Alex Haley: A Synthesis of Roles

(Alex Haley: A Synthesis of Roles is from the 24 October 1988 interview of Alex Haley for Eyes On The Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. On 26 January 1994, the video interview aired during Malcolm X: Make It Plain.)

Alex Haley: A Synthesis of Roles (1988)

Television’s most-watched history series, American Experience, has been hailed as “the most consistently enriching program on television.” (Wall Street Journal) The series brings to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present.

Malcolm X: Make It Plain chronicles Malcolm X’s remarkable journey from his birth on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, to his tragic assassination at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City on February 21, 1965.

During his life time, Malcolm X was many men: in Omaha and in Lansing, Michigan, he was a straight A-student Malcolm Little, the son of Reverend Earl Little, an outspoken organizer of the famous Marcus Garvey movement, who preached about the relationship between black pride and salvation.

Years later, on the streets of Boston and New York, he became “Detroit Red” and “New York Red”—a hustler, drug pusher, pimp, con man, and the head of a Boston robbery ring. He emerges from prison as Minister Malcolm—Malcolm X, the fiery, eloquent spokesman for Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. Finally, he became El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, the man who traveled to 14 African nations, meeting with heads of state, who became an internationally recognized leader and advocate for oppressed peoples, and who returned from Mecca with a deeper understanding of Islam, and a new willingness to accept white allies.

In a series of interviews, family members and friends remember Malcolm X. Within, A Synthesis of Roles, Alex Haley describes his own perception of Malcolm while co-authoring his autobiography.

Alex Haley: A Synthesis of Roles

My own perception of Malcolm was one of something that bordered on fascination—really because I was looking at him and reacting to him as a subject. I was a young writer, I had been the usually requisite 15 years getting rejections slips for the most part and finally was beginning to get assignments.

And I saw him as someone who was hard to top as a subject. He was—I always like to say of Malcolm—he was just simply electrical. Everything he did almost was dramatic and it wasn’t that he was trying to be, it was just the nature of him. He, in later years, I would be rather taken by a statement he would make of himself. He would say. “I am a part of all I have met.” And by that he meant that all the things he had done in his earlier life had exposed him to things, had taught him skills of one another sort or had taught him traits of one another sort, all of which had synthesized into the Malcolm who became the spokesman for the nation of Islam.

Such as that here was a man who in the eighth grade in Michigan—a school where I think he was the only black in his class and one of the very few in the school—had been an outstanding straight-A student, who had been in fact the president of his class. And all the others were white in the eighth grade. Obviously he had to be exceptional to be those things. So you had that quality, which was a facet of him: the brains, the innate ability to learn and to acquire and to use and utilize knowledge.

And then you had the Malcolm who had left school and who had gone to Roxbury, Massachusetts where he had gotten his first exposure to what might loosely be called hustling. I remember him telling me with great seriousness about how he had learned at the tutoring of an older person who came from where he had come from in Michigan and who had called him homeboy. I made that chapter; the title of that chapter was Homeboy. And this man had taught him his first hustle: that to be a shoeshine boy was okay; he would get say 15 cents or maybe 20 cents per shine, but if he learned how to make the rag pop loudly—there was a way you could use the rag kind of loosely and then jerk it down on the shoe and it would make a noise—a popping noise. And people somehow liked that and they would give Malcolm as much as a quarter tip. And so he became the poppingist shoeshine boy in town and so on. And this type of thing, the hustler world, became part of him.

And then later he was into more serious things, you know, crime type things. And all of these sharpened his wits and his ability to connive and to do cunning things. And these were part of the Malcolm of 1961, 62 as well. And then finally, the ultimate thing, he was in prison and the world of the prisoner is one that is quite educational in its way. And so that was another part of him.

And so Malcolm liked to say that he, the Malcolm as of 1961, 62, and subsequently He said, “I am a part of all I have met,” which was another way of saying he was a synthesis of all that he had learned in these various roles. ~ Alex Haley.

(The above interview is presented under the Creative Commons License. © 1988 Washington University Libraries. All Rights Reserved.)

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