When I was half the age I am now I discovered El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, more commonly known as Malcolm X. I was captivated by him. Here was a radical. A philosopher. A man who saw death coming and faced it courageously. I studied the person, watched the film, read a speech or two, but like most teenagers I “didn't have the time” to invest more. I don't know what happened, but a few years after that I had practically forgotten Malcolm. Perhaps it was because I went through my Jesus phase. Maybe it was because I was busy discovering other radicals. Whatever the reason, I genuinely forgot how much I loved Malcolm X.
Fast forward to 2012 when I discovered this book is still unread on my bookshelf. It's been there forever. I browsed it a couple times when I was in my Malcolm X phase, but otherwise it has remained untouched. My feelings for X were so far removed that when I decided to read The Autobiography I did so more from a literary standpoint than as a believer. God how this book brought it all back.
Malcolm X's story is truly original and inspiring. Not only was Malcolm X a powerful force, but he was a person who went through significant transformation in his life, over and again, and this is what makes him most impressive. Witnessing the confused youth he had been, the minister he was, and the humble servant of the people he ultimately became proves that a person, with the right mentality and encouragement, can change. Drastically.
What I most got from reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as opposed to everything I had encountered about X before, was that while he was brave and brilliant, he didn't seem a very stable person. There are many underlying signs of mental illness—the mistrust of everyone, the unbridled devotion to whatever cause occupied him at the time, his lack of social skills, his severe restlessness—and I wanted so much to diagnosis him. I think it's true that many of the most charismatic leaders the world has known lived with a difference in mind that probably had more to do with the wiring of their brain than with social factors. For some, this possibility might make Malcolm X's power somehow less meaningful; for me it makes him all that more human and more compelling.
Another thing that captured my attention during the reading of this book were questions of “What if...” What if he had lived? What would he have become ultimately? What if I could travel back in time and convince Malcolm X of the future? What would I tell him? That things have gotten better? That racism, as he knew it, no longer exists? That a black man is one of the most powerful men in the world? No, because he would tell me, as I already know, that none of this is quite true. He would throw around phrases like “the Uncle Tom negro” that is “a puppet for the devil white man.” He would point me to the ghettos and ask, “What has changed but the expectation placed on the negro?” He would allude to the black man being forced into ignorance for more than four hundred years and now, suddenly, the white man cries “if they want out of that ghetto, if they want better, why don't they educate themselves and do something.” He would point to many of the black superstars of the day and call them part of the same minstrel show that has been going on for nearly two hundred years, a ridicule that is somehow meant to appease. I would have to tell him how frequently I hear, in 2013, terms like “nigger” and “monkey,” not spoken so boldly as in his time, but with just as much vehemence. I would tell him how many people offer me looks of pity, how many people refuse invitations to my home, because I live in “the bad part of town” (also known as “a prevalence of black men and women, standing in front of their homes, gassing their cars, walking to work”). And I would ask Malcolm, “but what I can do? What have I done?” And it is then I have no idea what he'd say. Somehow not knowing is disheartening, yet gives me some hope that I can do something.
I will not forget Malcolm X again.