I remember well the first time I encountered the life of Malcolm X. I was living at Jeff Street Baptist Center beside the Clarksdale Housing Project in Louisville, Kentucky working as a youth minister to black kids in the neighborhood. My kids especially liked the part of Spike Lee’s movie about Malcolm X when Malcolm leads the Muslim brothers to the police station to demand justice for their beaten brother. On my first Sunday of work I entered a discussion they were having about The Autobiography of Malcom X, a discussion inspired by the movie about Malcolm X by Spike Lee. The first question they asked me was, “What color was Jesus?” It was a great question with which to start because it helped me ask the question, “How will my ‘whiteness’ affect my life and work among black people?” It is a question I ask myself today as I prepare to teach in an inner-city school among mostly black children and families. It is a question our book takes head on.
I was intrigued by the title one of the news shows chose to use to describe the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X – “The hate that hate produced.” As I read chapter 10 in the book I was confronted by the thought that the dehumanization of white people by the words of Elijah Muhammed was similar to the dehumanization of black people by the words of Judge Thomas P. Brady. Both of them believed in stories about the origins of white people and black people respectively that told that those whites and blacks were less than human. The stories that we believe about people who are different from us are important stories and it is vitally important that we seek and find out if those stories are true. How can we know if those stories are true if we do not spend time listening to people who are different from us.
I am thinking through a question that was raised several times in the book, “What can I do as a white person to help black people struggle against dehumanization?” I think Malcolm gave a thoughtful, thought provoking answer to that question. Early in his time as a Muslim in the Nation of Islam he said that white people could do nothing to help in the struggle. Later, though, after his conversion to orthodox Islam, he said that white people who wanted to join the struggle could not join black people but should go to their own racist people and try to change them. His later answer confronts a basic idea that I have, the idea that white people and black people, that all people, regardless of color, can join together and work together for a more human society.
I appreciate the way Malcolm saw the struggle of black people as a struggle for human rights instead of just as a struggle for civil rights. I think he was right when he said that black people could make a case in the United Nations against America because of America’s violation of the human rights of black people. I appreciated the way Spike Lee brought in Nelson Mandela at the end of his movie about Malcolm X to speak about human dignity. I have thought in other reading for our class that the struggle of black people against white supremacy was a human rights/human dignity struggle.
I understand how Malcolm’s trip outside of America helped transform him. I lived for three years in a remote village in southwestern Mali, West Africa. I worked there as a missionary and as a teacher. I was a minority as a white person in the midst of a black majority. I was a minority as a Christian in the midst of a Muslim majority. I was a minority as a “rich American” in the midst of a “poor African” majority. The humility and the hospitality in which and with which my African friends accepted me transformed my life. Today, I hope to accept minorities around me here in America with the same humility and hospitality in which and with which my African friends accepted me.
I was humbled by Malcolm’s words toward the end of the book as he spoke about his own death. Those words helped me hear that Malcolm was a person who “hungered and thirsted for justice” (as the Bible says in the Sermon on the Mount). And as is often true for those who hunger and thirst for justice, for those who speak the truth in the face of lies, for those who have hope in the midst of fear, they are killed by those who are responsible for the injustice, the lies, and the fear. I think one of the remarkable aspects of Malcolm’s life and death is that he spoke the truth to white people concerning their thoughts, feelings, and actions toward black people. Oftentimes, the truth is hard to hear. Those who hear it become defensive and struggle against it for a while. It must be the foundation on which a more human world is built.
This book helps me remember the damage that religion can do when it goes awry. When religion guides people, wonderful things can come from the guidance, like the way the Nation of Islam could help turn around the lives of the most destitute, dissolute of people. When people guide religion, though, terrible things can come from the guidance, like Elijah Muhammed using the stories of David, Solomon, and Noah from the Bible to excuse his moral lapse. I remember that I must allow my religion to guide me, not me guide my religion.
I wonder if Malcolm’s views about women changed as much as his views about white people changed from the beginning of the book to the end of the book. He seemed to be crystal clear in his understanding and denunciation of racism but murky (at best) in his understanding and denunciation of sexism.
I think The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a story about transformation. The story helps me better understand what it means to be a human being. It is a story about “who we are” and “who we are becoming.” Alex Haley helped chronicle the major change in Malcolm X’s nature. He helped us see the transformation in Malcolm’s body, the major change from an outwardly dissolute life to an outwardly moral life. He helped us see the transformation in Malcolm’s mind and heart, the major change from believing that each white person is a devil to believing that white people collectively did evil things. He helped us see the transformation in Malcolm’s soul, the major change from being committed to Elijah Muhammed and the Nation of Islam to being committed to Allah and Islam. This book helps me ask the questions, “Do I judge people by who they are or do I hope for who they are becoming?” It also helps me compare Malcolm’s life to the Civil Rights Movement and to ask the question, “Do I judge the movement by what it was/is or do I hope for what it is becoming?”
Malcolm X’s last words in his autobiography state his belief that after his death the white man would identify him with hate. I am one white man, however, who does not identify him with hate. Because of the transformation in his life I identify him with faith, hope, and love. Oftentimes these three cornerstones of religion seem weak in the presence of certainty, despair, and hate. I see them as a slow flowing stream. The stream also seems weak in the presence of the hard, jagged rocks over which it slowly flows. Over the years, though, the slowly flowing stream transforms the hard, jagged rocks into smooth stones. Over the life of Malcolm X, over the years of the struggle for human rights and civil rights, seemingly weak faith, hope, and love become the strongest elements in the work of transformation.
I think this was our deepest class discussion so far. We almost derailed our discussion of the Civil Rights Movement by sharing many emotional responses to Malcolm’s attack on Christianity but moved on to confront some of the most important questions concerning the Civil Rights Movement. One of those questions was raised by Rebeccah, Lucy, and Grace as they reflected on the idea that Malcolm X’s rhetoric was reverse racism. In the beginning of the discussion I tried to clarify the terms “prejudice” and “racism” to help in this kind of discussion. I stated that “prejudice” is disliking/hating people because of the color of their skin and “racism” is that dislike/hate with the power (socio-economic, cultural, political) to hurt people because of the color of their skin. By that definition Malcolm X and his rhetoric cannot be considered racist because he had no power in American society to hurt white people (though I suppose if he helped arm black people with weapons to kill white people in a violent uprising then he would be considered a racist). Someone like Ross Barnett can be considered a racist because he and his rhetoric had power to hurt black people. I thought that Rebeccah was poignant in making the comment that we as a class have been merciless toward the words and actions of white supremacists but were willing to make excuses for the words and actions of the black supremacy of Malcolm X.
Malcolm X certainly fought fire with fire. Two of our students, Josie and _____ helped me see that when a white supremacist called a black person a chimpanzee, Malcolm X called him a white devil. When a white supremacist commented on the immorality of black people, Malcolm X commented on the sexual debasement and perversity of white people. The problem with fighting fire with fire is – what do you do when the fire with which you fight is a match and the fire with which your opponent fights is an inferno?
I was impressed that Grace tried to lead us back from emotional outbursts to a civil discussion. This is wisdom from a young person.Our discussion helped me remember that my main struggle with Malcolm X’s words and life is not with his attack on white people or his attack on Christianity. It is with his belief that white people and black people cannot work together to try to build the beloved community. He confronts me with the question, “Can we overcome together?” Or must we separate in order to overcome?