The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of those books that leaves a lasting imprint on the reader. The circumstances around its publication, the journey of the book itself, is fascinating, and makes Alex Haley’s foreword the most interesting introduction to a book that I have ever read.
The fact that Haley started working with Malcolm when he was an integral part of Nation Of Islam (NOI), and that their partnership continued as Malcolm’s relationship disintegrated with Elijah Muhammad, allows the book to really provide the reader with a greater understanding of his story.
Malcolm X has long since been hailed as a revolutionary figure, his image copied and pasted on the front of t-shirts like Che Guevara, his quotes taken out of context like Martin Luther King, and his story rewritten or erased from the school curriculum, like many other figures whose ideologies couldn’t be easily assimilated with a mainstream message.
Often, people use his earlier quotes to try and paint a certain image of the man, but those who read to the end of the book can balance these statements with the wisdom that came with experience and maturity. It’s wrong to see Malcolm X as anything more than a man – he himself said, “I realized how very dangerous it is for people to hold any other human being in such high esteem, especially to consider anyone some sort of ‘protected’ or ‘divine guided’ person”.
The 21st of February 2015 is the 50th anniversary of his death and so I have gone back to the folded-over pages of my copy of the Autobiography in order to share some of the quotes and paragraphs that trigger modern-day questions in my head, over half a century after this man first said them.
I don’t endorse everything the brother says, but I respect his dedication to a cause, his discipline and his ability to learn, change and continually ask questions.
Rest in Peace.
Quotes taken from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with the assistance of Alex Haley.
“I read aimlessly, until I learned to read selectively, with a purpose”. (p.251)
“You let the caged-up black man start thinking, the same way I did when I first heard Elijah Muhammad’s teachings: let him start thinking how, with better breaks when he was young and ambitious he might have been a lawyer, a doctor, a scientist, anything. You let this caged-up black man start realizing, as I did, how from the first landing of the first slave ship, the millions of black men in America have been like sheep in a den of wolves. That’s why black prisoners become Muslims so fast when Elijah Muhammad’s teachings filter into their cages by the way of other Muslims convicts”. (p.279)
“Well, sir, I see the same boycott reasoning for Negroes asked to join the Army, Navy and Air Force. Why should we go off to die somewhere to preserve a so-called ‘democracy’ that gives a white immigrant of one day more than it gives the black man with four hundred years of slaving and serving this country?” (p.375)
“You see, most whites, even when they can credit a Negro with some intelligence, will still feel that all he can talk about is the race issue; most whites never feel that Negroes can contribute anything to other areas of thought, and ideas. You just notice how rarely you will ever hear whites asking any Negroes what they think about the problem of world health, or the space race to land men on the moon”. (p.500)
“What began to break my faith was that, try as I might, I couldn’t hide, I couldn’t evade, that Mr Muhammad had, instead of facing what he had done before his followers, as a human weakness or as a fulfillment of prophecy – which I sincerely believe that Muslims would have understood, or at least they would have accepted – Mr Muhammad had, instead, been willing to hide, to cover up what he had done.
That was my major blow.
That was how I first began to realize that I had believed in Mr Muhammad more than he believed in himself.
And that was how, after twelve years of never thinking for as much as five minutes about myself, I became able finally to muster the nerve, and the strength, to start facing the facts, to think for myself”. (p.416)
“It was Tuesday, 19th May 1964 – my thirty-ninth birthday – when I arrived in Algiers. A lot of water had gone under the bridge in those years. In some ways, I had more experiences than a dozen men. The taxi driver, while taking me to the Hotel Aletti, described the atrocities the French had committed, and personal measures that he had taken to get even. I walked around Algiers, hearing rank-and-file expressions of hatred for America for supporting the oppressors of the Algerians. They were true revolutionists, not afraid of death. They had, for so long, faced death”. (p.477)
“I remember that in the press conference, I used the word ‘Negro’, and I was firmly corrected. ‘The word is not favored here, Mr Malcolm X. The term Afro-American has greater meaning, and dignity.’ I sincerely apologized. I don’t think that I said ‘Negro’ again as long as I was in Africa”. (p.470)
“I’ve had enough of someone else’s propaganda…I’m for truth, no matter who tells it.I’m for justice no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole”. (p.483)
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Iman is an Algerian British freelance journalist based in London. She has lived and worked in a Haitian settlement in the Dominican Republic as well as in Colombia. Her interests include social and racial issues in the African diaspora and the Middle East, and she can be found at @imaniamrani