The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Critical Essay by John D. Groppe

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
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Critical Essay by John D. Groppe

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 spite of the variety of modes of trust, trust is nevertheless characterized by one's confidence that his world and his own attributes can meet his needs and the needs of those he loves. In this essay I will trace Malcolm X's growth into trust by superimposing his pilgrimage upon Erikson's developmental stages.

For Malcolm X to tell hi;; story, even to a black journalist, was an act of trust. At the beginning of his relationship to Alex Haley, he told Haley, "I don't completely trust anyone … not even myself. I have seen too many men destroy themselves. Other people I trust from not at all to highly, like The Honorable Elijah Muhammad…. You I trust about twenty-five percent." However, by listening and recording faithfully what Malcolm X said, Haley gained Malcolm X's trust. Malcolm X stepped beyond repeating the ideological formulas of the Muslim movement and began to share his life with Haley, even the moments of great shame over things like his mother's incarceration in a mental hospital. Malcolm X was conscious of whom he trusted and whom he did not trust. Haley recalls Malcolm X's affirmation of his confidence.

One call that I will never forget came at close to four a.m., waking me; he must have just gotten up in Los Angeles. His voice said, "Alex Haley?" I said, sleepily, "Yes? Oh, hey, Malcolm!" His voice said, "I trust you seventy percent"—and then he hung up.

Trusting a stranger with the intimate details of one's life is a violation of the code of the hustler Malcolm X lived by from 1942 to 1946.

What I was learning was the hustling society's first rule; that you never trusted anyone outside of your own close-mouthed circle, and that you selected with time and care before you made any intimates even among them.

That group was small indeed. He encouraged his younger brother Reginald to leave the merchant marine and take up a hustle in Harlem. "I must have felt that having my kid brother around me would be a good thing. Then there would be two people I could trust—Sammy was the other." Not long afterwards Malcolm X was almost killed by Sammy for slapping Sammy's woman, and the reliable world narrowed to one. "I came to rely more and more upon my brother Reginald as the only one in my world I could completely trust."

The disintegration of the reliability of his world began early. His home was burned when he was four. His father was assassinated when he was six. His family was treated as "things" by the welfare workers who destroyed family pride and sowed "seeds of division" in the minds of the children, Mrs. Little weakened under the pressure, and the children watched their "anchor giving way." His parents became causes of shame. "None of us talked much about our mother. And we never mentioned our father."

His ability to trust in his own attributes was assaulted by the same forces that defeated his mother, but the final blow was the remark by his teacher that his ambition to become a lawyer was not a "realistic goal for a nigger."

Malcolm X's move to the black worlds of Roxbury and Harlem gave him the opportunity to experience race identity and pride. "This world was where I belonged," he recalled. For one thing, it identified with him: "I still was country, I know now, but it all felt so great because I was accepted." More importantly it allowed him to express, and excel at the expression of, something he felt was deep within him and other blacks; "With alcohol and marijuana lightening my head, and that wild music wailing away on those portable players, it didn't take long to loosen up the dancing instincts in my African heritage."

Race pride, however, went hand-in-hand with race shame. It was such shame, the rejection of his own and his common blackness, that led him to straighten his hair in the painful process of conking.

How ridiculous I was! Stupid enough to stand there simply lost in admiration of my hair now looking "white"…. This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man's hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are "inferior"—and white people "superior"—that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look "pretty" by white standards.

Harlem and places like Small's Paradise offered some sense of community: "Many times since, I have thought about it, and what it really meant. In one sense, we were huddled in there, bonded together in seeking security and warmth and comfort from one another, and we didn't know it." Not knowing what they needed from each other, the hustlers preyed on one another. "In this Harlem jungle people would hype their brothers." Malcolm X became physically sick from his use of opium and marijuana and spiritually, or as he puts it, "mentally dead."

The various stages of Malcolm X's life are signalled by name changes: Malcolm Little, Mascot, Sandwich Red, Harlem Red, Detroit Red. In prison he was called "Satan" because of his "antireligious attitude." But he also suggests that his resentment was directed not just at religion but also at the world. He preferred solitary confinement. He was disruptive and was punished with solitary. "I preferred the solitary that this behavior brought me. I would pace for hours like a caged leopard, viciously cursing aloud to myself." By this point Malcolm X had almost completely lost his basic trust. According to Erikson, "If you have forgotten how to trust, you may be driven to cultivate active mistrust and insist defiantly that everyone is against you."

The world he knew could not be trusted to sustain him or meet his needs, nor did there seem to be anything in himself to enable him to meet the opposition of the world and to sustain himself. However, the Satanic defiance was only a delaying tactic, not unlike the bravado of the hustling life he had lived on the streets. Just as "every criminal expects to get caught, [and] … stave[s] off the inevitable for as long as he can," Satan Malcolm had as yet no hope. He had to find something in himself and something in the world to trust. The convict Bimini led him to trust once again in his own mental powers. Bimini, a black burglar, could hold audiences of even white prisoners and guards spellbound by his opinions; "he was the first man [Malcolm] had ever seen command total respect … with his words." Bimini told him "he had some brains." A black man with some power in that restricted world spoke to him, identified his talent, and encouraged him to develop it. Malcolm began "a correspondence course in English."

He began to prepare to reenter the world, but he needed a place within it. After all, identity is characterized by mutuality. Elijah Muhammad provided that place. The role of Elijah Muhammad and the Black Muslim movement is probably the most difficult part of Malcolm X's regeneration to understand and accept. Its militant racism and its dependence on so patently absurd a foundation as "Yacub's History" of the human race suggest that Malcolm X faltered on his first regenerative step. I assume most readers are aware of Malcolm X's ultimate break with Elijah Muhammad and his movement and of his assassination by Muslims. This might prompt the reader to write off the Black Muslim experience as an unfortunate but temporary disaster. Such a reading, however, would cause the reader to fail to see how the Muslim movement aided in Malcolm X's growth. At the age of twenty-three Malcolm Little became Malcolm X and entered into the kind of relationship Erikson identifies with adolescence.

Erikson [in Insight and Responsibility: Lectures on the Ethical Implications of Psychoanalytic Insight] elaborates the childhood virtue of basic trust into four virtues: hope, will, purpose, and competence. Malcolm X's prison experience rekindled hope and will and gave him a purpose. His language program (including correspondence courses, his reading of the dictionary, his letters to Elijah Muhammad, and his participation in the debate club) gave him competence. The twenty-three year old ex-con might seem to have been ready for an adult role. Erikson defines adulthood in terms of courage; "to be a person, identical with oneself, presupposes a basic trust in one's origins—and the courage to emerge from them." Malcolm had yet to reconsider his origins and to deal with the shame of being the son of an assassinated father and a mental patient mother and at the same time a Negro. Dropping his family name and assuming the unknown X immediately lifted some of the burden, and Yacub's History held open the possibility of uncovering a more dignified lineage than he was aware of.

Dropping his family name for the X was no big step. He had long since lost the name Little and much of the relatedness it entailed. He recalled making a public show of his draft notice by reading it aloud and remarking, "this was probably the only time my real name was ever heard in Harlem in those days." The names he was known by emphasized personal attributes—his red hair—or a sort of generic quality—his being from Detroit or Harlem. He had moved into a culture in which relatedness was deemphasized or almost impossible. One had no continuity with a past and, therefore, no real future. One was a creature of the present to be distinguished only by personal characteristics. Yacub's History restored a relationship to the past and made his future possible.

He needed a supportive environment to explore the unknown and to test his competence. He had to go through adolescence, the virtue of which, according to Erikson, is fidelity, a virtue which produces "a whole circle of approving eyes which makes the space [one] masters both safe and secure." The chief virtue of the Muslim movement—with its strict codes on dress, alcohol and other stimulants, sex roles and family life, cleanliness and eating habits, and its schedule that consumed almost all of the free time of its devotees—was its separatism. Such a life style created a safe and secure space by blocking out and holding off at a distance distractions and inappropriate standards of personal dignity. Malcolm X accepted that secure space Elijah Muhammad offered to him, and, being selflessly faithful to him. Minister Malcolm increased the number of approving eyes within it.

Trust grows in a stable situation and increases the stability of the relationship. It is the stability of the relationship that contributes to the growth of the persons within it. In explaining why he prefers to call the basic relationship "trust" rather than "confidence," Erikson says:

If I prefer the word "trust," it is because there is more naiveté and more mutuality in it: an infant can be said to be more trusting where it would go too far to say that he has confidence. The general state of trust, furthermore, implies not only that one has learned to rely on the sameness and continuity of the other providers, but also that one may trust oneself and the capacity of one's own organs to cope with urges; and that one is able to consider oneself trustworthy enough so that providers will not need to be on guard lest they be nipped.

In the earliest stages, the developing infant is freed by the stable provision of food, shelter, and comfort to explore and exploit his world in certain directions. The relationship is a mutual one tending toward mutual sustenance and gratification. At later stages the child plays a more definite and distinctive part in sustaining and building the stability which secures both parties of the relationship. The taken-for-grantedness of the world, the attitude of not questioning everything, allows for the growth of confidence in one's ability to manage. Though it seems fantastic, Yacub's History of the Human Race and its hope for recovery of the lost dignity of black people provided a stable center for the development of the rhetorical, administrative, philosophical, and spiritual growth of the late adolescent Minister Malcolm. Yacub's History is a story out of cosmic time, and something apparently that old and that enduring reveals a recurrent dimension of Malcolm X's search for stability. He calls it "timelessness." It was the sense of timelessness he sought in drugs.

Going downtown to deliver the reefers, I felt sensations I cannot describe, in all those different grooves at the same time. The only word to describe it was a timelessness. A day might have seemed to me five minutes. Or a half-hour might have seemed a week.

The timelessness of drugs was an illusion that could be reentered only at the cost of mental and then physical death. Accepting Yacub's History and the Black Muslim movement led Malcolm ultimately to an experience of an enduring sense of timelessness. It came in Mecca, which he called "as ancient as time itself." Two other principles of stability emerged from the Mecca experience, the oneness of God and the unity of mankind: "All ate as One, and slept as One. Everything about the pilgrimage atmosphere accepted the Oneness of Man under One God." In Mecca Malcolm X found that space and time can become one thing.

Acceptance of a world by an act of fidelity gives one the opportunity to exercise competence and to grow. Malcolm X organized mosques in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. He was rewarded with the use of a car, which he identified as a sign of Elijah Muhammad's "trust and confidence in my efforts to help build our Nation of Islam." The New York mosque stood up to the police in a brutality case, and "a jury awarded [Brother Hinton] over $70,000, the largest police brutality judgment that New York City ever paid." He founded a newspaper. The Muslims cured drug addicts and organized many small businesses. Their membership grew. The good and faithful servant becomes in time the principle of stability for others, becomes, in other words, an adult. Minister Malcolm was rewarded for his fidelity with the trust of Elijah Muhammad. When Mr. Muhammad was convalescing in Arizona, Malcolm X went to him to discuss some public speaking requests and some administrative matters. He felt trusted:

Mr. Muhammad evidenced the depth of his trust in me. In those areas I've described, he told me to make the decisions myself. He said that my guideline should be whatever I felt was wise—whatever was in the general good interests of our Nation of Islam.

The cared for had begun to become the career. Erikson sees the virtues of adulthood as love, care, and wisdom. Malcolm X had learned too well the meaning of Yacub's History. Black people in need of care, in need of his protective rhetoric, were not limited to the membership of the Nation of Islam, or at least those who had already declared fidelity to it. After all, Islam was for him at that time the Black Man's religion. He was willing in the name of all Black Americans to take risks that threatened the isolation and separated security of the Nation of Islam. He was soon to face another crisis of growth which would end in his emergence to full personhood or adulthood: "to be a person, identical with oneself, presupposes a basic trust in one's origins—and the courage to emerge from them." The Black Muslim movement and its familial bonds gave him a trust in his remote black origins, and his growing competence as a speaker, leader, and organizer gave him the courage to emerge from the Nation of Islam into a broader, more diverse family.

The first step toward adulthood was taking charge of some portion of the world in his own name. This step was not his marriage to Sister Betty but his helping to get his mother released from the mental hospital after over twenty years of incarceration. In fact, it was only when Alex Haley asked him to talk about his mother that Malcolm X began to tell his own life story. Haley recalled, "After that night, he never again hesitated to tell me even the most intimate details of his personal life, over the next two years. His talking about his mother triggered something." It caused Malcolm X to become Malcolm Little again and to face some unfinished business which he could now deal with, the shame of his mother's hospitalization. Later Malcolm X told Haley:

"Ever since we discussed my mother, I've been thinking about her. I realized that I had blocked her out of my mind…. It made me face something about myself…. My mind had closed about [my] mother. I simply didn't feel the problem could be solved, so I had shut it out."

It was, indeed, a family effort that released Mrs. Little, but perhaps Malcolm X's growth was the catalyst that freed his brothers and sisters from their own shame and impotence.

Malcolm X had to take other steps toward adulthood. When he and Haley first met, he did nothing in his own name and owned nothing. The book he contracted to do with Alex Haley was dedicated to Elijah Muhammad, and all royalties were to be paid to Mr. Muhammad's mosque in Chicago. The house he and Sister Betty and the children lived in was owned by the New York mosque. Malcolm X recalled that the only quarrel he had with his wife was about money. She wanted him to put some money away for their family, but he convinced her at that time that "the Nation of Islam would take care of her for the rest of her life, and of [their] children until they were grown." He was still a person with almost no conscious base of identity outside the Nation of Islam.

Then came the break with Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm was silenced. He found himself being made a scapegoat for the growing rift in the Nation of Islam as a result of the paternity suits against Elijah Muhammad. His life was threatened. He felt he was losing his mind, and he struggled to avoid ending like his brother Reginald, whose brain was "burned." Even Malcolm had helped to destroy Reginald's mind:

The last time I had seen Reginald, one day he walked into the Mosque Seven restaurant. I saw him coming in the door. I went and met him. I looked into my brother's eyes; I told him he wasn't welcome among Muslims, and he turned around and left, and I haven't seen him since. I did that to my own blood brother because, years before, Mr. Muhammad had sentenced Reginald to "isolation" from all other Muslims—and I considered that I was a Muslim before I was Reginald's brother.

To survive outside the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X needed to know that his needs and, now that he was a husband and father, the needs of those he cared for could be met in that world. He had to trust, that is to identify, with that world. It was a larger, less clearly defined world than the Nation of Islam. For one thing, it included whites. He found that even white reporters were concerned about him as a result of the evident strain he was under following his silencing by Elijah Muhammad.

Since I had been a Muslim, this was the first time any white people really got to me in a personal way. I could tell that some of them were really honest and sincere. One of those, whose name I won't call—he might lose his job—said, "Malcolm X, the whites need your voice worse than the Negroes."

He discovered that he was a husband and father and that he could rely on Betty as he never before believed he could.

I never would have dreamed that I would ever depend so much upon any woman for strength as I now leaned upon Betty. There was no exchange between us; Betty said nothing, being the caliber of wife that she is, with the depth of understanding that she has—but I could feel the envelopment of her comfort. I knew that she was as faithful a servant of Allah as I was, and I knew that whatever happened, she was with me.

He rewrote the contract for the book with the royalties to go to his new mosque and, in the event of his death, to his wife.

Finally, he identified with the ghetto masses. As he put it. "I could speak and understand the ghetto's language." He spoke their language because he had lived and identified with their experience, and carried the memories of it into the Muslim movement.

The Nation of Islam had separated itself from both black and white America. Malcolm X was able to find in the dream of a separated Muslim nation a cure for his own self-rejection, but there were aspects of himself that he never repudiated. To be redeemed meant not to be utterly transformed, but to allow what was good in him to emerge. He never repudiated the dancing that made him famous in Boston and Harlem. Haley recalls that when Malcolm X was retelling his dancing exploits, he "really got carried away."

One night, suddenly, wildly, he jumped up from his chair and, incredibly, the fearsome black demagogue was scat-singing and popping his fingers, "re-bop-de-bop-blap-blam—" and then grabbing a vertical pipe with one hand (as the girl partner) he went jubilantly lindy-hopping around, his coattail and the long legs and the big feet flying as they had in those Harlem days.

In spite of the conks and zoot suits and the degradation of Laura, there was something basically good in his lindy hop experience that remained outside of the Nation of Islam and was a bond between him and the ghetto.

It pained him to see black people lost to alcohol and drugs. Haley recalls that on one of his daily walks through Harlem, Malcolm X might tell a wino, "It's just what the white devil wants you to do, brother…. He wants you to get drunk so he will have an excuse to put a club up beside your head." Malcolm X did not repudiate the black hustler, even though he recognized the hell the hustler lived in. He identified with the hustler.

"I had a jungle mind, I was living in a jungle, and everything I did was done by instinct to survive … it was all a result of what happens to thousands upon thousands of black men in the white man's Christian world."

He did not repudiate the hustler because there was a talent in him that could have been put to greater use. The numbers runner he had bet with, West Indian Archie with his "photographic memory" for numbers, was such a lost talent. Malcolm X admitted having frequently "reflected upon such black veteran numbers men as West Indian Archie. If they had lived in another kind of society, their exceptional mathematical talents might have been better used. But they were black."

Harlem and Roxbury blacks, with their raw energies, diverse if misdirected talents, and some level of mutual acceptance and respect, were those he identified with from his first encounter with the ghetto. He continued to identify with them and yearned to serve them even as a good servant of the separatist Muslim movement, and he served them well indeed, for when he accepted the break with Elijah Muhammad, his new place was already affirmed.

In the end, I reasoned that the decision already had been made for me. The ghetto masses already had entrusted me with an image of leadership among them. I knew the ghetto instinctively extends that trust only to one who had demonstrated that he would never sell them out to the white man. I not only had no such intention—to sell out was not in my nature.

His new mission was to be a continuation of the old one: to develop self-acceptance by developing competence and self-confidence. Part of his new vision was to continue the economic self-development he had initiated in the Muslims when the Muslims opened their own stores and services. He held that "It's because black men don't own and control their own community's retail establishments that they can't stabilize their own community." His vision was to found a new organization that would free black people from their mental, spiritual, economic, and political sickness. It would not be a separatist organization as "it would embrace all faiths of black men, and it would carry into practice what the Nation of Islam had only preached."

Acting in his own name again, he announced his new organization, The Muslim Mosque, Incorporated, at a public press conference, and then set off on the pilgrimage to Mecca. The reader who is uncomfortable with the racist statements of Minister Malcolm is relieved by the vision of unity of all races that Malcolm X had in Mecca, but to move quickly to the vision is to overlook the growth process that made the vision possible. To get to Mecca Malcolm X had to borrow money. Although he was a man conscious of the importance of language, he went to Mecca ignorant of Arabic. He had to surrender his passport at Jedda. He recalled that he "never had felt more alone and helpless" since he was a baby, yet none of his hustler self-protectiveness emerged. He was learning to trust in a different world. All during his trip he received kindnesses, each of which was "another of Allah's signs, that wherever I turned, someone was there to help me, to guide me." In such a world one could be helpless and yet not be in need. The God who cared for one cared for all humankind. He had journeyed beyond self, beyond clan, and now beyond nation and race. To the identification he shared with his family and the ghetto masses and to the care for their needs he had already amply demonstrated, he now added wisdom. He told a press conference in Cairo that what impressed him most about the Hajj was, "The brotherhood! The people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one!" It had proved to him "the power of the One God." This new stage of his growth was also signalled by a name change—El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz—that indicated that he had been fulfilled. He recalled later, "In my thirty-nine years on this earth the Holy City of Mecca had been the first time I had ever stood before the Creator of All and felt like a complete human being."

To be a complete human being is not to be separate from the world, but to be part of it. The new Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, had acted in his own name to declare a place within the world. Yet he was also able to acknowledge his dependence on others, for example his wife. Shortly before his death, Malcolm X told Sister Betty as he was leaving the house:

"We'll all be together. I want my family with me. Families shouldn't be separated. I'll never make another long trip without you. We'll get somebody to keep the children. I'll never leave you so long again."

He was able to admit his limitations. He told Haley that he lacked a formal education and that he had an unsatisfied thirst for knowledge:

"You can believe me that if I had the time right now, I would not be one bit ashamed to go back into any New York City public school and start where I left off at the ninth grade, and go on through a degree. Because I don't begin to be academically equipped for so many of the interests that I have. For instance, I love languages. I wish I were an accomplished linguist. I don't know anything more frustrating than to be around people talking something you can't understand."

He could deal openly with the fear of failure and still take the risks of defeat and shame. Haley recalls:

A few days later, however,… [Malcolm X] wrote in one of his memo books this, which he let me read, "Children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so 'safe,' and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure."

He could rely on others without qualification. Haley recalls that when be brought Malcolm X a contract for the foreign publication rights of The Autobiography, Malcolm X hesitated.

He looked suspiciously at the contract, and said, "I had better show this thing to my lawyer," and put the contract in his inside coat pocket. Driving in Harlem about an hour later, he suddenly stopped the car across the street from the 135th Street Y.M.C.A. Building. Withdrawing the contract, he signed it, and thrust it to me. "I'll trust you," he said, and drove on.

He could accept his own death.

Anyway, now, each day I live as if I am already dead, and I tell you what I would like you to do. When I am dead—I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form—I want you to just watch and see if I'm not right in what I say: that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with "hate."

This acceptance stance was different from the stance of the gun toting street hustler who also lived as if he were a dead man. As a hustler he was ready to die, but he was also ready to take the lives of others with his dying energies. As the leader of the Muslim Mosque, Inc., as the husband and father of a family whose home was fire bombed, he did not threaten to take others with him when he died. The hustler has only himself. When he is gone, there is nothing left. Malcolm X had come to identify with and to trust others.

He had come to accept a world larger than his own ego. Vague and indistinct though it may have been, this world participated in the timeless. Nothing could destroy it. In spite of his violent death, Malcolm Little X completed his pilgrimage from self to cosmos, each step of which was an act of ever increasing trust.

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