Haley’s prose chronicles not only the tangible shifts in Malcolm's life but also moral and religious transformations that these changes- from a difficult childhood to a difficult teenagehood to a difficult adulthood- represent. The novel reveals eye opening experiences that fundamentally affected Malcolm- whether those moments involve small town bigots or international leaders. Openly discussing his past failures and past fortunes, Malcolm retraces his footprints from Michigan to Mecca, all the while narrating his voyage and explaining its impact on his philosophies. The reader, transfixed by the significance of these tales, tags along for the journey, an eye opening story that forces the reader to confront the dirty politics of 20th century race relations. These ever changing philosophies outshine other aspects of Malcolm X’s life, and for good reason. The only constant in his life was his constantly changing schools of thought. The exploration of these beliefs strengthen and empower the autobiography, for Malcolm X was a man defined by passion and politics, activism and action.
His life story bounces from extreme to extreme- from naivete to indignation, from indignation to activism. In his early years, his wild devil-may-care attitude leaves little room for considering the origins and implications of racism. He is complicit in their system, practicing “self-degradation” (Chapter 3: Homeboy). What matters is his next hit, his next paycheck-- unsurprisingly, this lifestyle results in his imprisonment. During this period, he falls under the wing of Elijah Muhammad, a self proclaimed prophet of Islam. He comes to believes that “the white man is the devil,” (Chapter 10: Satan) and he preaches this vision across the United States. However, after a brutal ousting and public humiliation, Malcolm X travels to Mecca to reconnect with his Muslim roots. This expedition adjusts his perspective, offers him a nuanced world view. “It isn’t the American white man who is a racist, but it’s the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man,” (Chapter 19: 1965) he comes to believe-- a radical change from his prior thoughts. At each stage in his journey, his philosophies, reasonings, and lessons are carefully dissected and analyzed.
An extensive reliance of quotes from his speeches and interviews characterizes the later parts of the novel, yet the repetition of ideas serves not to detract from the overall might of Malcolm’s words but to augment his arguments. Notably, Haley subjects all of Malcolm X’s phases and idea to analysis, ensuring that the reader focuses on more than merely his final, polished ideas . By lavishing detail upon his earlier philosophies, the distinction between his phases of thought emboldens itself. For instance, consider whether his eventual declaration that “the white man is not inherently evil, but America’s racist society influences him to act evilly” would echo so meaningfully as meaningful if the first few hundred pages had not hosted rant after rant about his hatred of the “devilish white man”? Additionally, such emphasis on his core beliefs rather than other biography-worthy information- his children, for instance, who are mentioned sparingly- underlines how his devotion to rejecting the racial status quo overpowered all other aspects of his life. The “angriest black man in America” (Epilogue) had little room for anything other than progress, even as his definition of progress changed, and this passion reveals itself via Haley’s intense, repetitive focus on Malcolm X’s speeches rather than other aspects of his private life. The reader may not finish the novel knowing how Malcolm X liked his coffee, but Haley’s discretion to save anecdotal thoughts for the Epilogue highlights Malcolm X’s priorities. Finally, the repetition of Malcolm X’s belief allows for a thorough, clarified understanding. It would be too easy, too simple to play into the caricaturesque version of this iconic leader, but the elucidation prevents this path. For instance, rather than spending a sentence saying that the man questioned other Civil Rights leaders’ direction, the book employs direct quotes and touches upon the idea numerous times: “If the Northern Freedom Riders wanted more to do, they could work on the roots of such ghetto evils as the little children out in the streets at midnight, with apartment keys on strings around their necks to let themselves in, and their mothers and fathers drunk, drug addicts, thieves, prostitutes…” (Chapter 14: Black Muslims) he argues at one point, offering a much more complex, articulate reason for his distaste. This viewpoint will be echoed numerous times over the coming pages to force the reader to review the logic behind his bold proclamations. The extensive repetition of Malcolm X’s beliefs serves numerous purposes, and it is this rhetorical device that most strengthens the novel.
Nonetheless, his introspection falls short when it comes to his treatment of women. Though later recounts some of the statements of his youth, he never goes back on his declaration that “All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak…” (Chapter 6: Detroit Red) or that “women were only tricky, deceitful, untrustworthy flesh.” (Chapter 13: Minister Malcolm X) Whether it be by condemning nagging wives who “psychologically castrate” (Chapter 6: Detroit Red) their husbands and are “responsible for” (Chapter 6: Detroit Red) their husbands’ reliance on prostitutes or by empathizing more with abusive husbands that abused wives, a steady stream of misogyny courses beneath his otherwise insightful words. By the end of the autobiography many of his viewpoints have changed dramatically, yet these issues never receive further attention. Since such focus is applied to all other areas of metamorphosis, the omission seems significant. Had his opinions on gender dynamics become as nuanced as his opinions on racial dynamics before his death, or does the absence of reflection signify that he never saw his sexism as a problem? The reader is left questioning.
Nonetheless, as a fascinating portrait emerges of one of the most interesting men of the 20th century, his connection and relevance to the 21st century appears as well. As one reads segments of the book, it seems like a mirror of current headlines. For instance, after police violently beat a black man, Malcolm X leads a large crowd of Black Muslims to protest at the police station, and as the activists head down the street “Negroes who had never seen anything like this were… enlarging the crowd and following us,” for “Harlem's black people were long since sick and tired of police brutality.” (Chapter 13: Minister Malcolm X) Over the past year, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, an activist group focused on the elimination of racism in America, especially in regards to police brutality, has taken off. A generation later, some of these same problems persist. We may have rid our nation of segregated drinking fountains, yet the obvious relevancy of the book to today indicates the relevancy of Malcolm X’s views and transformations. Alex Haley and Malcolm X have told a story that impacts all those who read it- an especially important feat considering the chaos of today.