“We’re not Americans, we’re Africans who happen to be in America. We were kidnapped and brought here against our will from Africa. We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock — that rock landed on us.”
Every now and then I get really curious about something. Once it was the Amish. Once it was the Holocaust. Currently, I am in my own little Black History Month, I suppose. Maybe my interest has been sparked by Barak’s being the president elect. Maybe it had something to do with the MLK speeches I heard.
A colleague of mine said that the Autobiography of Malcolm X was the most transformative book she ever read. I wondered why. Last year during MLK celebrations I heard just an amazing speech MLK made. And when I think about MLK, I always think about two other people. Gandhi and Malcolm X. I knew a bit about Gandhi, but nothing about Malcolm X except that he was supposed to be “violent”.
So I read the book. And then I watched the movie. Again.
Here I will digest my thoughts out loud, where I can look back and remember what my impressions were.
Malcolm was and still is a fascinating individual. At the time that he was mowed down by an assassin’s bullet, everything he had espoused his whole life about racial issues was in flux. He had taken a trip to the home of Islam and saw that racial issues were more a systemic problem of the US than germane to the the relationship between skin colors.
On the positive of this book, Malcolm is very honest and Alex Haley does a really easy to read flow of his life. He talks about his past extensively and all the factors in his transformation from being kind of a down and out “parasite” or “animal” (his words, not mine) to the influential character he became at the end of his life.
On the negative, I don’t think that most people could agree with the militant side of Malcolm that referred to whites as “white devils”, but in following his experience, it becomes clear how he arrived at this place.
I had to continually remind myself that the times in which Malcolm wrote this book and the racism was different then that it is now. There are other forms of racism today; institutional, systemic and they tend to be more subtle than the drunk white man who proclaimed to Malcolm “I want you to know man, you’re just like me!”
Malcolm was intellectually curious, he was figuring things out, he was very articulate and very honest (“I’m the angriest Black Man in America!”). It is hard for me to believe that he actually believed all the stuff about a Mr. Yakub who created a white person out of black people, that seems really bizarre, but alas.
My colleague who claimed she liked the book so much cited it for being because Malcolm completely made it back from a life of hustling and drugs to a place far more influential than what most of us are going to achieve in our lives. His short life span covered much more than most see in their whole lives.
Malcolm recounts telling moments of the experience of being black in America: when his teacher told him that even though he was the smartest kid in the class and even though he was class president, he shouldn’t aspire to be a lawyer because that just wasn’t the job for “his kind”. Small wonder he was angry.
He talks about his father being killed (bashed in the back of his head and then laid over train tracks and it was judged a suicide) and his brothers and sisters subsequently being taken away from each other by white social services people. And his mom’s subsequent descent into mental illness after this occurred.
He recounts being able to get big tips and sell alot as long as he sucked up to white folks in a put on manner that would make them feel he was being servile to them.
I learned that the X in his name referred to the identity that had been taken from him when his ancestors were brought over in slave ships. Until he knew his real surname, X would suffice and for many in the nation of Islam, it seems that it would only be replaced when they received a Muslim name.
I learned that Elijah Muhammed claimed to be the reincarnation of the prophet Muhammed.
Having studied more than enough about white privilege and experiences of immigrants in this country, I know there is enough I don’t know about racial relationships. This book was an excellent book to read, and it was more useful than any of the pieces of garbage I had to read in grad school. (Books written by the prof that we never had to read, but we had to buy–presumably to increase his sales.)
I guess if I was going to design a program for a group of freshmen, or if I was a high school english teacher, this is a book I would want kids to read. It is interesting for them because it is so relevant personally, historically and socially. I don’t see how a person wouldn’t get sucked in and subsequently start thinking about some topics that might or might not be on their minds otherwise. Because it deals with the topics of disenfranchisement, marginalization, prejudice and oppression, as well being a portal into our racial history and social development this book should be a part of an education in understanding America.
You don’t have to agree with him, but he is relentlessly provocative which kept me glued.