7th Grade Life List: Read Malcolm X

In 7th grade, I made a list of 60 goals I wanted to achieve in my life. Some were big (Win an Oscar, a Tony, and a Grammy) and some not so big (Read Gone with the Wind). After having a fabulous experience checking one SUPER item off, I decided to keep at it and achieve as many of my 7th grade goals as possible.

16. Read Malcolm X.

I have no idea why 7th Grade Sarah decided that she needed to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The Spike Lee biopic had come out in 1992 and perhaps I wanted to learn more about this incendiary figure.

Either way I'm glad she did.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X begins at the beginning and tells the story of parents beaten down by a racist society. By the time Malcolm Little reaches middle school, his father is dead after a violent attack by the KKK and his mother has been committed to a mental hospital. Despite excelling at school, Malcolm's dreams of becoming an attorney are dashed when a teacher dismisses the idea of a black man ever holding such a role. 

Passed around within his hometown of Omaha, Malcolm eventually moves to Boston where he lives with his half-sister Ella. During his time in Boston, Malcolm becomes a street hustler and eventually moves to Harlem where he fully adopts a life of crime. His description of that life was truly fascinating. He argues that so many that live that life because they have few options and less hope.

It's not a new position but to read someone's firsthand account of that life is illuminating in a way no societal study can be.

The ghetto hustler is internally restrained by nothing. He has no religion, no concept of morality, no civic responsibility, no fear—nothing. To survive, he is out there constantly preying upon others, probing for any human weakness like a ferret. The ghetto hustler is forever frustrated, restless, and anxious for some ‘action’.
— Malcolm X

He is eventually sent to prison for burglary, where he converts to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Once Malcolm is released from prison, he officially adopts the name Malcolm X to symbolize his lost ancestry and becomes a minister for the Nation of Islam. Over several years, he transforms the church from a few communities of less than a 100 to 1,000s of converts across the United States.

I'm not going to lie. This part of the book was difficult to read. There are only so many times that someone can hear themselves and their race described as "the white devil" before it starts to wear on the psyche. However, for the same reason it was difficult for me as a white person to hear, I understand the appeal of this message to the black community and why Malcolm X was able to convert so many. His words are powerful and emotional and unapologetically incendiary.

One incident in particular stood out to me. 

I never will forget one little blonde co-ed after I had spoken at her New England college. She must have caught the next plane behind that one I took to New York. She found the Muslim restaurant in Harlem. I just happened to be there when she came in. Her clothes, her carriage, her accent, all showed Deep South white breeding and money. ...
Anyway, I’d never seen anyone I ever spoke before more affected than this little white college girl. She demanded right up in my face, “Don’t you believe there are any good white people?” I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I told her, “People’s deeds I believe in, Miss — not their words.”
”What can I do?” she exclaimed. I told her, “Nothing.” She burst out crying, and ran out and up Lenox Avenue and caught a taxi.
— Malcolm X

I'd like to believe I would be as affected as the "little blond co-ed" Malcolm X describes meeting. Reading his description, it felt like all of a sudden someone I understood - someone I could identify with - showed up in a story that was completely foreign. She was saying what I had been arguing in my head the entire time. Surely, not ALL white people were the devil!

And while sympathetic to the experiences that led him there, the abruptness of his reaction stunned me. 

The beautiful part of Malcolm X's story is that this experience apparently affected him even more. He never forgot the "little blonde co-ed." Eventually, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam and adopted a more tolerant view of other races. Several years after his conversion, Malcolm X was betrayed by members of the Nation of Islam and leaves the church in 1963. He makes several journeys to Africa and the Middle East, including a pilgrimage to Mecca. 

These journeys are instrumental in changing his opinion of the white race and race in general. In 1964, he writes his "Letter from Mecca" praising the religion of Islam as the path to racial harmony. 

We were truly all the same (brothers)—because their belief in one God had removed the white from their minds, the white from their behavior, and the white from their attitude.
— Malcolm X

He even began to regret his interaction with the "little blonde coed."

I regret that I told her she could do ‘nothing.’ I wish now that I knew her name, or where I could telephone her, and tell her what I tell white people now when they present themselves as being sincere, and ask me, one way or another, the same thing that she asked.
— Malcolm X

Sadly, Malcolm X never got to pursue his dreams of racial harmony through the spread of Islam. He never got to lead his organization, The Organization for Afro-American Unity. He never got to see his SIX daughters grow up. He never even got to see the birth of his twin daughters. 

On February 21, 1965, he was gunned down in front of his family as he began addressing his organization. 

After finishing his life story, I was struck not only by the tragic ending of a young life but by the wasted opportunity of a passionate intellect denied access to resources and education. Malcolm X did so much with the little that Malcolm Little was given, he himself wonders what would have become of him if he'd been allowed to attend college or pursue his dream of becoming an attorney. 

However, it wasn't until I read the epilogue by Ossie Davis that I truly understood what made Malcolm X special - something no amount of education would have changed. No one in their right mind would claim that we live in a post-racial society. Racism still exists and it's impact is felt far and wide everyday.

And yet somethings have changed. We have strong black role models - including the President of the United States - who speak their mind and speak it truthfully. It's not always easy and it's always with consequence but those voices are there. From Kanye West proclaiming "George Bush doesn't care about black people." to Attorney General Eric Holder stating plainly that issues of race are far from solved, no one is waiting around politely for white people to dole out the crumbs of justice.

What I constantly have to remind myself is that was not always the case. Malcolm X lived during a time when telling the truth about race could (and did) get people killed.

Protocol and common sense require that Negroes stand back and let the white man speak up for us, defend us, and lead us from behind the scene in our fight. This is the essence of Negro politics. But Malcolm said to hell with that! Get up off your knees and fight your own battles. That’s the way to win back your self-respect. That’s the way to make the white man respect you. And if he won’t let you live like a man, he certainly can’t keep you from dying like one!

Malcolm, as you can see, was refreshing excitement; he scared hell out of the rest of us, bred as we are to caution, to hypocrisy in the presence of white folks, to the smile that never fades. Malcolm knew that every white man in America profits directly or indirectly from his position vis-à-vis Negroes, profits from racism even though he does not practice it or believe in it.
— Ossie Davis

His words are still incendiary today. Can you even imagine how they sounded in 1960!?! And yet he said them. He said them loudly and unapologetically and this didn't just make him special, this made him a one man revolution.

Have you read The Autobiography of Malcolm X? What did you think?