“I’ve had enough of someone else’s propaganda,” I had written to these friends. “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, the matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
Undoubtedly one of the most filling books I’ve read all year.
It starts simply, with solid, familiar flavors, something like a brandy old-fashioned complete with fruit decorations, and a little bowl of candied pecans. Malcolm X begins by setting the scene of his parents, and his birth on May 19, 1925. It is one of the shortest sections, noting his father’s work as a traveling Baptist minister and his mother’s work making a home. His memories are informed by skin color, recalling his West Indian mother’s pale skin from her absent father and her favoritism towards her children who were darker. Preaching the words of Marcus Garvey, it wasn’t long before his father ran afoul of conservative, reactionary whites, chasing them from Nebraska to Wisconsin to Michigan. He was killed under very suspicious circumstances that allowed insurance agents to deny payment to a woman with eight hungry children. Taking welfare checks meant social worker after social worker dropping by the house as the kids would act up out of hunger, desperation, and being kids until the day Malcolm agreed to live with another family. He found his place for a while, but recalls the institutionalized racism that had him being elected eighth-grade class president at the same time he was told being a lawyer was beyond his reach, but perhaps carpentry was a possible career. A chance to visit his half-sister Ella in Boston set his life on the next path.
If we were to continue with the food metaphor, this would be the stuffed egg appetizer, the crunch of radishes in dill, the chipped beef and sardine roll straight out of the 1950s: hints of flavor, spice; food that snaps in the mouth, not melts into ephemera. This was the section that surprised me the most: young Malcolm was a hustler. He found a cohort, Shorty, who became his homeboy and schooled him on the ways of the street. He got his first conk and first zoot suit. Much to Ella’s dismay, he left the ‘high-class’ sections of town for the pool-halls and dance-rooms where he learned to lindy-hop. After leaving a shoe-shine job, he had a short term working as a soda-jerk in a drugstore, where he met Laura, one of his favorite dancing partners. One night at a dance with her, he met Sophia, a white girl who was a bit older than he, and from the rich area of Beacon Hill. Only sixteen, Ella took steps to get him out of the influence of his circle by getting him a job on a railroad dining car. Eventually, he pulled his own strings and made his way to New York, and to Harlem. Cocky, a sharp dresser and with an eye to opportunity, he soon became ‘Detroit Red,’ to distinguish him from the other red-haired black men in his circle.
“Right now, in every big city ghetto, tens of thousands of yesterday’s and today’s school dropouts are keeping body and soul together some form of hustling in the same way I did.””
If the earlier chapters are courses, this is the section where we sneak out back to have a cigarette and a belt of moonshine. The Malcolm I expected was barely to be seen in these pages. He waited tables, picked up tips from the local power-brokers, became an avid movie-goer, and gambler. Because of his love of dance, he was in contact and friends with many of the musicians of his time. As a waiter, he had a side ‘referral’ business suggesting black prostitutes to white men and vice-versa. Eventually he was caught and moved into selling reefer. His scene attempting to get a 4-F draft classification was astounding. Graduating to burglaries with a friend, he soon went armed with a couple of guns. Eventually, he brought his brother Reginald into the life when Reginald left the Merchant Marines. It was nothing I had expected and lasted only four short years until he was caught pawning loot from a job done with old pals Shorty, Sophia and her cousin.
“Any person who claims to have deep feelings for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars–caged. I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars.”
Finally, to the main course! Solid, meaty, and not altogether unexpected. Like a roast that’s a bit scanty on the au jus, details from his time in prison were both flavorful and scarce. There’s his moniker, ‘Satan,’ his minor prison hustles, and being encouraged to go the library by one of the dominant inmates. His brothers Reginald and Philbert introduced him gradually to the Prophet Elijah Muhammad. As with everything, Malcolm committed wholeheartedly and was soon preaching to the Christians in the prison, as well as joining the debate team to hone his skills.
This is a section that is so fascinating, and yet still somewhat disappointing. Malcolm did so much reading in the prison library, tutoring himself on a vast array of topics, learning about American history and oppression. At the same time, he was spreading the word of Fard through the Messenger Elijah Muhammad, who included a history of Islam that included one man breaking off to form the white race out of the seeds of the black and brown race as a form of revenge against Allah. There’s also some details about numerology and the Masons that was completely incomprehensible. I found it hard to reconcile his willingness to embrace what seemed to be a rather wild offshoot of Islam called Nation of Islam with the man who studied Kant.
|“”The devil white man cut these black people off from all knowledge of their own kind, and cut them off from any knowledge of their own language, religion, and pass culture, until the black man in America was the earth’s only race of people who had absolutely no knowledge of his true identity”|
After seven years in prison, he moved back to his brother Wilfred’s home in Detroit and immersed himself in a ‘normal’ life of family, church and work at Ford Motor Plant. Before long he felt called to preach for Brother Elijah’s Temple One in Detroid. With his passion and energy, he was soon drawing followers to the temple, and before long, was traveling to other cities to spread the word. Clearly, this is the part that was most dear to Malcolm’s heart, as he detailed his progress spreading the word in Boston, Harlem and many other cities in between seeking personal tutoring from the Messenger in Chicago. His life became that of a dedicated evangelist, until he encountered Sister Betty in one of the temples and married her. Even then he continued to travel, building the Nation of Islam. He spoke at colleges, on the radio, television programs and even overseas, spreading the word about the black man in America. Eventually, however, he felt there was a lot of jealousy of his success, particularly as Elijah’s health grew more precarious. He also learned of Elijah’s affairs with a succession of secretaries and verified the rumors for himself, an astounding crime given that Elijah has sentenced Nation members to years of ‘silence’ if they were found guilty of adultery. It’s clear that he felt his split with the Nation occurred because he had “more faith in Elijah than he had in himself” and because of jealousy at his success.
And, much like a small bittersweet cayenne chocolate truffle for dessert, there is a final, bittersweet end. As Malcolm makes his break and continues to dialogue more and more with world leaders, he ends up embracing a more traditional form of Islam that embraced the brotherhood of man. Unfortunately, word comes that the Nation would really prefer him dead, and his interviews make it clear it is weighing on his mind at the same time he is trying to provide for his family.
As all auto/biographies, I struggle with ratings. This is easily a dense, fulfilling read that I’d recommend to anyone in America. Political moments happening today have their genesis in that period, and Malcolm X provides a number of fascinating angles to the discussion. Still, autobiographies are the stories we tell about ourselves, so I can’t help wishing for even more context. I do think he showed unusual ability to connect early events in his life to perceptions and viewpoints later, yet he seemed to remain hamstrung by his views on women and on other races. Even more, I can’t help wishing he had lived longer so that we could have seen how his philosophies continued to evolve. It’s the kind of book that sends me down the rabbit holes of history, trying to understand more about this fascinating man and his thinking.