Books: Malcolm X: History as Hope

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THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X, with the assistance of Alex Haley. 460 pages. Grove. $1.25 (paperback).

THE SPEECHES OF MALCOLM X AT HARVARD, edited by Archie Epps. 191 pages. Morrow. $1.95 (paperback).

MALCOLM X, THE MAN AND HIS TIMES, edited by John Henrik Clarke. 360 pages. Macmillan. $7.95.

He was assassinated five years ago this week. Since then, assorted parks, streets and ghetto playgrounds have been named after him. His bespectacled face, ballooned to twice lifesize, gazes owlishly from the walls of innumerable schools and youth clubs. Though he is sometimes described as an apostate and a monster, these days he is more often invoked, especially by young whites and blacks, as a martyr in the cause of brotherhood, and even a kind of saint.

To whites, the apotheosis at first seems unsettling. Many Americans recall Malcolm X only as a bad guy, known mainly for preaching racism. Is the continuing Malcolm X cult just one more outrageous byproduct of the rage and rhetoric that afflict race politics and U.S. culture in general? The answer is, no. And the best way of learning why is to examine yet another post-Malcolm X phenomenon, the spate of books by or about the former Black Muslim leader that have made him a minor industry in the publishing business.

Savage Skepticism. Some of the best are listed above. The Autobiography is his will and testament. The speeches and The Man and His Times, a gathering of recollections by people who knew Malcolm X, add subtlety and substance to it. Read in retrospect, they reveal Malcolm X as the most fascinating, convincing and, in some ways, the most measured speaker and thinker that the black militant movement has yet produced.

His incitements to revolution drew a disproportionate amount of attention during his lifetime. But the angry and occasionally outrageous things that he said seemed wilder then than they do today. Malcolm X's characteristic tone was not flailing rage. It was a kind of savage, pragmatic skepticism about American liberal institutions and a sense that in the U.S., whites, collectively and historically, have been and still are a disaster for blacks. He refused to be grateful for empty favors. "Fm not going to sit at your table," he once said, "and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner." In retrospect, what seems most remarkable was the range of his intellectual change and growth. The final phase of that growth—marked by his separation from the Black Muslim movement and the founding of the Organization of Afro-American Unity—had only begun when he was shot down. Yet his last plan to start working with all civil rights and human rights groups in the U.S. shows how far beyond raw appeals to violence and references to "blue-eyed white devils" Malcolm X actually went.

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