November 13, 2013

“Malcolm, uninterrupted”: the controversy over Malcolm X’s 1964 diary


If all goes to plan, this Thursday, the small publishing house Third World Press will publish a unique and fascinating book: Malcolm X’s diary from 1964, the last year of his life, a year he spent traveling widely throughout the Middle East and Africa.

However, it’s a long way ‘til Thursday. Because Malcolm X’s heirs have sued to halt the publication, alleging that Third World does not have the rights to publish the material.

There are a number of parties making competing claims here: Third World says that one of Malcolm X’s daughters, Ilyasah Shabazz, has signed a contract with the press, giving them the rights. But X Legacy, an entity created by Malcolm X’s heirs to “protect and enhance the value of the property held by his estate” filed papers in Manhattan Federal Court to block the publication, claiming that, as the New York Daily News reports, Ilyasah Shabazz “signed away her rights to X Legacy — and by extension to her father’s work — in 2011.”

The diary appears to be drawn from a collection of papers that has been on loan from the Shabazz family to the Schomburg Center since 2003, and from the publisher’s description, it’ll be a truly significant contribution to Malcolm X’s published writings. As Herb Boyd, co-editor of the book with Ilyasah Shabazz, says in a video for an Indiegogo campaign Third World is running to raise money to market their volume:

The diary humanizes him in a way that some of these other scholars set out to do… This is Malcolm, uninterrupted, without any kind of editorial interference….  The diary is certainly the most critical thing that he left behind that has not been examined.

Interestingly, a couple of years ago, Ilyasah Shabazz was also involved in the unearthing of previously unknown material related to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was written with Alex Haley: three additional chapters that weren’t included in the final book. These three chapters, which were discovered by attorney Gregory Reed when he purchased the original manuscripts from Haley’s estate, were, according to historian Manning Marable, dictated and written during Malcolm X’s final months in the Nation of Islam, and they were a significant exclusion.

As Marable put in a 2005 interview for Democracy Now, the chapters conveyed an important evolution in Malcolm X’s political activity, an evolution that the diary may also shed light on:

What is most interesting about the book [The Autobiography of Malcolm X] is that as I have read it over the years, something — something was odd to me. It’s like — you know, Malcolm broke with the N.O.I. [Nation of Islam] in March 1964, and in that last 11 chaotic months, he spent most of the time outside of the United States. Nevertheless, he built two organizations in the spring of 1964. First, Muslim Mosque Incorporated, which was a religious organization that was largely based on members of the N.O.I. who left with him. It was spearheaded by James 67X or James Shabazz, who was his chief of staff. Then secondly was the Organization of Afro-American Unity. This was an organization that was a secular group. It largely consisted of people that we would later call several years later Black Powerites, Black nationalists, progressives coming out of the Black freedom struggle, the northern students’ movement, people — students, young people, professionals, workers, who were dedicated to Black activism and militancy, but outside of the context of Islam. There were tensions between these two organizations, and Malcolm had to negotiate between them and since he was out of the country a great deal of the time, it was rather difficult for him to do so. It seemed rather odd that there’s only a fleeting reference to the OAAU inside of the book that’s supposed to be his political testament. I wondered about this. It seemed like something was missing. Well, as a matter of fact, there is. Three chapters. Those three chapters really represent a kind of political testament that are outlined by Malcolm X… The missing political testament that should have been in the autobiography, but isn’t.

Malcolm X’s thinking about the OAAU was undoubtedly influenced by his travels in 1964. After his break with the Nation of Islam, he became a practicing Sunni Muslim, and traveled to Saudi Arabia to complete the Hajj. While abroad, he also met with most of the major political figures in the region, visiting Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, Senegal, Liberia, Algeria and Morocco.

And Third World’s description of their book hints at the ways the diary may add to the picture: “in it, we see the deep reflections of this transformative figure as he developed a new vision for the elevation and integration of the African Diaspora.”

In other words, The Diary of Malcolm X could provide important perspective on part of Malcolm X’s legacy that was deliberately minimized in the Autobiography: his ideas for, and development of, broad coalitions that united Africans and African-Americans. Manning thinks this may well have been threatening to the US government. Again, from the 2005 interview:

I think that Malcolm was envisioning, even while he was in the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist progressive strategy toward uniting black people across ideological, class lines, denominational religious lines, Christians, as well as Muslims, to build a strong movement for justice and for empowerment. I think that that is what frightened the FBI, and that is what frightened the CIA.

But conspiracy murmurs aside, a daily record of Malcolm X’s last year would be an invaluable source for scholars and general readers alike. However, it remains to be seen whether Third World’s publication will go ahead — watch this space.



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.