This section contains 6,480 words
(approx. 22 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Essay by Thomas W. Benson
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 act generated in a scene composed of exigencies, constraints, others, and the self; it is a way of exercising control over self, others, and by extension the scene. Taken by itself, any one of the rhetorical modes of action is incomplete. Knowledge alone becomes decadent and effete, existence alone becomes narcissistic and self-destructive, and power alone becomes dehumanized technological manipulation. Perhaps only when rhetorical knowing, being, and doing are present together can a rhetorical act truly be said to take place. In a given rhetorical event the balance among being, knowing, and doing is a function of the structure of the act and its relation to audience, scene, agent, agency, and purpose.
The constituents of rhetorical action are illustrated with special force in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which, I shall argue, achieves a unique synthesis of selfhood and rhetorical instrumentality.
The general outline of Malcolm's life is familiar to many Americans. He was born Malcolm Little in 1922, the son of a Baptist minister who was later killed by the Ku Klux Klan. After a boyhood in Michigan, Malcolm moved to Boston, where he worked as a shoeshine boy, soda fountain clerk, busboy, and railroad kitchen crewman, and drifted into a life of hustling, numbers running, pimping, and burglary. Finally arrested, he was sent to prison. There he became a convert to Islam, and after his release from prison became the leading spokesman for Elijah Muhammad's Lost-Found Nation of Islam in North America (the Black Muslims), and the country's most widely heard black advocate of racial separation. Then in November of 1963, Malcolm referred to the assassination of John F. Kennedy as "chickens coming home to roost," and was publicly silenced by Elijah Muhammad. Shortly afterwards, Malcolm broke with the Muslims and undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca. He returned to America to announce that he would henceforth work for the brotherhood of all men, and set about organizing a movement to achieve his ends, hinting that violent means might be necessary.
When Malcolm X was assassinated in February of 1965, he was a much-publicized but little-understood leader who seemed temporarily to have lost his following. Cut off from the Black Muslims, spurned as a black racist by moderate Negro leaders and most of the press, Malcolm nevertheless appeared at the threshold of either national leadership or increasingly bitter notoriety. His death seemed to end all that, temporarily promoting him to a compromised martyrdom that might well, because of the seeming ambiguity of his final position, have led to a quick eradication of his influence.
But a few months later Grove Press published The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written "with the assistance of Alex Haley." This book quickly restored Malcolm to a position in the rank of such black leaders as Douglass, Washington, DuBois, and King. Why? Here is an autobiography, moreover an autobiography whose authorship is clouded by collaboration, exhibiting the signs of a rhetorical work, and managing to solve a rhetorical problem of great complexity. How could Malcolm meet the most serious challenges posed to his life and work? The challenges that he changed his position so abruptly, near the end of his career, that he was without audience or program? And the challenge not only to create a place for himself in the pantheon of black leaders, but to further the development of revolutionary masses?
Let us first examine the foundation of the rhetorical problem and then try to find a reading of the Autobiography which illuminates his strategy.
For most of his audience, whether white or black, Malcolm's greatest needs were to establish his credibility and to explain his program. What stands in the way of satisfying these needs is the suspicion that he had no program and was not worth believing. Herbert W. Simons, for instance, sees Malcolm as impaled on the dilemma of needing to be both consistent and fresh. "When, in one year, Malcolm X broke with Elijah Muhammad, shifted positions on integration and participation in civil rights demonstrations, and confessed his uncertainties on other issues, he inevitably alienated some followers and invited charges of weakness and inconsistency from his enemies." One option for the readers of Malcolm's Autobiography is to explain Malcolm's apparent inconsistency by arguing that he was either a blind fanatic or an irresponsible charlatan.
One of the greatest rhetorical potentialities of the autobiographical genre lies in its ability to take a reader inside the writer's experience, and to show how early mistakes led to later enlightenment. But this very advantage also presents a danger, since later actions may be judged as variations on those earlier mistakes. In Malcolm's case, some readers may be tempted to see his conversion to Islam and his later advocacy of brotherhood as self-serving extensions of his former career as a street hustler. And there are elements of the hustler in Malcolm as he reveals himself even after his conversion to Islam.
Malcolm has an irritating propensity for opportunism in debate, cleverly setting up a situation to score a point when that point may be inconsistent with another position. For instance, late in the Autobiography when he is describing his visit to Africa in 1964, Malcolm tells of a press conference: "I stressed to the assembled press the need for mutual communication and support between the Africans and Afro-Americans whose struggles were interlocked. I remember that in the press conference, I used the word 'Negro,' and I was firmly corrected. "The word is not favored here, Mr. Malcolm X. The term Afro-American has greater meaning and dignity. I sincerely apologized. I don't think that I said 'Negro' again as long as I was in Africa." As it stands, this episode is unobjectionable. And yet during his ministry with the Black Muslims, Malcolm had, in his speech at Cornell University in March of 1962, for instance, repeatedly referred to America's "so-called Negroes," on the grounds that Negro was a white man's word which he refused to be ensnared by. His sincere apology of 1964, not an outright reversal, nevertheless misleads his readers for the convenience of making his point. And earlier in the Autobiography Malcolm makes much the same point in reporting a speech by Elijah Muhammad. The white man, says Muhammad to a group of Muslims, "has taught you, for his benefit, that you are a neutral, shiftless, helpless so-called 'Negro.' I say 'so-called' because you are not a 'Negro.' There is no such thing as a race of 'Negroes.' You are members of the Asiatic nation, from the tribe of Shabazz! 'Negro' is a false label forced on you by your slave-master!"
With considerable relish, Malcolm boasts of some of his debater's tactics when responding to white reporters: "I might copy a trick I had seen lawyers use, both in life and on television. It was a way that lawyers would slip in before a jury something otherwise inadmissable."
To prove that blacks did not really want integration, Malcolm said in his Autobiography that "the black masses prefer the company of their own kind," and as for the charge of "vain, self-exalted white people … that black people want to sleep in bed with them—… that's a liel" And yet at Cornell in 1962, when he wanted to prove that white society had corrupted black culture, Malcolm charged that the black man in America had been made into a monster. "He is black on the outside, but you have made him white on the inside. Now he has a white heart and a white brain, and he's breathing down your throat and down your neck because he thinks he's a white man the same as you are. He thinks that he should have your house, that he should have your factory, he thinks that he should even have your school, and most of them even think that they should have your woman, and most of them are after your woman."
For some readers of the Autobiography, Malcolm's enormous interest in his speaking appearances at American universities may seem to betray the crude ambitions of the autodidact to establish his intellectual status.
After he left Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm undertook the traditional Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, where among other thoughts he records the following reflection:
Behind my nods and smiles, though, I was doing some American-type thinking and reflection. I saw that Islam's conversions around the world could double and triple if the colorfulness and true spiritualness of the Hajj pilgrimage were properly advertised and communicated to the outside world. I saw that the Arabs are poor at understanding the psychology of non-Arabs and the importance of public relations. The Arabs said "insha Allah" ("God willing")—then they waited for converts. Even by this means, Islam was on the march, but I knew that with improved public relations methods the number of new converts turning to Allah could be turned into millions.
Coupled with his opportunism in debate, his inconsistencies, his earlier career as hustler, pusher, and pimp, and his ministry of millennial anti-white black nationalism, Malcolm's confession of the urge to market Islam with the tools of American public relations may seem the final proof in branding him as a charlatan. We are reminded early in the Autobiography that Malcolm first sees the Muslims as a hustle. His brother, Reginald, wrote to him, "Malcolm, don't eat any more pork, and don't smoke any more cigarettes. I'll show you how to get out of prison." Malcolm's first response was that his brother "had come upon some way I could work a hype on the penal authorities." Even in the last pages of his book, Malcolm speaks of how much he "cherished" his "'demagogue' role," and hints that he sees himself as another Elijah Muhammad.
Was Malcolm merely reducing Islam to a hustle, or was he a blind fanatic who was so absorbed in black racism that he would not allow logic to stand in his way?
After Malcolm's death, USIA director Carl T. Rowan called Malcolm a fanatic, and there are passages in the Autobiography that a judicious reader might take as evidence for fanaticism. There is, for instance, Malcolm's sense that his life is worked out according to divine guidance. While he was in prison, Malcolm had a vision:
I prayed for some kind of relief from my confusion.
It was the next night, as I lay on my bed, I suddenly, with a start, became aware of a man sitting beside me in my chair. He had on a dark suit. I remember. I could see him as plainly as I see anyone I look at. He wasn't black, and he wasn't white. He was light-brown-skinned, an Asiatic cast of countenance, and he had oily black hair.
I looked right into his face.
I didn't get frightened. I know I wasn't dreaming. I couldn't move, I didn't speak, and he didn't. I couldn't place him racially—other than that I knew he was a non-European. I had no idea whatsoever who he was. He just sat there. Then suddenly as he had come, he was gone.
Malcolm's own sense that he is a chosen leader is sometimes striking. He speaks of his brother Reginald, who recruited him into Islam and then was cast out by Elijah Muhammad, and was finally placed in an institution. Malcolm says of his brother: "I believe, today, that it was written, it was meant for Reginald to be used for one purpose only: as a bait, as a minnow to reach into the ocean of blackness where I was, to save me." And Malcolm says that Elijah Muhammad "virtually raised me from the dead."
Malcolm often speaks of his life as "written." After describing his arrest for robbery, Malcolm says, "I have thought a thousand times, I guess, about how I so narrowly escaped death twice that day. That's why I believe that everything is written." The incident took place before his conversion, he says, but "Allah was with me even then." Malcolm talks of having "previsions" while in prison of addressing large crowds.
Malcolm's pilgrimage to Mecca, after the break with Elijah Muhammad, is full of talk of the signs of divine guidance. On the plane from America, Malcolm's seatmates were Muslims. "Another sign!" And later, in Egypt, "I considered it another of Allah's signs, that wherever I turned, someone was there to help me, to guide me."
One curious mark of Malcolm's faith in divine guidance was his belief in the significance of numbers. He speaks of attending the Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight: "Among the eight thousand other seat holders in Miami's big Convention Hall, I received Seat Number Seven. Seven has always been my favorite number. It has followed me throughout my life. I took this to be Allah's message confirming to me that Cassius Clay was going to win." Variations on the theme of seven appear here and there in the Autobiography. For instance, on his pilgrimage he was a guest at the Jedda Palace Hotel. He is careful to report that he was in suite number 214 (the sum of whose digits is seven).
In the face of evidence that Malcolm was a hustler or a religious fanatic, how were those of Malcolm's followers who believed his descriptions of the white man as a devil to interpret the final year of his life? Malcolm quotes from speeches he made during this period: "'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!'"
How could Malcolm's diverse audiences, the audiences of his last year and beyond, of all colors and politics, be expected to understand and assent to his final appeals to them? For somehow, although he did make enemies, although his organizational following at the time of his death was smaller than during his ministry for Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm's influence has continued to grow.
For all the difficulties that Malcolm poses to credibility, the charge that he is a fanatic or a charlatan will not stick. He was too good humored for a fanatic, and in fact he spoke in his last days of the danger of assuming that anyone is divinely guided. He made more painful sacrifices than could have been borne by a charlatan. Some larger reading of his Autobiography is needed, one that will accept his traces of fanaticism and charlatanism without supposing that they account for the full impact of the Autobiography and the elevation of Malcolm to a leading role in America's tragic struggle over racial injustice.
One way out of our difficulty at this point is to find the solution in a direct refutation of charges against Malcolm's credibility. There are patterns in the Autobiography which support a version of Malcolm as a magnificent anti-hero, an existentialist saint, a mythic witness to America's oppressive racism.
Malcolm's existentialist credentials are strong. He often speaks as if action constitutes the man, and he was a man of action. He says, "I've never been one for inaction. Everything I've ever felt strongly about I've done something about." And again, "Our Nation of Islam could be an even greater force in the American black man's overall struggle—if we engaged in more action…. I felt that, wherever black people committed themselves, in the Little Rocks and Birminghams and other places, militarily disciplined Muslims should also be there—for all the world to see, respect, and discuss."
Not only did Malcolm demonstrate the virtues of courage, wit, and dedication, but he was willing to change his position when he thought it necessary. The autobiographical mode is uniquely suited to explaining and justifying how Malcolm was led from one stage of life to another, just as it is suited to keeping the focus upon Malcolm as its central figure. We are made to understand how Malcolm evolved from a troubled but promising black youth through the underworld of crime and drugs to an urgent and original agent of social redemption. Far from denying his changes, Malcolm makes "change" a major theme of his Autobiography, developing a pattern which tempts one to think in messianic terms. There is in the Autobiography a tension between the particularity of Malcolm's experience, depicted with passion and eloquence, and the sense of universal, almost mythical, patterns into which Malcolm's life is rendered, forming an archetypal cycle of innocence-initiation-corruption-salvation-disillusionment-redemption-death and, ultimately, vindication.
But to describe Malcolm as a hero or martyr, reading the Autobiography, in effect, as a novel or a sacred text of existential revelation, for all that the Autobiography suggests such patterns, especially in the context of contemporary literary and popular culture, is to detail the book as rhetoric. For if we find the principle of Malcolm's life in his existential heroism or in a repetition of universal cycles, we shall have built a monument and destroyed a leader Malcolm would be elevated above the problem posed by his inconsistencies, but his elevation would be either too personal or too universal to exercise a truly rhetorical function, that is, to contribute to the wisdom of a contemporary social movement much in need of direction. And so if Malcolm can rescue himself from the charges of fanaticism and charlatanism only by reconstituting himself in the role of hero or saint, he has allowed the autobiographical genre to triumph over its rhetorical purpose and has left the movement without any clue as to how to apply his experience to today's problems.
If Malcolm contained the principle of change within himself, how can his audience know that he would not have changed again, had he lived? Might the humanism of Malcolm's last year not be simply one more stopping place along an obscure trail whose markings only Malcolm could read? Does The Autobiography of Malcolm X become literature at the expense of fulfilling its rhetorical possibilities?
At this point we must pause to consider more fully the relation of rhetoric and literary forms, particularly in autobiography. Certainly it would be misleading to argue that literature and rhetoric are separated by impenetrable barriers. In the literature of experience, whether poetry, drama, journalism, fiction, or autobiography, rhetoric can provide the purpose, content, or principle of organization. In practice, literature may always be in part rhetorical. Wayne Booth has demonstrated the necessity of separating the implied from the actual author, and he has shown that where literature does not directly address an audience, at the very least it requires the audience to participate in the moral world of the literary work. And yet the language of criticism would be impoverished if we overcompensated for old dichotomies by substituting the slogan that all literature is rhetorical. Slogans are still slogans, and even if it is true that all literature is rhetorical, literature and rhetoric are not identical. In a given case such imprecise terms as literature and rhetoric must be distinguished before they can be related.
In the case of any symbolic form, a set of conventions helps to create the context for a response. What conventions operate in autobiography, and what sorts of responses do they invite? Theorists of the genre, and there are few, seem to agree that autobiography is a literary genre more important for the form it gives to felt experience than for the accuracy with which it records actual events or the extent to which it influences public or private behavior. And most theorists sharply distinguish between autobiography proper and such associated forms as reminiscence, memoir, confession, and apologia.
Roy Pascal is willing to grant that autobiography must "give us events that are symbolic of the personality as an entity unfolding not solely according to its own laws, but also in response to the world it lives in." but he is quite clear in his insistence that autobiography "is in fact not at all a suitable vehicle for the exposition of a doctrine, for by its very form we are led to appreciate the ideas and insights expounded in it (e.g., with Augustine, Wordsworth, Croce, Schweitzer) not in their objective truth but as true for this particular man, as true of him." It is this sense of the single self generated symbolically in terms of a literary genre that prompts Richard Ellmann to argue that "autobiography is essentially solitary," whereas "biography is essentially social."
The conventions of autobiography are constantly working to focus the reader's attention upon an individual, and even at that, an individual who is created in the work and not necessarily as he appeared in "real life." Where the external world is an element, it is most readily seen as a part of the author's experience, rather than as a real place shared with the reader. Indeed, the more fully realized the work as autobiography, as distinguished from such related genres as memoir, reminiscence, confession, or apologia, the more the reader may be impelled to a literary, as opposed to a rhetorical response. The literary response holds the pleasures of formal apprehension and psychological insight, whereas a fully rhetorical response ends in a responsibility which goes beyond the work. Or so, at least, the theorists of autobiography seem to tell us.
Perhaps Maurianne Adams suggests a false dichotomy when she states her preference for autobiographers when "as imaginative writers they are more concerned with the controlled articulation of subjective impressions and responses than with outer, public events and achievements." Her allegiance is given to a convention which "enables autobiography to be a form of literature that we enjoy for its own sake, not as an adjunct to our knowledge of politics, military history, or public affairs."
What may appear to Adams as the vexing intrusion of actuality into the rarified atmosphere of "authenticity, fidelity, coherence, and thematic design," is likely to appear to a rhetorical critic as a quite inevitable tension whose resolution it is up to the autobiographer to produce. In a rhetorician's view, the aim is not to purify the work of any taint of the real world. It is not how close to pure form the autobiography becomes, but how the work relates form to audience and external world that holds the interest of the rhetorical critic.
In Malcolm's case we can observe a reinvention and extension of the genre, recapitulating as he does the development of a literary form through religious confession and political apology to a final discovery of the self. But Malcolm does not stop with the revelation of his selfhood, and it is his ability to transcend the confines of pure literature even while meeting its formal requirements that constitutes his rhetorical genius.
For Malcolm's rhetorical purposes, either of the readings of the Autobiography so far proposed would amount to failure. For those who would reject Malcolm as a hustler or fanatic, the rhetorical problem is to establish credibility. For those who would promote Malcolm into a virtually fictional hero, Malcolm must avoid the more subtle failure of succeeding too well at remaining within the traditions of autobiography as literary form, and thereby isolating himself from the experimental world of the reader.
Both of the readings we have so far proposed are supportable by reference to the Autobiography, but both are too narrow to account fully for the work. Is it possible to develop a view of the book that acknowledges the attraction of contrasting, even inconsistent, alternate readings? Such a reading would have to accept Malcolm's opportunism and his deep commitment, his ordeal of corruption and his sacrifice in blood, his evident ambition and its accompanying self denial. The reading we seek does not lie "somewhere between" the two so far proposed, but is generated out of them. Because it must be approached in a dialectical fashion, the view now proposed takes its support not only from the direct evidence of the text, but also from the evident clash of two persuasive but conflicting readings.
At the first level, our proposed final or synthetic reading is simple: Malcolm's life is a drama of enlargement. In this view, Malcolm is a gifted but flawed man whose natural powers and sympathies undergo a gradual but powerful opening up to embrace wider scenes of action and larger groups of people. What makes Malcolm's life a drama—an enactment of conflict—rather than a mere growth, is the presence of racism, the agency of constriction, domination, and injustice. We reject the figure of growth because it is essentially passive, suggesting the involuntary fulfillment of a destiny. What is important about Malcolm is his achievement through willed action and reflection, in the face of hostile forces. Malcolm, in this view, is not a creature of circumstantial corruption, nor is he a Sisyphean figure whose life takes on a mythical distance from the immediate scene. He is a man in conflict with a condition whose nature he comes to understand and transcend as motive passes from his environment to him. Such a view, if we can accept it, gives Malcolm's life a continuity that may be extended beyond his death, and it reconciles our two previous readings.
Given this reading, the elements of fanaticism and hustlerism in his early career do not detract from Malcolm's credibility, but rather lend authenticity to a humanism which, alone, might seem anemic.
If Malcolm's life as a pimp and hustler, as a black nationalist rabble-rouser, and as a spokesman for human brotherhood can be seen as the general unfolding of a consistent pattern, then the Autobiography has succeeded as rhetoric, signaling the response to a human institution of which racism is the most pressing extension. Malcolm would thus not have to be dismissed as a frantic true believer or elevated—another form of dismissal—as a sainted scapegoat of racist America. Rather, he could be read as a gifted leader of men who develops a rhetoric transcending racism, a rhetoric of human purpose and brotherhood. Most importantly, perhaps, the reading gives us the principle behind Malcolm's "changes," which are now seen as consistent steps forward rather than as random and untrustworthy conversions by faith. Malcolm's readers are not reduced to admiring him; they can pick up where he left off.
As Malcolm came to understand that racism had caused him to act as he had, its power to control his actions passed over to him. Motive, previously located in his condition, was now in the hands of a conscious agent. With the Autobiography, Malcolm shares that motive with his readers, giving them a principle of action they can carry into the confrontation with racism as it conditions their own lives.
Thus far we have shown that to explain Malcolm's Autobiography as a drama of enlargement will plausibly synthesize variant readings and suggest the source of the book's power over readers. But every critical reading must pass a further test. If the notion of enlargement is to be useful, it must help us to open up the text. This it can do in a variety of ways.
First, enlargement is the pattern of Malcolm's career itself. Starting as a small-time hustler, whose power was active but restricted, Malcolm sought wider and wider stages for his actions. Moving from Michigan to Boston to Harlem to black nationalism, pan-Islamism, and the United Nations, Malcolm also enlarged his loyalties from self and family to gang, race, religion, and all mankind. Seen in this light, Malcolm's sense of brotherhood with all men is not the weakening of militancy or a softening of commitment, but an extension of potency.
The force against which Malcolm's power grew and exercised itself was racism, which Malcolm came to understand in broader terms as but the central manifestation of injustice and domination. Where racism appeared simply as the condition denying Malcolm money and prestige, he could combat it by conking his hair and resorting to a life of crime. Where racism was conceived as an institution created by white oppressors, he could turn to black nationalism. And where racism grew to appear as the symptom of a disease afflicting a social system, Malcolm could look for the healing power of revolution and social redemption.
Supporting the movement of Malcolm's life to ever larger stages is a counter-theme of thwarted growth. Before his two most important changes, Malcolm was placed temporarily in positions of impotency or confinement. It was while he was in prison that he converted to the Islamism of the Black Muslims, and later it was during an enforced silence imposed by Elijah Muhammad that Malcolm incubated his transformation into the larger world of a pilgrimage to Mecca, a political tour of Africa, and a return to America as the potential leader of an extended search for racial justice. And of course racism itself appears throughout the work in all of its forms as a constricting element that invites conflict and growth. Counter theme reinforces theme, thwarted power grows into larger power.
The pattern of enlargement is imitated in the structure of the chapters of the Autobiography as well as in its major movements. Typically, a chapter opens with a narrative section, which then gives way to a series of amplifications or generalizations on a theme growing out of the narrative. Chapter Three, "Home-boy," narrates Malcolm's first days in Boston and Roxbury, leading to a description of his first conk, applied by his friend Shorty. The chapter ends with an extended peroration depicting the hair-straightening process as a self-defacement, a natural product of racism. And along the way, even during the narration, there extends out from concrete particulars the larger world of values suggested by the vocabulary of a racist society: black, white, Crispus Attucks, Uncle Tom.
An early paragraph illustrates the book's movement, a movement repeated at the levels of sentence, paragraph, chapter, and section. Malcolm is describing his father, as remembered from his earliest years:
It was in his role as a preacher that my father had most contact with the Negroes of Lansing. Believe me when I tell you that those Negroes were in bad shape then. They an: still in bad shape—though in a different way. By that I mean that I don't know a town with a higher percentage of complacent and misguided so-called "middle-class" Negroes—the typical status-symbol-oriented, integration-seeking type of Negroes. Just recently, I was standing in a lobby at the United Nations talking with an African ambassador and his wife, when a Negro came up to me and said, "You know me?" I was a little embarrassed because I thought he was someone I should remember. It turned out that he was one of those bragging, self-satisfied, "middle-class" Lansing Negroes. I wasn't ingratiated. He was the type who would never have been associated with Africa, until the fad of having African friends became a status-symbol for "middle-class" Negroes.
This paragraph is worth our close attention. Here a recollection from his early childhood leads Malcolm to a larger theme which then incorporates an enlarged temporal scheme as he speaks directly from a later point in time (the incident at the United Nations did not happen, say, "many years later," in the usual formula for such things, but "just recently"). We note also that we are again in the presence of what at first appears as Malcolm's own snobbery, but by the end of the paragraph his worries about his own status, no doubt stirred by bitter memories of early snubs, have been transcended by turning the tables and by referring to the wider themes of Africa, the United Nations, and the fight against racism. The paragraph displays enlargement both as a dispositional strategy and as a struggle to confess and work from his own confining concern for status and retribution towards a principle of active change.
Malcolm's choice of figures is also governed by themes of growth and their contraries. Chapter Fifteen is climaxed by the image of Icarus, who reminds Malcolm that however high he flies his wings were supplied by Islam. Earlier in the chapter, describing a period when he was at the peak of his success as a minister of Elijah Muhammad, and therefore just about to leave the brotherhood, Malcolm devotes a section to his relations with the press: "I developed a mental image of reporters as human ferrets—steadily sniffing, darting, probing for some way to trick me, somehow to corner me in our interview exchanges." The image goes no further, and Malcolm instead continues by illustrating how he outwitted the press. Yet if the reporters were ferrets, Malcolm implies that he saw himself as a burrowing prey, retreating into a dark tunnel from which he was soon to emerge in a new form.
What bothered Malcolm most about prison were the bars, the visible sign of his confinement. "Any person who claims to have a deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars—caged. I am not saying there shouldn't be prisons, but there shouldn't be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars."
Later, when he had converted to Islam while in prison, Malcolm began to study, educating himself from the prison library. "Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened…. Months passed without my even thinking of being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life." And still later, when Malcolm undertook his Hajj pilgrimage, he arrived in Cairo, and "the effect was as though I had just stepped out of a prison."
But there is more to the theme of enlargement and confinement than images, for Malcolm's Autobiography goes beyond the closed world of literary form towards the open forum of rhetorical address. The relation of the theme of confinement to the predicament of American blacks is stated clearly in the following passage: "Human rights! Respect as human beings! That's what America's black masses want. That's the true problem. The black masses want not to be shrunk from as though they are plague-ridden. They want not to be walled up in slums, in the ghettos, like animals. They want to live in an open, free society where they can walk with their heads up, like men, and women!"
When speaking to black audiences in the last year of his life, Malcolm went beyond the Islamic faith "to embrace all who sat before me." He was, he said, "for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole." In the face of opposition and harassment, he declared that he was against "strait-jacketed thinking, and strait-jacketed societies."
Malcolm's Autobiography is constructed in terms of the contradictions between open and closed, constriction and enlargement, confinement and action. The dialectical structure of the book is a major rhetorical accomplishment, since it allows Malcolm to transcend the challenges which his own life in the context of a secular and a racist society posed to his credibility and relevance.
After he left Elijah Muhammad, in the last three chapters of the Autobiography, Malcolm's images change, to become variations on the concept of healing, with Malcolm seeking a symbol to reconcile an intensified religiosity and a growing sense of the need for secular action. He speaks of racism as a disease, a metaphor that for him makes possible a symbolic transcendence in which violence is weighed as a radical surgery for the "cancer" which grips America—an America which he no longer hates but now seeks to mend. The image of cancer itself becomes especially meaningful when we see it in the light of Malcolm's theme of enlargement, where it takes on resonances of the perverted growth of an evil and uncontrolled malignancy. The dialectical symmetry of the cancer metaphor is, in context, unmistakable.
These final themes are not resolved, nor had Malcolm, at the end of his life, yet found a perfectly unified and straightforward synthesis for the contradictions of his life. But he had found the principle of synthesis in his actions, and had set it forth in a pattern of symbols that, like his own life, possesses the capacity to evolve.
I have not attempted a full critical exploration of the immensely rich rhetorical works of Malcolm X. Rather, I have addressed the preliminary question of how to account for Malcolm's enduring influence by suggesting the presence in The Autobiography of Malcolm X of a dialectical rhetoric, in which a drama of enlargement saves Malcolm from being dismissed as a fanatic, a charlatan, or an existential anti-hero, and instead renders his life as the embodiment of a principle of rhetorical action. And the form of action Malcolm achieves in the Autobiography transcends the rhetorical fractions of which we spoke at the beginning of this essay. If we see hustling as a parody of rhetorical Doing, fanaticism as a corruption of rhetorical Knowing, and existential sainthood as a variation of rhetorical Being, we are able to see the Autobiography as a synthesizing act which resolves and transcends the fractions, producing a fully rhetorical action to which Being (and becoming), Knowing, and Doing contribute equally.
Malcolm has created a work which is formally consistent, authentically autobiographical, and yet rhetorically effective. Symbolically, Malcolm continually enlarges his powers and sympathies; dialectically, Malcolm's recurrent changes are shown to be transcendent movements which reconcile his own contradictory masks as hustler, religious mystic, and existential rebel, and the polarities of America's ordeal of racism; rhetorically, Malcolm seizes motive from the scene and makes it available to his readers, who are invited to assume their roles as actors in the drama of enlargement and reconciliation.
Confinement and enlargement. In The Autobiography of Aalcolm X these are the symbolic vehicles for an essentially rhetorical mode of knowing, being, and doing in the world. They stand as the symbols for Malcolm's discovery of himself through the act of addressing his fellow men. As Malcolm's sphere of action, a rhetorical sphere, enlarges, as he seeks in turn to rob, hustle, convert, and join in brotherhood with even larger constituencies, there is a parallel enlargement of his world view. At the end of his life, the Malcolm of the Autobiography stands at the threshold of both power and vision. Some men grow by appropriating the power and space of other men and women. Malcolm X. born Malcolm Little and assassinated as Brother Malcolm, El-Hajj Malik Shabazz, was one of those rare men the growth of whose power was consistently accompanied by a growing vision of freedom and brotherhood for all people.
This section contains 6,480 words
(approx. 22 pages at 300 words per page)