According to Dyson (45), Malcolm X is viewed by different people in contrasting ways. Some hold him in high regard, considering him a potent lens that enables them to clearly comprehend their own sense of identity and highlights their political and racial concerns. Conversely, for those who have contempt for him, he is regarded as a distorted mirror reflecting violence and animosity.
Malcolm X’s identity is a topic of debate, with some seeing him as a visionary who challenged perceptions and others perceiving him as a racist and aggressive instigator. Despite having a distinct approach from peaceful activists like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X was an extraordinary revolutionary figure who shared the same goals: achieving equality and ending the oppression faced by African Americans. A website notes that he played a significant role in black radicalism, encompassing black religion, black nationalism, Panafricanism, and socialism. To fully comprehend his achievements, it is essential to explore the different stages of his life.
According to Malcolm X, his life can be seen as a series of changes (Website). He went through three main phases: as Malcolm Little, he faced addiction and engaged in criminal activities. As Malcolm X, he transformed from a small-time thief to an influential priest for the Nation of Islam. He advocated radical solutions to address racial problems in America. Lastly, as Malik El-Shabazz, he shifted from supporting segregation to promoting racial unity and equality. Comparing Malcolm X’s beliefs throughout these stages reveals a significant evolution.
Although some may perceive Malcolm and Malik El-Shabazz as distinct individuals with conflicting perspectives, they are essentially the same person. Malik El-Shabazz’s greatness stemmed from his determination to improve by recognizing his errors, gaining knowledge from them, and dedicating himself to sharing the wisdom of his experiences with others for their personal growth.
Malcolm Little, also known as “Detroit Red,” led a life characterized by criminal activities such as petty thievery and con artistry during his early twenties. He adopted a flamboyant style with a “conked” hairstyle and zoot suit. Struggling to find legitimate employment, Malcolm resorted to hustling in order to finance his extravagant lifestyle. He became self-centered, devoid of moral principles, and unafraid of both people and death. Additionally, he indulged in various illicit substances. According to Malcolm, he believed there were only three things worth fearing: a job, getting caught by law enforcement, and being incarcerated. However, he eventually realized that he felt fearless and described himself as being like an animal. (X)
Little’s criminal behavior and indifferent approach may be connected to his upbringing. In his childhood, he observed racist incidents that resulted in the demise of his father and the institutionalization of his mother in a psychiatric hospital. Malcolm achieved academic excellence during his early years and aspired to become a lawyer. However, a derogatory response from a white teacher who stated “You’re a nigger and a lawyer is an unrealistic goal for a nigger,” (X) derailed those aspirations. According to Bruce Perry, Little’s troubled upbringing impacted Malcolm’s intricate leadership style as an adult (Dyson 49).
Despite his hatred for whites, he had a deep-seated desire to emulate them, leading him to straighten his hair and pursue a relationship with a white woman. Malcolm’s involvement in burglary ultimately landed him in jail, prompting him to engage in self-reflection. Reflecting on his jail term, Malcolm concluded that their offense was not the burglary itself, but rather the act of being romantically involved with white women.
Malcolm Little experienced his initial religious awakening while incarcerated, where he delved into the teachings of the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Mohamed. It was during this period that he emerged as a political figure. The discovery of his newfound faith empowered him to recognize the innate power of persuasion and oration within himself. He came to the realization that his imprisonment was not solely his own fault; rather, it was a consequence of the societal structure in the United States. According to Malcolm, individuals who could have made groundbreaking advancements in space exploration or medical research were all casualties of the American social system. With increasing knowledge and religious devotion, Malcolm would later transform into a highly political figure.
After joining the Nation of Islam, Malcolm Little became Malcolm X. He chose the letter X as his surname to symbolize the unknown until he and his community could reclaim their original names, which were taken from them by slave owners. Discovering Islam brought Malcolm a great sense of appreciation for his “savior,” Elijah Muhammad. He wholeheartedly believed in everything Muhammad preached and was dedicated to recruiting new members for the religion.
Nation of Islam. Malcolm X, now directed his hate, energy, intelligence, and passion toward a specific purpose. He dedicated himself to working tirelessly for his leader, sacrificing sleep. Remarkably, Malcolm X transformed himself, abandoning his vices and embodying virtuous character. However, he refrained from condemning violence and did not endorse integration. In fact, he also criticized the more progressive Afro-American leaders.
Fifteen years after embracing the Nation of Islam, Malcolm began to doubt the religion due to allegations of sexual misconduct and illegitimate children against Elijah Muhammad. When Malcolm confronted Muhammad about this, Muhammad confessed. As a result, Malcolm started questioning Elijah Muhammad’s beliefs and his own involvement with the Nation of Islam. Meanwhile, Elijah Muhammad and other leaders of the organization grew more jealous of Malcolm’s success and spread false information to tarnish his reputation. Eventually, in 1964, Malcolm decided to leave the Nation of Islam.
He informed white opponents that he now had the freedom to confront white supremacists thanks to Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslim movement. He cautioned them that any harm inflicted upon Reverend King or other black Americans exercising their rights in Alabama would result in a powerful physical retaliation from him and others against the Ku Klux Klan and its allies.
People who don’t adhere to the philosophy of non-violence and believe in asserting their right to self-defense, regardless of the methods used, are not restrained, as stated by Breitman.
Malcolm suffered deep emotional pain when Elijah Muhammad dismissed him, but he persevered and founded Muslim Mosque Inc. while also embarking on a pilgrimage to Mecca. This journey profoundly affected his views as he became less militant and recognized that white individuals could occasionally support the black movement. He criticized Muhammad’s teachings and instead taught the authentic Islam he encountered in the East, adopting the name Malik-El Shabazz. Despite learning about the Black Muslim’s plan to assassinate him, Malcolm showed incredible bravery. Though aware of the significant danger he faced, preaching his message was more important to him than succumbing to death. Before his death, he acknowledged that assisting the black community would bring him satisfaction, but attributed all accomplishments to Allah and only accepted responsibility for his mistakes.
According to Malcolm, education was paramount in his life. Despite lacking formal education, he gained knowledge and formed his philosophy through life experiences. Malcolm described his high school as a black ghetto, his college education as the streets of Harlem, and his master’s degree as the six and a half years spent in prison. His education on the Nation of Islam while in prison inspired him.
Malcolm underwent a transformation during his time in prison, leading him to become a better individual and advocate for his beliefs. He described this change as being blinded by the truth. During his trip to Mecca, Malcolm learned about the customs and beliefs of Muslims in that region, which had a profound effect on him. Despite the frustrations he felt due to racial inequality, Malcolm expressed in a letter to his wife the positive impact of this experience.
During my pilgrimage to Mecca, I observed an extraordinary demonstration of genuine hospitality and an impressive unity among people of various ethnicities and races. This deeply impactful encounter prompted me to reevaluate my beliefs and abandon any preconceived notions. Whether they were Muslims who identified as ‘white’ or African Muslims from countries such as Nigeria, Sudan, and Ghana, I encountered equal sincerity in their words, actions, and deeds (Haley, 339-340).
“The political philosophy of Black nationalism advocates for Black individuals having control over the politics and politicians within their own community. The economic philosophy of Black nationalism simply emphasizes the need for us to have control over our community’s economy. The social philosophy of Black nationalism highlights the necessity for us to unite and combat the evils such as alcoholism, drug addiction, and other vices that are undermining the moral fabric of our community.” (Website) Malcolm X personified Black nationalism, propelling it into the public consciousness and inspiring numerous individuals to support his movement.
My belief is that Malcolm X would not want us to focus so heavily on documenting his past actions, but rather on what can be accomplished and is being accomplished in support of his cause today. “During the 19th century, the primary discussion that influenced our radical tradition was
According to a website, the debate on emancipation has historically centered around ending slavery and establishing freedom. In the 20th century, the focus has shifted towards self-determination and breaking free from urban capitalist structures, including culture, economics, and politics. It is believed that Malcolm would have continued evolving and devoting attention to these particular matters.
Breitman, George. Malcolm X Speaks p. 32, New York, 1990
Eric Michael Dyson’s essay “Inventing and Interpreting Malcolm X” delves into the significance of biography in comprehending and deciphering the life of Malcolm X. This specific essay is featured in The Seductions of Biography, a publication edited by Mary Rhiel and David Suchoff under Routledge in 1996.
Haley, Alex The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley (Ballantine Books, 1964)
Website: www.brothermalcolm.net (10/22/00)
X is a film directed by Spike Lee and featuring performances by Denzell Washington and Angela Bassett. It was released in 1992 by Warner.