Read Alex Haley Online

Authors: Robert J. Norrell

Alex Haley (8 page)

Malcolm gradually revealed to Haley his sensitive nature. In the course of talking about his life as a hustler, Malcolm leaped from his chair in Haley's tiny apartment and demonstrated his prowess at the Lindy Hop, a dance popular in the 1940s, all the while “scat-singing” and snapping his fingers. He laughed freely and then scorned whites for not being able to do the same. He was touched when a Harlem couple named their baby after him, saying to Haley tearfully, “What do you know about
” Walking around Harlem, Haley watched Malcolm avoid crowds at 125th Street and move among people living, literally, on side streets. To a wino, he said, “It's just what the white devil wants you to do, brother. He wants you to get drunk so he will have an excuse to put a club up beside your head.” Haley thought Malcolm saw him as someone to whom he could express himself with candor, and “like any person who lived amid tension, he enjoyed being around someone, another man, with whom he could psychically relax.”

In 1963, while Haley conducted interviews with Malcolm, Malcolm never left the public spotlight. The speculation about his significance to American race relations never ceased. When Bull Connor, the Birmingham police chief, turned dogs on demonstrators, Malcolm said, “If anybody sets a dog on a black man, the black man should kill the dog—whether he is a four-legged dog or a two-legged dog.” Asked to comment on Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birmingham tactics, he said, “Real men don't put their children on the firing line.” After the demonstrations were over,
New York Times
reporter Anthony Lewis quoted Malcolm telling a black audience in Washington, D.C., “You need somebody that is going to fight. You don't need any kneeling in or crawling in.” Lewis reported that the Kennedy administration told a group of white Birmingham businessmen, “If they do not accept Dr. King's way they will get the Muslims' way.” To a Harlem audience Malcolm said, “The Rev. Martin Luther King is an intelligent man. When he sees his method won't work, he'll try something else.” But in August, during the time of the historic March on Washington, Malcolm gave speeches in the nation's capital damning “the farce on Washington” as a pointless demonstration controlled by the Kennedy administration.

* * *

By June 1963 Haley was smitten with Juliette Collins, an airline stewardess, and, like Nan and Jeanne Noble, pretty, demure, and southern. He probably met Collins during his journalistic travels between 1960 and 1963. Reynolds gave a surprise engagement party for Alex and Julie. Haley sent Reynolds a gushing note of appreciation: “Julie is so impressed with sudden entry into a world where she meets such important people. I likewise so much enjoy being your client, I truly do, and . . . it's my full intent to make your investment of time and interest in my development as an author prove to be variously worthwhile.” But Haley and Nan were still married, and when Haley pressed his wife for a divorce, she did not cooperate. The record is not clear as to when Haley and Julie married, though by early October he was calling her his wife. Later, Nan and Fella said there were no documents proving that Haley had obtained a divorce in Mexico, as he claimed. By early 1964 Julie was pregnant, and at some point, she and Haley were married legally.

By September Reynolds was worried because he had not received any chapters from Haley. “I think the situation is rather serious,” he wrote to Haley. He and McCormick had expected to have an outline of the book by then. Haley told them that his conflict with Nan was keeping him from working on the book. “I realize you're having your difficulties and I suppose I seem to be unsympathetic,” Reynolds replied, “but this book is very important to you for money and for your career and it's got to be licked.” Thus Reynolds was relieved when Haley submitted two chapters, even if they were not in chronological order. In the first, entitled “The Farce on Washington,” Malcolm alleged that the six most powerful black leaders at the March on Washington had taken $1.5 million from white men to prevent a radical turn in race relations. Doubleday's libel attorney worried that the allegation would invite suits from various directions, as had Malcolm's disparagement of Bull Connor. The Birmingham police chief had already won a $500,000 libel judgment against the
New York Times.

The first chapters were enough to worry Paul Reynolds about Malcolm's anti-Semitism, a bit of which the Yankee aristocrat seemed to share. “Our Miss Sherman,” he wrote to Haley, referring to a person on his staff, “tells me he is always very anti-Jewish when he appears on television. I realize that he damns the whites, the negroes, the liberals, and everybody, and all of that is what's going to make it interesting to the reader, but the Jew is very sensitive and also of course very powerful in controlling newspapers, magazines and a good many book stores.” Malcolm's across-the-board condemnation of Christians and Jews was where the trouble lay, Reynolds thought. “I realize he's got to damn them and of course it's his book, not yours,” but he wished that the particular denunciations of Christians and Jews were no stronger than his damning of whites in general. Reynolds also suggested that Haley note in an introduction that Malcolm preferred for the sake of objectivity to have a non-Muslim help him with his book. “What I'm trying to say is for you to get in somewhere that you're not a Black Muslim. I'm just thinking of your future career.”
Haley had another solution. “So I am going to encompass Malcolm's Jewish criticisms with the body ‘white,' with no specifications. The section in which he, by implication, extolls the Jewish community—as a model for the Negro to study, and copy . . . will be retained as it is. Through careful handling, I feel that I can get this pattern past Malcolm X.” But, in fact, a large number of anti-Semitic statements remained in the book.

Haley and Reynolds were not the first to worry about the anti-Semitism of black nationalists. From Marcus Garvey to Elijah Muhammad to, later, H. Rap Brown of the Black Power movement, a number of black nationalists voiced special hostility toward Jews. Nor was Haley the first to attempt to expunge anti-Semitism from the published record of black nationalists. That had begun with W. E. B. Du Bois, who had studied in Berlin with anti-Semitic professors in the 1890s and brought home enmity that he integrated into
Souls of Black Folk.
Du Bois wrote that in the post–Civil War South “the Jew [was] the heir of the slave-baron. . . . Only a Yankee or a Jew could squeeze more blood from [the] debt cursed tenant.” He denounced “shrewd and unscrupulous Jews” and “the enterprising Russian Jew,” who by fraud had left blacks landless. Against such oppression, Du Bois advised that Negroes practice “the defence of deception and flattery, of cajoling and lying . . . the same defence which the Jews of the Middle Age used and which left its stamp on their character for centuries.” In 1953, fifty years after
Souls of Black Folk
appeared, Du Bois substituted “immigrant” for references to Jews—very similar to the revision that Haley proposed.

From the outset of the writing of
Autobiography of Malcolm X,
Haley shaped the content of the book to maximize both its sensational value and its commercial success. He had the advice of mentors in making the manuscript accommodate political and commercial realities—and prejudices. Haley planned to append several essays to the autobiography in which he would interpret Malcolm's life from the point of view of a Christian, liberal black man. He would counter the Nation of Islam's anti-white positions, and then he would urge blacks toward Christianity, his answer to Malcolm X's message. Haley reported to his editors that Malcolm agreed to his appendices. “You write what I want to say,” Malcolm concluded, “then you say whatever you want to.” In Haley's mind,
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
was also the story of Alex Haley.

Haley wrote Reynolds and McCormick long, excited letters, sometimes every day. The letters rejoiced over unwritten chapters. “Golly, what a book! I only wish that I could convey to you in one rush what a galvanic drama of the cartharsis of a man . . . is yet to unfold. It is such that even I do not fully appreciate its power until I get into the cumulative development of chapter by chapter.” Haley was certain that “no one who reads it, including negroes, is going to put it down very quickly, or is going to ‘pooh-pooh' it, or is going to fail to react to it.” Another letter announced that “America's most dramatic, successful demagogue—a new breed, the black one, the
black one—is onstage.” By the time he wrote this, in the fall of 1963, Haley had heard Malcolm angrily reject the use of “demagogue” about himself, but Haley continued to use it to promote the sensational appeal of the book. The letters also contained minutiae about Haley's life. He signed one seven-page, single-spaced missive, “'Bye. I'm going to run across the street and get a bite.” At the end of another letter, he reported, “Incidentally, I bought a car, that
a 1955 Dodge, for $80. Isn't that just wild!”

Several times in the fall of 1963, Haley asked both Reynolds and Doubleday for more advance money. He needed it to fix his typewriter, to get his telephone turned back on, to go to Arizona to interview Elijah Muhammad, and to move from Greenwich Village to the town of Rome in upstate New York. George Sims's parents lived in Rome, which led Haley to move there at the same time Sims did. Haley's financial need made him tempted by the offer of an advance for a book on Sojourner Truth, to which Reynolds objected. “Signing contacts long before you can do the books is just a form of borrowing and you're paying the equivalent of a terribly high interest because you're not getting the best kind of contracts. Now you talk to your good wife and see if you can't pull in your horns and operate on this basis.” That good advice went unheeded, and Reynolds sent more money anyway.

By late 1963 Reynolds was worried that he would not be able to sell the serial rights for the book to a major magazine. Two magazine editors had already told Reynolds that the Malcolm X story was too explosive for them. “They also feel,” he told Haley, that “they've perhaps over written about the problems of race relations.” That year's Birmingham demonstrations, Medgar Evers's assassination, the March on Washington, and bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham placed racial issues foremost in the American consciousness. A fatigue about race concerns was setting in among whites.

In late October Haley submitted two more chapters, these on Malcolm's early life. They contained scenes of angry encounters between his parents and between his mother, Louise Little, and Ku Klux Klansmen in Nebraska. When Malcolm's family moved to Lansing, Michigan, his father, Earl Little, came into conflict with both whites and Lansing's “complacent and misguided so-called ‘middle-class' Negroes—the typical status-symbol-oriented, integration-seeking type of Negroes.” White arsonists burned down their home. When Malcolm was six years old, Earl was run over by a streetcar and killed. Afterward Louise struggled to keep her eight children fed and clothed, but the family came under the control of welfare workers. Malcolm blamed the breakdown of his family and his mother's subsequent mental illness on the welfare system. He went through adolescence subject to the authority of white teachers and welfare agents, some of whom were kind and recognized his natural intelligence and leadership ability. But in middle school, when a white teacher asked about his career ambitions and Malcolm said he wanted to be a lawyer, the teacher responded that that was not a realistic goal “for a nigger.” That response turned Malcolm against all authority figures in Michigan, and he went to live with his sister Ella in Boston. Had he not gone there, he concluded, “I'd probably still be a brainwashed black Christian.”

Haley accepted Malcolm's story of his early life on its face. Malcolm was a young child when his Lansing home burned and his father died, and his accounts of his family's traumas were based on reports that came to him well after they occurred. Manning Marable wrote that investigators in Lansing suspected Earl Little had torched his own home for insurance money. Marable noted that local blacks believed that a white terrorist group had beaten Earl and left him on the streetcar tracks. Marable also believed that Malcolm exaggerated the extent of his criminal acts. Marable dismissed Haley as having been interested mostly in writing a “potboiler that would sell.” Marable's evidence, on both Haley and Malcolm, is suggestive, not definitive, but it does point up the subjective, and sometimes fictional, nature of autobiography.

Haley made up dialogue in relating Malcolm's relationship with one friend, the middle-class black girl called Laura. Haley's agent and editors disliked his creation, especially his use of black vernacular. Haley acknowledged that Malcolm had not liked it either. “He has a way of stroking his square chin,” he explained to Reynolds and McCormick. “Er, can you take out the slang?” Malcolm had said to Haley. “I did talk that way then, but I don't now, and it's me now in the book.” The vernacular was removed.

* * *

Throughout 1963, Malcolm's growing national celebrity had escalated the suspicion and hostility toward him from other leaders in the Nation of Islam, including Elijah Muhammad, John Ali, and Ethel and Raymond Sharrief. Since at least 1962, Malcolm had been aware that Elijah had impregnated several secretaries who worked in the Chicago NOI headquarters. Such sexual immorality was an affront to NOI teachings about female purity and marital fidelity. Malcolm was appalled but kept silent. His knowledge of the situation was discussed within the NOI, and, like his burgeoning national celebrity it was a threat to Elijah Muhammad. In September 1963 the
Amsterdam News
reporter James Booker wrote about a growing division in the NOI. Malcolm finally said to Haley, “Look, tell me the truth. You travel around. Have you heard anything?” Haley knew nothing at that point, but then he started to hear from C. Eric Lincoln, who had maintained close contact with people in the Nation, about rising hostility toward Malcolm.

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