I was always given a vague idea about Malcolm X as a civil rights leader throughout my education, even in one of my elementary schools where African-American culture and history were heavily represented. This is definitely one of the books that made me truly think about my own place in American society.
This autobiography is written by Alex Haley detailing the life of Malcolm X from the time of his birth up to the formation of his own Black organization The Organization of Afro-American Unity.
El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz
While Malcolm X became the name he was most known for, he was born as Malcolm Little. He would become Malcolm X, then he would take the name El-Hajj Malik al-Shabazz.
M. S. Chandler, the white reporter who provided the preface to the autobiography, noted that Shabazz had become the bane of white society for his controversial views. This assessment is quite cleverly placed in the introduction, so as to inform the reader what he is to expect.
This autobiography provided a human view of Shabazz, which is one that showed him as having aspirations but also regrets. He did not originally set out to be a civil rights leader, rather he wanted to pursue a career in boxing, then a career in a band. Then, he organized a group of burglars until he was caught and later sent to prison where he would learn about the Nation of Islam.
After he made his Hajj and after leaving the Nation of Islam, he gave himself the name “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz,” which the Shabazz name would be the one that is passed down to his children.
Family plays a role in Shabazz’s life, especially the one he was born into. It was his siblings who introduced him to the Nation of Islam and who helped him adjust to life in Harlem. It also showed that even though they were separated at an early age, they still kept in touch for years.
One of the grievances Shabazz had with the black community had to do with the fact that they were engaged in an aesthetic competition with each other with conspicuous consumption. He witnessed this early in his life in Lansing and Boston, particularly with black men straightening their hair. As such, Shabazz deplores the upper-class and middle-class African-Americans for being complicit with white hegemony. Shabazz himself noted how his grandfather was a Scottish sailor (which is where he got his distinctive red hair), whom he calls a white rapist.
Another theme that Malcolm witnessed among the white people in his life was the fact that the use of the n-word had become so normalized that it was used nonchalantly. Shabazz also includes white liberals in his list of people he has grievances with, specifically for their superiority complex and hypocrisy. He especially decried Mayor LeGuardia after he segregated a portion of Harlem. Shabazz goes so far to say that the Southern racist is a lot more honest than the Northern racist, because at least he would tell you to your face that he is in favor of racial separation.
He also noticed that there was a lot of hypocrisy among white people, particularly the ones who would frequent Harlem to seek out sexual partners. They wanted to be separate yet wanting to engage with the black “soul.” He noted how black men were objectified by white women and black women were objectified by white men. There is a lot of themes of sexuality mentioned throughout this autobiography, particularly when Shabazz mentioned in one of his sermons how every black person has different shades of pigmentation due to the rape by white slave-owners of slave women.
Another theme that Shabazz employs in his speeches is when he mentioned how the immigrant groups (the Irish, Italians, Poles, Jews, etc.) have been treated compared to African-Americans. Even though they were discriminated against, they fought for their rights which let to the Tammany Hall voting bloc, as well as the election of John F. Kennedy. Shabazz argued that they had their personal interests just as black people have their interests.
Religion is a central theme in this autobiography, since he talks a lot about how it has played a role in his life, especially after prison. He embark on traveling to as many branches of the Nation of Islam as he could in order to give speeches. Although he was a devout follower of Elijah Muhammad, there was the issue of Muhammad’s affair with his two secretaries which resulted in four children. Shabazz eventually left the Nation of Islam and ended up participating in the Hajj which completely shattered what he originally thought that Islam was about. At that point, he started meeting with Muslims of many colors and nations; and talked with many world leaders about how horrified they were to learn that black people were treated with such indignity.
Shabazz was introduced to the Nation of Islam while in prison by his brother in an effort to rediscover the true religion for black people. Of course, they did have wild, unusual beliefs about black superiority and how white people were invented by a scientist named Yacub. The issue of race no longer became an issue for Shabazz as soon as he traveled to Egypt and then to Mecca.
Malcolm talked about helping to take care of his family during the Great Depression, especially since his father had been killed and his mother was left to care for her eight children.
He managed to avoid being drafted in both World War II and the Korean War. The recurring opinion that Shabazz had was that black men should not serve to fight in wars on behalf of the white man. He goes so far as to say that black people have done so much for white people for 400 years through slavery and dying in wars, and that he argued that the white man has not apologetically reciprocated.
As for the Civil Rights Movement, people tend to juxtapose Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as a distinction between peace and revolution. However, there is very little mention of Dr. King in this autobiography, which implies that he was not in any serious competition with. Though, Shabazz did profoundly disagree with his statement that he had brought misery to the African-American community with his words.
Another historical event that happened was when Shabazz embarked on the Hajj towards Mecca, which he recorded as having the largest recorded gathering throughout Mecca’s history. He even got to meet King Faisal, who was king over Saudi Arabia at the time.
Malcolm discusses his past events retrospectively, specifically discussing any updates about the people he knew and the lessons he learned. Oftentimes, the perspectives in which he looks backs from are completely different from the perspectives of his past life.
Integration had become a word that Shabazz had hated, since it meant that black people would have to assimilate into white culture. He would talk about how they would go through physical pangs and future risks of violence and marginalization just to appear and act more white.
As for the way Shabazz constantly uses the words “white devil,” he was condemned for that in one of his hate mail letters. He explained that it did not refer to any individual white man, rather the collective white men. Of course, he had no problem constantly calling white men he knew as “devils.”
One phrase that he keeps paraphrasing is how the white man wanted black people to become Christians in order to look forward to heaven; while the white man can have his heaven on earth. Shabazz would later state that white rulers will use Christianity as a means of subjugating people and keeping them in their station.
Real World Application
Amidst Muhammad’s affair scandal, Shabazz taught that a man’s good deeds should outweigh his own weaknesses; and there is definitely a lot that can be learned in this autobiography from a man who went from a Harlem hustler to one of the most important historical figures in American history.
- Don’t Be Anyone’s Fool: Malcolm noted how his mother was reluctant to take welfare and eventually made it clear to the welfare inspectors, specifically in that she still had self-respect. He specifically noted how they were not considered human beings who had problems that landed them on welfare in the first place, rather as objects. As far as the rest of the black community, he would retrospectively deplore them for trying to give in to white culture as a part of integration.
- Know Your Own History And You Will Never Be Controlled: When Malcolm first arrived in Boston, he beheld a statue of Crispus Attucks, who was a black man who became the first casualty in the Boston Massacre. Though, there will be moments when you will be fooled by mountebanks who appeal to your pathos. Shabazz understood this when he started actually talking with Muslims outside of America about the Nation of Islam, which he discovered was not consistent with Islamic thought. What did change his life was reading books about the African side of history, which included a comprehensive view of slavery, which was not taught to him.
- Don’t Put Complete Trust In Academia: When Shabazz was serving time for engaging in burglary, he took advantage of the libraries in each prison he served in. In some ways, especially with the prison colony he would be relocated to, education would become his freedom. Shabazz studied each word in a dictionary, which expanded his vocabulary; alongside his grammar lessons. When he started making appearances at universities, he openly challenged how history was being taught, which was what made even the white students fascinated by him.
As a white man with ancestry that has very long roots in America, going as far back to the Puritans, such as Reverend Samuel Newman, even I can learn from this autobiography, since it provided Shabazz’s own view of America that is not insipid or infantilized, rather is grounded in reality.
If the past matters, then so too can the future. This is where I and any other readers would come in.
While there are more cultural issues with African-Americans, such as natural hair; there are also the socio-economic issues, such as the careers that every black person is expected to have. Shabazz was told directly by his teacher that there was no way a young black man such as himself would ever become a lawyer. So he decided that the only careers open to him were as a boxer or a bandsman.
The trajectory that can determine a person’s life is not to be underestimated, since it ultimately influences the career choices as well as their implications on society. The trajectory, therefore, should always be set towards answering the problems of one’s own society. The only career trajectory that Shabazz had growing up was either as a boxer, a bandsman, or a hustler. The trajectory can only be limited when there are no expectations to be had on any young black man. Shabazz even notes that a notorious hustler he knew (and evaded from) had a prodigious memory and could have been a mathematician.
Basically, all of this roots in the expectations that we, as a society, place on them. If we expect them to be destined to only become rappers or sports-players, then we are doing a disservice to the black community but also the rest of society itself, for it retrogresses it based on unfounded stereotypes.
However, even if young black people were encouraged to achieve these high-ranking positions, he would still bring up the question of who really benefits. As mentioned before, he spends a lot of time deploring the upper-class black society for benefiting the white upper-class and not the black lower class they claim to represent.
How would I apply this autobiography to current race relations? Well, since Shabazz did not like white liberals for their superiority complex and hypocrisy, a way I can take from reading this book is that African-Americans should be their own saviors, for only they know how to provide that trajectory towards enfranchisement. As “the white man,” my interaction with activists is not through paternalism or condescension, rather through shared cooperation.
Suggest This To…
- Those who know that Malcolm X considered white people as “devils,” yet wants to understand the appeal that he has to this very day.
- Anyone interested in morally grey historical figures. Although he would regret believing that white people were devils, he still thought that whites–even the well-meaning ones–and blacks should be separated; as well as the accusations of anti-Semitism. Despite the many things that can be learned, he was still a product of his time.
- Those who have an inkling as to why exactly black men commit violence in the ghetto areas. Shabazz has rebuked the media when it came to black violence by basically saying that they are the byproducts of poverty, poor housing, and marginalization. He himself had lived that life up until his time in prison.
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told To Alex Haley.” 1st Trade Edition. Ballatine Books. February 1992.