Change is a word that has been used abundantly and carelessly. We’ve heard the word spoken during election campaigns and TV debates, politicians urging the electorate to vote for them in exchange for a better world (which in reality may or may not come into existence).
But what of the change that an individual goes through?
Malcolm X’s autobiography is shocking. Named by Time Magazine as one of the ten most important non-fiction books of the 20th century, it veers into a cruel world, immersing the reader into the hub of 60’s America and introducing them to the man that was Malcolm X. Although it was not penned by X himself, he narrated it to Alex Haley and the reader feels as though they have come to know the man once the tale comes to a close. Malcolm’s words teach us more about him than any other portrayal ever could.
Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska and after the sudden violent killing of his father at the hands of racists, his family life began to quickly deteriorate and Malcolm X sought a life of crime, which ultimately led to a prison sentence. While in prison he transformed himself, discovering the Nation of Islam, teaching himself how to read and write properly and eventually becoming a leader in the African American civil rights movement. Famed for his articulate speeches, Malcolm X sought to instil pride amongst the African American community. He has been believed to have led a more violent approach towards the movement than his contemporary, Martin Luther King.
However, the Nation of Islam was more of a black militancy group, fuelling race hate, believing in a false prophet and swaying greatly from real Islam. It was only after a fatal betrayal and Malcolm X’s pilgrimage to Mecca that he discovered true Islam.
Malcolm X’s cathartic autobiography at times seems unreal. For one individual to go through so much can cause the reader to disbelieve the life story they are reading and think it to be a work of fiction. However, it is the fact that Malcolm X lived such a tragic and inspiring life that stuns me most. My favourite chapter is the one entitled ‘Laura’, where Malcolm X narrates the tale of a girl he knew. It is strange for the chapter to be included in the book. Up until then, the story focuses solely on Malcolm, making the chapter seem like an interruption. The entire chapter is dedicated to this previously unknown character, highlighting the significance of her and the guilty feelings Malcolm X held towards the part he played in Laura’s life. Another moment that struck me was when Malcolm X recalls being told as a child that he cannot become a lawyer due to his race. Malcolm constantly refers to this incident throughout the book, causing us to reflect on what his life could have been like had he lived in a different world.
Amongst its other qualities, the book demonstrates to me the power of the written word. Malcolm X reflects on a Harlem gangster who goes by the name of ‘West Indian Archie’. West Indian Archie has a photographic memory and when Malcolm X visits him to see that he is close to his death, he reflects on the fact that ‘his brain…should have been put at the service of mathematics or science’. Malcolm X immortalises the character in his book, for every new reader will discover the Harlem gangster and marvel at his genius- unlike the world that they lived in at the time. Even Malcolm X, who until I had read the book I had not heard of, becomes immortalised and transcends time through the autobiography. His gifts of speech and intelligence are not lost. Neither is his ability to inspire and make people think.
The book is highly educational in the sense that it describes the extremities of racist America through the viewpoint of a Black citizen. Malcolm X successfully brings to the reader’s attention the ways of an extremist and dangerous society. Perhaps in any such situation, the eyes of the oppressed are the ones that are to be the most valued, for they belong to those that are most affected and have to deal with the harsh realities of a hate-filled society.
Malcolm X’s life story is the true meaning of the word ‘change’. Reflecting those changes are his names, which vary from ‘Malcolm Little’ to ‘Detroit Red’, and many others, till he finally finds his Islamic name ‘El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’.
At times the book is eerie, especially when Malcolm X appears able to foretell the future, particularly in the final few paragraphs when he predicts his early death. Other times, the book is desperately sad but nevertheless an inspiring and motivating tale. The reader will feel deeply moved by Malcolm X’s passionate, intimate and eloquently written life story.
The final words of the autobiography read as follows:
‘I know that societies often have killed the people who have helped to change those societies. And if I can die having brought any light, having exposed any meaningful truth that will help to destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America-then, all of the credit is due to Allah. Only the mistakes have been mine.’
Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21st, 1965. His autobiography was published posthumously.
(I would strongly advise the reader to NOT read the introduction or the foreword of the book first. Skip straight to Chapter one entitled ‘Nightmare’, to avoid the spoilers that are contained in the foreword and introduction.)
Malcolm X's autobiography is available in most book shops, libraries and can be purchased online. It is priced at £9.99 and is published by Penguin Classics.
Guest writer, student at Luton Sixth Form College