I was lucky enough to be invited to expand on a brief Comment in a Diary on Books that Changed One's Life. As a result I am able to reflect on what I had mentioned: The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley.
My mother is a poet and professor, my aunt a novelist and professor. If you can name a book they both have read it. I would say that the same is true of my sister. I remember to “earn” cable my sister had to NOT read for a certain amount of hours one summer. I had to read and not play. It would be quite symbolic if I had read Malcolm X's autobiography that summer. I cannot say I did. My sister and I earned cable – surprisingly, it was my father years later when I was about 16 or 17 who mentioned it. He is a salesman (I suppose writer + sales = attorney?) and the only books I have ever heard him speak about are the Art of War relative to being a professional, and The Red badge of Courage.
He talked about the latter much more. My father believed it a significant book to him (The Red Badge of Courage) because it shows that “perception tells its own story”. In thinking back I believe he put it more artfully.
But I digress. I had just read Mario Puzo's The Godfather and felt proud of myself in a new way. No one was going to grade me for what I had taken from it. I did it for my own pursuits. My parents were asleep and I couldn't put it down. I could just as likely write about that book and how I didn't take glorification of any negatives from it. What I most remember is that my demeanor mostly became like that of Don Corleone later. Quiet and I hope thoughtful. It impressed me at the time, and made me yearn for more that would develop myself as a person. I was always labeled and in “gifted” classes. Winning awards, setting records, etc. But none of it mattered to me.
That is how I began reading- promised the world to come. Feeling stuck and ready (to impact the world, not expect it me), but so not.
I suppose there is some irony there. That I am now writing about an Author/book whose experiences are the opposite. Stuck in the world (even imprisoned) after being promised nothing. How a Black man in a segregated world who had all the odds and era working against him- being stuck in the system- no “education” (no chance at being an attorney as his History Teacher tells him early on)- father murdered- family split up. . . how he could not only reach me but have me writing could 30 or so (and then 50 or so) years later about how I see the world even today. But I suppose finding knowledge when you least expect it is about what his life, this book is about.
To many this may be surprising. If you read perhaps 90% of the book you likely would think it an impossibility that his story is anything but of a unique political figure from unique circumstances. I would say the unique way that Malcolm X collaborated with Alex Haley however resulted in a perspective that might clash with many of your memories of the man. Just as perhaps all but the last Chapter or two might clash with the several hundred prior pages.
90% of the book is what you might guess from how he is portrayed. Growing up fatherless (his father was killed by White Supremacists for being a supporter of Marcus Garvey), motherless (his mother was sent to a mental institution and his many brothers/sisters split up). Converting to Islam and preaching about the “white devil”.
But Malcolm X reveals all this in a bold manner that is deeply significant in understanding the restless search for truth and where it sent him at the end of his life and death. While he discusses growing up, moving to Boston, being a target of Police after learning the “Hustle”, selling narcotics, addiction, and his realization of his anger at white America at the time, he is in no way lauding himself. Malcolm X makes this point himself in describing some of those he befriended in his times in Boston and New York before his conversion to Islam. Malcolm implies that white society is to blame for driving them into the spiral of crime, drugs, deceit, and poverty, giving them no other option than the hustler’s life. For instance, Sammy the Pimp’s (for a time a close confidant) (loosely quoted)
“entrepreneurial drive might have made him a shrewd businessman, but in Harlem his skills are best suited for pimping” (which eventually leads him to ruin.) Later in the autobiography, Malcolm discusses his friend West Indian Archie’s photographic memory and quick math skills, pointing out that these skills could have served him well in school, but Archie is instead locked into defending his gambling territory and his reputation, which eventually gets him killed.
If fiction, this would be an interesting commentary on the effect of White America's beliefs in and affect on the talents of Black America (Malcolm himself had revealed in High school his desire to be an Attorney and was laughed at by his teacher telling him to be a Carpenter), but this is not Malcolm's only purpose. I do not think. Perhaps for 95% of his life he would have believed that the white devil was to blame. I do not think I could blame him as these people survived by being shrewd in Harlem, they had no chance to be discovered as Savants. And we are discussing the 40's-forward at this point where it would be unrealistic to say that West Indian Archie should have left the number's game and gone to Wall Street.
Even while writing an impossibility. Seemingly an impossibility or Mental gymnastic that Malcolm X would observe all of this segregation and the double standards applied that split up his family, left gifted individuals running numbers and dead and reveal so much hatred in a book that is truly about Love and Understanding.
A book not written to be inspirational but simply one man's life. What is extraordinary is not his fame or the interesting hustles he describes, or his incredible conversion in jail, or quitting addiction, or trading it for one of reading (starting with the dictionary at “aardvark”) wherein after conviction for Robbery he was jailed after this Hustler life. That despite this self education, personal trauma, all the reason in the world to place blame on everyone else, despite so much success at overcoming the odds to be such a huge public figure for the nation of Islam for most of his remaining life espousing the “White Devil”; Malcolm X also did not stand on or pride himself in any such accomplishments. That is as amazing as it would be today to go from a Street Hustler to just self-educated and non-violent because of jail. He writes about it not as a model for an ends but, perhaps subconsciously, as a constantly restless pursuit for truth.
The same man who stated JFK's Assassination was the Chicken's coming home to Roost was expelled from the very cause he committed himself to (the Nation of Islam after Elijah Muhammad’s Misdeads were revealed, and there was a belief Malcolm X was attempting to usurp him). As amazing as it would be today to go from Jail wherein you have taught yourself enough to debate Shakespeare and travel the Country as an invited Speaker at various Universities, that is not the legacy he leaves. Not a pursuit for fame. Not a pursuit for blame- despite his deeply ingrained beliefs of the struggles created by white society even affecting internal black society (during his time in Boston he describes how the system and his own choices regarding those Whites visiting the Black neighborhoods led to his falling more deeply into a conviction of spite towards other black communities, and even himself for “conching” his hair- a painful process to make one's hair straight/appear white. Later describing the unfairness that he was more on trial for corrupting (allegedly) white participants in his robberies than the robberies themselves.)
A man having every reason to have such deep-rooted convictions against White America, a legacy of just that- that is not what his story is about.
In reading it you might wonder as I did and do, that through all of this and at the time how one's heart could be so jagged, yet open. That one could view your life in a way that many would see as a success as just the beginning. That a Man with so much reason to hate and be hated could still in the last hours and breaths of his life CHANGE.
I’ve had enough of someone else’s propaganda.…I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.Unknown to him this was with only months left to his life. Taking a pilgrimage and conferring with African leaders he saw White, Blonde, Blue Eyed Muslims praying next to him, sharing water with him, and food. But he pursued a path with a heart.
Despite a lifetime and fame for his animus, he tried to preach Love. How could a man so jaded by truth let Mr. Haley continue to write after realizing that so much of his life had fanned flames or been about the enormous conversion to the person he was. Knowing he was going to die and that he no longer believed it?
It is only in the final Chapter that he has this openness of heart. He confesses to feeling stifled in his new endeavors by his reputation. He predicts that he will die a violent death, doubting that he will live to see the publication of his autobiography, but has an articulation of a new vision for black Americans, urging them to see themselves as one of a number of nonwhite minorities seeking justice worldwide, shows how his openness to new experiences allows him to develop philosophies that greatly contrast with those he espoused previously.
You could skip to the end if you are curious about the truth of his visions of living in equality. However, you may miss the paradox. Today autobiographies triumph each and every event, are written before true fame to assist it. For Money. Yet this autobiography is about an unknowing, unwavering search for truth and love that occurred despite most of the entirety of what is written. It is not written as a regret. It is written as a path. I cannot imagine the difficulty of looking back at my enormous successes in regret, to admit that my life has been beset by falsities that never allowed me to truly seek a “path with a heart” as Carlos Castaneda might say.
But Malcolm X did not ask Alex Haley to shred a book most likely inflammatory to many. It cannot be known what he would have done, only what he believed. As a writing it is incredible that but ten pages would be what the author would want you to remember in their pursuit of truth, but left so much more neither running, hiding, or embracing success or failure. As a consequence to me it allows me to see that leaving ones' heart open can allow extraordinary things, changes at any time, and that you may never truly understand yourself or another (as they may not yet). I hold my tongue as much as I can when it comes to others or even my own “successes”. That even if that road is turbulent and violent and a seeming impossibility that kind of restlessness might be for something. Rather than the man condemning MLK Malcom X can be the man who condemned MLK and others, but didn't harden himself at a time when I cannot imagine the courage to avoid doing so only to implicitly say if that path brought me to prominence I will still have the will despite fear of death to preach a love I have never known.
Whether it St. Augustine's or Mills' Confessions generally there is only a great conversion. This is neither. This is not just the story of a man's life of overcoming odds but of never settling, closing one's eyes, losing hope, losing yourself in your mistakes or your surroundings; instead, seeking I suppose Plato's truth with a Capital T.
While we do not know what Malcolm X might have accomplished as was gunned down as he embarked on his new message of reformation of the black and white communities to lead to one of peace and love; we do know that staying open, always can change not only your own life, but that of others.
I suppose you may see how this changed the life of a white suburban teenager despite it being mostly a story of a man devoted to demonizing the world I lived. But in its context, and honesty, it led me to an openness I hope I never lose. That life, politics, history, can all do so much but the way you choose to be open or not makes all the difference. Whether that difference is moments before you die, or not.
I suppose how it changed me and I hope perhaps others, is best summarized by the author I alluded to. Not that I need him to speak for me as I hope it clear, that inherently this is how I more closely scrutinized my choices, and thoughts.
The teachings of Don Juan simply put it more Eloquently. I will then leave you with that, as in my own pursuit I found a way to state it, and I hope that you all leave your hearts and minds open as Malcolm did:
Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition. I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary.
This question is one that only a very old man asks. Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long long paths, but I am not anywhere. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn't, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn't. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.
Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you must choose another path.
8:53 AM PT: Thank you for the Comments thus far. I appreciate anyone who hung in there for what I wrote. It is funny to say with all I did I hope I emphasized enough (as I glossed over many wrongs done to him for example his mother and family truly not deserving being split); but, I hope I emphasized enough I see this as an Autobiography that even today I would completely understand an absolute hate. One that yes he had. But what is so amazing to me is that he had the Clarity/Discipline in the Words of the Fictional Don Juan to be hardened, fierce, yet realize despite all of his fame and experience even if only the last chapter (literally) of his life, he found a message of love.
Is a link to the paper back. Though I think anyone reading would probably prefer to buy at a local bookstore.