It’s not often that a little-known chapter from one of the most important books of the 20th century emerges into the public sphere. Especially one in which a prominent civil-rights figure delivers a stern rebuke to his race.
In July 2018, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture sent shockwaves through the history community when it placed the winning bid on an unpublished, 25-page typed chapter called “The Negro” that had been excluded from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Also part of their purchase: a 241-page manuscript of the full book, complete with handwritten notes by both Malcolm and his co-author Alex Haley.
The documents had long been buried in private hands—first with Haley, the journalist and author who completed the Autobiography after Malcolm’s death, and later with a Detroit collector. When the material came to auction in 2018, the Schomburg bought the documents and finally brought them to light.
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a monumental work,” said Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg, after the auction. “To actually see how that book took shape through Malcolm X’s handwritten corrections and notes is very powerful… The omitted chapter…places the work in a new context... The possibilities for new revelations are nearly endless.”
Zaheer Ali, oral historian at the Brooklyn Historical Society, who served as project manager of the Malcom X Project at Columbia University and lead researcher for Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, is one of the scholars who had eagerly awaited the newfound material. HISTORY talked with Ali about the two authors' battle over the book's structure, the fierceness of its rediscovered chapter—and how it changes what we know about Malcolm X.
READ MORE: 7 Things You May Not Know About Malcolm X
HISTORY: Many consider The Autobiography of Malcolm X to be one of the essential texts of the 20th century. Why, in your view, is that the case?
Ali: Because his experiences touch on so many significant currents in American history and black history. Born in 1925, he experienced racial violence as a young child, when his father was killed, many believe, at the hands of the Black Legion, a kind of northern version of the Ku Klux Klan. His family endured the grinding poverty of the Great Depression, made worse by his father’s death and mother’s mental breakdown. As a teen, he experienced early integration: After his family disintegrated, he was sent to live with a white foster family and attended a predominantly white school. As a young man, he lived in major urban centers in Boston and Harlem, when the black population was transforming from a rural southern one to an urban northern one. And like too many young black men, he spent time incarcerated by the criminal-justice system. And that’s just the first 25 years of his life.
That progression alone would be a powerful story to tell. But what’s even more compelling is his personal transformation: his conversion, in prison, to the Nation of Islam, or NOI…his rise to becoming its national spokesman…and finding himself in dialogue with other civil-rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s, the pivotal turning point in the 20 century in terms of America’s experience with race. Ultimately the Autobiography is the story of one man, it’s the story of a people, and it’s a call to action all wrapped into one. That’s the brilliance of this text.
When this long-buried chapter came to light, how did Malcolm X scholars react?
These documents had become legendary for people who studied Malcolm. People thought these maybe held the keys to unlocking the direction Malcolm was going in and what he was really thinking, what his ideas really were. Some thought these would be part of the finishing of his story, which was cut short by his assassination at age 39.
READ MORE: The Unsolved Mystery of the First People Killed During the Civil Rights Movement
How did Haley get involved in the Autobiography?
As the civil-rights movement was gaining steam, the Nation of Islam, which married teachings of traditional Islam with messages of black empowerment, had come to national attention. So in 1962 Haley wrote a story for Playboy on Malcolm and the NOI. But after the interview, Haley became interested in Malcolm’s personal story. From the beginning, Malcolm resisted and suggested that Haley profile Elijah Muhammad, the movement’s longtime leader. Haley pushed back. They embarked on the project later in 1962.
What was Malcolm’s vision for the book?
From the outset, Malcolm wanted to showcase the transformative power of the teachings of the Nation of Islam. The book was to be dedicated to Elijah Muhammad and the royalties would go the organization.
He envisioned the book as a collection of speech-like essays on race relations in America and solutions for black Americans, rooted in NOI teachings. It would be prefaced by three chapters, including one introducing Malcolm X and one introducing Elijah Muhammad. It really didn’t start out as an autobiography at all.
But that conflicted with Haley’s vision, right?
Right. This was the beginning of the tension between them over the book. Malcolm wanted to offer analysis of the community’s politics. Haley wanted to tell a story.
Haley wrote in the book’s epilogue about how hard it was to get Malcolm to talk about himself, how he kept pivoting to sociological analysis. You can see it in the handwritten notes he put in the margins of the manuscript—things like, “Stop speechifying” and “Show, don’t tell” and “Isn’t there a better way to get this across?” He really pushed Malcolm to ground his message in a narrative. Malcolm’s notes, meanwhile, are mostly factual corrections.
The turning point came when Haley asked Malcolm about his mother, Louise Little. She had suffered a breakdown after his father’s death and was institutionalized, and Malcolm had not seen her for 20-some years. Asking Malcolm about his mother really opened him up to relating his family story, which formed the core of what Haley wanted to tell.
READ MORE: The 'Silent' Protest that Kick-Started the Civil Rights Movement
So ultimately Haley got his way?
As they worked together, the project changed. The personal narrative grew and the number of essays shrunk. Instead of three introductory chapters to a series of essays, the book became multiple chapters with three essays.
Where does the rediscovered chapter fit in?
Well ultimately, it didn’t, right? This is a remnant of what the old book was to be. If Alex Haley thought Malcolm was speechifying too much, “The Negro” is Malcolm straight-up doing just that—about the conditions that beset black people in America.
Was there any significance to the title?
For many of us familiar with the terminology of the 1950s and 60s, the word “negro” sounds unremarkable. But for Malcolm, coming out of the Nation of Islam’s teachings, the word meant something very specific. There was a folk etymology by which Malcolm connected “negro” to “necro,” meaning dead. In the NOI, the way they understood their process of reform, they called it the resurrection of the dead. For them, the so-called “negro In America” needed to be resurrected.
For Malcom to use that word, it was a very specific invocation—that this was a chapter about the dead. Which places the writing of this to 1963, while he is still in the NOI—before he broke with them in 1964 and the relationship devolved into a toxic, violent one that ended in his assassination.
What was the thesis of ‘The Negro’ chapter?
It had several parts, but at its core it was an intense rebuke of black America. The first part is Malcolm’s diagnosis of this “sickness” whereby the “negro” has allowed himself to be destroyed by white America:
He didn’t pull any punches, did he?
It’s a kind of thinking—that black people have been so damaged by slavery and Jim Crow segregation—that is dangerous. Because it’s couched in highlighting how vicious racism is, but it risks reducing the victims to powerless, resourceless, deficient, lacking people. He says, “Whenever you see a white man in a Cadillac, you know he first got himself a Cadillac bank account and then a Cadillac home.” By contrast, he says, the black man drives the second-hand Cadillac while he’s living in subsidized housing and can’t pay his bills. It’s a criticism that pathologizes black Americans in the context of white consumer ideals.
READ MORE: How Civil Rights 'Wade-Ins' Desegregated Southern Beaches
In what other ways does he critique black Americans?
He talks about how, unlike different immigrant groups that had risen above their circumstances by looking to themselves and their own communities, black Americans were still wallowing in oppression. In many ways, this is an intense self-critique. It’s saying you’re broken, negro, because you continue to depend on the system that breaks you. You’re going to the source of your illness for a cure.
But what he doesn’t acknowledge is that there actually was a black migration experience—from the rural south to the urban north in search of jobs and opportunity. Like with immigrants who came to the U.S., it was very aspirational. Malcolm ignores the history of black American success and triumph, their migration north, their independent black towns and their businesses and their benevolent societies. He doesn’t talk about black success. Yes, many of these efforts were stymied and undercut by violence and systemic racism. But this argument Malcolm is making is really harsh. Maybe he’s saying it to shock people into action.
Were there any revelations?
He closes out with a call for electoral politics. This is really remarkable because many people peg his shift toward electoral politics to his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech of April 1964. He actually talks about voting, he talks about the United Nations, where you can vote yes or no—or you can abstain. He talks about organizing voting blocs and the idea of withholding your vote until you get benefits from it. He talks about the black bloc using press, lobbying and leadership to influence the 1964 election.
It’s remarkable considering that this is October 1963, almost half a year before the “Ballot or Bullet” speech. It suggests there was more continuity in his thinking and that perhaps the NOI was more accommodating to political action than previously thought.
So, this marks a shift in understanding the NOI as well?
This idea of organizing black voting blocs isn’t that revolutionary. But it’s revolutionary to our understanding of the NOI and of how Malcolm was conceiving of political engagement.
Many people have read the Nation of Islam as a separatist organization that didn’t participate in any U.S. institutions—and therefore didn’t vote. They were independent citizens of their own nation. As a result, observers, scholars and historians thought not voting was hard-wired in the organization, ultimately limiting its efficacy. What this chapter suggests is that the NOI was moving to a place where it could see the vote as part of its political engagement.
Why do you think this chapter was excluded? Was it considered too controversial?
Really, Malcolm’s whole autobiography was considered too controversial to be published. The original publisher, Doubleday, dropped it after his assassination. Whatever Malcolm says in “The Negro” isn’t that much more controversial; it’s just harsh and polemical. The decision to exclude it had a lot more to do with the cohesiveness of the text that Haley was trying to establish. I don’t know if it really had a place.
Who decided to cut it?
Haley was the main player. I don’t know who else, if anyone, was part of that. I think including this chapter would have made it difficult for him to construct the story he wanted to tell: a narrative of Malcolm’s personal development marked by clear epiphanies that signal either complete or critical breaks with a previous stage of himself. In the beginning there’s Malcolm Little, who becomes “Detroit Red,” who becomes “Satan,” who becomes Malcolm X, then El Hajj Malik el Shabazz. People’s lives aren’t linear, they’re messier than that. But Alex wanted a clear flow.
This essay, written when it was written, muddles the supposed clean break Malcolm left when he left the NOI. I like to call it a shattering. He left with pieces and they left with pieces. They couldn’t rid themselves of their shared history and their shared work and their shared legacy.
I think the exclusion was a natural result of the evolution of the text into more of a story. In the end, by the time the book was published, Malcolm wasn’t around to make the final decision.
History Reads features the work of prominent authors and historians.