Today on this day in 1965, they published Alex Haley’s, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I remember picking it up as a teenager. It was the largest book I’d ever read at that time until I started Haley’s other book, Roots.

Now, as an editor, it is fascinating seeing Haley’s editorial remarks— all preserved by collectors. In them, we see both Alex and Malcolm’s notes in the margins, with Alex advising Malcolm to go deeper, to stop preaching, and to tell stories rather than all the (“boring”) social commentary. Malcolm pushes back around word choices and his easy, accessible language sets the voice and tone.

Editorial Wars

Malcolm X wanted to write about society and politics. Alex Haley knew that readers would want to know about the life of Malcolm and how he became the visionary he was. How he survived a childhood where his father was killed by a sect of the KKK. How after that he lost his mother as, at age thirty-six, she was left on her own with eight children during the Great Depression.

Louise Little, Malcom’s mother, tried to keep her family together, but was defrauded out of a life insurance policy, harassed by social workers, and eventually institutionalized. So how is it that rather than his future being curtailed because he was virtually an orphan who grew up to be a convicted felon, instead he rose to international prominence? His incarceration led to a religious conversion afterwhich he was paroled and he preached empowerment. He became a visionary leader despite constant pressure and surveillance by the FBI. When the book was almost done, he was assassinated; he was only thirty-nine years old.

Wow! What a full and short life.

Dropped by its Publisher

Did you know that the first publisher of The Autobiography of Malcolm X dropped it? That must be one of publishing’s Pretty Woman mistakes—however, the book was also rejected by twelve or thirteen publishers after that before Grove said “yes.” Now, 56 years later, it has sold in excess of six million copies.

Every piece of work has its theme and it’s why. There are gazillions of other articles and books about Malcolm, including a beautifully illustrated children’s book written by his daughter. According to the material I was reading today, Alex Haley, who was working with Malcolm X on this project, had to work hard to keep this book on track. Malcolm wanted it to be a series of social criticism essays, Haley knew that its appeal to readers would be the story of Malcolm himself.

Staying True to Editorial Decisions

Only today I found out about chapters that were not included in the book! “Why?” I thought as I read some salacious stories during my research about this topic. Too controversial? How could it more controversial than the book ITSELF which was published nine-months after Malcolm’s death.

Turns out there is no mystery to it really. According to the notes within discarded chapter, they were left out because they would detract from what the book was trying to say. By sticking to editorial decisions, Alex Haley released a book which stayed true to its why and thus it remains a consistent, highly regarded seller. The place for those deleted chapters, was not The Autobiography of Malcolm X. According to a NYT’s article: “Haley was trying to write a story using the conventions of narrative,” he said. “At some points, his problem with Malcolm was that he was speechifying. But Malcolm’s objective was to speechify, to present his arguments.”

Parallel Experience as an Editor

I get this. I’m working with an author who has had similar traumatic experiences, but he has not (yet) made a big impact on society. We both think there is room for it. That’s one of his reason’s for writing his book and I’m doing my best to remind him every time we have disagreements. My author has survived incredible hardships: poverty, homelessness, so much loss, having to kill to survive even. His story makes me feel we should treat refugees with so much more respect than we do. I think if he sticks to his themes, he could become a speaker about the effects of the type of desperate circumstances he survived. That he could help people.

What happens to the spirit, the psyche, the body when you have survived so much and finally make it to the safety of Canada or other save havens? In his case, he became content, put on weight, and was comfortable working in a factory which paid him just enough to prevent his kids from starving. But now he wants his book to help him do more. But like Alex and Malcolm, he and I are fighting. And like Alex, I’m going to win! Both of these men survived devastating losses, both went to jail. Both came out changed. Malcolm went on to serve and died for that. Will my client’s story allow him to do work larger in scope than his factory job?

You Live Until the Last Person Says Your Name

I was discussing all this with my daughter — the disagreements that can happen between editors and authors. I told her about Malcolm X’s book and Haley’s role in it. I talked of what the book had meant to me when I first read it—and she asked for a copy of it. I felt so proud! She is so young and confident in her belief she will change the world. Her school has a great social justice course and she is passionate about the many issues they discuss and debate.

I was around her age when I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X so I was happy to pull into the mall and head to the bookstore to get it for her. I hope one day to be able to give her a copy of the other book I mentioned, too, and that it is able to do even a smidge as much to change things for marginalized people.

Happy anniversary to the classic and still highly relevant The Autobiography of Malcolm X. May it be read forever!

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