The Autobiography of Malcom X, as told to Alex Haley, is one of my all-time favorite books. What I really loved about the book is the strength of his words. The reason I love the story is the power of the idea to able to change yourself through education and discipline.
The Autobiography of Malcom X, as told to Alex Haley
The book is much more than a story of a dynamic and controversial black leader it is the story of being able to hold yourself to an ideal and to change the world around you with that ideal. Much in the way generals command armies or the way Jesus and Gandhi affected the lives of billions.
A Way to Think about History
Think of history as a long banquet table. Each of the guests at the table represent a period of history. Before them is a feast of ideas and experiences. Each guest has something to say about the time they lived in.
Looking at history as a guest, you can talk to and share ideas. That is the essence of these emails. I try to explain the why, how and when of the time period. Looking at the time period of Malcolm X is complicated. Complicated because it deals with the ugly issue of race. Like war, it is a subject that gives both us meaning and how we handle it defines our culture.
At the beginning
When you look at the issue of race you are looking at the idea of skin color. Before America was settled in the early 17th century African slavery had been the primary labor force for producing wealth in Europe for almost 200 years.
As America grew so did the hunger for slaves. The overwhelming majority of slaves shipped to the New World were captured and sold by other African tribes. The majority of native tribes in Eastern Africa are Muslims.
Slavery is not new. In Islam, slavery has a long tradition. A beaten people are sold off as war booty. Usually in one generation the enslaved tribe becomes a part of the new, conquered people.
The idea of multi-generational slavery system is a European invention.
Slavery in Africa
Europeans developed an idea over several centuries that should not enslave each other. They could fight each other, kill each other in wars, but they did not enslave each other. Christians did not enslave Christians.
The great advantage of Africans is they that were outside of the European community. Most of the Africans were Muslims- a constant source of irritation for the west, even today. For the first time race becomes a marker who can be enslaved and who could not.
Slavery in America
As America grew so did the need for cheap labor. By the time of the American Revolution in 1776 there were 700,000 African slaves in America. The ideals of freedom of the American Revolution passed by the African- American slaves.
With the invention of the cotton gin in 1794 there is a huge demand for labor. Most slaves are shipped south to work on large plantations. Cotton is the boom of the early 19th century. It leaps from $150,000 a year to $8 million a year as an industry.
Cotton was the engine of wealth in America. It was centered on the South where the majority of plantations were due to good soil and yearlong good weather. The fuel was slavery.
At the time of the American Civil War 90 years later there were almost 2 million Africans slaves in America. Most of the slaves have been in this country for three to five generations. They have lost all knowledge of their homeland, culture and customs.
A Slave Who Bears the Scars of being repeatedly beaten
This American Experience is very different for most immigrants. Many take great pride in their culture and continue to speak their native tongues for several generations.
After the Civil War and Emancipation a great watershed in American black history was the Great Migration to Northern cities just before the First World War. According to the 1910 census, blacks were overwhelmingly rural and Southern.
Three out of four lived rural areas and nine of ten lived in the South as a result of working on large plantations. A half century later, almost three-fourths of them would be city dwellers. An overwhelming majority would have little to no education.
The Great Migration North
As America prospered from World War I, the Great Migration was a bitter disappoint for most blacks. Their rapid infusion into large, northern cities soon produced ghettos. Blacks soon found themselves, again, segregated as second-class citizens.
Blacks were kept out of white neighborhoods by threat of violence. Racial discrimination was made worse by the Great Depression. Many blacks faced economic hardships as a part of their daily life.
This is no different than other new ethnic group coming to America except one- blacks did not choose to come here and the color of their skin is a defining trait in how they are treated.
This is the world that Malcolm X was born into in 1925.
Malcolm’s Early Life
I believe that Malcolm X is one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century. His journey from a street hustler, to a prison cell to his trip to Mecca is a fascinating story of transformation and the power of choices.
To his admirers, he was a courageous advocate for the rights of blacks. He stated that the right of Americans is not about “freedom” but really about “equality.” He indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans. His detractors accused him of preaching racism and violence.
Malcolm Little was born May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. He was the fourth of seven children of Grenada-born Louise Little (née Norton). She was of mixed European ancestry and heritage. She had red hair and passed this onto Malcolm.
Malcolm X was orphaned early in life. His father, Earl Little, was killed when he was six. Earl was an outspoken Baptist lay speaker, and admirer of Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey. Malcolm states that he was killed by a local white hate group that opposed him.
His mother was placed in a mental hospital when he was thirteen. He lived in a series of foster homes.From age 14 to 21 Malcolm held a variety of jobs while living with his sister Ella Little-Collins in Roxbury, a largely African-American neighborhood of Boston.
Then after a short time in Flint, Michigan he moved to Harlem, New York in 1943, where he engaged in drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery, and pimping.
He was called “Detroit Red” because of the reddish hair, he inherited from his Scottish maternal grandfather. Most African-Americans are of mixed European ancestry.
In late 1945 he and four accomplices committed a series of burglaries targeting wealthy white families. In February 1946, he began serving an eight-to-ten year sentence at Charlestown State Prison for larceny and breaking and entering.
Conversion to Islam and Education
During his imprisonment, he met fellow convict John Bembry. Bembry was a self-educated man he would later describe as, “…the first man I had ever seen command total respect … with words.” Under Bembry’s influence, Malcolm developed a voracious appetite for reading.
In 1948 he converts to Islam. In 1950 also began signing his name “Malcolm X.” He explains in his autobiography that the Muslim’s “X” symbolized the true African family name that he could never know.
He says, “For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slave master name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.”
In 1952 he was released from prison and he begins to preach for the Nation of Islam. He would be a part of the Nation of Islam until 1964. In 1964, he breaks with the Nation of Islam. That same year he performs Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the obligatory trip for every Muslim who is able to do so.
After the Hajj, he visited several countries around the world learning more and more. Upon his return to the US he becomes one of the most sought-after speakers on college campuses.
February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom when someone in the 400-person audience yelled out.
As Malcolm X and his bodyguards tried to quell the disturbance, a man rushed forward and shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Two other men charged the stage firing semi-automatic handguns.
Except for his autobiography, Malcolm X left no published writings. His philosophy is known almost entirely known from the many speeches and interviews he gave from 1952 until his death.
The book is the story of one of the most dynamic and controversial black leaders in American history. It was dictated to Alex Haley. It was published in 1965, the result of a collaboration between Malcolm X and Haley.
Haley co-authored the autobiography based on a series of over 50 in-depth interviews he conducted between 1963 and Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination. Haley is the author of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.”
Roots: The Saga of an American Family
Both books stimulated great interest in genealogy among all Americans and an appreciation for African-American history.
Malcolm is credited with raising the self-esteem of black Americans. His words and ideas reconnected many disenfranchised blacks about their African heritage.
The Idea of Self-Empowerment
Malcolm’s transition from hoodlum to Muslim Minster is a story of how he educated himself, transcended his circumstances and confronted his rage. His story resonated me for several reasons.
As an Italian-American I know a lot about my family through stories. But I am connected forever to an ethnic group where I don’t speak the language and to a land I have never been to. I see myself as purely American but the world sometimes something else.
Throughout my life I have been characterized by all things, “Italian.” Because of my olive-complicated skin I am more often thought of as Hispanic. Ironically, I speak Spanish but not Italian (I grew up in Florida and all my friends were Hispanic).
Imagine going through life with a Japanese last name but looking like an extra from the Godfather. You’re not “Italian enough” because you don’t have a long, voweled filled name ending in “etti” or”elleni.”
Malcolm’s story tells us that we can transform ourselves through education. By exercising our mind, we define “our reality.” This is only something you can do in America. It is the basis for all the ideals that make us great.
Malcolm X was a man of contrasts. He was a product of the times in which he lived.
Malcolm At A Rally
Impact of the Book
American Whites and Blacks are victims of Europe. The blacks through colonialism. The whites through suppression, discrimination and murder.
There is in America a conflict between these two victims. Deep down all our secrets are the same. We present the world with a secure self. Deep down there is a timid, craving and terrified self. We, black and white, want the promise of America.
Malcolm’s story erases those lines. His words are lines of poetry and prose. He is a master storyteller telling both fiction and confession of what it is like to a minority in America.
His story is an autobiographical account of his experiences of what is like to be black in America in the mid-20th century. He tells the story directly and without disguise.
Like most great books it is the story of a person’s journey as much as it a work of literature. We see the ghosts of the living and the dead. Of America’s past and her future. Warts and all you get a picture of what America is like, both good and bad.
What I learned from his book and a lifetime of studying war is that most conflicts do not resolve themselves. They simply fade through fatigue and exhaustion.
Both parties simply learn to get along, but they both insist they were right, even as the conflict marches into memory.
This is the story of racism in America. The bottom line is that no one is going anywhere. The essence of the book is a mystical communion where Malcolm comes to terms with his anger. He learns he will never win, but can make a difference in helping people reach their potential through education and example.
Even in a great war there is everyday life. It is a book of ancient themes. I loved reading it.
X, Malcolm., & Haley, A. (1987). The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. New York : Ballentine Press.