Just Finished Reading: The Autobiography of Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley (FP: 1965)
This was yet another of those books picked up on impulse in a second hand bookshop somewhere only to languish on my shelves for year after year until (more often than not) decades has passed. Why I picked this particular book all of those years ago I no longer have any idea. I suppose that, just like now, I felt the need to read famous – or in this case infamous – books in order to eventually fulfil my idea of being well-read. It seems like a good an excuse as any.
Well, finally I got around to reading it in good part because the 50th anniversary of the founding of The Black Panthers has not long past us by. I understand that Malcolm X influenced that foundation – although exactly how I’m unsure at present – so it seemed like a good place to start. I did actually start reading this with some trepidation. It is, as you can imagine, rather out of my comfort zone despite being politically radical even today. My knowledge of Black politics, Black activism, the Civil Rights movement and even something as fundamental as Racism is limited to the kind of thing you pick up whilst reading about or watching something else. I knew of the existence of Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam and his radically different stand on Black politics in contrast to the other great icon of Black Rights – Martin Luther King – but almost nothing of the details of his life or his struggle. I know much more now.
I had heard that this book was essentially racist and I can see why people would say that. An obvious example of that is the countless use of the ‘N’ word (which I won’t use) which to be honest took a lot of getting used to. I was several hundred pages in before I stopped winching every time Malcolm X used the word or told tales of others using it. I can also see why people would call Malcolm himself racist as, almost throughout the entirety of the book, he consistently called the white people he came into contact with ‘devils’. Knowing more about his personal and family history I can understand why he came to that opinion. With a dead Father, institutionalised Mother and siblings scattered across the State (all seemingly the result of the actions of whites) I’m not at all surprised he thought that.
Malcolm’s slide into crime (gambling, drugs, and robbery) was told at length and did start to become tedious after a while. Likewise his redemption in prison prompted by his brother who had come across the teachings of a Muslim guru and subsequent conversion into and activities of The Nation of Islam went on far longer than necessary to get his point across. There were interesting snippets along the way, just enough to keep me going forward, but it was honestly a slog at times to turn the next page. Then, quite close to the end, it got interesting. Indeed very interesting. Malcolm X went to Mecca on a pilgrimage and came back a very changed man.
I most definitely wouldn’t call myself any kind of expert on Islam but, throughout most of the book, I thought the Malcolm X’s knowledge of that religion seemed ‘off’ in some way. He relied in most things on the words and interpretation of his guru and his reading of (largely I think) American books around the subject and on Black History. It was only when, as a celebrity, he went on the pilgrimage that he was introduced to actual Islam unmediated by a guru that he began to see the distortions he had taking as ‘gospel’. But the biggest revelation was how he was treated in Arabia and Africa by people of all races (indeed he reflected on how well he was treated ‘even by white people’ in Europe). It was the start of a process of epiphany where he realised that the treatment of the Black population in America was much less of a race issue as a particularly American cultural issue. That was not to say that racism didn’t exist outside America but that it was on a different order of things within the borders of the US. Repeatedly Malcolm X expressed his shock at being treated as just another human being (despite being black) by many people he met on his travels and more shockingly (despite being black) treated with respect by some of the world’s leaders – and not just those who could get something from him and not just those who happened to be born into dark skin. From those days Malcolm X began to change his mind about things, change his ideas, change his plans and to become very, very dangerous to those who could previously label him as a dangerous (but foolhardy and delusional) minority Black leader. With his new found, and developing, maturity and especially with the ear of non-aligned and Third World leaders Malcolm X became, for the first time, potentially destabilising on a truly Global stage. It came as little surprise that, not long after realising that much of what he has previously thought was indeed wrong that he was assassinated in 1965 just before this book was published. I couldn’t help but think what might have happened if he had living and had been allowed to put his maturing ideas in print to allow their spread not only within the US but across the world. I think there’s a distinct possibility that the world of race relations could have been very different indeed.
For a modern white liberal audience this is not an easy book to read. It was written in an arguably much more racist time and it shows. Reading it more than 50 years after the events and thousands of miles away on the other side of the Atlantic with almost no experience of racism to call on I often found it bizarre and surreal. This did not help its readability. But I do think it’s worth the effort if only for the last 100 pages in which Malcolm X examined his own prejudices and found them wanting – so changed his mind! I don’t think many people could do that so completely and so publically and I was honestly impressed by his search for the truth no matter where it led and no matter how much intellectual pain he needed to bare to get him there. Impressive if you can make it to the end.