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Everyone knows about Malcolm X. He was the yin to Dr Martin Luther King’s yang, the devil to his angel. In this book, he tells his life story in his own words.
His early life revolved around his mother and father, and numerous brothers and sisters. His father was a preacher, and was brutally murdered at the hands of white neighbours, according to Malcolm X. This is one of the problems with an autobiography – the reader is given one view, rather like a diary, and that is the view he is supposed to take as truth. Of course, I don’t doubt that Malcolm X’s father was murdered, and probably by white people too. It’s just that there is no evidence, no other point of view who can support the claims.
After the death of his father, his mother tried to provide for her children as best as possible, but in twenties America this was difficult. It was even more difficult for a widowed black woman, who ended up in an institution with the strain. Malcolm blames this on white people too, who goaded her and undermined her position in the family until she gave in to their thoughts. After this, the family are split up and sent to live with other families. They keep in touch, and Malcolm eventually goes to live with his half sister, Ella. I don’t want to tell his whole life story, as to be honest, you can read the book yourself if you like. However, some events are important for the later conclusions that he draws.
Malcolm ends up in prison, where he finds solace in a new religion – the Nation of Islam. It teaches that a mad scientist bred white people, thousands of years before Christ, from black people. Along the way he also produced what Malcolm calls ‘red, yellow and brown people’. This white race were the opposite to the natural black people, and when they returned to society from the island the scientist had been banished to, bullied the more peaceful black people into submission. Anyone who knows a little about Islam will be able to recognise this as false, but Malcolm identified with this idea of the White Devil because of the mistreatment he suffered in his childhood, along with the every day treatment he received simply for being black.
He threw himself into his Islamic studies with great fervour, and used his obvious charisma to climb up the chain of Nation of Islam upon release from prison. He was loyal and hard working, and their leader, Elijah Muhammad, recognised this. Along the way, Malcolm explains that he is not being racist when he calls white people devils, or refuses to let them join Nation of Islam. The same is true when he talks about Jews being selfish – this is not racist, according to him, but the facts. It’s quite an unsettling book to read because it’s quite clear that he believes all of it. He cannot see that some people are bad people – black, white, yellow, red or brown.
Another thing to think about it is that America was very different in the forties. A black person was considered a professional if he was a bell hop – nothing wrong with that, but there was no question of college, of being a lawyer or doctor – purely because of the colour of his skin. This, I hope, is an alien way of thinking, sixty years later.
I found the early part of the book to be frustrating, but it got more interesting when the Nation of Islam came into it. Malcolm X was obviously an engaging man, but I get the feeling he was a bit of a namedropper as well. Again, if you look at it from his point of view – being invited to Africa and meeting important leaders was unprecedented for a black man from America. Perhaps he was not being arrogant, but modest.
He begins to realise that the Nation of Islam is not recognised by the rest of the world’s Muslims through conversations with Muslim leaders. This is, for me, the most engaging part of his character – that he can devote himself whole-heartedly to one person, to one cause for nearly a decade and a half, and then still possesses the open mindedness to realise that that man is a charlatan. He instead embraces true Islam as a Muslim, and undertakes the Hajj. Hajj is a sacred pilgrimage that all Muslims are expected to do at least once in their lifetime, if possible. While on the Hajj, Malcolm realises that he has never before felt such a sense of brotherhood with so many people of different colours.
He comes back to America with a more rounded view on racism – not all white people are devils, not all Jews are selfish and money grabbing and not all black people are saintly. By this time he has broken away from the Nation of Islam and formed his own organisation, under true Islam rules and guides.
The last part of the book is reflective, where Malcolm discusses his sense of impending death. Chillingly, he talks about who will be ended first – himself, or Martin Luther King. History tells us that Malcolm X was to be assassinated first.
I believe that books are meant to be thought provoking, to encourage discussion and debate. This is certainly what this book did for me, through all of the sections. As wrong as I believe he was in the beginning, I’m glad that there was redemption and understanding from all sides by the end, although of course, there was still a long way to go. Without Malcolm X, America and the world would not be where we are today in terms of human and civil rights.