History, Race, USA

The Autobiography of Malcolm X: A must read for Americans

“When I am dead—I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form—I want you to just watch and see if I’m not right in what I say: that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with “hate.”

He will make use of me dead, as he has made use of me alive, as a convenient symbol of “hatred”—and that will help him to escape facing the truth that all I have been doing is holding up a mirror to reflect, to show, the history of unspeakable crimes that his race has committed against my race.”

*          *          *          *          *

I just recently finished reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The book was published in 1965, the same year in which Malcolm X was violently gunned-down by his former allies. At times, the book feels like it was published yesterday.

That’s because over 50 years removed from its groundbreaking publication, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is still incredibly, and perhaps depressingly, relevant. Its discussion of race unveils some painful truths about what it means to be born black, and white, in the United States of America—truths that still hold true to this day.

Especially amongst white Americans, X is commonly remembered as the anti-King. King was a southern Baptist, while X was a Black Muslim. King said to “turn the other cheek,” while X said to “send him to the cemetery.” King had a dream, while X saw a delusion. King had white allies, while X only saw “white devils.”

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History has definitely treated Martin King Luther more kindly. He is the face of the Civil Rights Movement and unanimously venerated today by black and white people alike as an America hero of the highest degree. I concur with that sentiment, but after reading X’s autobiography—the story of Malcolm X in his own words—part of me feels that the things that X was saying were more powerful and poignant than any speech that Martin Luther King ever made. King was a man of his time, but X was ahead of his, and perhaps 50 years from now, history will reflect that.

The Civil Rights Movement would not have happened with X as its leader.  King was palatable to the white American public in a way that X could never be. King not only shared the religion of the white masses, he was a minister. He used the very verses that white Christians knew so well to convince them that the just treatment of the black man was the Christian thing to do. His deeply held religious convictions also helped to inform his philosophy of non-violence—a philosophy that also had immense strategic wherewithal. Pictures of violent white cops brutalizing peaceful black protestors had an enormous impact on the white American psyche, and made the dehumanization of the latter much more difficult in the face of the actions of the former. What is more, King insisted on integration—on black people and white people living together peacefully, in harmony, as one. King’s timeless “I Have a Dream” speech is based on this very sentiment, and is credited with having helped to create a society where black and white people do indeed “work together, pray together, [and] struggle together,” at least up to a certain point.

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X, on the other hand, was a staunch segregationist. He had no desire to live next to the white man who had beaten and brutalized his people for hundreds of years—he just wanted an end to the beatings and the brutalization. He did not want to work with the white man either. He saw no sense or honorability in trying to convince the white man to bestow rights upon blacks. Respect and independence was something that the black man had to earn for himself, no matter what the white man had to say about it. In achieving those ends, X did not advocate for violence, but unlike King, he also did not advocate against it. “I don’t even call it violence when it’s in self-defense,” X once said, “I call it intelligence.”

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Even though X was, first and foremost, an advocate for black rights, he was also one of the most prominent critics of the Civil Rights Movement, at least the movement as we think of it today. He was highly skeptical of the methods and tactics used by the more prominent civil rights “leaders” (X’s quotations, not mine), and was even more skeptical of the movement’s so called achievements. To this day, Americans celebrate things like the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act as historic moments in the fight for racial equality—tangible political achievements that finally fulfilled the promised ideals of “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for every American regardless of race. But like Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, the language in said legislation often rang hollow. The words may have been pretty, but they failed to reflect themselves in a racial reality that never stopped being ugly. State sanctioned segregation may have come to an end, but that did little to increase the quality of black neighborhoods and black schools. Discriminatory voting laws may have been outlawed (sort of), but the legislators and legislation that followed have done little to address the plight of a lot of black Americans.

X didn’t need the hindsight that I am using to make the above observations—he used foresight. He knew that inspirational rhetoric and symbolic milestones would only go so far in creating meaningful change in the lives of black Americans. He may have thought King’s ends and means to be just and well-intentioned, but as X once said of his fellow civil rights advocate, “If you don’t think that he’s walking on the right road, I’m quite sure that you don’t agree that he’ll get to the right place.”

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I have tremendous respect for Malcolm X and tremendous regard for the worldview that he projected, but I also think that one of the most powerful aspects of this book is that X’s flaws were on full display. Even as someone who is enamored by history’s radical revolutionaries, there were plenty of things about X that I did not like, and plenty of things that X said that I did not agree with. But like this essay, this book is not an effort to martyrize or romanticize X the myth. It’s an honest, unapologetic portrayal of X the man.

In history, we often pretend that people don’t change. We assign them with static characteristics, as if they come into this world with certain inalterable traits that they consistently exhibit throughout their lives. The Autobiography of Malcolm X challenges this notion by showing us X’s evolution—not just from youth to adulthood, but the changes that took place in X, both personally and philosophically, in his never-ending quest to make sense of the world around him. In his final months, X had become more willing to work with the white man and more warm to the idea of an integrated society. He had recognized and admitted that some of his earlier views had some major flaws that failed to reflect the complexity of the larger world. He even broke with the Black Muslims with whom he had burst onto the national scene, and began his own pursuit of justice and truth in light of the new realities he had discovered.

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It goes without saying that X’s words should not be mistaken as the truth. I don’t think that there even is such a thing to find when surfing the subjective waves of race and history. That being said, I am confidant that everything that X expresses in those 400-plus pages is undoubtedly his truth. X always told it like he saw it, even though the way that he saw it changed over time. He was never one to sugarcoat anything, and never held anything back no matter how hurtful or offensive his words might be. The truth itself is oftentimes hurtful and offensive, and if X had to hurt you or offend you in order to tell you that truth, than that was just what had to be done.

In telling his truths, X oftentimes alters our own. Over 50 years removed from his departure from this world, X’s words still challenge many of the beliefs that we as a nation collectively hold about things like race and history and what it means to be an American. His words can be as discomforting as they are empowering, as demoralizing as they are inspiring, but regardless of message or tone, they are always radical, raw, and honest.

That’s what makes X’s voice so worthy of inclusion in the conversations that we are currently having. That’s what makes his words so insightful in our continued search to find solutions to the racial unrest that still plagues our nation. And that’s what makes his book such an important read for whites, and blacks, and anyone else who has skin in the game of race relations in the United States today. As I said before, I don’t think that X was right about everything, and surely there are some things that I think he was blatantly wrong about. But even though, at the end of the book, I remained unconvinced that the entirety of X’s upside down worldview was true, I still think that I’m a wiser person for at least taking the time to consider it.

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