"We declare our right on this earth to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary."
- Speech at the founding of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, 1964
How much do you know about Malcolm X? Did you know he was born Malcolm Little, died El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and in between was known as Homeboy, Detroit Red, Satan and Brother Malcolm? I certainly didn’t, not until I took a class in college called AfricanAmerican History through Fiction and Film. One of the films we studied was Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, and from there I read whatever I could to learn more about this notable African American leader - who we curiously hadn’t covered in my high school civil rights lessons. There are a thousand things to admire about Malcolm X, but the thing that first struck me about him, which continues to inspire me today, is the way he continuously reinvented himself. He was a dynamic force – both in American society and politics and in his own life. As he learned and grew as a person, he was unafraid to make dramatic and public changes to his life and beliefs. It’s a tragedy that we were never able to see who else he might have become if he had lived beyond thirty-nine years old.
This is only a sampling of some of the many works DC Public Library has about Malcolm X. Whether you’re just learning about him for the first time or want to dive deeper into a particular area of his life, these books a great place to start. There are many more options in our catalog, including more than one graphic novel. And if you want to learn even more, the Black Studies Center has more resources than I can possibly include here.
“My alma mater was books, a good library.... I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.”
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X
The Starting Point
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Malcolm’s autobiography, which remains the foundation for most of what is known of Malcolm’s life, was written in collaboration with Alex Haley, the author of Roots. Malcolm told his story to Haley, who turned it into written narrative based both on what Malcolm said during interviews as well as his own observations of Malcolm’s story, actions and state of mind. The interviews took place during the tumultuous period in Malcolm’s life during which he was breaking with the Nation of Islam, which makes the book a clear and fascinating window into Malcolm’s changing views and beliefs over the course of his life. Haley finishes the book with an epilogue written after Malcolm’s death.
In 1992, Spike Lee directed, produced, and co-wrote Malcolm X, a biopic based on the The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Denzel Washington stars as Malcolm, a role for which he received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Many notable names appear in cameos, from Lee himself to Nelson Mandela, Al Sharpton, and Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale. In 2010, the film was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, which are "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" and considered to have enduring importance to American culture.
“I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I'm a human being, first and foremost, and as such I'm for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
A professor of African American Studies at Columbia University, Marable was intrigued by the complicated tension inherent in the Autobiography. That is, the differing agendas of both Malcolm and Alex Haley in its structure and narrative. Each of them was writing the book for their own reasons, and without any external confirmation or fact checking. There is evidence, for instance, that Malcolm’s criminality in his years in Detroit was heightened and exaggerated in the autobiography. Marable wanted to, in his words, “go beyond the legend” and present the factual history of Malcolm’s life. This biography is thus the result of years of research, interviews with countless people who knew Malcolm in a variety of capacities, and the new information from previously suppressed government records. A Life of Reinvention has been acclaimed by scholars including Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West.
A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Mann Marable’s Malcolm X edited by Jared A Ball and Todd Steven Burroughs
I can’t include a recommendation for Marable’s A Life of Reinvention without also acknowledging its controversies. Following the book’s publication, many activists and scholars criticized the work on multiple fronts. These criticisms ranged from the “salacious” details about Malcolm’s sexuality and fidelity, to frustration with the very limited number of women who Marable interviewed or quoted, and belief that Marable was ‘softening’ Malcolm’s radical beliefs and viewing him through a contemporary liberal lens. This compilation of essays addresses all of those issues and more, with contributions from writers including Amiri Baraka, William L. Strickland and A. Peter Bailey.
The Death and Life of Malcolm X by Peter Goldman
Goldman, a white journalist who wrote about race for Newsweek and other publications, met and corresponded with Malcolm many times between 1962 and 1964 in the course of his work. This acquaintance with Malcolm is what inspired him to write a book about the end of Malcolm’s life. Goldman’s book takes a narrow focus on the rift with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam in the final years of Malcolm’s life, his assassination, and the aftermath of Malcolm’s death including the legal trials that followed. This 2013 edition of The Death and Life of Malcolm X has been updated by Goldman with discussion of the new information gathered from FBI surveillance that has since become public.
“Time is on the side of the oppressed today, it's against the oppressor. Truth is on the side of the oppressed today, it's against the oppressor. You don't need anything else.”
- Speech in Harlem, May 1964
In His Own Words
Malcolm X Speaks edited by George Breitman
This collection of fourteen speeches and statements was published in 1965, mere months after his assassination in February of 1965. This collection only includes statements from the end of his life, aiming to represent the new and defining beliefs of his last year. As Breitman says in his introduction, “Malcolm was primarily a speaker, not a writer.” He was a brilliant speaker, whether speaking from prepared remarks or notes or extemporaneously. To get a sense of him as a speaker, video of some and audio of many of his speeches are available online. Try his famous “By Any Means Necessary” speech at the founding rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary edited by George Breitman
Published in 1970, this compilation was created as a companion volume to Malcolm X Speaks. The twelve different speeches in this volume were largely unavailable to publishers in 1965, but like those in Malcolm X Speaks each of them is taken from the last year of his life.
“People don't realize how a man's whole life can be changed by one book.”
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Titles for Young People
Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary by Walter Dean Myers
Although the intended audience of Myers’s biography is middle school aged students, this book is an option for anyone who might be interested in a straightforward, just-the-facts overview of Malcolm’s life. This biography does a great job setting the events of Malcolm’s life into the context of their moment in time, drawing connections to the contemporary civil rights, social, and economic circumstances.
Malcolm X: A Fire Burning Brightly by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins
Myers brings the same quality to this picture book biography for even younger readers, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins. Myers is able to deftly convey all of the important moments in Malcolm’s life in a child-friendly and concise manner. Quotes from Malcolm himself are used to anchor each moment in the chronology, which serves to make the story more personal and accessible along with Jenkins’ beautiful illustrations.
“And we will know him then for what he was and is – a Prince – our own black shining Prince! – who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”
- Ossie Davis, Eulogy for Malcolm X on Feb. 27,1965