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The Explosive Chapter Left Out of Malcolm X’s Autobiography

February 28, 2019 in History

By Missy Sullivan

Its title—’The Negro’—seemed innocuous enough. But the revolutionary civil-rights leader intended it to invoke a much harsher meaning.

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

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.

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