The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Critical Essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
This section contains 969 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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

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

One of the most gratifying effects of Spike Lee's film Malcolm X is that its success has prompted the restoration of Malcolm's autobiography to the best-seller lists. The country is reading the 1965 book once again, as avidly, it seems, as it is seeing Mr. Lee's movie. For 17 weeks The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with the assistance of Alex Haley, has been on the New York Times paperback best-seller list, and for 10 of those weeks it was No. 1. Today, on the 28th anniversary of his assassination. Malcolm's story has become as American—to borrow H. Rap Brown's famous aphorism—as violence and cherry pie.

Malcolm first came into my life some three decades ago, when I was 9 years old and Mike Wallace and CBS broadcast a documentary about the Nation of Islam. It was called The Hate That Hate Produced, and it showed just about the scariest black people I had ever seen: black people who talked right into the faces of white people, telling them off without even blinking. While I sat in our living room, I happened to glance over at my mother. A certain radiance was slowly transforming her soft brown face, as she listened to Malcolm naming the white man us the devil. "Amen," she said, quietly at first. "All right, now," she continued, much more emphatically. All this time and I had not known just how deeply my mother despised white people. The revelation was terrifying and thrilling.

The book came into my life much later.

I was almost 17, a junior in high school, and I was slowly and pleasurably devouring Ebony magazine. More precisely, I was reading a profile of the Roman Catholic basketball player Lew Alcindor, who was then a star at U.C.L.A. and who later became a legend with the Los Angeles Lakers as the Muslim basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In the profile he said that The Autobiography of Malcolm X had meant more to him than any other book, and that all black Americans should read it—today.

Today was not possible for me, since I lived in a village in the hills of West Virginia where nobody carried such things. I had to go down to Red Bowl's newsstand, make a deposit and wait while they sent away for it. But when the book arrived, I read it straight through the night, as struck by its sepia-colored photograph of a dangerous-looking, gesticulating Malcolm as I was by the contents, the riveting saga of a man on the run, from whites (as the son of a Garveyite father) and blacks (his former mentors and colleagues at the Nation of Islam, after his falling-out with Elijah Muhammad).

I loved the hilarious scene in which Malcolm is having his hair "conked," or "processed" ("relaxed" remains the euphemism); unable to rinse out the burning lye because the pipes in his home are frozen, he has no recourse but to dunk his head in a toilet bowl. A few months before, the benignly parochial principal of our high school had "paddled" my schoolmate Arthur Galloway when Arthur told him that his processed hairstyle was produced by a mixture of eggs, mashed potatoes and lye. "Don't lie to me, boy," the principal was heard saying above Arthur's protests.

What I remember most, though, is Malcolm's discussion of the word "aardvark":

I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study…. I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary's pages. I'd never realized so many words existed!… Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that "aardvark" springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.

Years later, near the end of his life, Malcolm found himself heading to the American Museum of Natural History in New York to learn more about that exotic creature, even while trying to figure out how to avoid an almost certain Muslim death sentence. "Boy! I never will forget that old aardvark!" he had mused to Alex Haley. What manner of politician was this, I wondered, in this the year that Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton, Ron Karenga and Amiri Baraka, simultaneously declared themselves to be the legitimate sons of Malcolm the father, to linger with aardvarks when his world was collapsing around him?

Although Malcolm proudly avowed that he read no fiction (he says he read only one novel "since I started serious reading," and that was Uncle Tom's Cabin), he still loved fiction—"fiction" defined as a making, a creating, with words. His speeches—such as the oft-repeated "Ballot or the Bullet" or "Bandung Conference"—are masterpieces of the rhetorical arts. More than Martin Luther King Jr., more than any of the black nationalists or the neo-Marxists, Malcolm X was a writer, a wordsmith.

In 1968, my English teacher told me that in years to come, long after the civil rights struggle was a footnote in history, this man would be remembered—like St. Augustine, like Benjamin Franklin, like Henry Adams—because of his gift with words. High praise: and yet the teacher's observation, I must confess, didn't go down well with me at the time. Imagining the book stretched on the autopsy slab of purely literary analysis, I somehow felt that the overriding immediacy of Malcolm's experience—and my special relation to it—had been diminished. Despite Malcolm's cautious if heartfelt moves toward universalism, I felt that part of him would always belong to African mammals like aardvarks, like me.

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This section contains 969 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.