The Autobiography of Malcolm X

A friend of mine in Boise is a psychologist.  We went skiing together one day this past winter and talked about making sense of the past, faith, struggles and changes in direction one’s life can take.  At one point in time he recommended this book to me.  With any book recommendation you have a person, the literature and the friendship.  I like pondering the nexus of these aspects and keeping it on my mind while reading.  Trying to decipher why this book, this friend, and what meaning they found in it.

This is a racially diverse place and I had several very eye opening conversations with inmates who saw I was reading this autobiography.  People I had yet to converse with came up to me to share their thoughts, insights and ask for mine.  I spoke with Christians, Muslims, white people and black people.  Some felt Malcolm X was racially devisive, others a steward of justice for an oppressed race.

Ironically, many people talk about how Malcolm X claims prison changed his life.  It did.  However, that’s because of what he made of the experience.  He also takes less than 10% of the book to talk about his incarceration.  His time away really sparked a desire for him to read and learn.  He also became more aware of and passionate about the challenges affecting the black race in America.  He wanted to help, to ensure the rights of oppressed minorities and lift up his fellow man.  His mission was not self serving – he worked tirelessly for others.

He talks extensively about the political oppression, economic exploitation and societal injustices black American’s face.  When he flew to Mecca to make his pilgrimage he noticed a black man was flying the plane.  This shocked him, even he couldn’t imagine such a thing.  That’s not right – that right there highlights some of the issues he was battling.

It is always healthy to put me struggles in perspective and learn of the challenges (far worse ones) many people have faced or are currently facing.  I don’t want to be here, but I am going to come home and I’m pretty confident that I’m going to really enjoy the rest of my life.  Compare that to slavery.  The irony doesn’t pass me by of working in HoHorticultureuring a prison sentence while generations of others were ripped away from their families, never to see them again, and forced into lives as indentured servants performing back breaking labor day in and day out only to be beaten, imprisoned, and provided no freedom – inindefinitely I understand many people were not fond of Malcolm X’s tactics, his style, and tried to paint him in a negative light.  In this instance, I’m looking at this book through a different lens.  I read the book and took his side, trying to see his story, his struggles, from his point of view.  From that perspective I see someone who wanted to help human beings who have been systematically kept down for so long.  He wanted his followers to live a better life through moral, mental and spiritual reform.  He also continually grew, learned and transformed.  After his visit to Mecca he changed some of his previously held thought patterns and put aside earlier conclusions he had made.  We can all learn from someone who is willing to face facts, accept new experiences, and implement new knowledge.  Even for a leader as prolific and powerful as him, he was willing to change his point of view.  He also doesn’t live in the past – he focuses on building a better future for all those around him, for society.

Separately, I read about an earthquake in Italy, sometime in the early 20th century.  Somewhere around 95% of the population of a town was killed.  People had to start relying on each other and they all came together.  Upper class, lower class, male, female, children and adults.  They were huddling around the same fires, fighting the same battles, dealing with the same anguish and struggles.  One of the survivors had a pretty profound quote: “The earthquake gave us what the law promises but does not, in fact, deliver, which is the equality of all man.”

A part of the book I found similar to a degree and well timed involved a night Malcolm X was overseas.  Keep in mind I woke up at 4:30 am and had trouble falling back asleep the night I was reading this part.  In this chapter, he was sleeping with eight other Muslims on a mat, under the night sky, while on pilgrimage.  He realized that pilgrims from every land, every color, class, and rank, all snore in the same language.  As I’m reading this and the person below me is snoring.  For him, Mecca changed his perceptions on color, societal norms and love.  He saw people of all races supporting one another, caring for each other, and treating everyone with respect.  He was inspired, you could feel it coming through the pages.  Then to bring it back home to something as simple as sleeping on a mat with several others (we all need sleep) and dealing with the snoring of everyone and making that connection, that we’re all really the same, it’s beautiful.

That’s what he was fighting for – equality.  He makes many good points and one that hit me hard was when he asked how many people could even just admit things weren’t fair, weren’t right.  It takes me back to the time of George Floyd and all the protests and vigils.  People could have simply come together and said “Wow, this is not right.  Why did someone kneel on another human’s neck for 9+ minutes while three other officers stood idly by and the man was saying he couldn’t breathe.”  This type of encounter doesn’t frequently happen with white citizens and the police.  Foundationally, I think that’s what needed to be addressed.  However, it just didn’t come out.  Excuses were made: he shouldn’t have stole, he shouldn’t have ran, he shouldn’t have resisted.  But he also shouldn’t have died, and the color of his skin played a role in the way he was treated.  There are systemic issues at play.  So sure, Malcolm X may have appeared to some to be aggressive while others saw him as passionate.  However, he was out there helping people, fighting for them, and working to make the world a better place for some when it should have been equal for all.

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