13 November 2013

The Autobiography of Malcolm X As Told to Alex Haley

          There is a certain fluidity that sometimes comes from my reading that is unplanned and often quite serendipitous. I have experienced it before, but not quite so strikingly as when I began The Autobiography of Malcolm X just as I finished Travels with Charley. Steinbeck had just traveled, with Charley, down into the Jim Crow south and there is quite a large section in the end dealing with racism. Now, I felt some amount of hypocrisy at Steinbeck’s northern reaction to the “southern problem” of racism. Though racism manifested itself in very ugly and very public ways in the south, but they have hardly held a monopoly. After all, Jim Crow had actually originated in the North (according to respected historian C. Van Woodward) and made its way down South. Somehow that has been conveniently forgotten. But I still was eased into the ugly subject by Steinbeck’s travels, so I was prepared to read about the life of Malcolm X, possibly one of the most contentious figures in the Civil Rights movement.
I’d like to offer a few caveats here. I am hoping to avoid making any judgments or political statements. It’s very hard to look back in time and scoff at or revere people, institutions, or ideas. They are who and what they are, and they have already happened. My job is only to wonder at how God has worked things out through history. I don’t need to have all the answers and I don’t need to have little lessons in nicely wrapped packages either. I also do not know what it is like to be a black man in the early 1960s. I don’t know what it is like to have my friends and family killed or frightened or threatened or have their houses burned down or be run out of town. I have no idea what that feels like or what that would do to you, especially if you do not have the hope of Christ in your life. Malcolm X was not a believer and he lived under the impression that he would die a violent death. This is not an excuse, but it is an explanation.
The other caveat is that this book is a little slippery. It’s called an Autobiography, but it’s really a biography. Not only that, it is a biography written by Alex Haley who many claim is sooort of an odd blend of fiction and memoir. I mean, really isn’t ALL memoir a bit of a blend of fiction and memoir? Now, Alex Haley also had the most extensive interviews with Malcolm X of anyone, so this should be the best place to get information about him. Unfortunately there are some scholars who believe that this work should really be viewed as the work of both men, and since Haley was the author he probably eventually had more control over what was said and what wasn’t. There are at least two substantial pieces (Malcolm X’s anti-Semitic thoughts, and his thoughts on Elijah Muhammad) which were somewhat modified or suppressed by either the publishers or by Alex Haley. So, with ALL of that in mind…
I was hooked from the first page. The writing is gripping and immediate and who isn’t fascinated by the more appalling times in our past and in the pasts of other countries? I knew a little about Malcolm X. You either hear that he was the guy who “wanted to kill all the white people” or you get a little blurb about him in any book that covers the Civil Rights movement. The book went very far into his past and his upbringing and his coming of age, and it is interesting to trace some of his influences and be able to sort of understand him a little bit more.
That being said, I don’t think he really seemed like a pleasant person. Whatever sort of symbol he may have been for anyone else; he didn’t seem very respectful to women. Now, to be fair, he encountered a lot of women who weren’t exactly ladies, to put it mildly. I don’t really think that was an excuse, but again, perhaps an explanation. Even when he converted to Islam, his thoughts about women did not exactly improve. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca (one of the five pillars of Islam) later in his life and on the way back, he made a stop in Lebanon where he notices that the dress of the young women there is much less modest. He then concludes, “any country’s moral strength, or moral weakness, is quickly measured by the street attire and attitude of it’s women.” Yikes. No pressure ladies. I guess that didn’t particularly surprise me since I don’t think that particular religion is very woman-friendly anyway.
Also, no matter which skin color is involved, racism is always wrong. He was a racist. Like I said earlier, I have no idea what it is like living in fear, or living feeling beat down by others so if I were in the same situation I might have been racist too, but it’s not right. It’s not even ok. Jesus came to earth to be perfect for ALL people because NO ONE can be, and he died the death and experienced the separation from God that ALL people deserve. God sees every person as a saved person by Jesus’s blood, or a lost person. That’s it.
I should point out that after Malcolm X’s Hajj (pilgrimage), he concludes that religion is something that can transcend color lines. He still continued to believe in the necessity of keeping the races separate, and the fact that non-whites have suffered much at the hands of whites, but he realized that he could have white brothers in Islam. That’s just an interesting thing that I didn’t know prior to reading this book.
Something I learned by reading this is that he didn’t actually suggest killing white people, but I do think I know why people think this about him. What Malcolm X wanted was separation. He basically wanted a “promised land” (he used the newly formed Israel as an example) for Africans. He didn’t want integration or intermarriage or even buying things at stores with white owners. He wanted the races separate. However, when he was a part of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, a documentary was released called The Hate That Hate Produced and it was a supposed expose of the Nation of Islam. The makers of the documentary zeroed in on a morality play by one of the members in which, “the white man” is put on trial for all his past crimes and sentenced to death. Thus a lot of, “Aha! They want to kill us all,” and a lot of fear was spread around. Have we seen this before? Islam in the media anyone?
While reading about Malcolm’s eventual break from Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, it occurred to me how sad it all was. I mean, Elijah Muhammad came into Malcolm X’s life when he was in prison. Malcolm X stopped doing drugs and stealing and sleeping around. He began to pray and read and teach others to live this morally straight lifestyle, but in the end Elijah Muhammad betrayed him. First by living the very lifestyle he preached against, and eventually by allegedly hinting around that Malcolm X should be put to death. It reminded me of Psalm 146:3 “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” All of the morality Malcolm X adopted after his conversion to Islam would never save him. Even after his pilgrimage and finding more out about the real Islam, Malcolm X would still be lost. And when he died at age
For the conservative reader, Malcolm X’s led a very rough life before he was imprisoned and there is fairly frank descriptions of things you might not be very comfortable with, so bear that in mind. I wouldn’t go so far as to say graphic, so I think I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the man or his time. 


JNC said...

From reading through your blog a bit, I can clearly see that you and I differ on many issues, but I still find reading your views to be interesting. I am very impressed that you engaged with and reviewed this book, and hit on many of the areas of it that are problematic without simply dismissing either the book or its subject, Malcolm X. Thank you for an interesting perspective on an old favorite of mine.
JNC from The Beauty of Eclecticism

BerlinerinPoet said...

JNC! Welcome to the blog. Thank you for your kind words.