The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I started reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X in December 2010, during my Year of Biography, when I was reading only books dealing with history surrounding specific people. I finished reading it in January 2011, during what I'm calling my Year of Overdue Books, or books (or topics) that I should have read already by now. That seems appropriate to me; I bought my copy of Malcolm X's autobiography about nine years ago at a conference and it's been sitting around since then, but more to the point, it's a seminal book for a particular historical moment that's always been of interest to me. I guess I was a little scared (I'm a white man, and the bulk of the book makes a pretty compelling case that the white man is the devil--although Malcolm X steps back from that sweeping claim after he meets some white people of good will on his pilgrimage to Mecca). But I finally stepped up and took the book on, and I'm glad I did.
Having grown up in the post-Civil-Rights-Movement North, living (as I did) in a relatively cloistered small city in the midwest, I didn't have much direct exposure to racial tensions. That's not to say that there wasn't racial tension present; it's just that my town, like most in the Northern United States, had figured out how to keep different ethnicities from confronting one another on a day-to-day basis. As such, much of what's described in X's early-twentieth-century Michigan, Boston and New York was exotic and surreal to me: his father's death at the hands of whites has a chilling casualness to it, as did the removal of X and his siblings from his mother's home. The bizarre predictability of whites coming to Harlem to indulge their hedonism and curiosity about African American culture, and the accommodation of their indulgences by black business owners and customers alike, was startling. I've come to imagine a wall of separation, of sorts, that divided black from white prior to (and even since) the Civil Rights Movement akin to the Apartheid policy in twentieth-century South Africa; that wall is certainly there, but from X's account it's much more porous than I assumed, and the points of connection X draws our attention to did little to elevate human dignity on either side of the wall.
Through X's account we come to understand the logic of subsistence; in a culture that is horribly unbalanced in fundamentally unjust ways, hustling and otherwise working outside the established economy simply makes sense. It's not sustainable, of course; the Powers That Be never stop being, and despite X's sensibility, intelligence and creativity, the law caught up to him and sent him to prison. Doing so, it turns out, was effectively like locking him in a library, because time and solitude channeled his intellect toward more systematic, conceptual thinking. I'm reminded of a line from Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from a Birmingham jail: "What else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?" That's what occupied X's time, and that's what ultimately set him on the course of the Nation of Islam and his later conversion.
I'm infinitely more familiar with King than with X. King gets taught in white classrooms and preached in white churches; King gets a national holiday and a national monument. I would take none of those things from him; I'm a great admirer of Dr. King and regard him as a national treasure and a great figure for the ages. It's also important to realize that, X's critiques notwithstanding, King's movement in the 1950s and 1960s met powerful and malevolent resistance from the white Powers That Be. King and his colleagues were certainly speaking truth to power, and they paid for it in a multitude of ways including martyrdom. But there was another side to the Civil Rights Movement that coalesced for a time in Malcolm X, and it tragically gets underplayed even, I think, today. For example, the controversy that erupted over President Obama's Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright, centered around a video of him preaching shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001, when he said something to the effect of the destruction of the World Trade Center was a case of "the chickens coming home to roost." Conservatives cried foul and openly worried about the influence of such anti-Americanism on a potential president. None of the reports I read observed Rev. Wright's allusion (intentional, I'm certain) to Malcolm X's improvised response to a reporter asking his opinion about the assassination of President Kennedy:
"Without a second thought, I said what I honestly felt--that it was, as I saw it, a case of "the chickens coming home to roost." I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, finally had struck down this country's Chief of State. I said it was the same thing as had happened with Medgar Evers, with Patrice Lumumba, with Madame Nhu's husband. . . .
"It makes me feel weary to think of it all now. All over America, all over the world, some of the world's most important personages were saying in various ways, and in far stronger ways than I did, that America's climate of hate had ben responsible for the President's death. But when Malcolm X said the same thing, it was ominous."
This was X's great gift, I think: he was an incisive cultural critic in the truest sense of the word: he cut into the culture right where the wound was, and was unapologetic in doing so. He spares no one his honest appraisal, which is undoubtedly why he got into trouble so much. But who can fault honesty? And who can ignore his appraisals without becoming complicit in maintaining unjust status quos? In my first book, Comic Book Character, I likened Martin Luther King to the X-Men's leader, Professor X, and his nemesis, Magneto, to Malcolm X. I'm sure I wasn't the first to do so; in fact I'm confident that this was in the mind of the characters' creators from the beginning. Professor X wanted the world to accept and live with and enjoy the fruit of equal association with the persecuted class he represented; Magneto wanted to shake off the bonds of the oppressors and establish a new world order "by any means necessary." At the time of his origins, Magneto was the leader of the "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants," but he's since dropped the word evil from the description because he wasn't evil, he was angry, and legitimately so. And the tension that perpetuated between Professor X's reconciliation vision and Magneto's battle against oppression gave the ethical challenges of different people cobbled together real shape and even real hope. That's also the case with King and X: the two challenges they presented to white hegemony in the United States, while seemingly irreconcilable, have worked together now over decades to reshape our understanding of racial reconciliation and racial justice. Again from King's letter: "I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth."
Tucked away in the Autobiography of Malcolm X is a moment of reflection about how he would be judged by history: "Sometimes, I have dared to dream to myself that one day, history may even say that my voice--which disturbed the white man's smugness, and his arrogance, and his complacency--that my voice helped to save America from a grave, possibly even a fatal catastrophe." I daresay that in this and many ways, Malcolm X seems to have proved himself right.
I finished reading this book on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth. I didn't want to take away from King's day, however, so I delayed my review till now. I'm sensitive like that.
View all my reviews