In March 2002, a trove of Malcolm X’s personal papers—hundreds of pages of letters, photographs, diaries, handwritten drafts of speeches—turned up for sale at an auction house in San Francisco. The Shabazz family reclaimed the material and lent it to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem, where it has been on display since 2008. The collection, at least what’s available for public viewing, shows Malcolm X as an avid reader and meticulous chronicler. It includes everything from letters to Henry Kissinger and Dean Rusk to Paris Metro ticket stubs and a marked-up translation of Sartre’s Black Orpheus. Malcolm’s writings, especially the diaries, are a delight to read, showing the activist’s political evolution as well as a more quotidian side. There’s the militant leader reflecting on the “hip-swinging” jazz vocalist Dakota Staton. There’s Malcolm preparing for a talk with social workers in Harlem about how his organization rehabilitates drug addicts, offering what The New York Times termed “Black Muslim therapy.” We also see Malcolm feeling “extremely persecuted” and confiding, to Maya Angelou, that he may have his passport revoked.
The diaries also provide a firsthand account of Malcolm’s travels in Egypt, Ghana, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia in 1964. There’s Malcolm crossing Tahrir Square to buy some lemonade at Groppi’s, a still-existing pastry shop; then he’s buying pajamas, picking up vitamin C tablets (because he’s feeling kind of “woozy”), going to the movies, and so on. He had previously traveled to Africa and the Middle East in 1959 as a representative of the Nation of Islam. But in April 1964, after publicly breaking with the group, and just weeks after founding his own organization, Muslim Mosque Inc., Malcolm embarked on a longer trip, visiting Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Liberia, Senegal, Nigeria, Algeria, and Ghana. This time, he felt that he was representing the interests of more than 20 million African Americans. He made the hajj to Mecca and adopted the name El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. He met with myriad heads of state and local elites, in an effort to build support for his organization. He pushed to have the United Nations and the Organization of Afro-American Unity address the issue of African-American rights at a time when America’s Cold Warriors knew that, internationally, race was the country’s Achilles’ heel.
His is the perspective of a ghetto dweller who has transcended the borders drawn around him. Traveling abroad, he wrote, felt “as though I had stepped out of prison.” The diaries—several notebooks of single-spaced handwriting—show an anthropologist’s eye. Malcolm comments on the landscape, the politics, and the cultural and religious differences with humorous asides. At one point, he observes: “The worst most dangerous habit among Arab Muslims is cigarettes. They smoke constantly, even on the Hajj.” There are also personal reflections on his mood, health, and intense solitude. The words “lonesome” and “alone” appear on almost every other page.
In his final years, Malcolm embraced Sunni Islam, but the ideology he would have aligned with is today the subject of intense debate, with observers projecting their own predilections onto his imagined trajectory. In Egypt, he found a cosmopolitan progressivism but was wary of President Gamal Nasser’s secularism; in Saudi Arabia, he found a religious orthodoxy to counter the Nation of Islam’s teachings, yet he was suspicious of the kingdom’s reactionary politics. By early 1965, Malcolm was still searching for a theology that could offer relief from racism, inequality, and imperialism. As such, he has become a powerful lens through which to understand America’s post–Cold War ascendance and expansion into the Middle East. And because many young Muslims are searching for much the same relief, he also offers an opportunity to understand how geopolitical shifts affect the earth’s wretched.