“You know that devil’s not going to print that!”
That is what Malcolm X, a minister in the Nation of Islam, said to a freelance writer named Alex Haley in 1963 as they sat in a Nation of Islam restaurant in Harlem. Haley and Malcolm spent a large part of several days in that restaurant, talking. Haley was on assignment for Playboy magazine, which had recently established the “Playboy Interview,” its attempt to have a highbrow, Paris Review-type Q&A discussion in its pages. Haley was interviewing a skeptical Malcolm X. “He was very much taken aback,” Haley recalled, “when Playboy kept its word.”
Both men had the hot, current-affairs hand. Haley had established himself as a full-time freelancer in his four years out of the U.S. Coast Guard, where he was that institution’s first “chief journalist,” its full-time public relations person. Haley’s byline appeared in national periodicals such as Reader’s Digest, a monthly magazine whose readership was wide-ranging, and the Saturday Evening Post, a powerhouse national weekly newspaper.
In the days when television was still growing as a national medium and radio had fragmented into a local medium, Playboy, a magazine known for something other than literature, considered itself a new choice for the Digest’s and the Post’s elite, well-educated, white male audience of American leaders and opinion-makers. The civil rights movement was well under way, and black writers like Haley, James Baldwin and Gordon Parks took full advantage of the new need to educate white elite America on the increasingly angry Negro mood.
Haley had done articles on the Nation before, but this one-on-one with Minister Malcolm in Playboy—a dramatic telling of the man’s life in Lansing, Mich., and on the streets in Harlem before he was saved by NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah—got book publishers interested.
One of the publishers interested was also the biggest—Doubleday. An editor there read the Playboy interview and saw that Malcolm’s story—from rural Midwest poverty to Northern street life to prison and then to a controversial salvation—could be a great hit. So Doubleday contacted Haley and his agent.
Everyone had a transparent motive, and everyone involved understood that this was a commercial product designed to make money and cause a stir. The publisher, Doubleday, wanted a sensational story that would startle and shock, and it saw that potential in Playboy. Haley wanted a big score and knew he could ride Malcolm’s story to relative fame and fortune. Malcolm X, who originally wanted the NOI to get his half of the proceeds, wanted to tell a Saul-on-the-road to-Damascus conversation narrative, showing the greatness of Elijah Muhammad and the NOI.
As Malcolm engaged in a soon-to-be-public battle against the Nation of Islam and traveled to Saudi Arabia and Africa, he fit in his interview sessions with Haley when he could between 1963 and early 1965. (The FBI tried to have its own interview, but Malcolm brushed off the agents.) As Malcolm’s life became more dangerous and complicated, the collaborator Haley kept promising his agent and Doubleday a blockbuster.
There was a public preview of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, thanks to Haley’s agent and the Saturday Evening Post. Its Sept. 12, 1964, issue had Malcolm X on the cover, an excerpt of the book and an editorial about his movement. “I remember being mesmerized by the cover,” said A. Peter Bailey, a member of Malcolm’s Organization for Afro-American Unity and editor of its newsletter, The Blacklash, in an interview with The Root. The thinking, intellectual Malcolm on the cover was a welcome departure from the evil, violent image he had in the white mainstream media, explained Bailey. “[It] showed the serious brother that he was.”
A nervous Doubleday dropped the project after Malcolm X’s assassination, and Grove Press, a small publisher unafraid of controversial material, picked it up. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X sort of fell upon us,” Barney Rosset, owner of Grove Press, told WNYC’s On the Media in 2008. “When Malcolm was assassinated, there was a statement that the publisher here was not going to go ahead with publishing the book because it would be a danger to his employees, that they might be physically attacked. I didn’t feel that way, and I bought the rights to the book.”
The hardcover was published in October 1965. It had a 16-page photo leaf that would not be in the millions of mass-market paperback editions most readers have seen. The photos (along with Haley’s epilogue) sadly complete the reporting job the two men started: They include Malcolm’s body on a stretcher being rushed to the hospital (here’s one picture showing that), Ossie Davis delivering his eulogy and Betty Shabazz, his widow, at his grave. (Shabazz got Malcolm’s share of the royalties, thanks to a last-minute switch by Malcolm, Haley and Grove Press.)
Fifty years later, a central controversy would surround this book in black intellectual circles. In Haley’s epilogue was an edict from Malcolm: “Another letter was dictated, this one an agreement between him [Haley] and me: ‘Nothing can be in this book’s manuscript that I didn’t say, and nothing can be left out that I want in it.’”
Did Haley keep his word on this? There were chapters left out of The Autobiography—ones Haley described in correspondence to his agent and Doubleday editors as “lavalike.” Did Malcolm approve these significant cuts? The historical jury is out because we only have Haley’s word.
Bailey said he feels that Haley did not tinker with his subject: “I thought the tone of the book fits the Brother Malcolm that I remember.”
With the continued growth of mass-market paperback books, well established by the time of Malcolm’s death as the inexpensive way to buy and read a major work, books like The Autobiography would be adopted in thousands of college and high school classes and be a staple of virtually every bookstore in America.
The homes and the libraries of black America, even those households that were not filled with readers, would, by 1980, have, almost as a guarantee, at least one of two books, both mass-marketed paperbacks written by Haley: The Autobiography and his historical novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
The Autobiography would inspire millions of black people, particularly Northern black men who would take up the cry of “Black power” a year after Malcolm’s assassination. It was required reading for black people who needed a chronicle and analysis to grab onto—to identify with as their own. It overshadowed the other, also brilliant, black militant coming-of-age narratives that came before or concurrent to it, as well as those that came out a short time after. The difference is that those that came after—almost all that came after—acknowledged its influence. As the first-person narratives of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois had inspired an older generation of Negroes, Malcolm’s book stirred the new, young black man and woman—the Afro-American who became African American.
One book, about a black man, written by a black man. Forty-five editions around the world. In a half-century, never out of print. Ever.
Some books outlive their authors and become classics. Some books swallow their authors whole, crippling and tormenting them, because the writer is unable to make lightning strike twice. The Autobiography transcends both fates: It stands alone, in its own category of personal and collective testament, demanding sociopolitical currency on its own frozen terms. It forever holds up its bloodied, martyred author, linked in written and spoken word, in historical courage and in current controversy. It permanently invaded the DNA of African Americans and splintered the black literary tradition of the 20th century in half, outliving all of the vicious racism, hate, jealousy and anguish of the life lived. And now, thanks to the development of mass media, the story will be forever told.
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.