Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Rethinking MALCOLM: Early Writings Depict a Well-Versed Young Man with a Keen Interest in Law

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Rethinking MALCOLM: Early Writings Depict a Well-Versed Young Man with a Keen Interest in Law

Article excerpt

Rethinking MALCOLM: Early Writings Depict a Well-Versed Young Man With an Keen Interest in Law

ATLANTA -- Early writings by Malcolm X went on public display for the first time at Emory University here last month, offering a new glimpse of the fiery orator who advocated Black nationalism and raised government suspicion.

The papers, which could alter Americans' perceptions of Malcolm X, are the only known collection of his personal letters and notes, says James H. Cone of Union Theological Seminary, who has written about him and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"They are quite unique," Cone said of the papers in a telephone interview from his office in New York. The only other known personal letters written by Malcolm X are contained in FBI files.

The Emory collection -- mostly letters and school notebooks written from 1938 to 1955, when Malcolm X was a teenager and young adult -- is on long-term loan to Emory from Atlanta antiques dealer Jimmy Allen and his friend, John Littlefield.

Allen and Littlefield recently bought the papers from a collector in Boston, who acquired them in 1979 from Malcolm X's half-sister, Ella Collins. They portray him as a typical teen who jitterbugged, admired pretty girls and hoped to someday be a lawyer.

"Just to see Malcolm's actual handwriting set off trembles," says Leroy Davis, a professor of African American studies at Emory. "I had looked at him one way growing up and looked at him another way as a scholar. But either one of those ways was not like seeing actual material that Malcolm had written himself."

Though not a large collection, historians contend that the letters and notes could change the accepted view of Malcolm X's early years. In his public speeches and in his autobiography, the civil rights leader described himself as a small-time hood who could barely read before he was converted to the Nation of Islam in prison.

But the early papers paint a much different picture. They show the 13- to 15-year-old Malcolm to be an articulate student who rarely misspelled words and usually used correct grammar. In one assignment, he wrote that he wanted to be a lawyer, a district attorney or a politician.

"What's so impressive, even when you know the basic sketch of his life, is what a remarkably poetic, expressive writing ability Malcolm has as a teenager," says David Garrow, an Emory historian and author of a Pulitzer-prize-winning book about King.

Davis was most impressed by a pocket notebook the young Malcolm turned into a "makeshift yearbook" during his eighth-grade year at Mason High School in Michigan. …

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