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Malcolm X: The Most Misunderstood Man of the 20th Century

Since reading the autobiography of Malcolm X, written with the assistance of Alex Haley, at the start of this year, his story has continued to intrigue me. I grew up with the assumption that Martin Luther King was the effective moral arbiter of the civil rights movement and that his aggressive, divisive counterpart Malcolm X was simply an eerie shadow lurking in the background. I learned a lot by reading the autobiography of ‘the angriest black man in America,’ yet nothing has fascinated me more than my perceptions before and after reading and re-reading the book. I found that history has not only been wrong about Malcolm X, it has systematically bullied him.

The first chapter, entitled ‘Nightmare,’ begins with a brief story of the Klu Klux Klan visiting the Little family (Malcolm X’s birth name). Upon asking for the father of the household and finding that he was in a nearby town, the Klansmen mindlessly shatter every window with their gun butts, galloping around the house before riding off into the night. The next paragraph explains that Malcolm X’s father saw four of his six brothers die by violence, with three of the murders committed by white men, including one by lynching. His father would later be murdered by the Klan himself, only to have his death covered up by an inexplicable tale of suicide.

Malcolm’s mother, Louise Little, looked ‘almost white’ – her grandfather was a white man who raped Louise’s grandmother, thus providing her with the light complexion. Malcolm states that he “came to hate every drop of that white rapist’s blood I had in me.”

When hearing the term ‘racist’ used to describe Malcolm X, I often think of a frightened young Malcolm hugging his family as the flames of the Klansmen burn around him to the tune of imploding windows. I think of a six-year old boy looking at his father’s dead body, a skull caved in on one side and a body almost cut in half, before being told that family pressure had led him to suicide. If one’s young life is permeated by violence induced by white men – if one’s entire existence is caused by a racist outburst of sexual violence, then to hate and to fight against the white race seems a logical route for one to take.

Chapter nine, aptly named ‘Caught,’ illustrates a robbery that sent the 20-year old black man to prison for 7 years, whilst his white, female co-conspirators were sentenced to just 1-5 years in a Women’s Reformatory. Without the drugs that had sustained him during his day-long hustles in Harlem, an imprisoned Malcolm X became ‘as evil-tempered as a snake.’ Following a letter written by his religious brother Philbert Little, which stated that he had found the ‘natural religion for the black man’ and instructed ‘don’t eat any more pork and don’t smoke any more cigarettes’, Malcolm X gravitated towards the Nation of Islam. On a visit to the prison, Reginald Little elucidated the idea of an anti-white, black-separatist approach to both religion and life, focusing on a man named Elijah Muhammad to clarify his views. Malcolm’s mind was “involuntarily flashing across the entire spectrum of white people” that he had ever known. His head “swam with the parading faces” of the white people who had ingrained in him the idea that he and the entire black race was inferior.

For the next few years, Malcolm claims that he lived as a hermit in prison, reading and writing out every word of the dictionary and investing himself in as many books as he could fit into one day. He discusses, at length, the many crimes of the white man, from the narcotising of millions of Chinese by the British during the Opium Wars to the manipulation of India via the creation and development of the East India Company. An incredible prison library, alongside weekly prison debates and classes delivered by Harvard instructors moved the focal point of Malcolm X’s life from drugs, sex and violence in his teens, towards anti-white religion and a desperate zeal for knowledge. A particularly poignant story in Chapter 11, ‘Saved,’ illustrates Malcolm’s intellectual deconstruction of the idea that Jesus was white – eventually, through a string of facts and argument, a white Christian concedes that Jesus was, in all likelihood, dark-skinned.

I included this section of his life in my own argument because I believe that it was in the prison walls, that Malcolm X became the man who changed race-relations forever. He became eloquent and inspirational to the black men around him and eventually, when he was out of prison, became Assistant Minister of the Nation of Islam’s Temple One. A rapid rise within the echelons of the Nation ensued. Soon, Malcolm X became the mouthpiece for anti-white teachings, typified by the phrase ‘the white man is the devil.’ He taught that the white man wanted to confine black men to immorality and keep them ‘unclean and ignorant’ with radio and television broadcasts now a feature of the Nation’s wide-ranging propaganda.

However, with the Nation of Islam now firmly in the public eye, a television programme, entitled ‘The Hate that Hate Produced,’ that included a kaleidoscope of ‘shocker’ images of black men and sisters, turned the public viciously against the Nation of Islam and more subtly, against the black man. This, I believe, is one such instance in which white America has suppressed the immense voice of Malcolm X, though I do not agree with the Muslim teachings. From henceforth, interview questions with Malcolm X were one and the same – ‘Why do you teach black supremacy and hate?’

Chapter seventeen, ‘Mecca,’ is, I believe, the most significant. It expresses views of Malcolm X’s that were never presented to me growing up – views that did not align with the man I, as a young boy living in Kent, thought I knew all I needed to know about.

The pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj is an obligation for every orthodox Muslim – it is, as the Quran states ‘a duty men owe to God.’ On this pilgrimage, Malcolm X met many incredible people. Throngs of people of all complexions, each of whom on the Hajj hugged and embraced in a New York airport. Malcolm discusses how, in a shop in France, the clerks were welcoming and loving in a truly sincere manner, grateful for your custom. This stands in stark contrast to the shops in America, in which you “walk out, spend a hundred dollars and leave a stranger.”

I believe the following to be the most important passage in this incredible chapter – “I began to perceive that ‘white man,’ as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it described attitudes and actions. In America, ‘white man’ meant specific attitudes and actions toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men. But in the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been. That morning was the start of a radical alteration in my whole outlook about ‘white men.’” Though I myself have never felt and probably will never feel compelled by an organised religion, in this instance, Islam appears to me to have acted as a unifying vice at the heart of which is a very human element of love and compassion for one another.

Had it not been for my reading of his own words, I would perhaps still regard Malcolm X as a divisive and aggressive man. It has only been through multiple readings of his book that I realise that the man was far from racist; in fact, so great was his disdain for racism that he dedicated his entire life to spreading anti-racist sentiments, albeit in a very powerful manner to which many white people in the 1950’s and 1960’s might have felt repelled by.

Crucial to my belief that Malcolm X should be admired rather than demonised is that he was so far beyond his time that so many today are yet to realise the truth behind his teachings. He was not inherently anti-white, but viciously anti-American and anti-capitalist; his earliest teachings, that appear little other than racist outbursts, are in fact manifestations of a life filled with hurt at the hands of violent white men. His primary aim, as stated in the last paragraph of his book, was to bring light and to expose “any meaningful truth that will help to destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America.” Upon drawing a distinction between being racist and being anti-America, I have found his teachings to be prophetic rather than profane. Malcolm X was even able to predict his legacy (and for that matter, the manner of his death). “You watch. I will be labelled as, at best, an ‘irresponsible black man.’”

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1 Comment

  1. I agree with the title of your article and appreciate your sentiment. Reading your article will still, however, leave someone with a misrepresentation of Malcolm X. Therefore, your article does not make him any less misunderstood. For one, Malcolm X was not “viciously anti-American and anti-capitalist.” Nor would Malcolm X want to be regarded as “anti-American” or “anti-capitalist.” He hated such labels, and tried hard to shake them. He was anti-racist, anti-exploitation, and anti-oppression, period. Consider these quotes from Malcolm X:

    Letter – Circa September/October 1964

    “I am not anti-American, un-American, seditious nor subversive. I don’t buy the anti-capitalist propaganda of the communists, nor do I buy the anti-communist propaganda of capitalists.”

    January 1965 – Prospects for Freedom Speech

    “Now, in speaking like this, it doesn’t mean that I am anti-American. I am not. I’m not anti-American, or un-American. And I’m not saying that to defend myself. Because if I was that, I’d have a right to be that — after what America has done to us. This government should feel lucky that our people aren’t anti-American. They should get down on their hands and knees every morning and thank God that 22 million black people have not become anti-American. You’ve given us every right to. The whole world would side with us, if we became anti-American. You know, that’s something to think about.

    But we are not anti-American. We are anti or against what America is doing wrong in other parts of the world as well as here. And what she did in the Congo in 1964 is wrong … And what she did to the American public, to get the American public to go along with it, is criminal. What she’s doing in South Vietnam is criminal. She’s causing American soldiers to be murdered every day, killed every day, die every day, for no reason at all. That’s wrong. Now, you’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or who says it.”

    October 1964

    “Since I learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends have come to include all kinds — some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists! I have friends who are called capitalists, Socialists, and Communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists — some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white!”

    “When we all learn to think as human beings instead of as capitalists, communists and socialists, this will then be a world for all human beings … We must forget politics and propaganda and approach this as a Human Problem which all of us as human beings are obligated to correct. The well-meaning whites must become less vocal and more active against racism of their fellow whites . . . and Negro leaders must make their own people see that with equal rights also come equal responsibilities.”

    Does that sound like someone who wanted to be regarded as anti-American or anti-capitalist? Sure, he criticized bad things America did and capitalist exploitation, but his views were much more complex and nuanced than that. Moreover, he never defined what he meant when referring to capitalism or socialism, and some of the OAAU’s economic principles contradict socialism. He himself made it clear on the Stan Bernard Show the week of his assassination that he was not a socialist, nor did he even “break bread with socialists.” He liked the Socialist Workers Party because they respected him and gave him a platform to speak on. Although he harshly critiqued capitalism, some of the things he said were compatible with capitalism. I don’t think a truly nuanced analysis of his evolving economic views has ever been done. The scholars either try to paint him as becoming pro-socialist or they focus on his earlier beliefs which were black capitalist. It’s best not to fall into the trap of overgeneralizing his economic views.

    Lastly, I think this was just a typo on your part, but it was Malcolm X’s grandfather who was white. The way you worded it makes it seem like it was his great grandfather. Louis Little’s father was white. It should also be noted that according to Jan Carew, who got to know Malcolm during his February trip to the UK, Malcolm told him he had only said he hated every drop of white blood in his body for political reasons and that he did not actually feel that way anymore.

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