Islamic Studies Malcolm X
by
James A. Tyner
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0122

Introduction

Malcolm X was one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century; now well into the 21st century, his legacy continues to inform political and social debates. Born Malcolm Little (b. 19 May 1925) in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm X was an enigmatic and controversial figure. In fact, a dominant theme surrounding the life of Malcolm X is that of rebirth and reinvention; scholars have long noted that much of our understanding of Malcolm X is derived from the particular way we have made Malcolm X. An engagement with Malcolm X becomes something of a Rorschach test. The broad coordinates of his life are relatively straightforward. Born to the Reverend Earl Little and Louise Norton Little, Malcolm was the fourth child of seven. Earl Little was a carpenter by trade, but was also an organizer for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Louise Little, born in Grenada, was also very active in the Garvey movement; indeed, it was Louise who exposed Malcolm to a variety of spiritual and political ideas. Following an encounter with local Ku Klux Klansmen, Earl Little relocated his family first to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and later to Lansing, Michigan. In was in Lansing, when Malcolm was six years old, that Earl was murdered. Louise struggled, unsuccessfully, to hold her family together, and it was during these years that Malcolm gravitated to a life of hustling on the streets. In 1946 Malcolm was arrested on charges of burglary and received a ten-year sentence. By most accounts, it was during his time in prison that Malcolm was exposed to the ideas of the Nation of Islam. According to his autobiography, Malcolm’s prison experience appears as a poignant narrative of personal redemption and salvation; later scholarship has called into question this supposed rebirth. Whether Malcolm first learned about the Nation of Islam in prison or, more likely, from his relatives while growing up, it is accurate that Malcolm became involved in the movement while he was in prison. After being paroled in 1952, Malcolm devoted all of his energies to the Nation of Islam in the subsequent years; these were the years in which “Malcolm Little” became “Malcolm X.” During the 1950s Malcolm X rose rapidly through the ranks of the Nation of Islam. He was a skilled organizer and masterful orator who established himself as one of the most vocal critics of white supremacy and racism in the United States. Malcolm X was also a harsh critic of the broader civil rights movement; as such, his legacy is forever entwined with that of another iconic figure, Martin Luther King Jr. On 8 March 1964, Malcolm X announced he was leaving the Nation of Islam and from this point until his assassination on 21 February 1965, he underwent a remarkable transformation in both political and spiritual thought. Throughout the last eleven months of his life, he embarked on numerous international trips (including making the hajj); established two organizations (the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity); and assumed his orthodox Muslim name, Al-Hajj Malik Al-Shabazz. An understanding of Malcolm X must certainly be situated within the revolutionary fervor of 1950s and 1960s America. This was a tumultuous period marked by social struggles not only for African American civil rights, but also for sexual, gender, and religious rights; Malcolm X was formed by and helped shape these movements. Malcolm X, however, represents both a continuation with earlier black radical intellectuals and a transitional figure between the counter-culture and youth movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Sadly, his political philosophy is too often neglected because authors and scholars prefer to focus on the image as opposed to the substance of Malcolm X.

General Overviews

There are numerous biographical studies on the life and death of Malcolm X. A recent attempt—one that is already considered the definitive account—is Marable 2011, a detailed biography that views the life and legacy of Malcolm X through a prism of race and class. Most readers, however, begin with the autobiography (Malcolm X and Haley 1965), a work that is as controversial as was its subject. Actually written by Alex Haley, this autobiography has served as a model for understanding Malcolm X’s life as the passage through a series of stages (rebirths), each marked by a different persona: the child from a broken home, the hustler, the minister. The autobiography, indeed, has itself become a subject of research and critical study. While providing essential details on Malcolm’s early life, it provides little understanding of his final years—a period marked by his considerable intellectual and spiritual transformation. Consequently, Breitman 1967 is a must-read, and examines the political evolution of Malcolm X’s final year, including his turn to socialism. Given the specificity of the work, however, this should not be the first book one reads on Malcolm X. Likewise, much of the interpretation provided in Breitman, particularly the argument that Malcolm X was moving toward socialism, has been contradicted by other accounts. For a concise, straightforward historical account of Malcolm X, readers should first consult Natambu 2002. For more specialized “reads” of Malcolm X, there are many to choose from. Goldman 1973 is one of the first in-depth, critical biographies of Malcolm X to appear following his death. Based on three years of extensive interviews, the work provides a sensitive rather than sensationalist account of Malcolm’s life and his impact. Although written from very different perspectives, the Perry 1991 and Wolfenstein 1981 accounts are both important contributions. The first provides a psychological reading of Malcolm X and, in the process, forwards a number of historically questionable claims. The latter conversely adopts a Marxist–Freudian take and concentrates on Malcolm X as the personification of revolutionary black America. Two final contributions are worth mentioning. Clarke 1990 (first published in 1969) is an edited volume that includes many selections written by people who knew Malcolm X personally, whereas Lomax 1987 is written by a man who knew both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The latter book, especially, has contributed to the dominant—if questionable—contrasts between Malcolm X and King.

  • Breitman, George. The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary. New York: Pathfinder, 1967.

    E-mail Citation »

    A detailed, informative examination of the transformations of Malcolm X’s political thought in the year leading up to his death.

  • Clarke, John Henrik, ed. Malcolm X: The Man and His Times. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1990.

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    Originally published in 1969, this volume provides a collection of informative articles, many of which were written by people who personally knew Malcolm X. Specific sections include discussions not only of his life, but also of the salience of his international travels.

  • Goldman, Peter. The Death and Life of Malcolm X. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

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    An in-depth biography based on the author’s lengthy interviews with Malcolm X. Although somewhat controversial in its conclusions about Malcolm X, the book provides a relatively unbiased overview.

  • Lomax, Louis E. To Kill a Black Man: The Shocking Parallel in the Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Los Angeles: Holloway House, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    An intimate portrayal and contrast of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. by a man who knew both personally. Originally published in 1968.

  • Malcolm X, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Penguin, 1965.

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    For many readers, this is their first introduction to Malcolm X. It provides a comprehensive overview of Malcolm’s early life, but is woefully deficient in its portrayal of his last few years. The book also lacks any informative contextual placement of Malcolm X.

  • Marable, Manning. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. New York: Penguin, 2011.

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    In this well-documented and finely detailed book, Marable presents the life and legacy of Malcolm X as a series of reinventions. He does so through a prism of race and class.

  • Natambu, Kofi. The Life and Work of Malcolm X. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha, 2002.

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    This is a fairly standard, relatively uncontroversial biography of Malcolm X.

  • Perry, Bruce. Malcolm X: The Life of the Man Who Changed Black America. New York: Station Hill, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    An informative, psychological portrait of Malcolm X; this book is not without its detractors.

  • Wolfenstein, Eugene Victor. The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

    E-mail Citation »

    Employing both Marxism and psychoanalysis, Wolfenstein provides a critical read of Malcolm X’s evolving political consciousness.

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