When Malcolm Little was only six years old, his father, a Baptist minister, was beaten and killed by white men in Lansing, Michigan, who later reported that he had fallen onto a streetcar track. His smart and determined mother continued to teach her eight children stories of the heritage of their people in Africa, until Social Services came to tear her little ones out of her arms and drag her to a mental institution, “not a unique occurrence for strong, independent women at the time.”* Malcolm was fourteen when this happened, and his younger siblings were separated and sent to several foster homes. Since Malcolm had been a troublesome child, he had already been sent to a foster home by himself. Within a year, Malcolm made a trip to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella, which became a turning point in his young life.
Malcolm was a very intelligent child and a good student, yet when he confided to his teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up, the man told him to be realistic and aim to be a carpenter or something else that was achievable for a black man. Shortly after this, during the bus ride to Boston, Malcolm saw a black lynching victim hanging from a tree in rural Pennsylvania. Convinced that no effort on his part could change his hopeless future, Malcolm rejected his sister’s good advice, quit school, and started spending time with the criminal element in the lower parts of Boston. During a stint as a refreshments salesman on the railroad, he visited Harlem and fell in love with jazz and the underworld of the 1940s. By the time he was twenty-one, Malcolm and a friend were convicted of breaking and entering and sent to prison. While in prison, his brothers persuaded him to join them in their conversion to Islam, and Malcolm Little changed his name to Malcolm X, a change that erased his ancestors’ slave-owners’ surname and stood in for the tribal name that his family no longer knew.
The prison years of 1946-1952 are where the action of this story ends. The author, Malcolm’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz, says that she wrote this fictionalized biography “because I believe that accurate information about him and his life’s journey will empower others—especially those fatherless children searching for their purpose and their identity—to achieve their highest potential.”*
Since I have been studying Islam lately, when I read the many starred reviews of this book, I realized that an inquiry into the Nation of Islam in the U.S. could be related. After all, I had never understood why people of African descent in North America would think that Islam was a religion better suited to them than Christianity, since Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed had all come from the Middle East. I had always read about civil rights struggles from the Southern perspective, and many of the leaders of that movement were, like Malcolm X’s father, Christian ministers. Furthermore, Mohammed describes himself in the Qur’an as the prophet to the Arabic-speaking people. Shabazz clears up this mystery in the notes section in the back of the book when she states that many of the slaves that were taken to America had been kidnapped from Muslim countries in western Africa, so the converts to Nation of Islam (NOI) felt that they were returning to their roots. Aha!
As far as this novel empowering young people, I have my qualms. None of Malcolm X’s later work is evident in this story of his childhood and adolescence. Before he turns eighteen, Malcolm has dropped out of school, spent most of his time drunk or high on drugs, sold drugs, hustled and cheated, stolen, and broken into houses. He is unfaithful to a lovely young girl, but sleeps with a less reputable—and later, married—woman over several years. As a matter of fact, it is this white woman who eventually gives the testimony that leads to Malcolm and his friend’s conviction. Shabazz says in her “Historical Context” notes in the back: “When Malcolm went to prison in 1946, he became just one among a vast population of despairing, often hopeless, black prisoners…. [T]he disproportionate imprisonment and sentencing of blacks are phenomena that continue today.”* I am not arguing with her conclusion, but I don’t think her father’s teen years are an example of inappropriate imprisonment and sentencing. It’s surprising that he hadn’t been caught years earlier! He was a criminal, after all.
As a defense of a young man who went astray because of the horrific conditions of the culture and of his life in particular, this novel works. This child of high intelligence and lofty ideals was beaten down at every turn until he had no hope for the future. The virtuous people he knew were being killed by a system he couldn’t defeat, and the most successful individuals he met were living in an alternate world that he was smart enough to manipulate to his benefit—at least for a while. Furthermore, if he had not had all of these experiences and even prison time, he would not have been molded into the future charismatic leader who became so famous.
Although this was an emotional and riveting read, if it were not for the extensive back matter, I’m not sure that a teenager who had never heard of Malcolm X would be positively influenced by it. Used in conjunction with a classroom unit on the civil rights era, it would be more effective. The novel did lead me to more research online, though, as I realized that my knowledge of the civil rights movement was seen almost exclusively from the Southern actors and events. Along with most Americans, I had come to admire Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the non-violent, passive resistance that he had learned from Mahatma Gandhi. Malcolm X did not agree with Reverend King, however, and the title of a biography about him uses his quote as its title: By Any Means Necessary. His views on interracial relationships in the U.S. were startlingly different from those of the civil rights leaders most of us learn about as a child, and I encourage you to take a look, if you have a big blank spot in your education here, as I did.
I do wish Ms. Shabazz had paginated the very informative 28 pages of notes, timelines, and bibliography in the back of the book. They were very helpful, and, for reasons outlined above, essential to the understanding of the work. Lots to think about.
*Taken from the “Historical Context” section in the unpaginated section in the back.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are—believe me— solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.