Since reading the autobiography of Malcolm X, written with the assistance of Alex Haley, at the start of this year, his story has continued to intrigue me. I grew up with the assumption that Martin Luther King was the effective moral arbiter of the civil rights movement and that his aggressive, divisive counterpart Malcolm X was simply an eerie shadow lurking in the background. I learned a lot by reading the autobiography of ‘the angriest black man in America,’ yet nothing has fascinated me more than my perceptions before and after reading and re-reading the book. I found that history has not only been wrong about Malcolm X, it has systematically bullied him.
The first chapter, entitled ‘Nightmare,’ begins with a brief story of the Klu Klux Klan visiting the Little family (Malcolm X’s birth name). Upon asking for the father of the household and finding that he was in a nearby town, the Klansmen mindlessly shatter every window with their gun butts, galloping around the house before riding off into the night. The next paragraph explains that Malcolm X’s father saw four of his six brothers die by violence, with three of the murders committed by white men, including one by lynching. His father would later be murdered by the Klan himself, only to have his death covered up by an inexplicable tale of suicide.
Malcolm’s mother, Louise Little, looked ‘almost white’ – her grandfather was a white man who raped Louise’s grandmother, thus providing her with the light complexion. Malcolm states that he “came to hate every drop of that white rapist’s blood I had in me.”
When hearing the term ‘racist’ used to describe Malcolm X, I often think of a frightened young Malcolm hugging his family as the flames of the Klansmen burn around him to the tune of imploding windows. I think of a six-year old boy looking at his father’s dead body, a skull caved in on one side and a body almost cut in half, before being told that family pressure had led him to suicide. If one’s young life is permeated by violence induced by white men – if one’s entire existence is caused by a racist outburst of sexual violence, then to hate and to fight against the white race seems a logical route for one to take.
Chapter nine, aptly named ‘Caught,’ illustrates a robbery that sent the 20-year old black man to prison for 7 years, whilst his white, female co-conspirators were sentenced to just 1-5 years in a Women’s Reformatory. Without the drugs that had sustained him during his day-long hustles in Harlem, an imprisoned Malcolm X became ‘as evil-tempered as a snake.’ Following a letter written by his religious brother Philbert Little, which stated that he had found the ‘natural religion for the black man’ and instructed ‘don’t eat any more pork and don’t smoke any more cigarettes’, Malcolm X gravitated towards the Nation of Islam. On a visit to the prison, Reginald Little elucidated the idea of an anti-white, black-separatist approach to both religion and life, focusing on a man named Elijah Muhammad to clarify his views. Malcolm’s mind was “involuntarily flashing across the entire spectrum of white people” that he had ever known. His head “swam with the parading faces” of the white people who had ingrained in him the idea that he and the entire black race was inferior.
For the next few years, Malcolm claims that he lived as a hermit in prison, reading and writing out every word of the dictionary and investing himself in as many books as he could fit into one day. He discusses, at length, the many crimes of the white man, from the narcotising of millions of Chinese by the British during the Opium Wars to the manipulation of India via the creation and development of the East India Company. An incredible prison library, alongside weekly prison debates and classes delivered by Harvard instructors moved the focal point of Malcolm X’s life from drugs, sex and violence in his teens, towards anti-white religion and a desperate zeal for knowledge. A particularly poignant story in Chapter 11, ‘Saved,’ illustrates Malcolm’s intellectual deconstruction of the idea that Jesus was white – eventually, through a string of facts and argument, a white Christian concedes that Jesus was, in all likelihood, dark-skinned.
I included this section of his life in my own argument because I believe that it was in the prison walls, that Malcolm X became the man who changed race-relations forever. He became eloquent and inspirational to the black men around him and eventually, when he was out of prison, became Assistant Minister of the Nation of Islam’s Temple One. A rapid rise within the echelons of the Nation ensued. Soon, Malcolm X became the mouthpiece for anti-white teachings, typified by the phrase ‘the white man is the devil.’ He taught that the white man wanted to confine black men to immorality and keep them ‘unclean and ignorant’ with radio and television broadcasts now a feature of the Nation’s wide-ranging propaganda.
However, with the Nation of Islam now firmly in the public eye, a television programme, entitled ‘The Hate that Hate Produced,’ that included a kaleidoscope of ‘shocker’ images of black men and sisters, turned the public viciously against the Nation of Islam and more subtly, against the black man. This, I believe, is one such instance in which white America has suppressed the immense voice of Malcolm X, though I do not agree with the Muslim teachings. From henceforth, interview questions with Malcolm X were one and the same – ‘Why do you teach black supremacy and hate?’
Chapter seventeen, ‘Mecca,’ is, I believe, the most significant. It expresses views of Malcolm X’s that were never presented to me growing up – views that did not align with the man I, as a young boy living in Kent, thought I knew all I needed to know about.
The pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj is an obligation for every orthodox Muslim – it is, as the Quran states ‘a duty men owe to God.’ On this pilgrimage, Malcolm X met many incredible people. Throngs of people of all complexions, each of whom on the Hajj hugged and embraced in a New York airport. Malcolm discusses how, in a shop in France, the clerks were welcoming and loving in a truly sincere manner, grateful for your custom. This stands in stark contrast to the shops in America, in which you “walk out, spend a hundred dollars and leave a stranger.”
I believe the following to be the most important passage in this incredible chapter – “I 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. That morning was the start of a radical alteration in my whole outlook about ‘white men.’” Though I myself have never felt and probably will never feel compelled by an organised religion, in this instance, Islam appears to me to have acted as a unifying vice at the heart of which is a very human element of love and compassion for one another.
Had it not been for my reading of his own words, I would perhaps still regard Malcolm X as a divisive and aggressive man. It has only been through multiple readings of his book that I realise that the man was far from racist; in fact, so great was his disdain for racism that he dedicated his entire life to spreading anti-racist sentiments, albeit in a very powerful manner to which many white people in the 1950’s and 1960’s might have felt repelled by.
Crucial to my belief that Malcolm X should be admired rather than demonised is that he was so far beyond his time that so many today are yet to realise the truth behind his teachings. He was not inherently anti-white, but viciously anti-American and anti-capitalist; his earliest teachings, that appear little other than racist outbursts, are in fact manifestations of a life filled with hurt at the hands of violent white men. His primary aim, as stated in the last paragraph of his book, was to bring light and to expose “any meaningful truth that will help to destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America.” Upon drawing a distinction between being racist and being anti-America, I have found his teachings to be prophetic rather than profane. Malcolm X was even able to predict his legacy (and for that matter, the manner of his death). “You watch. I will be labelled as, at best, an ‘irresponsible black man.’”