

Malcolm X: Credible Or Misunderstood?

Blean Tsige

Malcolm X is a human rights activist. He had turned his life from gangs, crimes and murder to the nation of Islam, to tackle issues of racism experienced by African- Americans in the USA. As a devoted Muslim, Malcolm X became a key figure in a time when black people had to endure suffering, discrimination and the downfall of desegregations. Even though the nation of Islam Malcolm worked with offered him a life of safety and solitude, he eventually disagreed with the leader Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X separated from them and started to turn his life around for the second time, but this time with a bigger target on his back. 

Malcolm X wrote a book that was published 9 months after his assassination. With the help of journalist Alex Haley, Malcolm was able to give his audience a glimpse of his ‘real’ life, and take back the readers to his childhood memories. The book covers a time when Malcolm was still in favor of The Nation of Islam, but they continued writing about it even after he had left the organization. Overall, the chapters give great detail of Malcolm's personality, but to a certain extent, the book does introduce concepts of ‘drama and suspense’, which take away the truthfulness of it all. 

The main aim of this paper is to examine the question which is ‘Is Malcolm X credible’? And after writing this book why is Malcolm X still misunderstood? Do his reflection on his memories and historical self seem to lead him to be misused? And if so, what are historians' thoughts about his past? These questions will be answered by analysing the Autobiography of Malcolm X, chapters from two books written by Marable and Wood, and an article in the New York Times about the movie based on Malcolm's book. But before discussing these questions it is vital to reflect on the first one; who is Malcolm X? 



“As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside of me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.” 

(X & Haley, 1965, pg. 280)


Born in the year 1925 on May 19 in Ohama, Nebraska and known as Malcolm Little but later on, changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz or referred to as Malcolm X. He is the child, at the time, of a famous Baptist Minister Earl Little and his mother Louise Little. Malcolm has approximately five brothers and two sisters as well as two half-sisters and a half-brother, which means that Malcolm grew up in the Midwest with a large family. However, Malcolm's childhood seems to be filled with tragedy. He lost his father around the age of six years old and subsequently his mother was institutionalised, which left him and his siblings to be put into foster care. They were split up into different families, leaving Malcolm alone. Even though Malcolm has undertaken many hardships throughout that time, he nonetheless seemed to always excel in school, making him one of the high-scoring students in his class. But during that period in time, being black and smart was not enough to become successful. After many negative comments from his teachers Malcolm chose to uproot his life. This indicates the fact that Malcolm was never satisfied with his early success in academia. He eventually moved to his half-sister Ella in Boston. He first worked a couple of low-paying jobs as a dishwasher and shoe shiner. After a while, he started to get influenced by a more dangerous crowd, which eventually turned him into a gangster and criminal (Figure 2). During that period in his life, Malcolm was addressed as “Red” and he was apparently most of the time hanging out with a friend named Shorty (X & Haley, 1965, pg. 81). 


Figure 2. Malcolm Little before he was X, one of the first time being arrested at the age of 18, around the year 1944.


Shorty was near and dear to Malcolm because maybe he embodied something that Malcolm wanted to be. Malcolm wanted to become a city boy and he wished to never be associated with the countryside he grew up with. His behaviour suggests that he was trying to escape his past life and his life of academic success and he was seeking to be accepted in something completely opposite of that. Malcolm started to smoke cigarettes, drink liquor, play cards, bet money and hang out at night with Shorty and his friends, a dangerous crowd. This type of life impressed Malcolm since he was able to gain connections that would allow him to access exclusivity. For a “country boy” like Malcolm, credit, clothing and straight hair were a status symbol (X & Haley, 1965, pg. 97). Despite Malcolm's slow downfall into a life of crime, with the help of his sister Ella, he was able to continuously find low-paying jobs in the city of Boston. Meanwhile, his career took him nowhere, but Malcolm did find the time to date women. One named Laura. A sweet studious girl that encouraged him to follow his dreams of becoming a lawyer. But instead of staying with her, Malcolm left her for a white girl named Sophia, because he was focused on maintaining a certain lifestyle. In other words, Malcolm was using Sophia as a status symbol, because she usually would exclusively only date white men. But also Laura ended up living in a bad neighbourhood, doing drugs and working as a prostitute, which Malcolm seemed to blame himself for. 

Nonetheless, life goes on for Malcolm, who started selling sandwiches on a train that went from Boston to New York. Here Malcolm becomes a little acquainted with the hustling lifestyle. He involves himself with black gangsters referred to as “old heads” and young ones who invest in money rackets (X & Haley, 1965, pg. 145). At this time it has become evident that Mr “Detroit Red”, aka Malcolm, had experienced a downfall, a life of pimping, prostitution, selling drugs and being followed by the police who wanted to incarcerate him. Malcolm had to deal with the outcome of his choices, which meant that he was becoming more violent. Apparently, he started pulling out guns on passengers on the train and using drugs such as cocaine. His time in Harlem was short-lived because he was being followed by police, the Italian racketeers and old head West Indian Archie, so his friend Shorty takes him back to Boston. But his situation did not get better, because Malcolm continued his relationship with Sophia. He eventually was caught for burglary, but he was cross-examined mainly for his relationship with Sophia and ultimately was sentenced to 10 years in prison.


Figure 3. Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X worked together at the Nation of Islam


Regardless, of the circumstances, Malcolm had been incarcerated, and being in prison was a great moment in his life. It allowed Malcolm to gain an education, that he had previously missed out on. While he was in prison, his siblings wrote letters to him and introduced him to the Nation of Islam. Malcolm was fascinated with the teachings of Elijah Muhammed (Figure 3), who wrote about black superiority and whites being devils. Eventually, Malcolm stopped eating pork and converted to Islam. Once he had accepted the principles of the Nations of Islam, Malcolm spent his time practising public speaking and improving his writing skills, until his release in 1952. He immediately met up with Elijah and started to recruit young black Americans to partake in the organization. During this time Malcolm changes his last name to “X”, to commemorate the fact that he comes from Africa and does not know his ‘real’ name (X & Haley, 1965, pg. 310). 

Over time Malcolm X, became more emotionally involved in the teaching of the Nation of Islam, which invigorated him to start having radical ideas about certain aspects of life. For example, he started to become increasingly critical of black civil rights leaders, leading him to refer to them as “Uncle Tom” (X & Haley, 1965, pg. 376). However, his misconduct, including the constant increase in people joining the Nation of Islam, caused them to be followed by the FBI and police. 

Malcolm X, nonetheless, continued to put all his efforts into the organization, which made him a self-proclaimed leader and he started to become more popular than Elijah Muhammad. Elijah was becoming ill and weaker due to his age, which gave Malcolm a chance to conduct all of the important work without Elijah's input. 

During events, such as the killing of John F. Kennedy, and the growing issue of Elijah losing control of the nation of Islam, Malcolm is becoming a target of his own organization. He eventually decides to distance himself, to save himself and his family, but he continued to dedicate his life to helping African Americans conquer the discriminations they have to face. Malcolm had also not denounced his faith in Islam during these troubling times. Instead, he uses his time to travel to predominantly Muslim nations, such as Cairo, Jedda and Saudi Arabia. On this trip, Malcolm was challenged on his Islamic faith, and he had to prove if he is a true Muslim. He had also written a letter home, to inform that he had changed his view on the racial issues faced by blacks in the US. He believes now, after meeting white people that are not racist, that US racial issues stem from the four hundred years of violence against African Americans. His solution to this issue is Islam. Malcolm is convinced by his learnings and starts to change his name again to “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz” ( X & Haley, 1965, pg. 526). He continues to travel to Lebanon, Ghana, Liberia, Senegal and Morocco. 

Once Malcolm returns to the US, he is offended by the fact that riots and protests across the country are blamed on him, which he did not expect. He thought that the ideas that he had gained through his travelling, were being spread by the press, but instead, they did not focus on that. This does not hold back Malcolm, so he tries his best to involve himself in the Afro-American Unity organization, and holds speeches in Harlem. He also decides to take another trip to Africa and the Middle East, but he seems to be mentally struggling with the fact that his character is being defamed.  The situation had become so dire, that Malcolm started to confess his fears of dying. He believed that he will die in a violent manner, even before the publication of his book. Unfortunately, this became true as it is known today. 



Throughout the book, it has become evident that Malcolm might be trying to control the character he is portraying. As with many leaders of controversial organizations, such as the Nation of Islam, Malcolm’s main aim is to seek control over his life story. This is evidently demonstrated when analysing the book. Malcolm seeks after controlling the narrative of his life, which makes it debatable to consider his bibliography credible. His book mainly focuses on his early life, a time in which most of the public knows little. Most of the public knows more about his life later after he had attained international recognition for his involvement with the Nation of Islam. It is therefore easier for anyone to scrutinize what is somewhat true and what is not when Malcolm X speaks about an event that happened during his time of fame than his childhood. However, in his book, the focus is on his childhood, a time that no one knows about except maybe some of his closely related family members. This might suggest that whatever he writes in the novel must be acknowledged as true events that have happened. But have they? 

Figure 4. "[Malcolm X waits at Martin Luther King press conference, head-and-shoulders portrait] / [MST]." Original black and white negative by Marion S. Trikosko. Taken March 26th, 1964, Washington D.C, United States (@libraryofcongress). Colorized

The first four chapters of the book demonstrate a person who is developing into a sinner, the complete opposite of what Malcolm X was later known as. The book continues to display Malcolm as a criminal, who battles extensively with his ‘blackness’, community and background. He is focused on a status symbol, which fundamentally meant that he was trying to be white. He wanted to be rich, wear suits, and have straight hair and white women. As controversial as he was in the past, new findings made by historian Manning Marable, suggested that Malcolm “exaggerated his early criminal career” (Marable, 2011). However, Malcolm's family has completely denied these allegations and used Malcolm's book as evidence. The problems surrounding the certainty of the events that had happened in Malcolm's book, seem to be dealt with until now. 

Until chapter ten, Malcolm writes in depth about his life of crime before he had to spend ten years in Prison. Chapters ten and eleven, show Malcolm turning from a sinner to a saint, which could arguably be considered a destruction of his Autobiography. The story entails drama and suspense, a sort of fictional establishment of a person that had nothing and became something. This part of the book was also illustrated in the movie by Spike Lee, which contributes to the belief that Malcolm’s book focuses rather on a fictional life than factual truth (Canby, 1992). Spike Lee himself admitted that the movie is based on the novel but is not considered “the equal, or even equivalent, of the book [...], eludes easy characterization” (Canby, 1992). Indeed, the autobiography has, as well, struggled with characterizing Malcolm in an easy way, and focuses mainly on depicting him as a hero. 

From chapters twelve until sixteen, Malcolm starts to show his intentions for writing the book. He had implied in many of his interviews before his death, that he is a misunderstood leader. In these chapters, he starts to explain his position in the Nation of Islam from his perspective. There are a lot of direct quotes, which seem to be there to demonstrate that these events were real. Malcolm focuses on insinuating that he was fully committed to the organization and that his intention of being part of the Nation of Islam, was to fulfil Elijah Muhammad’s dreams of Black superiority. Additionally, Malcolm is described as a reasonable man, who wants the best for his own people. He seems to write about himself in the book, as if this situation, where he had to distance himself from the Nation of Islam, was necessary even though he bears no fault. 

In chapters seventeen until nineteen, it becomes clear how important travelling is for Malcolm. He starts to change his perspective on some of the radical opinions he had in the past. But it seems as if this situation is too good to be true. Again it becomes questionable to completely believe Malcolm’s story he is narrating. It seems as if he is trying to cover up the bad press moments he had during that time, by writing a book to explain his side of the story. He covers his moments travelling as if its an enlightenment and that he had found a solution to race issues, but no one seems to acknowledge this. In the end, Malcolm blames this issue and believes that this will be the cause of his death. Which he was unfortunately right about. 



The Book and Movie suggest an altered reality which makes it questionable to consider Malcolm X credible. This implies that if one wants to understand Malcolm X's persona, it is vital to do more than just read his biography to truly understand who he is. Especially if one takes into consideration how fragile memory is. Nobody can say that they fully can recall a specific memory, particularly if one is trying to recall what was said at a certain moment in someone's life. However, in the Autobiography of Malcolm X, there are a lot of direct quotes from himself and other people. To consider these quotes to be accurate or not is questionable since these quotes sometimes stem from his childhood and others from his early adulthood. That is a long time ago, in this case, without having any other evidence such as a video, but just Malcolm’s X memory, it becomes challenging to see the autobiography as a credible source. For example, Mrs Adcock, who was a lady that had a mild influence on Malcolm’s early childhood has been quoted in the book. 

“She was the one who, years later, would tell me something that I remember a long time: ‘Malcolm, there’s one thing I like about you. You’re no good, but you don’t try to hide it. You are not a hypocrite’.” (X & Haley, 1965, pg. 36)

The quote brings up a few problems. First, Malcolm says that he remembers what was said for a long time, which seems to be a sort of collective remembering. The message is that memory is selective and influenced by all kinds of aspects of culture. Therefore, memory is most of the time not as clear-cut as it seems. Second, Malcolm directly quotes the lady, which makes it hard to believe that he could remember this for such a long time. It seems as if his book valued the dramatic art of retelling his life story, instead of focusing on factual truth. Another example is when Malcolm X met Shorty for the first few times. In his book, he described the moment in great detail, including direct quotes from their alleged conversation. The back-and-forth is a full page long and it embodies the slang of their culture at the time. The reading is an interpretation of Malcolm's past, so the accuracy of this moment happening is unclear. But it is evident that he has met a person named Shorty, since they had been caught together committing crimes. 

“Hi, Red”, “Man that cat still smelled country!” or “I don't know of no pool joints around here needing anybody. You mean you just want slave you can find?” (X & Haley, 1965, pg. 85). 

These direct quotes within his book, demonstrate that Malcolm, with the help of his co-author Haley, tried to evince the reader that he fully remembers his life and that he knows who he is. During the time when the book was published, Malcolm was still being followed and watched by many powerful organisations such as the Nation of Islam, which he had only recently parted from. Which was a year before the autobiography was published. The FBI was also keeping an eye on him, while he was challenging and then later on defending the civil rights movement. Malcolm gained a lot of international attention for his stunts, which included him aggravating authoritative institutions in the US. It maybe was therefore important for Malcolm to display a character in his book, that was assured of his personality by giving the audience direct quotes and writing about his memories in great detail. In this sense, there are only a few moments where Malcolm sounds unsure of his memory, for example when he said that:

 “during this period, the visit to my mother that I most remember was toward the end of that seventh-grade year” (X & Haley, 1965, pg. 63). 

Consequently, Malcolm seems to be admitting that he could only recall a few moments with his mother when visiting her. Since Malcolm did not write the book solely by himself, it is vital to scrutinize the input of Haley, his co-author. Even though Malcolm claimed that his autobiography is based on in-depth interviews, conducted before his assassination, the book might have been fabricated with drama and suspense to construct an altered persona of Malcolm. 

“His wife asked me, ‘Why are people in the world starving when America has so much surplus food? What do they do, dump it in the ocean?’ I told her, ‘Yes, but they put some of it in the holds of surplus ships, and in subsidized granaries and refrigerated space and let it stay there, with a small army of caretakers, until its unfit to eat. Then another army of disposal people gets rid of it to make space for the next surplus batch’.” (X & Haley, 1965, pg. 497)

The Autobiography, in fact, portrays some sort of fiction of his past life which is a “construction of a continuous story” (Wood, 1992, pg. 110). The story that is being told by Malcolm, comes across as if it is partially made up with the help of Haley, to convince the reader of a story that might not be true. There is great detail of situations that have occurred in Malcolm's life, which might be considered to be not as true. 

“Reginald’s attitude: he simply never mentioned the fight. It was the way he looked at me- and avoided looking at me. So I went back to the gym, and I trained-hard.” (X & Haley, 1965, pg. 51)

“Not long after this, I came into a classroom with my hat on. I did it deliberately. The teacher, who was white, ordered me to keep the hat on, and to walk around and around the room until he told me to stop. ‘That way,’ he said, ‘everyone can see you. Meanwhile, we’ll go on with class for those who are here to learn something’.” (X & Haley, 1965, pg. 51)

That the cowriter Haley, a professional journalist, had a say in this book, seems to be not such a far-fetched idea. The autobiography seems to entail quotes, to make the book seem more real, but it ends up with the reader questioning the situation. The following is another example of a supposedly direct quote from Malcolm. 

“Hear how the white man kidnapped and robbed and raped our black race -” (X & Haley, 1965, pg. 339)

Within every chapter in the book Haley and Malcolm included passages of conversation, Malcolm supposedly had with people. These were not recorded but were added to the book, based on the belief that Malcolm recalled them from his memory. It is therefore hard to believe if these events are true, if these conversations had happened or if the book is leaning towards a drama- and suspense-themed concept. 




The Autobiography of Malcolm X simultaneously is a real as well as a fictional book. Although the story has been written as explicitly as possible in order to gain international attention, the book probably would have not received as much attention without the ‘drama and suspense’ included. Yet, the autobiography presents Malcolm’s self-thoughts and feelings in an in-depth profound manner. The audience gets to know Malcolm in a raw and combative way that it almost feels wrong to say that his book is not credible or unbelievable. Malcolm has been able to write in such detail about the physical environment he had been in. The precise clothing his friend Shorty wore and which way he was turning while speaking to him. Especially when he was younger than six years old, he was able to recall in his book conversations and exact phrases that were said to him throughout his life, which is impossible to remember the surroundings vividly. He has also stated, that at an early age, he was confronted with a lot of challenging moments. This could be a reason for writing this book, to clarify why he had become this person when he joined the Nation of Islam. But even though there is great detail of his life of crime, later on, historians claimed otherwise. Some readers had doubts about his notorious gangster life, which led to some believing that it had not happened to such an extent. By layering his memories and being honest about his past, the story feels more credible and real. It changed Malcolm’s perspective on his childhood and his life later on, hoping to inspire his readers to think differently about him. 

The autobiography is about taking control of his own narrative. By describing himself in a raw and combative as he did in his book, it is hard to conclude that he is not credible. But, it is possible that he had fallen into a role of victimizing his circumstances because the book mostly emphasizes a heroic becoming of a nobody person. To argue that the readers get to know Malcolm X in depth through this book would not be true. But at least the reader does get a glimpse of the complex dynamics of Malcolm X’s life. 




Canby, V. (1992, November 18). Review/Film: ‘Malcolm X’, as complex as its subject. New York Times. https://www-nytimes-com.tilburguniversity.idm.oclc.org/1992/11/18/movies...


Marable, M. (2011). A Life Of Reinvention of Malcolm X. Penguin Putnam Inc.


Wood, J. (1992). Malcolm X: In our own Image. New York: St. Martins Press. 


X, M. & Haley, A. (1965). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Grove Press.