"Awareness came surging up in me - how deeply the religion of Islam had reached down into the mud to lift me up, to save me from being what I inevitably would have been: a dead criminal in a grave, or, if still alive, a flint-hard, bitter, thirty-seven-year-old convict in some penitentiary, or insane asylum." [Malcolm X]
Most people have some awareness of Malcolm X as the firebrand campaigner for Black America from the 1960s, but what do we know of him as a person? In one of the far-sighted and fortunate acts of history, Alex Haley, author of Roots, persuaded him to get his life story down onto paper. Reluctant at first, Malcolm X began pouring out the details of his life, from the poverty of his childhood to his criminal teens, and then to his emergence as a national leader and world figure.
As with everything he did, Malcolm X had a sense of urgency about the project, and it was all but completed by the time he was gunned down in 1965. While the book is a superb account of the underside of 20th century American life and some of its turbulent events, it is a tour de force as the record of a spiritual and intellectual enlightenment. The reader is never allowed to forget that Malcolm X's conversion to Islam was the turning point in his life, transforming his violent despair into moral purpose.
Born in 1925 as Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, the author's mother was from the British West Indies but looked white. Young Malcolm was considered lucky by other blacks in that his skin was a lighter color than most, but when he was older 'hated the white rapist's blood that was in me'. His father was a Baptist minister and follower of Marcus Garvey, who’s Universal Negro Improvement Association raised the banner for black pride for a generation.
The family moved to Lansing, Michigan, where in 1931 Malcolm's father was brutally murdered by the Black Legion, a white supremacist group. When the life insurance policy he had taken out was not paid (the company maintained the death was suicide because the body had been found on railway tracks), the family slid into dire poverty. Living on food handouts, Mrs Little became mentally unstable and finally had to be institutionalized, and the children were eventually split up by the State. Malcolm writes, "I truly believe that if ever a state social agency destroyed a family, it destroyed ours. We wanted and tried to stay together. Our home didn't have to be destroyed. But the Welfare, the courts, and their doctor, gave us the one-two-three punch." From Malcolm's point of view, the white man had killed his father, now the white system had destroyed his mother.
At 13, Malcolm was expelled from his school for bad behavior and ordered to go to a reform school in another part of Michigan. He was fostered out to a white family who managed to get him sent to a better school, and he entered the seventh grade. Being one of the few black students, Malcolm was a novelty and strangely popular. Academically he excelled, always in the top three of his class, and was elected class president. He was trying in every way to be white, but full acceptance always eluded him. The most embarrassing times were school dances, when it was made clear he could not dance with white girls. A realization came when he announced to his teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer. At this time, he remembers, being a waiter or a bootblack were considered good, respectable professions for a 'Negro'. Blacks were not even employed in car plants. The teacher said to him: "A lawyer - that's no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be." It was suggested he go into carpentry.
It dawned on Malcolm that both to his foster family and to his teachers, he was more like a pet or mascot: "They didn't give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position. Thus they never did really see me." He decided to leave and live with his aunt Ella in Boston.
Boston was Little's first introduction to a real city and a large urban community of black Americans, but at the beginning of World War Two, when he is 17, he moves to New York. He gets work as a steward on the trains running between New York and Washington, and immerses himself in Harlem's buzzing music scene.
His detailed description of this time is a highlight of the book and vividly demonstrates his descent into a world of crime and moral corruption. Everyone in Harlem played the 'numbers', a form of lotto, and the men who ran it were numerically brilliant. "If they had lived in another kind of society, their exceptional mathematical talents might have been better used. But they were black", Malcolm writes. He along with just about every other 'cat' had a 'hustle', and he became a seller and user of marijuana and cocaine, known as 'Detroit Red' (for his slightly reddish hair), living in a building with prostitutes and other drug dealers. Later he moved into delivering bootleg liquor and armed robbery.
Looking back on this time, Malcolm feels that God was watching over him because, realistically, he should have been killed by some other hustler. Instead he got 'lucky' in that he went to prison. In 1946, when still 20 years old, he was given a 10-year sentence. "I had not even started shaving", he says.
While in prison, Malcolm's brother Philbert and the other siblings had joined a group called 'The Nation of Islam' led by a Chicago man named Elijah Muhammad, which taught that the position of blacks had been caused by the 'white devil' who tried to keep blacks downtrodden. Blacks needed to realize their glorious history and forget about trying to be more white, 'conking' (straightening) their hair and trying to date white girls. The Nation of Islam taught that Christianity was a white man's religion forced onto Negroes by slave owners to keep them in their place. Islam, in contrast, was the natural religion of the black man and black power. In prison, Little had been given the nickname 'Satan' because he hated any talk of the Bible or God. Now the same person gave up smoking, drugs and pork, and submitted to what he believed to be Islamic ways. He began to understand the Muslim concept of submission to God, and learned how to pray.
The time inside was also one of intellectual awakening. Little did a correspondence course in grammar and another one in Latin, and managed to get transferred to a prison in Norfolk, Massachusetts which had an emphasis on prisoner rehabilitation and had a huge library. With the luxury of his own room, Malcolm began reading up to fifteen hours a day across a range of areas including religion, Eastern and Western philosophy and history. He came to the conclusion that history had been written almost exclusively from a white point of view, and was particularly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's story of his struggle to free India from English rule.
Of this period, he admits that, "I never had been so truly free in my life." Having been locked up as a crazed, God-hating criminal, he emerged still angry but as an educated man with a spiritual and political purpose.
Thorn in the Side
Out of prison in 1952, Little took the surname 'X' in remembrance of the real African names which slaves had had to give up in favor of white surnames. He worked for a time on the assembly lines for Ford Motor Company, but quit to become a minister with his own Nation of Islam temple. As Elijah Muhammad's protégé, he gradually gained a large following and national reputation for his tirades against white subjugation of black Americans. Although the Nation of Islam's strict moral code (no smoking, drinking, gambling, going to films, sports etc.) turned a lot of people away, he argued that whites actually wanted blacks to live in poverty and moral squalor, thereby making it easier to control them. By this reasoning, African-Americans would only escape their current conditions by being independent, with their own schools and businesses and so on. This idea flew in the face of the anti-segregationist ideas of the white liberals and mainstream black leaders of the time (such as Martin Luther King), and thus Malcolm X was a thorn in the side of both blacks and whites who wanted to make race less of an issue.
One of his frequent points was that a white immigrant to the United States had more rights and respect the day he set foot on American soil than did a black person whose family had been around for 400 years. Of the wasted opportunities of his life in the ghetto, the author notes: "All of us, who might have probed space, or cured cancer, or built industries - were, instead, black victims of the white man's American social system."
A television documentary on the Nation of Islam, a book and articles in Life and Playboy gave Malcolm X a national profile. He had helped to establish over a hundred mosques across America, and relentlessly crisscrossed the country giving speeches and interviews. But he was devastated when he learned that Elijah Muhammad was not in fact a chaste Muslim but a serial adulterer, and Muhammad in turn became jealous with his protégé's growing fame. Isolated from his own organization, it become clear that thugs had been sent to kill him.
At about this point, having begun to create a new organization, Malcolm decided to go on a pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca. His two chapters on this trip are superb in their description of the sense of brotherhood and oneness he experiences in the heart of the Muslim religion. That people of all colors, rich and poor, come to pray together, eat together and sleep under the same roof during the Hajj comes as a revelation. It confirms his belief that America's racial divide is a tragic illusion, and that he is still not quite free of some perceptions of himself. He writes: "In my thirty-nine years on this earth, the HolyCity of Mecca had been the first time I had ever stood before the Creator of All and felt like a complete human being."
At a press conference after the trip, reporters were surprised that the 'black supremacist' Malcolm X seemed to have softened his stance a little. By was making statements such as:
· I'm for truth, no matter who tells it.
· I'm for justice, no matter who it is for or against.
· I'm a human being first and foremost, and as such I'm for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.
While the journey to the Holy Land had led him to orthodox Islam (not Elijah Muhammad's version of it), at the same time the importance of religion had actually diminished in his mind. What was important was the sense of brotherhood he had experienced. Whereas before he believed that white civilization was responsible for black misery, now he understood that it is the belief in separation (racism being an expression of this) that was the real cause of human suffering. What he was really fighting, he notes, was "strait-jacketed thinking, and strait-jacketed societies." Ironically for a person considered so divisive, he realizes that his life's real purpose has been to appreciate the oneness of humankind before God, and his battles were against the thinking that creates false distinctions between one person and another.
After his death, Malcolm X became a symbol of black power in its most uncompromising form, a sort of bad guy complement to Martin Luther King. While King was the great orator and devout Christian, Malcolm's Muslim faith and fast-talking ex-con demeanor were always going to make him easier to deride. But we have to put ourselves in his shoes. If your father had been killed by racist thugs and your mother turned insane by having her family bankrupted by a bad insurance company then split up by the state, would you be a well-adjusted person? If you were called 'nigger' to your face for more than half your life, would you have a feeling of oneness with humanity?
Malcolm's rage motivated him, but his miracle was to take all that was bad in his life and transform it into something good; amongst other things, he created a successful marriage and family. In many points in his life he could have fallen into the abyss, but he believed that Allah had intervened to protect him on each occasion. Malcolm really had two great awakenings, the first in prison and the second at Mecca. The first may have given him the pride and purpose to fight an external monster - American racism - but the second gave him the courage to throw off his own prejudices.
He clearly saw his life's mission was to empower black Americans, but after Mecca he was able to see this as only one battle in the larger war on closed-mindedness and bigotry. While he had originally embraced Islam as a black person's religion in contrast to white Christian oppression, it was actually through this faith that he grasped the true oneness of humanity beyond any religion. As with the life of Gandhi, his politics would have been empty without the spiritual awareness.
[Courtesy, Tom Butler Bowdon]