A Reaction to The Autobiography of Malcolm X – by Levi Baer

After a life of crime on the streets of Boston and New York which lead to his eventual imprisonment before he was 20, Malcolm X spent most of his adult life advocating the teachings of the Nation of Islam.  This religious group promoted the solidarity of Black Americans mainly by pointing out the tyranny of White racism.  It also promoted complete separation of Blacks from Whites rather than integration, given the group’s belief that integration only furthered the subjugation of Black people.  Malcolm X was considered by the majority of citizens and mass media outlets to be an extreme revolutionary, but was revered by many Black people in urban areas as a poignant speaker and advocate.

Near the end of his life, Malcolm X’s relationship with the Nation of Islam was terminated and he made a life changing visit to Mecca.  His outlook on racism and the struggles of people with African decent took on a global perspective as well as an acknowledgement of the possibility for partnerships across races.  Assassinated at 40, his life ended before he was able to make any major social progress based on his much more inclusive approach to racism and diversity.

I found The Autobiography of Malcolm X to be extremely captivating and enlightening.  The first half paints a heart-breaking and clear picture of his life as a young hustler and drug addict as well as provides insight to what the Black experience was like for some in the 40s and 50s.  The second half, which follows his total immersion into a world of  cult-like religion and racial activism, leaves the reader with as many questions as it does answers.  One can suppose that Malcolm X’s stance of separation instead of integration made it hard for many to accept anything he tried to advocate.  However, one can also sense many universal truths strewn throughout his extreme messages.  Surely, the most poignant question that will forever remain unanswered: what would the world be like had this powerful speaker’s voice not been silenced right on the cusp of his own enlightenment?

There are numerous provocative, inspiring, and thought provoking passages in the book.  Here are a few that stuck out to me, along with some brief thoughts about each:

Page 174
The teachings of Mr. Muhammad stressed how history had been “whitened”–when white men had written history books, the black man simply had been left out.  

The concept of history being written from the perspective of those in power is a familiar one.  From this quote I ponder how the majority of Black people in the U.S. do not know any more about their heritage other than it being prescribed to a whole continent.  It seems like Americans tend to take on an ethno-centric view that all of Africa is the same place with the same people and customs.  Personally, I’d love to know if my ancestors were Nigerian  South African, Ethiopian, or something else.  Better yet would be knowing what those cultures called themselves before their colonization.  Drawing upon drastic and pertinent examples, such as ambiguous heritage, I can see why the teachings of the Nation of Islam were popular to blacks in the 40s and 50s.

Page 238-9
Here was one of the white man’s most characteristic behavior patterns — where black men are concerned.  He loves himself so much that he is startled if he discovers that his victims don’t share his vainglorious self-opinion.  In America for centuries it had been just fine as long as the victimized, brutalized and exploited black people had been grinning and begging and “Yessa, Massa” and Uncle Tomming. But now, things were different.  First came the white newspapers–featuring writers and columnists:  “Alarming”…”hate-messengers”…”threat to the good relations between the races”…”black segregationists”…”black supremacists,” and the like.  

Malcolm X is talking about the back-lash he experienced when the media dubbed his message as “hateful” against white people.  I think it extremely important to note the ego of groups and individuals in power, and how that affects various situations.  One way I see this in action today is when majority groups want to help minority groups, but do not take the time to find out what help should actually look like and if that help is even wanted.  Helping hands should be wary of what is implied when those hands appear to be reaching down.

Page 364
“–not Muslim, nor Christian, Catholic, nor Protestant…Baptist nor Methodist, Democrat nor Republican, Mason nor Elk!  I mean the black people of America– and the black people all over this earth!  Because it is as this collective mass of black people that we have been deprived not only of our civil rights, but even of our human rights, the right of human dignity…”

The crux of Malcolm X’s message after his pilgrimage to Mecca, a drastic shift from his previous teachings, to include people of all religions and eventually of all races.  I think it is fascinating that here he begins to describe the issue as “human rights”, the phrase used today to describe gay rights.  I wonder how Malcolm X’s stance on injustice would fare in the gay rights struggle in which we are now engrossed.  Additionally, the global perspective on racial oppression is a framework that I do not believe has ever caught on.  Imagine the power that could be garnered by the joint voices of the millions and millions of people around the world who are oppressed, not only for their race, but also gender, sexuality, physical ability  economic status, etc.

Page 377
I tell sincere white people, “Work in conjunction with us–each of us working among our own kind.”  Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do–and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people!
We will completely respect our white co-workers.  They will deserve every credit.  We will give them every credit.  We will meanwhile be working among our own kind, in our own black communities–showing and teaching black men in ways that only other black men can–that the black man has got to help himself.  Working separately, the sincere white people and sincere black people actually will be working together.  

Although I’ve always thought that integrated efforts are best, something about this approach appeals to me. I think my draw to this separate-but-equal concept relates to my previously stated concern about the possibility of efforts to help those need actually perpetuating the differences between groups.  I agree with Malcolm X’s statement that the strongest efforts for advancement for communities should come from within those communities.  I think the concept of groups working separately but towards a common goal is intriguing and I wonder if it is truly possible, or if separation will only ever lead to more inequality. This approach reminds me of what is being done by the Violence Interrupters, a Chicago group that works within their own communities to stop violence at its source as it is happening.  During a Q&A session following a screening for a documentary about this group, I witnessed a White individual ask, “what can I do to help?”  The response:  give us money, show the movie to your friends, and let us do this work ourselves.  http://interrupters.kartemquin.com/.

My thoughts and reactions to this autobiography are numerous and I invite feedback and further discussion.  Although I am still in the beginning stages of my personal racial discovery, this book has provided me with valuable insights and guidance.  Without hesitation, I would place it among my top three favorite books of all time.

4 thoughts on “A Reaction to The Autobiography of Malcolm X – by Levi Baer

  1. Levi, I am most interested in your increasing self-awareness and “voyage of discovery,” and applaud it. I wonder if you remember being in second grade and coming home to your (very lucky) white father after school one day crying and very upset because some children after school had berated you for your “dusty
    brown” skin color. Just curious if you remember what he said to you?

    And, of course, this self-same incredibly blessed father has always wondered if you were offended or curious or possibly had any positive feelings for his long time collection of Black American folk art pieces. He never ever wants to offend you, and some of these pieces are pretty stereotypical, but hoped you might see them as he does as the loving, handmade gifts of very poor people to one another (in some cases) and as interesting historical memorabilia in others. Always needing to be viewed in their historical context. I am sure your very white father also, from the time of your birth, wanted to make sure you had some connections to your Blackness that he really knew nothing about – but has learned a lot he hopes. And now learning directly from you, thanks.

    PS – Did you ever read that Paul Robeson autobiography? A very interesting compare and contrast essay reading that and what you learned from Malcolm X!

    • Hey Pop, thank you for chiming in and I’m glad you find this as interesting as I do.
      I do not remember that incident from second grade. I only have one story that I can remember of being treated differently in school because of my skin color. It was in high school and the problem went away after a short bout of yelling.

      I like the African Art! I don’t feel any personal connection with it, but I like it.

      I still haven’t read that book, but I think it might be a good thing to read and then maybe write about how it compares and contrasts to other works like Malcolm X.

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