I decided to dive into The Autobiography of Malcolm X after last week’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, during which people like Barack Obama and Oprah touted how far our nation has come on civil rights in the last five decades. Said Obama in his speech: “To dismiss the magnitude of progress, or to suggest, as some have, that little has changed, dishonors the courage and sacrifice of those who paid the price to march.”
A week later, having delved into the life and thoughts of one of the country’s most recognized—and contentious—civil rights leaders, I find myself wondering whether Malcolm X would entirely agree
TAMX begins in Lansing, Michigan, where Malcolm Little is a generally good kid and upstanding student until the day he visits a relative in Boston and his mind is blown by all the hustle and bustle and black people. That trip—coupled with a teacher’s admonition that Little could never be a lawyer—inspires in him a certain frustration, and Malcolm soon drops out of school and moves to Boston, and later Harlem, where he becomes a small-time hustler: selling weed, shepherding men to prostitutes, robbing apartments, etc.
At 20, back in Michigan, Malcolm is arrested for robbery and sentenced to 8-10 years in prison (a sentence he notes is harsher for his choice of accomplices: white women) where he reads a shit-ton of books and discovers the Nation of Islam, a Muslim offshoot-slash-cult that promotes self-sufficiency, asceticism, surrender to Allah and that “the collective white man had acted like a devil in virtually every contact he had with the world’s collective non-white man.” (Which, true.)
After prison, Malcolm dons the “X” moniker (symbolizing the last name stripped from his ancestors by their slave-masters) and gets heavily involved the Nation of Islam and its man-on-earth, Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm helps establish temples all over the country, becomes a strident voice for blacks in America, and fights off a never-ending parade of detractors who call him a racist hate-monger and demagogue. (From TAMX: “Why, when all of my ancestors are snake-bitten, and I’m snake-bitten, and I warn my children to avoid snakes, what does that snake sound like accusing me of hate-teaching?”)
And then shit gets weird. In 1963, Malcolm X is suspended from the Nation of Islam for a perceived gaffe he makes after JFK’s assassination, saying it represents “the chickens coming home to roost.” (He clarifies in the book: “Hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, finally had struck down this country’s Chief of State.”) The flub is characterized as the latest in a string of faux pas, but behind the scenes, the Nation is dealing with a different scandal: Elijah Muhammad’s paternity lawsuits from multiple impregnated secretaries. In TAMX, Malcolm X artfully backs out of bashing his former leader, while also stating that he was set up by the Nation of Islam to become a scapegoat-slash-distraction. (Members of the Nation would ultimately be behind X’s assassination.)
Nation-less, Malcolm X visits Mecca and several countries in Africa, where two things happen: 1) He sees people of all colors and backgrounds chilling together and decides he was a bit wrong on the “white devil” point, and 2) He reaffirms his belief that a greater link between Africans and black Americans would be a good thing for all involved, and laments that “the American Negro has been entirely brainwashed from ever seeing or thinking of himself, as he should, as a part of the non-white peoples of the world.”
When he gets back to America, Malcolm X tries to walk back his reputation as an anti-white, militant black Muslim—and to some degree succeeds—but it’s mostly too late. Towards the end of TAMX, Malcolm frankly discusses the probability of his own imminent death: “From the things I know,” he says. “I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form.” And he doesn’t.
There’s so, so much to think about after reading a book like TAMX, which is articulate and raw. X doesn’t deny his aggression or impatience with progress, and takes care to clarify that he only “promoted” violence insomuch as he resented being labeled “all talk,” and in the sense that blacks should feel comfortable reacting to violence done against them. He lambastes white society’s long history of oppressing black Americans (many references are made to boots and heels on necks and backs), but also takes issue with what he feels is the failure of black Americans to improve their own lives.
It’s disconcerting to realize how timeless TAMX is in its discussions of racial disparity and political inaction and America’s vainglorious opinion of itself on the world stage. Despite the very real progress on these issues that’s been made since 1965, many of the realities that Malcolm X discusses are little-changed today, and many of the successes one feels a knee-jerk compulsion to point out fall somewhere on what I think of as X’s “who gives a fuck” spectrum:
“I can’t turn around without hearing about some ‘civil rights advance’! White people seem to think the black 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!”
Even the March on Washington—which Malcolm X refers to as the “Farce on Washington”—gets its dig:
“Who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing ‘We Shall Overcome…Suum Day….’ while tripping and swaying along arm-in-arm with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against?”
The Malcolm X that emerges over the first 70% of TAMX is angry, bitter and uninterested in the company of even the most sincere white person. First-70%-Malcolm calls the white man a rapist and a wolf and tells reporters that the only white men who have ever done good for America are Hitler and Stalin. He also rags on the educated black man for good measure:
“This modern, twentieth-century Uncle Thomas now often wears a top hat. He’s usually well-dressed and well-educated. He’s often the personification of culture and refinement. The twentieth-century Uncle Thomas sometimes speaks with a Yale or Harvard accent. Sometimes he is known as Professor, Doctor, Judge, and Reverend, even Right Reverend Doctor. This twentieth-century Uncle Thomas is a professional Negro —by that I mean his profession is being a Negro for the white man.”
First-70%-Malcolm can be a tough pill to swallow, in part because he never offers—or even acknowledges the possibility of trying to possibly someday offer—a solution to racial inequality that involves integration, itself a word/concept he rails against with some regularity (including in my favorite line: “Negroes don’t even like snails!”)
But the last 30% of the book, coupled with co-author Alex Haley’s afterword, surfaces a different Malcolm X, one whose capacity for personal growth makes his early death all the more tragic. Malcolm 2.0 is enlightened by travel, made optimistic by a renewed faith, and ready to adjust—publicly—a central tenet of his longstanding belief system: that white people are categorically incapable of considering black people equal. (Psst, white people: It all hinges on us disproving this.)
Granted, New Malcolm still has new, progressive gripes—”I never really trust the kind of white people who are always so anxious to hang around Negroes”—but he is still markedly different and seems, based in part on Haley’s descriptions, on the cusp of a profound epiphany that might have made him an even more astonishing force for social good, across races. In the context of TAMX, Malcolm X’s adolescence and viewpoints are only part of what makes him so compelling; the transformation of those viewpoints is just as much so. By the year of his death, X had even expressed tacit acceptance of interracial marriage.
It’s surprisingly easy to imagine Malcolm X alive today, and to guess at his opinions on both racial and non-racial subjects. I can’t help but assume he would have had much to say about Trayvon Martin, but I suspect also about America’s litany of wars, our persistent and growing income gap, our education system, our tolerance of ethically unsound big business and our tendency toward oversimplification and political correctness. A 2013 Malcolm X would be a fascinating, impactful and controversial tour de force. Portions of white America—who have long since made clear their views on well-spoken black men who may or may not be Muslim—would hate him. Cable TV would be enthralled.
But the true import of Malcolm X—lost in high school textbooks, but captured in his autobiography—is larger than the sum of his sound bites. Malcolm X was passionate, direct, relentless, demanding, honest and provocative. In an America whose politicians and business leaders speak in opaque niceties, and whose people would rather be watching Duck Dynasty, Malcolm X would be—and was—a much-maligned mirror held up to our inadequacies as human beings. Because as sickened as he was by racism and oppression, Malcolm X was just as frustrated with complacency, and with the refusal of the potentially powerful many to shake off the brainwashing of the currently powerful few.
TITLE: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
AUTHOR: Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley
PAGES: 466 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Roots (Haley)
SORTA LIKE: A really long conversation with Malcolm X
FIRST LINE: “When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night.”