Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Autobiography of Malcolm X - Alex Haley

The Time magazine chose this book as one of the 10 most important nonfiction books of the century. With good reason. Malcolm X (1925-1965) came from the back of beyond, from a life that seemed to have just gone off track, straight into becoming one of the most active and committed civil rights activists fighting for the cause of American Africans in a system that was loaded against the blacks despite all the politically correct talk. He believed, thanks to some training by his own father who died at the hands of the KKK, and then later by the teachings of the Nation of Islam, that African Americans do not belong to America, that they have their own history and heritage which the white man obliterated in his greed, that the white man is their enemy and the answer  to the white man's hate was to hate them back. Malcolm X spoke the truth - and truth is violent and difficult to handle especially if you;re a white man. Malcolm was clear that what the white man did - enslaved and kept in wrongful slavery millions of blacks who were kidnapped from their homes in Africa  - was terrible and no amount of their minor appeasements like their weak attempts at integration were going to pay back. (From 1526-1867, 12.6 million slaves were shipped to America. 10.7 million survived.) He wanted complete segregation and he hated integrationists who believed that whites and blacks could live together equally, harmoniously. Of course Malcolm changed his hatred for the white man in general and accepted that certain attitudes were what he was against in his later part of life, but he could well be excused for what he said earlier because it also included the truth.
Ballantine, 466 p, Rs. 299

Interestingly the autobiography was conceived after Alex Haley, the author of 'Roots', a definitive work on African slaves and how the blacks grew in the US in the days of slavery, did a couple of articles on Malcolm X (The X stands for the unknown history, identity of the black man in America and they would wear it until they found it). Malcolm would meet Haley about his life and he told it in great detail to show how he had grown up. First as Malcolm Little, in a large family, with a father who had definite views on race and separation of African Americans and White Americans, a mother who was white almost, but hated it. (When I first read Roots, I realised that the fair African Americans, were the product of cross breeding or rather, like Malcolm puts it bluntly, the outcome of the rape of black woman slaves by white men which continued over centuries. The black slavery rules gave the white complete power over the slaves to the extent that even their children were owned by the white masters.) Malcolm Little was an intelligent kid who saw the KKK attack their house, then attack and kill his father and lay him down on a rail road so his body was cut into half (the police called it suicide and the insurance company did not pay because it was a suicide, when the body actually had injuries to the forehead caused by blunt instruments.) The family slowly went to pieces as the state welfare came and took the children away. Mrs. Little went insane and was admitted to an institution.

Malcolm did well as a student even from his foster homes but he cites the story of a favorite teacher who dissuades him from becoming a lawyer - become a carpenter instead says the well intentioned teacher. Malcolm drops out of school in his eighth class, heads to New York, stays with a cousin and learns the tricks of trade. Living in the streets of Harlem he understands their pain, their aggression, their inability to come out of the ghetto. He joins them, becomes a drug dealer, an addict, gets his hair straightened, tries to ape white men, gets a white girl friend, does everything a hustler does, and becomes popular as Red. A botched up burglary lands him in prison - with a longer term - because he pushed two white girls into the crime too.

In jail he meets a black Muslim who initiates him to the teachings of the Nation of Islam, an exclusive group for black Americans led by Elijah Muhammad, their spiritual leader. The Nation of Muslims believed that Christianity was never their religion. This new religion meant giving up a life of crime, women, pork and such other stuff. Malcolm takes his time to convert but when he does he holds on to Islam as a lifeline. He also starts reading, and begins his second stint at educating himself, this time with a vengeance. On his return from jail he joins the Nation of Islam full time and a more committed worker who worked tirelessly to promote the thought of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who fought to bring the black brothers out of darkness, never existed. Malcolm's views, his articulate and cogent presentations, got him lot of press and he became a leading Minister in the Nation of Islam, second only to the Head. But along the way, his success breeds enemies and he notices it all too late. Malcolm marries and has children - but sadly towards the end of his life one realises he has almost nothing to leave for his children except a huge legacy which he was not aware of.

The Nation of Islam and Malcolm split over a seemingly minor error - making Malcolm believe that it was just an excuse to silence his voice and to cut his wings. He however submits to it. But his house is attacked, he gets death threats. Malcolm breaks away after he finds out about Elijah Muhammad's own adulterous flings - something which he condemned publicly - and starts his own mosque in New York. A visit to Mecca opens his eyes to a wider world view and he returns a much more mature and committed Muslim. After achieving so much in just a short span of forty years Malcolm X aka El Hajj Malik El Shabazz was assasinated as he prepared to speak to a group of people in his mosque.

If there is one thing that Malcolm X saw through, it was that one could not merely ask for the justice one wants; one has to assume it. If you ask they may give or not, or they may say they will give and give only some. Malcolm knew what was done, what the black man suffered and was not prepared to wait any longer. He saw no reason why the black man should still be kept out, discriminated against, kept in control through employment, religion, culture. He was quick to see how the Jews and the others made money off the blacks and lined their pockets. He saw how the blacks were never really allowed to integrate. he saw how blacks themselves seemed to have no sense of self-esteem after all that was done to them. He saw that their history was described in a single paragraph in schools. he experienced how nigger was a word so often used that he thought it was his name.

The white man versus black man, yellow man, brown man story continues. How peaceful cultures were invaded and torn apart by the white man who then built a system to exploit the owners of the land and continue to do so is no different today than it was half a century ago. Malcolm X might not have survived the forty years if he was alive today with even more bigoted thinkers aiming to rule or ruling by dint of economic power. One thing is for sure though - one cannot expect justice from those who denied it. One must bring one's own judgement to it and live that life. One must break free of all controls because the controls are made by those who wish to control you anyway.

Malcolm X was much loved. He is a charismatic leader, a person who was gentle and yet angry. As they do with all honest people, it was easy to misrepresent Malcolm X as the hatemonger when in fact all he wanted was to claim justice. The US Government released a stamp in his honor in 1998. He existed in the times of Martin Luther King, though his views were different.

I loved the book. I am deeply in awe of the man and his courage and his talent. Like I said, Denzel Washington does not look a patch on the intense original. Its worth watching his interviews on youtube just to see his preparedness and his knowledge and conviction. I am so glad I read this book - and Roots. I wonder why I haven't read them till now. Anyway better late than never. Thanks Abhishek.

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