Authors: Malcolm X and Alex Haley
I didn’t know much about Malcolm X before reading this book. After reading it, I honestly wonder if I knew much about anything before picking it up. That’s the kind of novel we’re dealing with here. Written in dictatorial style reminiscent of Comentarii De Bello Galicum, the great general of civil rights shares his beliefs, insights, fears, and regrets in what stands as the most honest and candid biography I’ve ever read.
Firstly, of course the FBI had something to do with the assassination of Malcolm X. The Nation of Islam, that spurned cult responsible for pulling the actual trigger, had information that they simply could not have been privy to. The number of Malcolm’s hotel room at the Audubon Hotel, for instance (who called him the morning before the assassination, said “wake up brother,” and hung up?). Besides, Malcolm suspected it himself. He told Alex Haley, ghost author of the book, that he was going to “stop saying it’s [the party making threats against his life] the black Muslims,” shortly before his death. Oddly enough, the events leading to his murder parallel Martin Luther King’s almost exactly: the harassment, the bugging and wiretapping, the stalking, the bombing of his home – all of these fear tactics leading to the final climax, the planned shooting in organized, summary execution style. I won’t say more about it here for the sake of brevity, but I’ll link to further reading at the end.
All I really knew about Malcolm X’s came from the short paragraph allotted to him in my AP American History textbook from high school. In the corner of the page, situated under the lengthy section on Martin Luther King Jr., I read that, once upon a time, there existed an angry black supremacist named Malcolm X, who hated white people and preached hatred and violent dissent. There was no mention of his past, no mention of his faith, no mention of the incredible hurdles he overcame to become one of the most eloquent and effective advocates of racial justice in America. I won’t go into detail, but nothing about the conditions of this man’s childhood and early life was conducive to survival, let alone greatness.
The fact that my textbook failed to mention Malcolm X’s Islamic faith perplexes me, because one cannot understand his life without it. Islam was Malcolm’s great catalyst; his conversion in prison proved the single most important event of his life. “Any wings I wore,” he wrote, “had been put on by the religion of Islam” (287). Reading his book, I’d say that it gave him few things in particular which contributed greatly to his success. Firstly, Islam demanded a high moral standard, which transformed his restless energy into formidable discipline. He quit drugs, gave up hustling, and got shit done, in no small part thanks to the rigorous standards of his newfound community and faith. Second, it gave him a family. It was through the NOI that Malcolm met his wife who (despite Malcolm’s somewhat personal prejudice against women that he carried to the end of his life), built him up and supported him with the unfailing constitution of a saint. Lastly, in religion Malcolm found redemption, which I understand as the courage to look backwards at his past mistakes, and the motivation to move forward. The twelve years Malcolm spent with the Nation of Islam was a second life for him. In his own words, he rose from the life of a beast, to that of a man. I’m no theologian, but I can recognize grace when I see it, and Malcolm X’s autobiography, for everything else it might be, reeks of redemption.
Despite his crimes, despite his sexism, and despite his racist views, which did not change until the last two years of his life, I cannot help but admire Malcolm X. As a leader, his transparency, his courage, and his determination make him worthy of admiration. As a human being, his insatiable curiosity and stoic self-discipline merit veneration. Today, I find great cause to lament his death. With everything that is going on in the year 2015, with the latest resurgence of old racial divisions in the form of protest and riot boiling over in Missouri and Baltimore (the old south and the old north, the same old battlegrounds as before), I can’t help but wonder what Malcolm X would do if he could see the scene. Strength like his might do us good today, and not just with racial issues. The voice of Islam is small in the West. Malcolm notes it himself in a side note made at the end of a chapter: “Elijah Muhammad’s tales…infuriated the Muslims of the East. While in Mecca, I reminded them that it was their fault, since they themselves hadn’t done enough to make real Islam known in the West. Their silence left a vacuum into which any religious faker could step and mislead our people” (168). Malcolm X’s voice was a force against Islamophobia, which has only grown since the 21st century, especially 9-11. Then, as now, Islam lacks leadership in America. Where is the Muslim voice who can dissipate American misconceptions and separate true Islam from the extremist groups who would make a mockery of a rich and complex faith? Forty years after his death, we still search for the heirs of Malcolm X.
Many champions of civil rights over the years have stressed the importance of education, but of course it was Malcolm X, the man who told truth at all cost, who put it in the bleakest, most realistic of terms: “The young whites and the young blacks are the only hope that America has. The rest of us have always been living in a lie.” For Malcolm, the present, not the past, is prologue. We as adults may be doomed to live among our prejudices and fears, which our ancestors have passed to us from an early age, but the future remains uncertain, and it is the children, not us, who will decide it.
Malcolm X, the self-made man. The rugged individual who overcame personal hardships to fight for justice in a corrupt and unjust society. Funnily enough, when put in these terms, Malcolm’s life sounds a lot like the American Dream.