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