X is the surname that Malcolm gave himself when he shed his old self in order to be a dignified human being. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the story of that conversion and what happened eventually.
Malcolm Little was an African American born in 1925 in Nebraska. His father, a Baptist preacher, was killed by the Ku Klux Klan and his mother was sent unjustly to a mental hospital when he was still a boy. Malcolm grew up in a detention home till eighth grade after which he moved to Boston to live with a foster family. Discrimination and ridicule from the white majority drive him out of school to the streets of Boston where he learns more evil things than good such as gambling, drinking, and doing drugs. He becomes a go-between for black pimps and their white clients and begins to date Sophia, a white woman older than him. He abandons his girlfriend Laura for the sake of Sophia and Laura is driven to prostitution.
He tries many jobs such as washing dishes on a train and selling sandwiches before taking up a waiter’s job in a Harlem bar. This bar job puts him in touch with the underworld for which Harlem was famous. He soon became a hustler and a drug addict. It didn’t take long for him to be arrested for a burglary, something that he had been doing frequently with the help of Sophia and others. The autobiography says that his arrest was more because of his association with a white woman than the burglary cases.
The Massachusetts state prison provided opportunities for Malcolm’s intellectual and spiritual growth. He was kept in solitary confinement because of his fierce temper and the depression caused by drug withdrawal which had earned him the nickname of Satan. A black prisoner called Bimbi becomes his counsellor. Malcolm begins to make use of the prison library and soon takes interest in the organisation called Nation of Islam and its spiritual leader Elijah Muhammad.
Nation of Islam taught its followers that the blacks were the first humans on earth and they lived in peace under Allah’s care. Then some mad scientist unleashed the evil race of white men who imposed their wicked ways on everyone. The ancient Pharaohs who built the pyramids and Aesop the fabulist were all black men. Soon Malcolm X rose as a powerful orator and debater in the prison commanding much respect.
In 1952 when he was released on parole, he met Elijah and became a preacher of Nation of Islam. He changed his surname to X, the indeterminate letter which was to represent his original but lost African family name. Elijah appointed him a minister at the Detroit temple. Eventually he married Betty.
Malcolm became famous as a preacher and was invited to speak even by universities. Elijah was not quite pleased with this popularity. Soon allegations began to emerge that Malcolm was trying to take over Nation of Islam. In the meanwhile, Elijah’s popularity was facing significant threat from two paternity suits filed by his secretaries. Elijah was said to have had many children with his secretaries apart from those with his own wife.
Malcolm’s comments on John F Kennedy following his assassination became an excuse for Elijah to impose a 90-day silence on him. Nation of Islam also issued death threats on Malcolm. He left for Florida accepting the invitation of Cassius Clay, the world-famous boxing champion. Clay had already developed Islamic leanings and soon he declared his Muslim affiliation and took the name Muhammad Ali.
His relationships with Elijah having gone sour, Malcolm abandoned Nation of Islam and founded Muslim Mosque, Inc. He went on Haj to Mecca which gave him the title of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and he used that title in all his subsequent communications though he continued to be known in America as Malcolm X.
The autobiography ends there. All autobiographies are lies, as Bernard Shaw said. The lies are not meant to be lies, however. Autobiographies are written in order to give shape to lives which are otherwise chaotic. An autobiography presents a person not as he is but as how he wants to be seen by the world. Moreover, human memory is not a highly reliable source of information. The present changes the past inevitably because we reinterpret the past to soothe our present. We accommodate the pains of the past into the joys of the present so that they become more bearable.
Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s wife, was not quite happy with her married life. She complained frequently about her dissatisfaction with their sexual life. Malcolm was a misogynist and a neglectful husband. We don’t see all these in the autobiography, however. Malcolm got Betty pregnant repeatedly just to keep her home, away from her potential extramarital affairs. We don’t see that either in the autobiography.
Nevertheless, the autobiography is good. We shouldn’t expect autobiographies to be ruthlessly honest especially when written by someone like Malcolm who was trying to soothe his personal wounds with the palliative of words. The book does provide a lot of insights into human life and nature. For instance, it shows us how certain events in life leave deep scars in our psyches so much so that even God (Allah or whatever you call that) can’t heal certain behavioural impacts of those wounds. The painful childhood and youth of Malcolm gave him certain basic rules of life which not even Allah could change later. They were the hustler’s street rules: (1) Be suspicious of everyone; (2) Know your enemy; and (3) Your public image is everything.
Even when Malcolm taught Islam as America’s ultimate panacea, the religion failed to erase the hustler’s street rules from his psyche. That’s how life is. That’s one of the many things we learn from this autobiography.
For those who are interested, my memoir, Autumn Shadows, is available at Amazon as eBook. Click here for a copy.
PS. This is part of a series being written for the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge. The previous parts are:
3. The Castle
10. Jude the Obscure
14. No Exit
16. The Plague
18. The Rebel