After watching Malcolm X my perspective of the man was changed. What I thought of him and what the media portrayed him as is so different from the man he became before he died. Many of us, when we think of Malcolm X think of a man who supported black supremacy and stirred hatred of the white man. The media however has failed to tell the end of his story, the part of his story where his prejudice was replaced with an embrace of brotherhood for all mankind. So I think it is important to know his whole story – the beginning, middle and end – to learn from the source of his mistakes as well as the mistakes of the society he fought so hard to change. To illustrate his journey I will attempt to walk you through the events of his life and offer a perspective that may change the way you perceive Malcolm X.
“We are each burdened with prejudice; against the poor or the rich, the smart or the slow, the gaunt or the obese. It is natural to develop prejudices. It is noble to rise above them.” (Author Unknown)
On May 10, 1925 in Omaha Nebraska a child is born. No one could know the gravity this child would impact upon society. Number seven out of eight children born as Malcolm Little to mother Louise Little and self-reliant father Earl Little; Malcolm would grow up to become Malcolm X, leader of the 1960s black power movement. Early in his life Malcolm learns racism and prejudice from his environment as his childhood is marked by the violent death of his father by the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. The result is a disintegrated family; and Malcolm lands in a juvenile home. Malcolm then grows up to live out the prevailing society-force-fed prejudicious stereotype of the white man, becoming a street hustler in Harlem who covets the opportunities of the racist white man. Still at this stage of his life no one knows the gravity of his existence, at least not until he converts to the Nation of Islam where he finds an “enlightened” structure for him to focus his disdain of the source of prejudice pervading his life; the white man. However, we learn in the documentary film, Malcolm X, that it is not his focused disdain, or racism he embraced as a member of the Nation of Islam that we should remember him for; but rather his eventual personal triumph over racism, a fact that many of us are ignorant of.
His father, a reverend, attracted persecution from the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) early in Malcolm’s childhood because of his firm teachings of self-reliance to his congregation. Several attempts to scare Malcolm’s father were made, but to no avail. Eventually his father’s defiance led to his brutal and violent death at the hands of the KKK. I would suppose that an event as horrific as this would scar Malcolm as a child and permanently imprint upon his mind the futility of standing against racism.
The resulting effect of his father’s death places Malcolm in a juvenile home. During this time Malcolm excels in grade school, becoming the top of his class. It seems he wishes to defy the futile message of his father’s murderer’s. Malcolm tells his teacher that his goal is to become a lawyer. But here, in a place where education should be above prejudice, Malcolm is told he cannot aspire to the lofty ambitions of being a lawyer; that he should be a carpenter because being a lawyer is not a realistic goal for a “nigger”. Perhaps this is a marked point for change in Malcolm’s goals and ambitions.
An older Malcolm acquires various jobs shoe shining, dishwashing, and soda jerking. Soon after he is exposed to the criminal world and finds himself on the streets of Harlem living the tireless life of a hustler. Always moving, always preying on victims, Malcolm dangerously lives on the edge of becoming a statistic. Drugs, larceny and carousing with women is all done at the expense of the white man. The white woman in fact is a conquest to him, another indication of his ironic coveting and resentment of the white man. Crippled by his childhood trauma Malcolm is still yet unable to filter information in a productive way. Everything he does is a stubborn cry out to the world, to the white man, to himself.
His crimes eventually lead him to jail. This is where the culmination of his experiences mark his turn to becoming a black power leader. This is where he becomes the person that history portrays him. But this person is just another version of the same Malcolm in Harlem. His resentment for the white man is the same. All that changes is the way he expresses it.
The Nation of Islam invites Malcolm in with spiritual enlightenments and structure. Their teachings of separation or segregation are very attractive to Malcolm. The trauma from Malcolm’s past is perhaps the fuel for his unquestionable devotion to this ideology. As humans we need structure to base our reality and give shape to it and give us direction. The Nation of Islam seems to be the perfect ideological structure to shape Malcolm’s broken psyche. They preach a little bit of truth, but he is unaware of the cancerous manipulative nature of his childhood trauma – using his resentment towards the white man. Sure he stopped carousing with women, stopped doing drugs and living the life of a criminal. But that little bit of truth just made it easier for Malcolm to retain his resentment and devote himself to their teachings, especially the teachings of separation that he fervently proclaimed. It appears that Malcolm is confusing this teaching with what he truly needed to confront, his own prejudice.
How many of us confuse truth because of repressed trauma? Why do things seem so attractive to us and stir such emotional devotion despite their obvious negative nature? The false therapy of shouting these so-called truths that have manipulated us are just a cry to heal our broken hearts or souls. Malcolm is unaware of this manipulation until his own people; The Nation of Islam, the focus of his existence and devotion ostracize him. Then he realizes the error of his thinking.
In March 1964, Malcolm X leaves the Nation of Islam and makes is hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Here he sheds his controversial name for a new name, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. From this point should be the Malcolm we remember, not the broken and manipulated Malcolm that is presented by the media that feeds the common perception in society. His hajj is where he changes his perspective on whites and racism completely. Here is an excerpt of a letter El Hajj Malik El Shabazz wrote about his Hajj experience. Readers of this letter can learn as Malcolm X did, that we are all burdened with prejudice, and that it is noble to build bridges of cooperation instead of walls of segregation.
“During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug)-while praying to the same God with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of the blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in the words and in the actions and in the deeds of the ‘white’ Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana. We are truly all the same-brothers. All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the worlds.” (El Hajj Malik El Shabazz-1964)