“[Malcolm X] has become a divided metaphor: for those who love him, he is a powerful lens of self-perception, a means of sharply focusing political and racial priorities; for those that loathe him he is a distorted mirror that reflects violence and hatred” (Dyson, 45).
Depending on who listen to you can here many different versions of who Malcolm X was. Some call him a visionary who changed many people’s views while others may call him a racist and violent hate-monger. Malcolm X is indeed no ordinary revolutionary figure. He was the anti-thesis of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. non-violent ideologies yet strived to achieve the same goals as them. He wanted equality for his people and an end to the oppression that African Americans faced. “He was the ideological leader for black radicalism including black religion (spirituality and morality), black nationalism (institution building and collective action), Panafricanism (identity and internationalism), and socialism (freedom/justice/ equality and anti-imperialism) (Website).” His accomplishments are best understood when analyzing the different periods in his life.
Malcolm X went through many phases in his life. He had said, ” My whole life has been a chronology of changes” (Website). There were three main stages in his life. As Malcolm Little, he was a drug addict and a criminal. As Malcolm X, he had transformed from a petty thief to a prominent priest for the Nation of Islam. He taught radical views on solving the racial problems in America. As Malik El- Shabazz, he had transformed from preaching segregation to preaching racial unity and equality. If someone were to hear the beliefs of Malcolm X and hear the beliefs
of Malcolm as Malik El-Shabazz, they might believe that Malcolm and Malik were two entirely different people, with drastically opposing views. Perhaps what made Malik El- Shabazz so great was that bettered himself by acknowledging his mistakes, learning from them, and was committed to teaching the lessons of his mistakes to others, so others could better themselves.
Malcolm Little did little in his life that is noteworthy. Little spent his early twenties as a common criminal. Petty thievery and con artistry were two of his trades. With his hair “conked” and sporting a zoot suit he went by the nickname of “Detroit Red”. Not being able to get a decent job, Malcolm had to become a hustler to earn enough money for his excessive life style. He became selfish and lost all his scruples. He did not fear any other people or death and used every kind of drugs. Malcolm said “there were three things to be afraid of: a job, a bust and jail; but I realized I was scared of nothing. I was an animal.” (X)
Little’s criminal activity and lackadaisical attitude could be attributed to his childhood. As a child he witnessed racism that killed his father and drove his mother into the insane asylum. As a child, Malcolm was at the top of his class. He informed his white teacher of his aspirations of being a lawyer. “You’re a nigger and a lawyer is not a realistic goal for a nigger” said Malcolm’s teacher. (X) According to Bruce Perry, his bad childhood was a factor that “contributed to the mature Malcolm’s contorted leadership style. (Dyson 49)
Although he hated the whites, he felt inferior and wanted to be like them. Because of this he straightened his hair and had a white girlfriend. Malcolm wound up in jail on burglary charges, and soon began to reflect on himself. “Our crime wasn’t burglary, it was sleeping with white girls” said Malcolm of his jail term. (X)
Malcolm Little had his first religious enlightenment while in prison. He studied the teachings of the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Mohamed. This is the point in his life in which I believe he became political. After discovering his new religion he seemed to wake up and tap his unlimited potential for persuasion and oration. He began to realize that it wasn’t his fault that he was in prison, but it was the social order of the United States that indirectly landed him in jail. “Cats who may have probed space or cured cancer . . . were all victims of the American social order” said Malcolm. (X) As he became more educated and religious, Malcolm would later become much more political.
After converting to joining the Nation of Islam, Malcolm Little changed his name to Malcolm X. He used the letter X as his last name to signify the unknown until he and his people returned to Africa to discover their real names, not those given to them by slave owners. When he found this religion, Islam, he felt an immense gratitude toward his “savior“, Elijah Muhammad. He believed everything he said and was enormously devoted to finding new members for the
Nation of Islam. Now, his hate, energy, intelligence and passion had an aim. He worked all the time for his leader and hardly slept. Malcolm X made an astonishing change; he gave up all his vices and became an extremely virtuous man. But he did neither condemn violence, nor did he support integration. He even attacked the more liberal Afro-American leaders.
Fifteen years after Malcolm embraced the Nation of Islam, he started to question the religion. Allegations of sexual misconduct and illegitimate children against Elijah Muhammad had arisen. When Malcolm confronted Mohammed regarding the situation, Muhammad admitted to his actions. Malcolm then began to question the beliefs of Elijah Muhammad and his involvement with the Nation of Islam. During this time, according to Malcolm, Elijah Muhammad and other leaders of the Nation of Islam grew increasingly jealous of Malcolm’s success, and created lies about Malcolm to discredit his name. Malcolm finally left the Nation of Islam in 1964.
He let the white opponents know that he was “no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslim movement, and that if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other black Americans who are only attempting to enjoy their rights as free human beings, that you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation from those of us who
are not handcuffed by the disarming philosophy of non violence, and who believe in asserting our right of self defense – by any means necessary.”(Breitman)
Malcolm was deeply hurt when Elijah Muhammad dismissed him. But he did not give up; he established his own movement, Muslim Mosque Inc., and made a pilgrimage to Mecca. This trip changed his points of view profoundly. He became less militant and even admitted that sometimes white people could help the black movement. He also denounced Muhammad’s doctrines and taught the real Islam he experienced in the East. This is when he became Malik-El Shabazz. When he heard of the Black Muslim’s plot to kill him, he did not feel any fear. His courage at this point in his life was remarkable. He knew his life was in grave danger, but it was more important to him to keep preaching his message than to back down in the face of death. Before he died, he declared that he would be glad if he could have helped the black people, but that all credit is due to Allah. Only the mistakes were his.
I believe that the most important factor in Malcolm’s life was education. Malcolm didn’t have much in the way of formal education. Most of his education and philosophy came from his life experiences. “ My high school was a black ghetto; my college education was on the streets of Harlem; my master’s degree in prison over the course of six and a half years” said Malcolm of his education. (X) His education on the Nation of Islam in prison inspired him to
become a better person and fight for the causes he believed in. Of this experience Malcolm said “in prison, the truth came and blinded me.” (X) During his journey to Mecca, Malcolm became educated on the practices of Muslims in that part of the world. This experience had a very positive impact on Malcolm. Despite the racial frustrations Malcolm carried, he wrote in a letter to his wife,
Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and the over whelming sprit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here [Mecca]…. this pilgrimage… has forced me to re-arrange much of my thought patterns… and toss aside some of my previous conclusions…. In the words and in the actions and in the deeds of ‘white’ Muslims I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan, and Ghana (Haley, 339-340).
“The political philosophy of Black nationalism means that the Black man should control the politics and the politicians in his own community… The economic philosophy of Black nationalism is pure and simple. It only means that we should control the economy of our community… The social philosophy of Black nationalism only means that we have to get together and remove the evils, the vices, alcoholism, drug addiction, and other evils that are destroying the moral fiber of our community.” (Website) Malcolm X epitomized Black nationalism. He brought Black nationalism to the forefront of American perception and inspired many people to take up his cause.
I believe that Malcolm X would not want us to write so much about what he did in his life than what could be and is being done to further his cause today. “In the 19th century the main debate that shaped our radical tradition was the
emancipation debate, how to end slavery and institutionalize freedom. In the 20th century the debate has been about self-determination, freedom from urban capitalist structures, especially in terms of culture, economic life, and political power.” (Website) I believe Malcolm would have continued evolving and would have focused on the aforementioned issues.
Breitman, George. Malcolm X Speaks p. 32, New York, 1990
Dyson, Eric Michael, “Inventing and Interpreting Malcolm X,” in The Seductions of Biography, eds. Mary Rhiel and David Suchoff (New York: Routledge, 1996)
Haley, Alex The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley (Ballantine Books, 1964)
Website. www.brothermalcolm.net 10/22/00
X Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Denzell Washington, Angela Bassett. Warner, 1992