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What I learned reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X

27 Oct 2020

What I learned reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X

In 1943, the American military was fighting in the Pacific, and at home, was trying to recruit as many men as possible to throw into the furnace of its war machine in the hope it would keep roaring on. At one induction centre in New York, a quiet room lined with the downturned faces of quiet men dreading the draft was sprung into life by a towering man, who skipped and danced his way inside wearing a baggy green suit and yellow shoes and had his hair sprouted up into a red bush. He made his way to the reception and spoke in what seemed like tongues but was actually the rapid Harlem slang that the soldiers were unaccustomed to (daddy-o’s and crazy-o’s and the like). The man was quickly escorted to the army psychiatrist, who was quickly forced to ask the examinee to leave the building after they revealed their scheme to round up black soldiers and get them to turn their guns onto the white soldiers.

That scene was probably hard to imagine. It was even harder to do so when reading it in Malcolm X's autobiography.

Before the sharp suits and glasses, the briefcases, the silver-tongued retorts to pink-faced politicians, and before the ‘X’, Malcolm Little, AKA ‘Detroit Red’, the hustler from down-town Harlem, knew like many other American black men that he was being asked to fight for a white establishment that neither deserved nor represented him. His peculiar act at the induction centre worked – he was declared unfit for military service (‘I didn’t bother to ask why’).

But to claim that all of it was an ‘act’ would be inaccurate. During that time, Malcolm was often binging either cocaine, weed, opium, or all of those things. He was ‘mentally dead’ but just ‘didn’t know it’ he claims in his telling of the story. After being imprisoned, re-told in a chapter which is counter-intuitively named ‘Saved’ for an array of profound reasons, Malcolm learned of an organisation called the Nation of Islam (NOI), and with that, a God named Allah, and alongside that a story of the lives of black people, from ancient to modern times. He began to write, form prison, to a man who lead the NOI, the Honourable Elijah Muhammad, teaching himself how to read and write in the process. The rest is history, at least to the people who have the privilege of being informed.

In a sense, Malcolm X’s autobiography is a story of redemption. But in that process of redemption, it becomes a story of truth, of justice, of betrayal and much more. And in having to explore all of those themes, this review would become a biography, or as the effects of the story, and the individual who told it still linger on me, soon a hagiography. I cannot speak for Americans but in the UK, we are not inclined to have this relationship with the so-called ‘angriest black man in America’. I began with that conception of Malcolm X but ended with one very different. You gain a quick reverence for him, but realise that, as a white man, you may not be able to claim him as a personal hero. But by the end of the book you realise, as Angela Davis has taught, ‘Malcolm’s fight belongs to everyone’.

Cornel West once said that ‘there is no Malcolm X without the love of the Honourable Elijah Muhammad’. Malcolm reminds us of this fact throughout the book. But as much as Muhammad and the NOI created ‘Malcolm X’, they also burdened him. It was only until Malcolm was kicked out of the NOI for the breaking party-line did he, as Angela Davis says, ‘begin to flourish’.

Under the NOI, Malcolm was taught a peculiar historical narrative of race. White people were a creation from an evil ‘Mr Yakub’ around ‘sixty-six hundred years ago, when seventy percent of the people were happy, and thirty percent were dissatisfied’. Mr Yakub had a ‘large head’ and had an astoundingly accurately recorded ‘59,999 followers’. These teachings came from the NOI’s founder, a mysterious man named Wallace Fard Muhammad, who was recognised as God incarnate. His life, even down to his ethnicity, is still unknown by historians today. He disappeared in 1934 to never be seen again.

This isn’t to say that as a member of or minister for the NOI that Malcolm was not an intellectual force. The NOI, alongside his rigorous independent study in prison, revealed countless insights from a broad range of academic disciplines which would rival the knowledge of most PhD students today. His revelations on Christianity and the whitewashing of history were before their time and are expounded to us through pages where insights, truths and pennies drop constantly for the reader, especially for those who are white.

The NOI taught the infamous phrase that the ‘white man is the devil’. His father, a Garveyite and Baptist preacher, was brutally murdered by white supremacists and his mother was institutionalised by the white supremacy entrenched in the welfare state. His own experiences as a black man in America -the way he was spoken to, treated, and influenced to repress his blackness- meant it comes as no surprise that Malcolm believed that phrase. It also meant that when famously asked by a young white co-ed, after one of his talks at a university, what could she do as a white person to help the cause of black liberation, he said ‘nothing’.

But once free from the NOI, Malcolm was able to develop himself as a seeker of truth. This process involved an intense international tour which saw him make Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca made by Muslims. Malcolm’s experience in Mecca reformed his views on how black liberation could be achieved, as he saw people of all colours treat each other with the love espoused by Islam. As a result of this change, Malcolm claimed that there were non-black people, including white people, who could be ‘brotherly towards black people’. What would their role be in this struggle for truth and justice? One in the background, where they should be. As a black nationalist, Malcolm believed that any white man trying to position himself in a central position within the black struggle was doing so to clear his guilty conscience.

It is important to reconsider, then, this image of the ‘angriest black man in America’ - a most disagreeable image when you know the real story. Malcolm X, despite his suffering at the hands of white supremacy, in the end, taught a philosophy of compassion, empathy, and love, instead of fighting hate with hate. As Cornel West aptly reminds us, ‘Malcolm understood that white brothers and sisters are not devils, but they often act devilish’. We would do well to remember and promote the memory of Malcolm X and his pursuit of justice.

‘I have dared to dream that one day history will say that my voice saved America from a grave catastrophe… and if I can die having brought any truth that will destroy the racist cancer that is in the body of America – then all credit is due to Allah.’ – Malcolm X

John Launois