A friend gave me a copy of this book seventeen or eighteen years ago and it’s sat on my various shelves since then. Like a couple of other books I’ve read during this project of focusing on books I own and not buying new ones, I’m both upset with myself for having not read it sooner and wondering if I would have been ready for it in my 20s. I’ve gone through a major ideological shift in the interim time and I wonder if my younger self would have been able to get past the deliberately provocative parts of this book to the societal truths that it contains. Because there is a lot to object to here, but his anger is justified, and his assessment of systemic racism is on point.
The narrative arc is a familiar one. As an ex-Christian, I have heard many stories which tell in detail the subject’s life before conversion, as if to convince the reader/listener that they know whereof they speak when they say they know sin. Then there is the coming-to-understand-the-truth moment and their lives are irrevocably changed. There is a lot of truth in that story archetype. People are changed by adopting a different religious (or political) ideology. One thing I appreciate about Malcolm X, as pointed out by the friend who gave me the book, is that as fierce as he was in his ideology, he budged a little on race issues when he became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam. And, with Haley’s help, X is able to compellingly tell his story. From start to finish this the narrative pulls the reader along.
He begins with his early days in Michigan. His father, a preacher, spent much of his time promoting Marcus Garvey’s ideology for which he was murdered. Malcolm X eventually moved to Boston then New York where he was, in his terms, a street hustler and drug dealer. Eventually he ended up in prison where he encountered the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam through correspondence with his family on the outside. After prison he threw himself into bringing that message, and the message of the damage done to black Americans by the system that favors white men to an ever increasing audience. After Elijah Muhammad, he was the most prominent member of the Nation of Islam and was key in it’s rapid expansion. Later in life, though, he became disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation. He went on a pilgrimage to Mecca where he first encountered white people who he felt he could trust. He left the Nation and formed a separate Islamic group and continued to be one of the primary voices of the more revolutionary end of the Civil Rights movement.
As I said above, there are things to object to in the book. My agnosticism towards Christianity extends past that to Islam; I am skeptical of any ideology that makes claims to be the only source of truth. The book, and Malcolm X, have been criticized for misogyny, and the book bears that out as at least partially valid. Despite his protestations to the contrary in the book, the accusations of anti-semitism seem to be at least partially valid as well. But, for me at least, while acknowledging those issues, I can still recommend the book full-throatedly because it paints a vivid and angry portrait of the systemic racism that is baked into American culture. This really is one of the most convincing expressions of that system of oppression I’ve read. And his criticism of Christianity as having been used as a tool of that oppression is hard to argue. Given that we’re still dealing with that system that hasn’t changed enough, it’s easy to see the appeal of the more revolutionary attitude. All in all, I recommend this highly, despite taking issue with a lot of the particulars. It’s a compelling story from start to finish.
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 73/75
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