The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of the important non-fiction books. And I didn’t know it was. No one told me! Not school, not the internet, not my friends. I only stumbled upon it by chance when one afternoon I strolled past NYU in Manhattan and browsed a long table of used books set up by a street merchant. The cover caught my eye, because the subject of racism had been heavily on my mind lately. Not too long ago, a white supremacist had driven his truck into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, VA and over the months since the presidential election the Black Lives Matter movement had made enough a significant impact on my psyche that I found myself finally making meager attempts to ask important questions: What is happening with minorities in this country? Why are unarmed black people dying at the hands of police officers? And how does my community, the Asian American folks, play a part in this? I’ve been steadily absorbing material on social justice. When Malcom X’s face fluttered across the retina of my eyes, I knew I had to read his book. Learn from the activist whose shoulder we all now stand upon, my mind whispered. And learn I did. Boy. I would even go so far as to say that it actually changed my life.
Malcom X, born Malcom Little, actually told his story to writer Alex Haley, but one actually gets the impression Malcom is speaking directly to the reader. This is a testament to both Malcom’s incredibly passionate charisma and Haley’s talents as an investigative journalist. You barely feel Haley’s hand in the pages, and yet it is quite evident that this book couldn’t have happened without his paraphrasing and rewriting of Malcom’s rhythms and rhetoric. Haley also contributes an informative epilogue about the entire process of interviewing Malcom.
The first part of the autobiography sets the stage of Malcom’s upbringing. We are in racist America, where we encounter klansmen, segregation, desegregation, suburban poverty, Jazz music in NYC’s Harlem, drug pushers, pimps, interracial couples, friendship & kinship, and prison. Malcom teaches us that racism is not confined to slavery in the South, but that it is an epidemic that diseases the North as well. It’s a fascinating look at an era that is often romanticized in movies and books. Right around the mid-point, Malcom finds his salvation in Islam, and the following chapters tell the story of his transformation from convicted felon to a high-ranking Muslim minister. I loved reading about this as it was my first literary introduction on the subject of Islam. Of course, this particular denomination called The Nation of Islam was led by Elijah Muhammad, with whom Malcom did not see eye-to-eye in later years.
It is important for the reader to finish the book to the very end, because Malcom’s belief systems evolve as new evidence presents itself. A mark of a mature adult, isn’t it? To be able to admit that you’re wrong. For him, it was a trip to Mecca that changed the once forceful black nationalist into an advocate of peaceful means that could join forces with the likes of Martin Luther King.
This is not only an astoundingly moving, fast read about the past, but also an eye-opening mirror on the state of affairs of today. It seems not much has changed in the last one hundred or so years, but it is through books like these that we may inch toward some sort of understanding with one another. I myself, from the comforts of my semi-privileged yet conditional seat, have learned a lot.