Malcolm X, from a book nerd perspective
I want to chime in with Samhita in paying respects to the late Malcolm X, who would have been 84 as of yesterday. And with Renee, as well. I’m usually hostile to writing posts about anniversaries and birthdays, because it feels very by-the-books, and there’s not much I can add that hasn’t been said. Which is probably true in this case, but I’m making an exception anyway, because The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of those books that had a tremendous impact on my way of thinking. I feel safe in saying it’s more than a piece of history and a look into a fascinating mind, but it also stands up as literature, because it breaks through the dichotomous ways of looking at the world that prevail in politics, and gets into the deeper, more nuanced questions.
In the black and white world of current American politics, a mean old atheist like me shouldn’t get anything out of reading Malcolm’s spiritual awakening when he goes to Mecca, but in reality, that entire episode had a great impact on me. The rest of it did, too, from an illustrative sense of what Malcolm was up against both as an individual and as a black man, but unlike other biographies that start to fizzle out, he really hits you hard towards the end. By the end of it, I felt like he’d set some standards that everyone should try to strive to meet: Think for yourself. Be broad-minded, open to new experiences, willing to learn, and willing to adjust according to what you learn.
Samhita asks a question that really gets to the heart of what intrigues me about Malcolm X:
I often wonder what Malcolm would say about race relations today. Would he think we have come far? Would he feel satisfied that we have a black president? Was Malcolm’s sole motivation the symbolic shifting of race relations in this country or was it the actual change in the material conditions of the black community?
Someone who thinks for himself, comes from an oppressed class, and has a soapbox is someone who is a threat, which is a sad truth that ended Malcolm X’s life. So we can’t know what he’d say. I’d venture to say that we can’t even guess. Some historical figures, I feel better about speculation, but who knows where Malcolm X was going? He was assassinated during a transition out of the Nation of Islam, which means a ton of tumult, and there’s no way to know what direction he would have eventually gone. This doesn’t disturb me, but intrigues and inspires me—we should all hope to have an active enough mind that we don’t feel tied to ideologies that we know, deep down inside, aren’t working anymore.
It’s funny how these things work, but certainly that sort of stubborn honesty is what made me think that I have no excuse to be afraid to say what I think, and nor should anyone else, because if someone under a megaton of pressure like Malcolm X is willing to work it out and do so publicly, then the rest of us have no excuses. And that’s why I think The Autobiography transcends the genre of biography, since it does more than record a life and a historical time, but it works in more eternal themes about courage, intellectual honesty, and individual responsibility. I’ll say that I read the book in a college course, and then later was a teaching assistant teaching it, and it was fascinating watching young people struggle initially with the shocking political aspects of the book, and then getting totally immersed, and empathizing with Malcolm, which is exactly the sort of thing that a great narrative is supposed to do.