Today would have been Malcolm X’s 85th birthday. As we take time to reflect on his life and the pivotal role he played in the struggle for Black equality, what better way could there be than to read his story in his own words?
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, his life story as told to Roots author Alex Haley, is more than 45 years old now. Many of the major world events that have occurred since Malcolm’s death, in particular the election of a Black president, would undoubtedly have seemed inconceivable to him. Even so, the story of his life—at its core a story of redemption, transformation, and self-discovery—is as resonant today as ever.
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Black Literary Greats
For the Black reader, no other literary work does so much to affirm the essential dignity and humanity of our race. While one would hope that such basic qualities would be a given in the modern era, this remains a nation in which societal forces ranging from the legal system to the entertainment world are constantly chipping away at them. Indeed, despite much of the so-called “progress” that has come about since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, many of our people are still living in the very same ghettos and slums whose existence Malcolm lamented during his own lifetime. His autobiography, in detailing his remarkable metamorphosis from the shameless, drug-addled and immoral Detroit Red into the dignified, upstanding and god-fearing leader El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, reveals the possibilities that open up when Black people recognize our own worth and demand better from ourselves and others.
For the non-Black reader, I doubt you’ll find a better primer on the history of people of color not just in America but around the world, and why that history continues to have such an indelible effect on us today. For white readers in particular, a more honest account of your people’s place in that history and its consequences would be difficult to come by.
Time magazine named The Autobiography of Malcolm X one of the 10 most important nonfiction books of the century, but even this honor doesn’t capture its significance. Quite simply, Malcolm X’s story is one that must be read by all Americans if we are ever to understand ourselves and each other.