Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Young Malcolm

Today is the 52nd anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. I was five at the time and I assume I didn't hear about it, or if I did, I wouldn't have known who he was until that moment.

For years I had a paperback copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (written with Alex Haley), but I never got around to reading it. It may still be here somewhere, but I suspect not. I'm not sure why I never read it.

I think my interest in his life shifted when I visited Omaha several years ago and learned it was his birthplace, yet lacks any significant commemoration of that fact. It was around the same time I learned that, when he was a kid, Malcolm told his (white) teacher that he wanted to be an attorney when he grew up and the teacher scorned his ambition.

For all of these reasons — twinges of guilt for not reading his autobiography, knowing that he came from the Midwest, and empathy for the kid he was in this racist county — I recently read the book X: A Novel, written by his daughter Ilyasah Shabazz with young adult novelist Kekla Magoon.

The book covers his life from childhood to the time when he went to prison in his 20s, ending just around the time he became part of the Nation of Islam. From the book I learned:
  • While he was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, his family moved to Lansing, Michigan, when he was pretty young.
  • His father and mother were organizers for Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association and the back-to-Africa effort.
  • His father was killed by a street car, possibly murdered for his political work.
  • After his father died, his family sometimes went hungry.
  • His mother was harassed by social service workers and finally committed to a mental institution, with the kids placed into foster care.
  • Malcolm went to Boston to live with an older half-sister when he was only about 15. There, he worked several jobs and became part of the zootsuit scene. His nickname was Red.
  • When he moved to Harlem a few years later, he was a numbers runner and his nickname shifted to Detroit Red to differentiate him from other guys called Red. (Detroit, Lansing, they're both in Michigan... close enough.)
The book does a good job of exploring Malcolm's relationships with his brothers and sisters, how people grow apart, and what it's like to move to big cities. As a reader, I feel like I know him and understand why he did what he did, and how it led him to the part of his life that's better known.


Barbara said...

First, sorry to be so late to comment on this, but it has been that kind of week.

If you can find the time, I HIGHLY recommend that you read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It is worth it, and would probably be a more direct insight into his world view than the fictionalized account.

Daughter Number Three said...

I will, I promise!