I wasn’t prepared how much I would enjoy reading this book. I knew it was one of these titles that I wanted to read someday – but I only bought it online recently due to the stunning design of the Penguin cover.
I did not really know who Malcolm X was before reading this book – other than he was African-American and a controversial human rights activist. Alex Haley’s introduction gave me a very personal overview of his life and work (Haley was the journalist who helped Malcolm with the writing of the autobiography). I found reading it before the main text very useful – though I am also tempted to reread it again after reading the autobiography itself. I will not go into Malcolm X’s politics here: they have been analyzed extensively by people who are far wiser than me.
His life is quite simply an incredible story. Malcolm Little spent his teenage years in the ghetto, dealing and using drugs, conducting robberies and gambling. In prison, Malcolm converted to the Nation of Islam, a sect headed by Elijah Muhammad, who claimed that white people were created by an evil scientist named Yakub, that the end of white civilization was nigh, and it was time for African- Americans to have their own state. Given Malcolm’s short time at school and the amoral behavior of white people he had experienced during his time in Harlem, it is perhaps unsurprising that he found this argument persuasive.
He took the name ‘Malcolm X’ to remind himself that his true surname was stolen from his ancestors when they were taken from Africa as slaves. After 12 years of working as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm became disillusioned with the personal ethics of its leader, which lead to his expulsion.
Malcolm subsequently went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. His travels reassured him that Islam and the teaching of Elijah Muhammad were often contradictory. He was very keen on the idea of Pan-Africanism, and possibly co-operation with China ( one imagines he would not have been so keen on working with Chinese if he had known what their government was doing to its own people). He received numerous death threats and was finally murdered by three assassins who claimed to be revenging themselves for his disrespect for the Nation of Islam.
But it’s not just Malcolm X’s story that’s enthralling. The first person narrative gives you the impression of listening to the man himself. Even on a written page, his charisma is absolutely clear. I loved the moment when he described discovering the joys of books, reading through the night in prison by the faint light which seeped through into his cell from the corridor. He said, “I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.” His fight against racism in America was relentless and awe-inspiring. That’s not to say he was right in everything he did: his attitude towards women, for example, was absolutely appalling.
But what I find particularly admirable about Malcolm X was his ability to acknowledge his own mistakes – be it of his teenage life in Harlem or of his time as a minister for the Nation for Islam. He was open-minded when faced with facts that altered his perception, but at the same time had the courage to defend his own beliefs when necessary. Not many people have the self-confidence to argue and listen at the same time, but he did.
An incredibly important book – well-worth reading.