Monday, May 19, 2014

Malcolm X: A life of reinvention

May 19 would have been Malcolm X’s 89th birthday. I decided to use this date as a deadline to post this book review that I'd been holding on for way too long. The Autobigraphy of MalcolmX as told to Alex Haley – by X himself is a compelling read.

X’s life theme was reinvention, not slight but extreme, intense reinvention of mind, body and soul. I read with admiration as X allowed himself to adapt to new spaces he found himself in – not just adapt his lifestyle but his mindset and put in 101% to newness. An example of this reinvention is that when he died his name was, Malik El-Shabazz, he was born Malcolm Little. 

At the age of 21, Malcolm X (still Malcolm Little at the time), was sentenced to eight to ten years in prison. By that age, X was a drug addict, drug dealer, robber and pimp.
Malcolm Little Mug Shot

While in prison, X was inspired by a fellow inmate to read and he fell in love with the knowledge that comes with reading books. It was in prison that his passion for debating was ignited. His criminal past did come to good use when - as a member of the Nation of Islam – he used his former hustling speak to convince black people to convert to Islam and he used his debating skills he acquired prison in the media to defend his religion. 


X's time as a member of the Nation of Islam would have the reader believe that this is where this legendary man would have settled. But that would not be the case. He started questioning his religious home, friends became foes, his icon became his rival. While all this was happening X took a pilgrimage to Mecca. And as it was his nature, he was open to learning, shared ideas, stuck to some old thoughts and he came back to America with a new message and a less cult-like mindset.

It's at this stage of the book that it becomes evident that his in-your-face approach to the black man's struggle was not easy to swallow for everybody - black and white. 

Issues around black-inferiority, black hair, light-skin vs dark-skin debates and the disregard and disrespect for black women in popular culture continue to plague the USA – they did in the 60s and still do now. These issues are not isolated to black America but proliferate globally including here in South Africa. Which race in SA is most likely to be unemployed? Which race in SA is most likely to commit crime? Which race in South Africa is most likely to be found living in shacks?

The one thing constant about Malcolm X’s life is that no matter where he found himself – the black man’s struggle was highlighted. As a child in primary school, X told a teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer. The teacher, without hesitation, told X to be realistic with his goals and accept he’d likely be a carpenter. As smart and as committed a kid he was back then – this crushed X. Towards the end of the book when he’s life is in danger he mentioned how, given a chance, he’d go back to high school full time and continue all the way until he got a degree in Law.

X’s life got me wondering if we are as passionate and fanatical about anything we are involved in. When he did something he went in 110%; whether it was dancing (yes, he danced), crime or religion – he gave it his all. While he was a criminal I thought the man was an absolute ass! He was horrible to women, had an ego and shrewd in his dealings.

As a Muslim, he was very cult-like; he referred to white people as “blue-eyed devils” - he was unapologetic too. Towards the end of his life – he had calmed down a lot. I suspect by this time the reality of him dying any time was sinking in.

The ending is ridiculously gloomy. The whole book is written as such you know that X is dictating the story. Then it gets to the end where he knows death is a possibility – then he dies. He had managed to share all he wanted to share but to die just before the book hit the shelves was a bit dramatic (in a gloomy way). 

X’s life is worth reading about – he was no saint, yet there are so many lessons one can learn from him:
 What ever you do – give it your all
·         Be open to learning
·         Question everything
·         Read! Read! Read!
·         Be unapologetic about your beliefs
·         Change is constant: From pimp to human rights activist - no one saw him coming!


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