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The Life of Malcolm X: How Being a Black Muslim Shaped his Ideas About the Black Race and all Races
After reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” written by Alex Haley, the evident truths of black life in America during the first half of the 20th century were expressed in their rawest form. Although readers experienced the challenges one black man encountered throughout his life during the first half of the 20th century, they gained insightful, first hand experiences of racist America that effected all black people. This autobiography is about one man’s experience with racist America and how these experiences affected the outcome of his life and affected the decisions that he made to reach this outcome. It is about how one man, disenfranchised with mainstream black life, turned to an alternative style of living that helped him reconnect with his black roots, and ultimately, helped him rethink relations between whites and blacks, the alternative life style was that of Islam. This paper will begin by describing three challenges that Malcolm, a representative for what many blacks experienced, faced as a black American n the 20th century-such as the racist society where blacks lived in fear of organizations such as the KKK and the Black Legionnaires, racist school systems that did not promote the growth of blacks as an educated people, and the illegitimate “careers” blacks were reduced to participating in in order to sustain some kind of financial life. It will then describe three ways how Islam helped him overcome these challenges and transformed him into an educated, legitimate man who found in Islam a brotherhood between blacks that he initially believed could be used to overcome the challenges posed by white people, only to find that Islam could be used to create a brotherhood between all races.
Even in his early life at an early age, Malcolm, although somewhat spared of racism directed towards him due to his young age, experienced it through his father when he was targeted by the Black Legionnaires. Malcolm’s father was not just a motivated man; he was a motivated black man and was targeted by the Black Legionnaires who knew of his activity with the Marcus Garvey movement. Because of his association with Marcus Garvey and black pride, his father became a sought out target by these types of organizations whose purpose was to set forth upon black people and quell any activity or event that would give them an upper-hand in life and society. Haley writes, “Soon, nearly everywhere my father went, Black Legionnaires were reviling him as an “uppity nigger” for wanting to own a store, for living outside the Lansing Negro district, for spreading unrest and dissension among “the good niggers” (Haley 3). These experiences were none too unusual for blacks who had “other” ideas about the outcome of their lives than what was expected of them by white people. This is but one of the challenges that Malcolm faces as he grew older and had similar “other” plans.
One such idea was when Malcolm decided that he wanted to attend college and become a lawyer. Advice that Mr. Ostrowski, Malcolm’s English teacher, gave to him about his future is the exemplary attitude most whites held towards blacks. For people like Mr. Ostrowski, it did not matter that Malcolm was the brightest student in the class or that Malcolm was a hard worker with a good head on his shoulders; the only thing that mattered to them was the Malcolm was black and had no place in a career that were perceived to be only suited for white, such as lawyers. Mr. Ostrowski said to Malcolm after Malcolm told him he wanted to be a lawyer:
Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer-that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You're good w with your hands-making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person-you'd get all kinds of work (Haley 36).
This was an especially difficult challenge for Malcolm, and all blacks, to overcome because it essentially cut him off from the career that he felt was right for him. Because he was not allowed to become a lawyer, and Malcolm refused to be like other blacks he knew who took pride in menial labor they were forced into by white racism, Malcolm was influenced into criminal activity.
It was through this path and the racist judicial system that Malcolm was to find himself in prison serving a ten year prison sentence for committing multiple robberies with Shorty and two white women, Sophia and her sister. Although Malcolm believed that Shorty and he should have received a prison sentence of two years for the robberies, he quickly found out that black men enjoying a private relationship with white women was not just a crime, but a crime even more serious than robbery. On his encounter with the court system Malcolm says, “How, where, when had I met them? Did we sleep together? Nobody wanted to know anything at all about the robberies. All they could see was that we had taken the white man’s women” (Haley 150). This passage speaks to the life of Malcolm who was forced out of school and into the streets. Had Malcolm been allowed to attend college and receive that education that he deserved, he would never have found himself in this position. The fact that they were sentenced to ten years for cavorting with white women cannot be overlooked, however. This passage is essential to understanding how limited blacks were in personal decision making and always have to fear of the watchful eye of whites.
Malcolm, through all of his tribulations, however, was fortunate in that he, unlike many blacks who had their intellectual curiosity suppressed by society, was able to ignite his once in prison. He had discovered his prisons library and found that he had an insatiable curiosity for knowledge; he read endlessly. It was in prison where he first heard about Elijah Muhammad and studies Islam.
One way that Islam helped Malcolm and other black followers overcome the sense of dependency and desperateness of living in a racist, white society was through the unifying qualities of Islam. When Malcolm's family was targeted by the Black Legionnaires, he recalls being afraid. Through the support of thousands of black Muslims, Malcolm found safety and solace in the masses of people who, for once, made white society seem less daunting and made it less of a hurdle to overcome. Malcolm says, “At great Muslim rallies since then I have been, and heard, and felt ten thousand black people applauding and cheering” (Haley 196). Surely, this must have had a great effect on the average black person who never believed that blacks could gather in such vast numbers in support of one another.
Another way that Islam helped Malcolm overcome the challenges in his life is how it helped him become an educated person. After he heard about Elijah Muhammad’s teachings in an Islamic context, he developed a curiosity so great that he read as many books as h could get his hands on. Fueled by the drive to learn more about how the white man oppressed the black man’s history, he spent many hours reading and tying his new knowledge together to support Elijah’s claims and his perceived perspective of Islam. Malcolm states:
The teachings of Mr. Muhammad stressed how history had been “whitened”-when white men had written history books, the black man simply had been left out. Mr. Muhammad couldn’t have said anything that would have struck me much harder. I had never forgotten how when my class, me and all of those whites, had studied seventh-grade united states history back in mason, the history of the negro had been covered in one paragraph, and the teacher had gotten a big laugh with his joke, “Negroes” feet re so big that when they walk, they leave a hole in the ground (Haley 174).
Reading became an outlet for Malcolm and acted as a stress reliever. All throughout his life, when involved in education, he had to listen to teachers degrade his people and finally, was able to read something that humanized blacks. This must have been a wonderful feeling for somebody who had been dehumanized his entire life. Elijah Muhammad and Islam fueled his motivation to read and become a better more whole person.
The last way that Islam helped Malcolm was in how it shaped his life for the better and set him on a more successful trajectory than his previous one, the one that put him in prison. Overall, his obsession with reading about the condition of contemporary blacks and his dedication to Islam and Allah helped him create goals for himself that he wished to express to other blacks so that they could join him in freeing themselves from the social chains that whites had placed around them. He did not return to a life of crime after prison, as many ex-prisoners do, but rather, he became involved with Elijah Muhammad’s movement and made it his life’s work to carry out Elijah’s word and Allah’s word so that other blacks could hear them and follow them to freedom. Malcolm ends his book by saying, “Yes, I have cherished my “demagogue” role. 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 the credit is due to Allah” (Haley 382). It was in Islam where Malcolm found his calling; it was in Islam where Malcolm found his brotherhood; and it was in Islam where Malcolm found the knowledge necessary to help free his people from the weight of personal ignorance and the bonds of the ignoramuses oppressing
The three major challenges that Malcolm and blacks in America faced in the middle of the 20th century-such as the hurdles posed by the racist society that they existed in, the racist school systems that taught blacks to hate themselves, and the illegal measures many blacks were reduced to participating in-seems insurmountable at first. But after Malcolm reached the low-point of his life, which was in prison, he discovered Islam and found ways to overcome all of the posed, aforementioned challenges. Although his life as a black-American was difficult and he suffered through many trials, he proved to the black people of America, the white people of America, and to the people of the world that knowledge does not reign supreme with one race and that a man of God could spread his knowledge and help others overcome and challenge thrown at them.