learned from a new biography of Malcolm X.
Lino. (star) (star)
by Hooper R. Bass Jr.
One does not know through a simple biography whether Malcolm X was going to be a brilliant or a mediocre or truly great man. So one does not know the good from the bad in the treatment of a life. But one can usually establish if one or more things are not consistent. This is so with Malcolm X. We are told that a competent and purposeful religious man, he went to Saudi Arabia in 1963, where he met several Middle Eastern clerics, some of whom inspired him. At some later time, Malcolm recorded these meetings in an autobiography, which he stopped distributing by the time of his assassination.
With the advent of Rev. Al Sharpton and other such public figures, we have the image of “Malcolm the loving scholar.” That image is among the many that are too frequent. A Muslim who was a champion of civil rights and critic of the government, he was always better known for his political voice than for his scholarly or theological expression.
In Bass’s account, Malcolm X grappled with the material demands of his life: a love of learning; the free will to decide his own level of work; and another responsibility, surely greater than that of a “martyr”: to protect his community. We feel the sheer force of his will in these choices: it is just possible that he could not have made all the choices he made.
It is not certain when the influences on Malcolm X became violent; he admits that many of his “hateful” speeches were written by Khalil Muhammad, who had been his cousin. But Bass offers compelling evidence that it was Muhammad who achieved tremendous influence within Malcolm’s mind. Muhammad brought him to talk with the Nation of Islam’s Supreme Leader, Elijah Muhammad, who delivered Malcolm’s vision of fighting the United States to Islam: “I kill you my friend,” he once told Malcolm. “You will fight for Islam.”
This lead to a lashing out at the civil rights establishment. Of the Civil Rights Act, he said, “The devil’s working it.” He did not like the proposed draft of the Civil Rights Act, which included the use of the word “Negro”; he preferred to say, “Black Americans.”
His political and theological experiments in secularism — he gives a single example: a breakfast for Communists and African Americans — are complicated by misapprehensions about the dominant forces at work: the media, the church and the government.
The personal quest for enlightenment he begins as a rural boy finding liberation from oppression in the tumult of American politics draws a course far outside the standard trajectory. When it comes to his relationship with El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, the author reports, “he became clear that a boy from Harlem must have an idealized image of his childhood that could influence his relationship with his future.”
Hearing the pope on television, he believed that “perhaps one day there will be a Muslim pope; one day Muslims will be at the highest position in the church.” Today we know that Pope Francis would get far fewer votes for that. The decade before Malcolm’s death, an argument begins between those who say that the civil rights movement has become demagogic and unworthy of commemoration, and others who say that Malcolm’s principle of civil disobedience has become one of the key points in contemporary discourse.
Read more from The New York Times.