by Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley, 1965
The great thing about books is that they help us understand not only others, but ourselves and our own place in history a little bit better. Growing up I knew little of Malcolm X. I was raised Catholic, owing to my mother, but my father (the black side of my family) was Methodist and the First Nation of Islam was so far off my radar as to be non-existent. It was something for other black people, the ones who changed their names and insisted they were African, not American. (Conversely, I know now that we were the “smug” and “intention-hungry Negroes” that Malcolm X detested.) I read maybe a few passages from The Autobiography in school, but Malcolm X was never studied in depth and overall I got the sense that, while he contributed to our history as black people, he was not to be admired. I could have gone my whole life thinking that had I not taken it upon myself to learn more.
It’s easy for me to see why part of black community distanced themselves from Malcolm X. I don’t know if the stereotype of “angry black man” was in existence then, but if it was, he did nothing to quell it, and if it wasn’t, well, I believe he would be the genesis. By his own admission he was angry and he was incensed that other black people did not share this anger with him. Acting as a sort of second-in-command for the First Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was vehemently anti-integration, calling not for a forced segregation, but a willful separation of black and white. He was open in his hatred of white people, calling them “devils,” which led others to accuse him of reverse racism and rail against his eye-for-an-eye beliefs.
What infuriated Malcolm X most was those blacks who attempted to work within the system instead of against it. Having no patience for those whose goals were to become messengers or secretaries or elevator operators in a white society, he looked down upon “upper class Negroes [who] are so busy trying to impress on the white man that they are ‘different from those others’ that they can’t see they are only helping the white man to keep his low opinion of all Negroes.” To him, this – along with the “conk” that straightened black men’s hair – was just another form of degradation.
It was in jail that Malcolm X was first introduced to Islam and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. According to Muhammad, the original man was black and the “devil white man” was responsible for ruining the world’s empires and civilizations and brainwashing the black man with a Christianity that remade God in his own white image. It’s a convenient theory and, devilish judgments notwithstanding, not exactly incorrect, but most importantly it provided a righteousness to the outage already permeating Malcolm X’s being. It gave him justification for his claim that all whites were evil and that the two races could never live in harmony.
If the First Nation of Islam sought to further close Malcolm X’s eyes, it can also be said that Islam itself is responsible for truly opening them. Having heard that eastern Muslims decried the debasement of their religion by Black Muslims, Malcolm X completed a pilgrimage to Mecca that thoroughly changed his separatist stance. Already on the outs with Elijah Muhammad, owing to the latter’s sex scandal, the pilgrimage showed Malcolm X how deeply Islam had been perverted to suit Muhammad’s needs. It was there that Malcolm X saw Muslims of every color coming together to share in their common beliefs:
America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered “white” – the “white” attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.
We seem to remember Malcolm X for his hatred of whites, but we don’t teach about his true spiritual awakening. For it was in these later years that he exemplified the journey that America must take, from believing that people act according to their skin color to acknowledging their roles within an oppressive society.
An American white ambassador in one African country was Africa’s most respected American ambassador… Based on what I had heard of him, I had to believe him when he told me that as long as he was on the African continent, he never thought in terms of race, that he dealt with human beings, never noticing their color. He said he was more aware of language differences than of color differences. He said that only when he returned to America would he become aware of color differences.
I told him, “What you are telling me is that it isn’t the American white man who is a racist, but it’s the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man.” He agreed.
What I find so fascinating is not only how the perception of Malcolm X as a militant separatist has persisted, but how that notion continues to be extrapolated to the entire black community today. One need only go so far as the white dismissal of Black Lives Matter to see that this is true. We are not taught of Malcolm X’s spiritual and intellectual awakening toward the end of his life…and why not? Is it because it’s easier to dismiss his, and therefore our, anger if we categorize it as the ravings of combative aggressor? Is it because the cries for equality can be disregarded if it can be seen as oppression? Or is it because this part of Malcolm X’s life was cut short, that he was never fully able to live as the man he had become? Speaking of his father’s murder Malcolm X states, “It has always been my belief that I, too, will die by violence.” Knowing that this would be true, who among us would not be angry?
It is a feat that Alex Haley was able to draw together this narrative from the many interviews he conducted with Malcolm X in the two years preceding the latter’s assassination. Although early parts of the book seem to focus too much on his gambling and involvement with prostitutes and seems to have little to do with his later work as a public figure, Malcolm X insists that they are important, for they show how he became the man he is. It is a detailed, yet enlightening look at a man pigeon-holed by history and it is this spotlight on the capacity for inner change that makes the book such an important work. These days I’ve found myself with an increasing interest in that history than I’ve ever had before. Part of this is simply because I want to use reading to make myself more aware, but it’s also driven largely by my desire to understand where we were before and how we got to where we are now and uncover some hope that we can find our way out of this.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey, read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country, read a classic by an author of color.]