Malcolm X is an unusual strain of hero. His self-assertion, profound oration and unrelenting anger have conflated to create the icon of a man who is impossible to categorize. He trusted no-one, not even his wife, or himself. Details of his guarded nature, strict morals and evasive rhetorical techniques might then come as a surprise to be found in his own autobiography – a document professing to detail often deeply personal experiences of ones life. What the book gives us, however, is a further act of evasion, of performance, of fractured identity that were so incorporated into Malcolm’s life as a leader and orator for the Black Nationalist Movement in 1950s and 60s America.
Mascot, Homeboy, Detroit Red, Satan, Minister Malcolm, Malcolm X, and, finally, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is not a story of one man, but many. The Malcolm within the pages of his eponymous book is the ultimate cultural chameleon, uncatchable and forever one step ahead, changing to adapt and survive in new surroundings: Getting his voice heard ‘by any means necessary’. It’s sometimes as if the only thing he didn’t change was, unlike the chameleon, the colour of his skin. It is this that played the pivotal hand in the development of his seemingly fluid character, influencing everything he said, did and strove for irrevocably. The Autobiography cites the colour of his skin as dictating and plotting all the major turning points in his personal, political and public lives. Malcolm was a reactor and a rebel, be it against the education system when his teacher told him ‘niggers can’t be lawyers’, to when he was on stage speaking to thousands of fellow black people, urging them to take their freedom, as opposed to waiting for it to be given to them. Malcolm was – and is – a hero of defiant resistance to millions.
But where is Malcolm X? On reading The Autobiography the narrative progression unravels like a treasure map, in the uneasy search for the genuine article, the epiphany, the dazzling gold. But the reader might find themselves disappointed to never find the ‘X’ marked out for them on the book’s cover. Indeed, the meaning behind the name ‘Malcolm X’ should never be forgotten. The pseudo-surname ‘X’ was used by many black Muslims during the rise of the Nation of Islam among black communities in America. It symbolized a rejection of the white family names supplanted by Western slavery onto Malcolm’s ancestors. The presence of ‘X’ in Malcolm’s name is paradoxical in its symbol of absence, signifying, as John Wideman points out, something ‘lost, missing and mourned.’ We see, then, that along with Malcolm’s many selves are also many names, re-asserting the troubled but unavoidable importance of naming in the identity politics of the Civil Rights movement.
The self-fashioning of Malcolm is perhaps but an exaggerated, racialized and unique version of the self-fashioning apparent within all public speakers and figures. Since 21st February 1965 – when the uncatchable chameleon got caught – Malcolm (and his ‘X’) have been re-fashioned innumerable times. But it is, of course, no longer through his own doing, but by the troubled cultural matrix of America and its people. Malcolm takes the name of community colleges, city streets and clothing labels. His face is on T-shirts, postage stamps and major motion pictures; his ‘X’ on baseball caps and jersey backs and his voice in 90s hip hop and every American History syllabus.
Alex Haley, the journalist who penned Malcolm’s autobiography in a lengthy, intimate co-authorship between the two men, said this on the book’s completion:
“I still can’t quite conceive him dead. It still feels to me as if he has just gone into some next chapter, to be written by historians.”
Malcolm’s ‘X’ is everywhere and nowhere, continuing to move through different chapters of culture and history and continuing to transform, resist and defy. The legacy of Malcolm X is malleable, layered in myth and icon. Yet it retains authenticity, in the lasting image of a hero in his unrelenting goal to mark out a spot for his own ‘X’.