The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X

★★★★★ (5/5)

This autobiography has left a profound effect on me. A highly recommended read, not just to familiarize yourself with the injustices faced by the black man (or any minority) but to truly comprehend the limits of human endurance and valor in face of odds. An important takeaway from this towering autobiography has been that greatness lies not just in endurance, but also in the capacity to recognize, rethink and reevaluate life’s purpose. Only in admitting to a mistake and rectifying it does true virtuousness lie.

Malcolm X “delighted in twisting the white man’s tail, and in making Uncle Toms, compromisers, and accommodationists, thoroughly ashamed of the urbane and smiling hypocrisy we practice merely to exist in a world whose values we both envy and despise.”

Whilst reading this book, the cloud of ignorance which envelopes everyone to varying degrees, fizzles out. You become more mindful of innate prejudices, of deliberate hateful rhetoric propagated by the few to suppress masses. Malcolm X repeatedly preached to not fall for the white man’s patronizing actions, which appear helpful only on the surface but are rooted in systemic humiliation and scorn. Malcolm’s philosophy was founded upon revolution and not evolution in order to bring radical change, which depending on the circumstances, seems like the correct approach.

Keep letting the white man tell them how much “progress” they are making. They’ve heard it so much they’ve almost gotten brainwashed into believing it—or at least accepting it.

I also became cognizant of a few markers of black culture that are so prevalent in mainstream media. Terms like zoot suit, lindy-hopping and speakeasies were introduced to me in the context of Harlem lifestyle, which Malcolm X paints so vividly. Complementing this were numerous artisans and musicians mentioned in the book which aroused my curiosity and I was ushered into the world of jazz and blues music. Here are a few examples:

  • Johnny Hodges’ “Daydream” (He did not pay Malcolm X after shoeshine)
  • Eddie Vinson’s “My Big Brass Bed” (He joked about conk hair but was bald himself)
  • Sy Oliver’s “Yes Indeed” (Sy was Malcolm’s first brush with celebrities in Harlem)

This book can be broadly divided into four parts: Malcolm’s Childhood, Malcolm as a Harlemite, as a member of Nation of Islam, and lastly as an orthodox Muslim with subsequent political and racial awakening. Throughout the narration Malcolm owns up to his shortcomings with brutal sincerity (I doubt any other leader would do the same under limelight). He acknowledges the self-created pitfalls of his past life and does not brush them away casually. This audacity made Malcolm X who he was – unapologetic yet humble.

I thought at least that now, when all the white folks are safe from him at last, I could be honest with myself enough to lift my hat for one final salute to that brave, black, ironic gallantry, which was his style and hallmark, that shocking zing of fire-and-be-damned-to-you, so absolutely absent in every other Negro man I know, which brought him, too soon, to his death.

As a Muslim myself I couldn’t be more proud of his legacy as a fellow Muslim brother. He was assassinated just one year after accepting Orthodox Islam which goes to show that God Almighty has a plan for everyone, and a few chosen men of His are marked to do great work for justice and humanity. The harrowing tragedies faced by his progeny are a testament to Malcolm’s legacy too. And if I ever get to visit America, I would make it a point to pay my respects on his grave personally (James Baldwin is buried in the same Ferncliff Cemetery as Malcolm X).

(Side note: Malcolm X’s autobiography should be a compulsory read in academic, social and political circles.)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On Racism & White Guilt

  • Whites have always hidden or justified all of the guilts they could by ridiculing or blaming Negroes.
  • The ring was the only place a Negro could whip a white man and not be lynched.
  • But it has historically been the case with white people, in their regard for black people, that even though we might be with them, we weren’t considered of them.
  • “Red, I’m a Jew and you’re black,” he would say. “These Gentiles don’t like either one of us. If the Jew wasn’t smarter than the Gentile, he’d get treated worse than your people.”
  • He loves himself so much that he is startled if he discovers that his victims don’t share his vainglorious self-opinion.
  • One funny thing—in all that hectic period, something quickly struck my notice: the Europeans never pressed the “hate” question. Only the American white man was so plagued and obsessed with being “hated.” He was so guilty, it was clear to me, of hating Negroes.
  • Its characteristic design permitted the white man to feel “noble” about throwing crumbs to the black man, instead of feeling guilty about the local community’s system of cruelly exploiting Negroes.
  • “Integration” is called “assimilation” if white ethnic groups alone are involved: it’s fought against tooth and nail by those who want their heritage preserved.
  • They had been told how to arrive, when, where to arrive, where to assemble, when to start marching, the route to march. First-aid stations were strategically located—even where to faint!
  • The very fact that millions, black and white, believed in this monumental farce is another example of how much this country goes in for the surface glossing over, the escape ruse, surfaces, instead of truly dealing with its deep-rooted problems.
  • The white man seems tone deaf to the total orchestration of humanity. Every day, his newspapers’ front pages show us the world that he has created.
  • And the first thing the American power structure doesn’t want any Negroes to start is thinking internationally.
  • it isn’t the American white man who is a racist, but it’s the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man.
  • “Conservatism” in America’s politics means “Let’s keep the niggers in their place.” And “liberalism” means “Let’s keep the knee-grows in their place—but tell them we’ll treat them a little better; let’s fool them more, with more promises.” With these choices, I felt that the American black man only needed to choose which one to be eaten by, the “liberal” fox or the “conservative” wolf—because both of them would eat him.
  • I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences.

On Black Brotherhood

  • Many times since, I have thought about it, and what it really meant. In one sense, we were huddled in there, bonded together in seeking security and warmth and comfort from each other, and we didn’t know it. All of us—who might have probed space, or cured cancer, or built industries—were, instead, black victims of the white man’s American social system.
  • These whites were just mad for Negro “atmosphere,” especially some of the places which had what you might call Negro soul.
  • And we laughed about the scared little Chinese whose restaurant didn’t have a hand laid on it, because the rioters just about convulsed laughing when they saw the sign the Chinese had hastily stuck on his front door: “Me Colored Too.”
  • The black brother is so brainwashed that he may even be repelled when he first hears the truth. Reginald advised that the truth had to be dropped only a little bit at a time.
  • Here was, to my way of thinking, one of those “educated” Negroes who never had understood the true intent, or purpose, or application of education. Here was one of those stagnant educations, never used except for parading a lot of big words.
  • The black American today shows us the perfect parasite image—the black tick under the delusion that he is progressing because he rides on the udder of the fat, three-stomached cow that is white America.

On Religion

  • I had to force myself to bend my knees. And waves of shame and embarrassment would force me back up.
  • The truth can be quickly received, or received at all, only by the sinner who knows and admits that he is guilty of having sinned much. Stated another way: only guilt admitted accepts truth.
  • You see, Islam is the only religion that gives both husband and wife a true understanding of what love is.
  • People seeing you as a Muslim saw you as a human being and they had a different look, different talk, everything.
  • Look what I’m handing them. I’m in the Muslim world, right at The Fountain. I’m handing them the American passport which signifies the exact opposite of what Islam stands for.
  • Each individual had a small prayer rug, and each man and wife, or large group, had a larger communal rug. These Muslims prayed on their rugs there in the compartment. Then they spread a tablecloth over the rug and ate, so the rug became the dining room. Removing the dishes and cloth, they sat on the rug—a living room. Then they curl up and sleep on the rug—a bedroom.
  • The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks.
  • On the American racial level, we had to approach the black man’s struggle against the white man’s racism as a human problem, that we had to forget hypocritical politics and propaganda.

Wise Gems

  • So early in life, I had learned that if you want something, you had better make some noise.
  • I told Reginald what I had learned: that in order to get something you had to look as though you already had something.
  • She knew from personal experience how crime existed only to the degree that the law cooperated with it.
  • In any organization, someone must be the boss. If it’s even just one person, you’ve got to be the boss of yourself.
  • I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars.
  • And so many of the survivors whom I knew as tough hyenas and wolves of the streets in the old days now were so pitiful. They had known all the angles, but beneath that surface they were poor, ignorant, untrained black men; life had eased up on them and hyped them.
  • Raw, naked truth exchanged between the black man and the white man is what a whole lot more of is needed in this country—to clear the air of the racial mirages, clichés, and lies that this country’s very atmosphere has been filled with for four hundred years.
  • I had enough experience to know that in order to be a good organizer of anything which you expect to succeed—including yourself—you must almost mathematically analyze cold facts.
  • I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.
  • I don’t go for non-violence if it also means a delayed solution. To me a delayed solution is a non-solution.
  • Mankind’s history has proved from one era to another that the true criterion of leadership is spiritual.
  • Aside from the basic African dialects, I would try to learn Chinese, because it looks as if Chinese will be the most powerful political language of the future. And already I have begun studying Arabic, which I think is going to be the most powerful spiritual language of the future.

On Childhood

  • My mother would boil a big pot of dandelion greens, and we would eat that. I remember that some small-minded neighbor put it out, and children would tease us, that we ate “fried grass.”
  • We children watched our anchor giving way. It was something terrible that you couldn’t get your hands on, yet you couldn’t get away from. It was a sensing that something bad was going to happen.

On Economics

  • “Credit is the first step into debt and back into slavery”
  • In another two years, I could have given them all lessons. But that night, I was mesmerized. This world was where I belonged. On that night I had started on my way to becoming a Harlemite. I was going to become one of the most depraved parasitical hustlers among New York’s eight million people—four million of whom work, and the other four million of whom live off them.
  • white people are so obsessed with their own importance that they will pay liberally, even dearly, for the impression of being catered to and entertained.
  • Britain’s superfluous royalty and nobility now exist by charging tourists to inspect the once baronial castles, and by selling memoirs, perfumes, autographs, titles, and even themselves.
  • The ghetto hustler is internally restrained by nothing. He has no religion, no concept of morality, no civic responsibility, no fear—nothing. To survive, he is out there constantly preying upon others, probing for any human weakness like a ferret. The ghetto hustler is forever frustrated, restless, and anxious for some “action.” Whatever he undertakes, he commits himself to it fully, absolutely.

On Women

  • But an educated woman, I suppose, can’t resist the temptation to correct an uneducated man. Every now and then, when she put those smooth words on him, he would grab her.
  • The woman who had brought me into the world, and nursed me, and advised me, and chastised me, and loved me, didn’t know me.
  • It showed me how any country’s moral strength, or its moral weakness, is quickly measurable by the street attire and attitude of its women—especially its young women. Wherever the spiritual values have been submerged, if not destroyed, by an emphasis upon the material things, invariably, the women reflect it.

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