The voice of Malcolm X was powerful, unbridled and simply heroic. He is one of the most quotable men of the twentieth century:
"In fact, once he is motivated no one can change more completely than the man who has been at the bottom. I call myself the best example of that."
"It is only after slavery and prison that the sweetest appreciation of freedom can come. "
"I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being--neither white, black, brown, or red; and when you are dealing with humanity as a family there's no question of integration or intermarriage. It's just one human being marrying another human being or one human being living around and with another human being."
One of the strongest realisations Malcolm X had was learning exactly who he was. As a political figure, his rhetoric was extraordinary. But I will get to this much later in this lengthy review, for now though looking at his childhood experience helps to understand what shaped him.
As a young black man in America, he was a man without a sense of true identity. His African roots, though still in his blood, were far from evident in his people. The culture he existed in is comparable to a murky mirror. Very much in the vein of Franz Fannon's Black Skins White Masks, Malcolm realised that the black folk acted like puppets; the way they thought, and the way they behaved, was nothing short of extreme social conditioning. They were indoctrinated with this idea, this idea that the white man was better; thus, they tried to become white, by adopting white culture, rather than finding their own true sense of self. And this is exactly what he addressed in his later arguments after his lessons under Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.
However, some of his earlier experiences show the powers at play directly. The young Malcolm experienced it all. When at school studying history, the history of the "negro" was condensed down into a single paragraph in a Western textbook. Let me say that again, one paragraph. That's it, an entire history of a people summarised by a few sentences. Simply put, the history of the black man, at least according to the white man here, didn't exist until he arrived in Africa with his slave boats. He had no history before enslavement, and this is what these children were taught at school. Chinua Achebe come eat your heart out. Ignorance like this is why he wrote Things Fall Apart. Malcolm was later told by another teacher that he could not become a lawyer because of his skin colour. It's these kinds of rejections that planted the seeds of anger in his heart.
First though, before he would begin to walk his path, he would make a series of mistakes. I could hear the sorrow in his voice as I read some of the words here. When he was a very young man he broke a girl's heart, an experience that set her on a downward spiral. You could say it ruined her life. He bought into this idea that white is better and left her for all the prestige a white partner could bring him. All in all, the young Malcolm, as he puts it, was "deaf, blind and dumb" as he walked away from a woman who clearly loved him. He would make even more mistakes as he got older. He became a hustler and a drug pusher, then later a house breaker. He was surrounded by a world of violence. Few make it to old age in such a life, so he had only two possible exists: death or prison.
But who is to blame I call these mistakes, but the reality of the situation is that they were merely pitfalls. When Malcolm entered prison, it was only because the situation created by the white man lead him to the cell.
And at this moment in his life, arguable the lowest, when he sat in a prison cell bored to tears and full of rage; he realised what true power was and where he could get it: books.
"The ability to read awoke inside of me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive."
He learnt to read, and did it so often he gained his trademark glasses. After hearing the words of Elijah Muhammad, filtered through his brother's mouth, Malcolm came to understand the evils of western society. He had become what the white man wanted him to be, so he changed rapidly. He transformed himself drastically. He learnt his full history- that of the African American and then what he could of the African. He embraced Muslim faith, slowly at first, but when he did he became incensed with the clarity it gave his mind. Christianity, for him, became nothing more than a mode of control the white man used on the blacks. It forced them to their knees and made them worship a white god. He wanted no part of it.
When he got out of prison he quickly became one of the most important men in The Nation of Islam. He converted hundreds, and gave many speeches to the press. He was second only to their leader. He worked diligently for twelve years, and then was ungracefully thrown out.
Where did he go wrong
He didn't. He never did. He would have died for the nation. He was forced to leave because the leader was jealous and afraid of him- even after he continued to serve him after he found out about his hypocrisy. Simply put, Malcolm put all his faith into a false bastion, twelve years of faith, and he still had the strength to carry on afterwards. He did not let it destroy him. He truly was a great man.
But what of all his hate Malcolm hated the white man. And from this power he drew his early success. His hate was justified, but it was very generalised. The white man committed terrible crimes in history, but it was also the general man on the street that would stick his nose up in the air and act superior on a day to day basis that would get Malcolm angry. It was out there. It kept happening, but this doesn't mean that was all that was out there. There were genuine white people who felt as Malcolm did, and perhaps they could have helped each other. But, that being said, I'm not sure he would have been as successful had his hate been tempered at the start. As he once said:
"So early in my life, I had learned that if you want something, you had better make some noise."
He needed the white man to know why he hated him.
The wasted potential of X
Malcolm X did wonders for black pride in America; he did wonders for the civil rights movement despite his hatred, but the true tragedy is we will never know how much more he could have done. When he was assassinated, he was at the peak of his intellect; he was at a moment where he realised that hatred wasn't necessarily the answer. After he became a full Muslim, in the traditional sense, after his pilgrimage to Mecca, he realised that Allah should have been his true guide not the false Elijah Mohamed. He was ready to face the world, this time himself. He was ready to throw his true heart out there. He'd learnt from his experience as The Nation's number two Muslim, and he was going to put his ideas into practice. But he was cut short, and the world weeps. He is often criticised for his hatred, but rarely recognised for what he became in the end. We will never know how far he could have gone with his Muslim Mosque Inc group. Could he have rivalled The Nation of Islam Could he have sped up black rights even further We shall never know, and that is why his potential was wasted. He always knew he would die by violence, and perhaps as he grew older he would have developed even further.
Malcolm X is a contentious figure even today, but he is a man who must be studied to be understood. Hearing his words, his anger, is not enough. We need to know where it came from and why it was born. This autobiography is honest, brutal and, above all, simply an outstanding piece of writing. There's so much to be gained from reading this.