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X, Malcolm



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:
14. No Exit
17Quixote
18. The Rebel

Comments

  1. Autobiography allows the author to say his side of story and to justify his actions. Malcom X was an interesting character. In spite of his shortcomings, his role against racial discrimination cannot be denied.

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    Replies
    1. Autobiographies are usually written for therapeutic purposes. Hence the apparent touch of fiction. Those familiar with autobiography will understand that.

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  2. I had no idea about Malcolm X and his autobiography. But I agree with what Shaw says that they are all lies. I feel that the facts are always twisted to show the person in question in the most positive way blurring the lines between facts and fiction.

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    1. But, but, Sonia, is there anything called absolute truth in human life? Life is not math and science where absolutes rule. Life is about perspectives.

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  3. A celebrated figure who had his own arguments for all that he preached, however controversial they might have been.

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    1. Yes, had he been born in better circumstances he would have conquered greater peaks. That is fate.

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  4. Had heard of him. Now now more thanks to you :)
    Interesting street rules. One has to be street smart for sure.
    "All autobiographies are lies" - small wonder, important facts are kept out... We never know the truth.

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    1. All truth will never be known in human life anyway. Do we even know ourselves fully?

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  5. We interpret our pasts to suit our present, that is so true. That is how we make peace with ourselves. I hadn't thought of autobiographies as a means to soothe one's wounds. Having started your book, I understand it now. And didn't know about Malcolm, thanks for sharing his story.

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    Replies
    1. I'm delighted to have you as a reader of my memoir. Certain readers add value to a book.

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  6. I just had heard this name .Came to know about him today only . I never even thought that autobiographies are lies

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  7. This book is so on my TBR list. Thank you for a wonderful introduction and insight to the book.

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  8. This was quite an interesting read. Came to know a lot about Malcolm X.

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  9. Autobiographies are all lies...Now this will stay with me for a while. In that case I think what we are for the world is a lie only. Because even when we don't write autobiographies what we live to "show" to the world is a perfect picture of us. I'm kind of confused by this. On the other hand there are always two sides of the same coin. One that we see and another that is seen by the world. So which side is the truth?
    On another note, thank you for this. I had heard of Malcolm X but not in so much detail. Another chapter added.

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    Replies
    1. Aren't we liars even if we don't write autobiographies? Isn't there some pretension in what we do most of the time? What is truth other than what we project?

      I'm an autobiographer myself. 😃

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  10. The one biopic, a recent one, that came to my mind was that of the movie "Sanju, a biopic". As rightly mentioned the biopics are lies that try to white wash the deeds of the past by working on the fragile and short lived public memory. Malcom X appears to me a person of many layers and thus intriguing.

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    1. Shaw didn't literally mean the lie thing, Anagha. It's a metaphor for the protean nature of truth. Can the entire truth be known about any person even by the person himself? Most people are intriguing. Malcolm had slightly more unique experiences and hence his life captures our interest. He is not lying, he is curing himself by writing his autobiography.

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  11. Malcolm X was a real inspiration for many. Hope to read his autobiography some day.
    Noor Anand Chawla

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  12. Never knew about imposing a 90-day silence on him.

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    Replies
    1. Religions always know how to impose silence on the faithful.

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  13. Had heard of him but didn't know about his autobiography....will try to read it some day. But yes, autobiographies only portray a picture that the person would like to see himself as... That's very true!!

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  14. This goes straight up my reading list. Thanks for the suggestion.
    Happy A2Zing :)
    -- rightpurchasing.com

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  15. Though I was aware of his assassination but wasn't aware of his life story! This made for a very interesting read. Will check out Malcolm X's autobiography!

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  16. Some insight into what men do for power.All the while preaching and exploiting people.

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    1. Aren't religions just tools for wielding power over people? My post today is on Harari's book 'Sapiens' which looks at this theme in a little more detail.

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  17. I only had faint ideas of who he was before I watched the 1992 Spike Lee biography. Denzel Washington had a great role there, and the story I guess was largely taken up from X's autobiography.

    Excellent summary of the book. Kudos.

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    Replies
    1. I guess the autobiography must have played a big role in the movie script, but I don't know.

      Thanks for the kudos.

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  18. About Betty, is it written in his autobiography? Till now, I never gave much thought to 'autobiography' just read the book. This book sounds to give insight about life a lot more. The hustler’s street rules: (1) Be suspicious of everyone; (2) Know your enemy; and (3) Your public image is everything... I've heard about these rules and seen it in movies.

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    Replies
    1. Those details about Betty are mentioned in a biography written by someone else.

      Delete
  19. I have downloaded the book of yours. Congratulations. I will read it once I complete this challenge as I am way behind the schedule.

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    Replies
    1. Delighted to hear you'll be reading my book. A2Z is getting over anyway.

      Delete

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