Friday, 16 May 2008

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

It's Biographer's Day today, commemorating the first meeting of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, who wrote the famous biography of Johnson. So here and on my other blog, Grizzled Old Traveler, I'm looking at a couple of great biographies I've recently read.

Last month I reread The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was narrated by Malcolm X but actually written by Alex Haley, the famous author of Roots. I had read this book in my early twenties, and the main thing that impressed me then was how X reinvented himself at several stages in his life. He went from a being country kid to a big-city hustler, then became a radical Muslim. After going on the Hajj and meeting white Muslims, he dropped the racism and became a more moderate Muslim. Rereading this book at 38, the main thing that struck me was how little I could argue with it. It's not exactly a comfortable book for a white person to read. Things have gotten more polite in the U.S. since the 1960s, but they haven't changed all that much.

No, don't talk to me about Obama, not when a Republican Congressman can call him a "boy" and get a huge round of applause.

It's a book that everyone should read, but it's especially useful for writers because of its clean, straightforward style that really draws you in. One unsettling thing Haley does is have it narrated as X thought at the time. The chapters when he's a hustler are some of the best crime writing I've ever read. During the chapters when Malcolm X is in his radical, "white people are the Devil" phase, he's screaming at you through the pages. His later awakening to racial tolerance, while still not tolerating white racists, is all the more stunning because of this. He no longer hated "the white Devil" only whites who do devilish things (and there are no shortage of those). Watching his development into a full person is truly moving.

Oh, and as a writer I loved the scene where he ends up in prison, realizes he's too illiterate to write to his family, and copies out the dictionary so he can improve his vocabulary. Even when he was a small-time hood he had tremendous drive and willpower. What a shame he got gunned down by his own people.

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