Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the real story of a misremembered man who changed the face of history. It chronicles the life of Malcolm Little, later Malcolm X and then el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, from his birth in 1925 to his untimely death in 1965. Malcolm's early life begins in Michigan, where his parents face barriers to keeping the family economically stable and physically together. Due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances, Mrs. Little is institutionalized and Malcolm is sent first to a foster family, then a detention home. After he is released from detention, he travels to Harlem to live with his sister Ella.
Malcolm spends his adolescent life in Harlem, becoming enamored with the 'hip crowd' and the crazes of the day. He conks his hair, buys zoot suits, and becomes increasingly involved with a variety of unsavory activities, including drug dealing, gambling, pimping, and robbery. He feels that this is all that the white world has to offer him, and falls deeper and deeper into iniquity.
After completing a series of burglaries with a crew, Malcolm is arrested and sent to prison. During his six years in prison, he becomes acquainted with the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Upon his release, he visits Elijah Muhammad and begins to play a significant role in the Nation of Islam, leading and opening temples across the United States.
In 1958, Malcolm marries Betty X, later Betty Shabazz, another follower of the Nation of Islam, and over the course of their marriage they have six daughters. Malcolm continues to serve the Nation of Islam, traveling across the country for speaking engagements, press conferences, and the like. Due to a series of events relating to Elijah Muhammad and to dissension within the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X publicly breaks ties with Muhammad's Nation of Islam in 1964.
After Malcolm's rift with the Nation of Islam, he starts several of his own organizations dedicated to Afro-American unity. He is invited to and travels to Mecca for a pilgrimage, and comes back with a richer global understanding of religion and race. He also has the opportunity to travel to Africa and several European countries where he meets with a variety of key officials.
Throughout 1964 and 1965, Malcolm X experiences a stream of threats on his life, largely from within the Nation of Islam. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm is gunned down in Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom as he is preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
I had a lot of complicated feelings reading this book. For once, I'm glad that I broke my standard 'read-only-the-text-of-the-novel' rule and read the epilogue and the foreword. Alex Haley wrote a substantial epilogue to the novel, which addresses the public aftermath of Malcolm's death and provides extensive context to the creation process for the novel. The foreword was added much later and was written by Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm's eldest daughter. I felt that both of these pieces rounded out my understanding of Malcolm X the man, and they gave me a sense of closure that the text of the novel was unable to provide, ending, by necessity, just as Malcolm was killed.
Have you read this book, blob enthusiasts? I know it doesn't really count as a novel, since it's an author's account of true events, but it's pretty stunning. Here's my stipulation if you decide to read it: you must read the whole thing. You can decide if you want to read the epilogue and the foreword, but you must read all of Malcolm's life, not just some of it. If I had stopped mid-read, I would have misunderstood Malcolm, I think, and after reading this I respect Malcolm so deeply that I believe he deserves your thorough attention. Or, as Malcolm puts it, Why am I as I am? To understand that of any person, his whole life, from birth, must be reviewed. All of our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that ever happened to us is an ingredient.
Without further ado, here are my thoughts on this book.
-- What do you remember about Malcolm X?
Seriously. What do you know? All I knew (or thought I knew) before I read this book was that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the 'non-violent' civil rights leader, and Malcolm X was the 'violent' one. Wrong. Capital W wrong. I'm not saying that there isn't some layer of truth to the distinction, but it's a dramatically oversimplistic generalization of two brilliant and influential men. Malcolm has a line about learning his history - "I remember the textbook section on Negro history. It was exactly one paragraph long." I went to school almost a century after Malcolm, and I can unfortunately say that my AA history was maybe a chapter long? A little Harriet Tubman, maybe a quick Frederick Douglass, and then moving on to later wars. Where is their story? Where is the priority to tell it? For a fascinating read on the new African-American history museum (which has finalllllllllly gotten its deserved place at the National Mall, click here.
When I am dead - I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form - I want you to just watch and see if I'm not right in what I say: that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with "hate".
He will make use of me dead, as he has made use of me alive, as a convenient symbol of 'hatred' - and that will help him to escape facing the truth that all I have been doing is holding up a mirror to reflect, to show, the history of unspeakable crimes that his race has committed against my race. Pretty prescient if you ask me.
-- When Malcolm is told to aim low
Malcolm has a great deal of promise as a young man, and he's super smart, but his favorite teacher tells him to reset his expectations after Malcolm says he wants to be a lawyer. As an educator, this scene broke my heart and filled me with rage:
You've got to be realistic about being a n*. A lawyer - that's no realistic goal for a n*. You need to think about something you can be. You're good with your hands - making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don't you plan on carpentry?
And later, here's Malcolm's reflection on why he quits school:
It was a surprising thing that I had never thought of it that way before, but I realized that whatever I wasn't, I was smarter than nearly all of those white kids. But apparently I was still not intelligent enough, in their eyes, to become whatever I wanted to be.
I want every student in America to be supported and stimulated on the path to whatever they want to be. Are we there yet? I think we have a long way to go, but I like to think there's been some progress.
-- Conks and Locks, Afros and Twists
I have a few close friends who have talked to me at length and educated me in various ways about the battle for natural black hair to be socially acceptable and 'professional' in the eyes of a predominantly white world. Most of these discussions have been about women, so it was new territory for me to read about Malcolm's experience 'conking' his hair as part of the jazz era. If you're not familiar with it, they actually used lye to force the hair straight, and it was common practice, despite the dangerous and painful nature of the process. Here's Malcolm later on, about that time in his life. (The photo to the right is of Malcolm with his hair conked.)
How ridiculous I was! Stupid enough to stand there simply lost in admiration of my hair now looking 'white', reflected in the mirror in Shorty's room... This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man's hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are "inferior" and white people "superior" - that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look "pretty" by white standards.
-- Malcolm - kind of a jerk about women
OK. So I have gained a great deal of respect for Malcolm X after reading this book, but partially as a product of his time and chosen religion, and perhaps a little bit just based on him and his sense of the world, Malcolm is supremely unevolved about women. It reminded me of the term 'intersectionality' and the idea that it's not just race or sexual orientation or religion or gender that make up our identity, but rather a blended mélange of all of these things, and the interactions between them. I had a hard time swallowing the brilliance of Malcolm's insights on race when they were coupled with sexist misogyny, but I like to think that maybe if he'd been born fifty years later, he'd have been more of a feminist, too.
- All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak: they are attracted to the male in whom they see strength. Oh yes, so fragile and weak. Just weak ole' Meredith needs a nice strong man.
- Always, every now and then, I had given her a hard time, just to keep her in line. Every once in a while a woman seems to need, in fact wants this, too. But now, I would feel evil and slap her around worse than ever. Great, sanctioned physical abuse. Awesome sauce.
- What would happen if I just should happen, sometime, to think about getting married to somebody? For instance Sister Betty X - although it could be any sister in any temple, but Sister Betty X, for instance, would just happen to be the right height for somebody my height, and also the right age. (Mr. Elijah Muhammad taught that a wife's ideal age was half the man's age plus seven.) I love this. Malcolm is unabashedly unromantic about marriage, and about choosing Betty. He proposes over the phone, and the whole thing is very perfunctory. I guess it's not so different from an arranged marriage, which I know works for a lot of cultures, but it felt a little blasé to me - man seeking woman of proper height and age for lifetime commitment.
As you may or may not know from this blob, I consider myself to be an agnostic/atheist/mystic/spiritual sort of believer, and I'm heartily not into organized religion. That being said, I was amused when I thought about whether I would make a good convert to the Nation of Islam, at least as it existed back in Malcolm's day. Here are the no-no's:
Forbidden 'muslim' activities (quotes to designate NOI):
- fornication (no comment)
- eating pork or unhealthful foods (hm... I do love my bacon. This could be an issue)
- tobacco (non-smoker, check!)
- alcohol (not even the occasional porter, or Jack's cider, or a midnight margarita?)
- narcotics (check!)
- dancing (well, I'm not what we would call a good dancer, but I do like the occasional dance)
- gambling (check!)
- dating (just because I don't do it much doesn't mean I don't want to)
- going to the movies (FAIL. I love the movies. Everything about the movies.)
- sports (does going to the gym count?)
- taking long vacations (But I love long vacations! Who doesn't? Greece, anyone?)
- oversleeping (Oh I am SO out. I slept until 11 today.)
- domestic quarreling (does sibling quarreling count? because I think that's a fail, then)
- lying (check-ish?)
- stealing (check!)
- insubordination to civil authority (only when warranted!)
-- Prison (aka, when I started to really like Malcolm)
I first started to really like Malcolm and feel a kinship with him when he goes to prison. Here are a few of my favorite snippets:
Between Mr. Muhammad's teachings, my correspondence, my visitors - usually Ella and Reginald - and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.
When I had progressed to really serious reading, every night at about ten P.M. I would be outraged with the 'lights out'. It always seemed to catch me right in the middle of something engrossing. This is adorable. I love the image of Malcolm in his bunk in prison getting infuriated by the 'lights out' and wanting to keep reading.
I don't think anybody every got more out of going to prison than I did. Where else but in a prison could I have attacked my ignorance by being able to study intensely sometimes as much as fifteen hours a day? Talk about getting the most out of prison time.
It was right there in prison that I made up my mind to devote the rest of my life to telling the white man about himself - or die.
And a little after prison...
During this time I received from Chicago my "X". The Muslim's "X" symbolized the true African family name that he could never know. For me, my "X" replaced the white slavemaster name of "Little" which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears. I never knew why he was called Malcolm X, but I love the poetry of this, albeit tinged with deep sadness.
You may not have picked up on this yet, but Malcolm was an incendiary character, and he didn't mince words. One of his main taglines from the first half of the book is 'the white man is the devil', which is understandably hard to read as a white woman. Here are a few of my favorite lines that provide some context to this phrase:
The problem here in America is that we meet such a small minority of individual so-called 'good', or 'brotherly' white people. Here in the United States, notwithstanding those few 'good' white people, it is the collective 150 million white people whom the collective 22 million black people have to deal with!
The white man is not inherently evil, but America's racist society influences him to act evilly. The society has produced and nourishes a psychology which brings out the lowest, most base part of human beings.
And later, Alex Haley: "I saw Malcolm X too many times exhilarated in after-lecture give-and-take with predominantly white student bodies at colleges and universities to ever believe that he nurtured at his core any blanket white-hatred. "The young whites, and blacks, too, are the only hope that America has. The rest of us have always been living in a lie."
It was important to me that Malcolm allow a place for white people to help reverse the pain and move beyond the oppression of our forebears. It was really hard to read most of the novel knowing that I had no place in Malcolm's solution to the race problem in America. I will say that his opinion on this changed pretty significantly with time, which I appreciated.
-- Race relations
Malcolm was not interested in integration. And before you go asking questions like, 'what's the alternative', or 'what's so bad about integration', or 'aren't we just a big melting pot', check this out:
on segregation vs. integration
Your slavemaster, he brought you over here, and of your past everything was destroyed. Today, you do not know your true language. What tribe are you from? You would not recognize your tribe's name if you heard it. You don't know nothing about your true culture. You don't even know your family's real name. You are wearing a white man's name! The white slavemaster, who hates you!...You are the planet Earth's only group of people ignorant of yourself, ignorant of your own kind, of your true history, ignorant of your enemy! You know nothing at all but what your white slavemaster has chosen to tell you.
Do we show the plain common sense, like every other people on this planet Earth, to unite among ourselves? No! We are humbling ourselves, sitting-in, and begging-in, trying to unite with the slavemaster! I don't seem able to imagine any more ridiculous sight. A thousand ways every day, the white man is telling you "You can't live here, you can't enter here, you can't eat here, drink here, walk here, work here, you can't ride here, you can't play here, you can't study here.' Haven't we yet seen enough to see that he has no plan to unite with you? Granted, this is symptomatic of the time in which he was preaching and speaking, which was dramatically different from today's society. But there's some compelling stuff in his argument.
Here's one of my favorite lines from Malcolm: Coffee is the only thing I like integrated. Now, I think we have a long way to go if we're looking for true integration and equal access, but I love his sassiness. ;)
I can't turn around without hearing about some 'civil right's advance'! White people seem to think the black man ought to be shouting 'hallelujah'! Four hundred years the white man has had his foot-long knife in the black man's back - and now the white man starts to wiggle the knife out, maybe six inches! The black man's supposed to be grateful? Why, if the white man jerked the knife out, it's still going to leave a scar! This blew me away. Such a powerful line.
The government has departments to deal with the special-interest groups that make themselves heard and felt. A Department of Agriculture cares for the farmers' needs. There is a Department of Health, Education and Welfare. There is a Department of the Interior - in which the Indians are included. Is the farmer, the doctor, the Indian, the greatest problem in America today? No - it is the black man! There ought to be a Pentagon-sized Washington department dealing with every segment of the black man's problems. Where is the government department to deal with the repercussions and ramifications of slavery? Where are the dedicated think tanks to tackle the racial challenges we face as a society? I know that black people are one of many groups that suffer from unequal access, stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, etc., but there is something epically different about a group of people upon whose backs and bodies and souls we built our country.
Ossie Davis - "He would make you angry as hell, but he would also make you proud. It was impossible to remain defensive and apologetic about being a Negro in his presence. He wouldn't let you. And you always left his presence with the sneaky suspicion that maybe, after all, you were a man! Ossie Davis has a little endnote to the novel, and I love this line. I hate that anyone has to feel reminded that they are a person, because oppressors and racism and screwed up societies take that away from them, but I love the line.
-- Malcolm X and violence
I think it's important to address Malcolm's stated opinions on violence, since he has been much maligned on this front. Here are a few lines that I think succinctly articulate his arguments:
Mr. Malcolm X, why is your Fruit of Islam being trained in judo and karate?' An image of black men learning anything suggesting self-defense seemed to terrify the white man. I'd turn their question around: 'Why does judo or karate suddenly get so ominous because black men study it? Across America, the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, even the YWCA, the CYP, PAL - they all teach judo! It's all right, it's fine - until black men teach it! Even little grammar school classes, little girls, are taught to defend themselves.
New York white youth were killing victims; that was a 'sociological' problem. But when black youth killed somebody, the power structure was looking to hang somebody. When black men had been lynched or otherwise murdered in cold blood, it was always said, "Things will get better.' When whites had rifles in their homes, the Constitution gave them the right to protect their home and themselves. But when black people even spoke of having rifles in their homes, that was 'ominous.'
On race riots: It takes no one to stir up the sociological dynamite that stems from the unemployment, bad housing, and inferior education already in the ghettoes. This explosively criminal condition has existed for so long, it needs no fuse; it fuses itself; it spontaneously combusts from within itself...
I believe it's a crime for anyone who is being brutalized to continue to accept that brutality without doing something to defend himself. I think there's a natural fear of people taking up arms against us, from any angle, but can you deny the honesty of this line?
When the white man came into this country, he certainly wasn't demonstrating any 'non-violence'. Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it. Our children are still taught to respect the violence which reduced a red-skinned people of an earlier culture into a few fragmented groups herded into impoverished reservations. This line was so poignant, and so on the nose. I think about the Washington Redskins refusing to change their names, or the "Indian Corn" candy sold for Halloween, or the hundreds of movies where the 'noble cowboys' battle 'savage indians', and I think, do we ever have a long way to go.
One of my favorite lines in the whole book, when someone asks Malcolm about his power to create race riots - "I don't know if I could start one. I don't know if I'd want to stop one."
Let's just pause for a moment and sit with that. Are you hanging in there with me? I know this post is a bit lengthy, but boy is it deserved. This is definitely one of those books I'd put into my 'life-changing' category. Thanks for letting me borrow it, Dave Weinstein, via the Kensington Library. ;)
-- On Mr. Muhammad
Part of what confused me about the beginning of this book was that Malcolm was never the leader of the Nation of Islam. This guy, Elijah Muhammad, was in charge, and Malcolm becomes his sort of #2. What confused me is that I have never heard of Elijah Muhammad, and everyone I know has heard the name Malcolm X. It's doubly confusing when you read that from Malcolm's perspective, he tries very hard not to eclipse Elijah Muhammad, despite his rising popularity and press coverage. I guess I mention it just to say that I think history remembered the right man, imho.
-- On traveling to Mecca/abroad
It's after Malcolm travels to Mecca and then in various countries across the globe that his opinions are really widened about race relations and their connection to religion and America.
That morning was when I first began to reappraise the 'white man'. It was when I first began to perceive that 'white man', as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it described attitudes and actions. In America, 'white man' meant specific attitudes and actions toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men. But in the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been.
Since I learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends have come to include all kinds - some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists! I have friends who are called capitalists, Socialists, and Communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists - some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white! This is when I started to get really sad that I knew Malcolm was going to die soon. Not only was he this brilliant mind, packed to the brim with ideas and dialogue and debate, but he was also continuing to grow and evolve and round out his sense of the world. He was, in a way, just truly coming into his own when he was brutally slaughtered. I can't help but think what an impact he would have had with another three or four decades.
This is such a thorny question for many white people. How does their privilege, their 21st century whiteness, fit into the complex and brutal history of our nation? It's true that we were not the slave owners, and we were not the vicious buyers and sellers of humans, and we were not the masters on slave ships. But we are a product of our present society. We are Americans, and I believe that we own both our history's proudest moments and our darkest demons. I don't think that white people alone bear this burden, but I do think there's an important understanding of whiteness that's lacking in our current world. Here's Malcolm:
Is white America really sorry for her crimes against the black people? Does white America have the capacity to repent - and to atone? Does the capacity to repent, to atone, exist in a majority, in one-half, in even one-third of American white society?
Many black men, the victims - in fact most black men - would like to be able to forgive, to forget, the crimes.
But most American white people seem not to have it in them to make any serious atonement - to do justice to the black man.
Indeed, how can white society atone for enslaving, for raping, for unmanning, for otherwise brutalizing millions of human beings, for centuries? What atonement would the God of Justice demand for the robbery of the black people's labor, their lives, their true identities, their culture, their history - and even their human dignity?
A desegregated cup of coffee, a theater, public toilets - the whole range of hypocritical 'integration' - these are not atonement. How can we atone? How can the victims of these crimes forgive?
Here are some of my favorite "Malcolmisms":
- I've never been one for inaction. Everything I've ever felt strongly about, I've done something about.
- If I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn't have gotten me out of books with a wedge.
- Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars - caged. I am not saying there shouldn't be prisons, but there shouldn't be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget.
- I'm telling it like it is! You never have to worry about me biting my tongue if something I know as truth is on my mind. Raw, naked truth exchanged between the black man and the white man is what a whole lot more of is needed in this country - to clear the air of the racial mirages, clichés, and lies that this country's very atmosphere has been filled with for four hundred years. Boy, is that ever still true today.
I was in my car driving along the freeway when at a red light another car pulled alongside. A white woman was driving and on the passenger's side, next to me, was a white man. 'Malcolm X!' he called out - and when I looked, he stuck his hand out of his car, across at me, grinning. 'Do you mind shaking hands with a white man?' 'Imagine that! Just as the traffic light turned green, I told him, 'I don't mind shaking hands with human beings. Are you one?
I said that on the American racial level, we had to approach the black man's struggle against the white man's racism as a human problem, that we had to forget hypocritical politics and propaganda. I said that both races, as human beings, had the obligation, the responsibility, of helping to correct America's human problem. The well-meaning white people, I said, had to combat, actively and directly, the racism in other white people. And the black people had to build within themselves much greater awareness that along with equal rights there had to be the bearing of equal responsibilities.
I believe that this is how we atone. I believe this is how we begin to forgive. We recognize the humanity in each other, and we speak openly and honestly about where the scars and gaping inequalities still live. We shake hands and make friends with and marry and love fellow human beings, and we learn to share their experience of this America.
And of course, because as much as I enjoy talking and thinking and exploring issues related to race, there's something I love more, I'll leave you with this line from Malcolm about my one true love:
I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.
May you atone, may you forgive, may you seek to understand, and may you read to remind yourself that you are mentally alive. Listen to the brag of your ruby-meated hearts (you are, you are, you are). I'm off to Oliver Twist!