Over last summer, I decided to remedy a huge gap in the books I have read; namely, I had read almost no books by black authors or authors of color in general. I asked a friend of mine in a law and ethics class to suggest some for me, and the very first one was The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told by Alex Haley.
As a child, I was taught that Malcom X was a terrorist who pretty much sought the end of white folks entirely. For some reason (this one was probably my fault) I also thought he founded the Black Panthers, another organization I thought of as terroristic.
One more note before I get to the book itself. Yes, it is that Alex Haley, the very same who wrote and published Roots: The Saga of an American Family. This was later made into a mini-series as well as a movie and told the story of Alex trying to find out about his family. It emphasized the horrors of slavery, most notably tearing apart of black families and brutal punishments for anything that offended the owners.
The book itself had great cadence. Malcolm was known for his fiery speeches, and the book had several parts that showed this. Even when talking of his family, one could feel his sadness, confusion, anger, and love.
Malcolm’s father was an itinerant preacher that taught that black folks ought to head back to Africa because the white man would never treat him with respect. This influenced Malcolm a great deal later. Malcolm’s father was killed by white men when Malcolm was still young. This too affected him a great deal, and a great deal earlier.
X soon found himself as a hustler, someone who engages in something illegal to make a living. In those days as today in ghettos, it often comes down to survival. There just wasn’t enough money to be made legally; certainly, even if there were jobs in the white areas of the city, they wouldn’t be given to black folks. X dealt in drugs and guns, and many of his friends did as well. As a result, many of his friends were killed.
Eventually X was arrested, and here his life truly began (as he would say). With nothing to do and known as “Satan” for his constant cursing and ill-will toward everyone and their mothers, he almost died. He received a letter in the midst of his despair from Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, entreating him to think about his position and how he got there. Surely it was because the white man is a devil who had groomed X from birth.
X thought about this. He had been ostracized and discriminated against since he was young, and had felt the terrible effects from this as early as when his father died. Even when he became older, no school would have taken him. No business would have given him more than pennies to work the lowest job in some sick simulacrum of slavery. When he became a hustler to survive, that too was a reaction to the white man’s strictures. It was as if they had planned for him to go to prison all along.
This intrigued him, and he began to read. Education that had been deprived from him began painstakingly. Knowing few of the words used in books, he copied out the entire dictionary by hand, reading it back to himself so that he could read the books he wanted to. He read and read, and found that Elijah Muhammad’s words were confirmed on almost every page of history. Nowhere did the colonial urge seem to stop, and reading of slavery and the history that followed made it even more personal. He would be known as a voracious reader, an eloquent letter-writer, and zealot of the Nation of Islam.
After he got out of jail, he met with Elijah Muhammad himself and began a career as a minister. He married, never used drugs or alcohol again, and resisted racism through the Nation. He opened several temples himself, and it was this period in which he became known as Malcolm X. He dropped his original last name because it was actually the family name of the last slave owner that owned Malcolm’s ancestral family. Instead of being known by his slave name, he began introducing himself as Malcolm X.
During this time, X influenced Cassius Clay to join the Nation of Islam. Clay is known today as Muhammad Ali.
After years of working for the Nation of Islam, he decided to go on the hajij, the Muslim pilgrimage. There he met Muslims from around the world who treated him as a brother. He described it as the best experience of his life.
Because some of these Muslims were white, he became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam, which taught that the white man was the devil and that the black race was superior to the white race. Having witnessed for himself that there are compassionate and faithful whites, Malcolm cut ties with the Nation.
This began a process of volatility. He still was a much-sought-after orator for the civil rights movement, but the Nation was hunting him. One of the most famous photographs of X was taken around this time, of X with an AK-47 at his window, ready to defend his family.
The X’s house was set on fire by a bomb thrown through their window. X personally saved all six of his daughters. X was assassinated later at a black rights rally, killed by a sawed-off shotgun.
I can only summarize what the book told me about Malcolm, but what I remember most are three points:
- My impression of Malcolm was from a perspective of fear given by my history book. My impression of Malcolm from this book was complete and abject terror for him, his family, and his black brothers and sisters inspired by white society.
- The conditions of slavery and the history that followed it shaped the lives of black folks so drastically that it really does seem as though we never intended to free them at all. I had come to this conclusion before, but only as some sort of academic proposition. Here, I saw its grisly work personally, through Malcolm’s eyes.
- The work of authors in this period, so many of whom I had not read, are truly inspiring to read. Not only were they the leaders of moral and social change, but their admonitions to those that followed them and those they railed against are almost as edifying to read now as then. The lessons of equality are not easily learned, but by listening to those who bear the brunt of inequality, we can hope to improve our awareness and actions toward correcting these attitudes and problems.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone, period. Everyone should read a biography about at least one of the great civil rights leaders: X, King, Evers, and Baldwin. Three of them died for the as-yet incomplete project of equality, but a majority of white folks haven’t read a biography that wasn’t a summary in their history textbook. I was one of them, and I hope to read one on each now. They are worth it for all.
Comments by Howd:
This is not only a very pleasant, succinct review by Mr. Golemon, but also very crucial. Given that many of us (including myself) have limited exposure to history outside of severely truncated articles within historical anthologies, I wholeheartedly support Mr. Golemon’s message, especially on a topic so important to Americans as the civil rights movement.
In a time of skewed facts, misinterpreted data and history, and lack of journalistic integrity, it is more important than ever that we absorb as much credible information as possible to ensure our judgments and actions are sound. Let us be more careful as to not shorthand civil rights leaders like Malcom X as terrorists.
Curtis J Howd