Malcolm X, later known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, was nothing short of a black revolutionary.
He lived many lives in one. At one time, he was the Harlemite Hustler, the drug dealer turned armed robber turned pimp, whom always had an automatic .22 gun pressed down the centre of his back. At another, he was a part of the segregationist movement, himself being an ardent follower of Elijah-Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, which preaches black segregation. And at another, Malcolm was the repentant Sunni Muslim, touring Africa and Arabia, as he preached integration and brotherhood.
Prior to my reading this book, I knew as much about Malcolm X as I had fingers on one hand. The bulk of what I understood about him was that he was a prominent figure during the Civil Rights’ movement of 50s and 60s America.
I was initially discouraged from reading his autobiography. Admittedly because I believed there was nothing his life story had to offer me—a young, black, Nigerian woman. Nothing I could possibly relate to. No intersections. I had never experienced systemic racism before and I have no affiliations to America as far as I know. And so, even before actually reading this book, I labelled and instantly exempted myself from whatever he was offering.
Then I read chapter one. Nightmare. It starts with Malcolm’s Grenadian mother, Louise Little, pregnant with Malcolm, at night. In their house in Omaha, Nebraska, a gang of KKK members ride up with their rifles and shotguns, shouting for her husband to come out. And her husband, Rev. Earl Little, Malcolm’s father, is not home. At the time, Rev. Earl, a Baptist minister, was very vocal of his support of Black Nationalist leader, Marcus Garvey (whom according to Malcolm was the “most controversial black man at the time”) and that–Malcolm’s father’s affiliation to Garvey–very much upset the white people.
And so there I was, in the midst of the page, watching, as the hooded men circled the Little’s house, shouting threats and intimidating Louise. I could almost feel the trembling, the fear racing her body, the cowering children, the darkness of night, the shadows moving outside. I could hear their hearts beating on the page. It was the most humbling and chilling thing to read. It was a reminder of the fact that more than being a mere book, this was an invitation into the personal life of a human being and there is always more to one’s story than just their story alone. It made me want to read more.
Through Alex Haley’s brilliant writing, journeying through each chapter and learning more about who the man Malcolm X was, what he stood for and those that surrounded him, I felt that I was truly existing in that time and space.
You could easily read about the life of Malcolm X on some webpage on the internet and learn all the need-to-knows. In a fast-paced world like ours, it would seem like the better option. But what this book offers is a lot more than just summaries. It takes you through the stages of Malcolm X—the gangling red-headed country boy, the petty thief, the hustler, the prisoner, the follower, the separatist, the integrationist, the Black Muslim, the Muslim. It peels back all the layers.
I loved reading about Malcolm’s youth the most. In fact, I found his youth to be more insightful on his nature than any other part of this book.
When he was born, after the incident at Omaha, his family moved to Lansing. His father would be killed in his early childhood by white terrorists and in his later life, Malcolm would reflect on this violence that surrounds him and somewhat prophesy his own assassination.
“It has always been my belief that I, too, will die by violence. I have done all that I can to be prepared.” He says.
Prior to making this statement, he elaborates on the violence that seems to be so generational, one would think it was predestined.
“…he [Malcolm’s father] had seen four of his six brothers die by violence, three of them killed by white men, one by lynching. What my father could not know then was that of the remaining three, including himself, only Uncle Jim would die of natural causes.”
It wasn’t too long after his father’s death that his family fell into destitution. Malcolm recounts that at a time, they were so poor, they would eat the hole out of a doughnut.
He had learned at a very young age that if you wanted something, you had to “make some noise. And really, that’s one part of him that never did change. It was bone-deep, this unashamed vocality. All through the book, you see that this is man who is not shy to speak his mind—even when it was most inappropriate and ill-timed.
Of his incarceration on the count of armed robbery, one in which many would rather hide and see as a blotch on their reputation, Malcolm had only the best words. He believed prison enabled him to study more than any college ever would.
“Where else but in a prison could I have attacked my ignorance by being able to study intensely sometimes as much as fifteen hours a day?”
Although many believe there are more truthful depictions of the life of Malcolm X, I believe this book really does justice to his person and to the message he preached. Call him what you may. Malcolm Little. Malcolm X. Detroit Red. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. His story is one that inspires. It is one that has changed and continues to change lives, negro lives, in America and the diaspora, for the better.