Book review: Malcolm X, by Alex Haley, voiced by Laurence Fishburne, Part 2/2

Laurence Fishburne voices Malcolm X’s autobiography

Part 1/2 of my précis of Malcolm X’s prolific life is here.

It is in prison when things really turn around for Malcolm Little. He notices another inmate who can command a room while talking without raising his voice, because he’s well read. He volunteers at the prison library. Malcolm realises he left school early and while he can talk street lingo, he doesn’t have the respect of his fellow inmates, who give him the nickname “Satan” because of his lack of faith. At the same time, Malcolm Little’s family encourage him to convert to Nation of Islam.

He takes his brother’s advice, stops eating pork, gives up all drugs and alcohol, and writes a letter to Elijah Mohammed – the head of the Nation of Islam. To his surprise, Elijah Mohammed responds and sends some money. This is the start of a decade-long friendship that begins with written correspondence while incarcerated.

Malcolm teaches himself about Black History

In prison, Malcolm Little gets into reading in a big way. It starts with him reading the dictionary and transcribing the contents. Then he devours books on African History and Archaeology, the history of India and China, and the colonisation of power and plunder by white people. While under the influence of Elijah Mohammed, and studying  the colonies, he comes to understand white people as “the devil white man,” although for context, this is in the shadow of WW2.

I believe that once Malcolm Little finds his faith, it is necessary for him to demonise those who have oppressed him and his family and friends.

Malcolm begins to convert others to Nation of Islam

This point in the book, you really begin to notice how articulate and educated he is. He changes his name to Malcolm X, the X representing the tribal name taken from his ancestors before they were shipped as cargo to America, and sold into slavery. 

In a religion class in the prison, Malcolm puts it to the white teacher that Jesus was really a black or Egyptian looking man given where he was born and lived, and his black prison mates begin to look at him with respect, some even converting to the Nation of Islam. Speaking “truth to power” becomes Malcolm X’s forte.

Malcolm X becomes a Minister for Nation of Islam

On release from prison, Malcolm X becomes a vociferous preacher and advocate for African American men and women, and the pan African brotherhood of The Nation of Islam. He marries, has four daughters, tours Universities and speaks publically on slavery, race relations and civil rights.

Things begin to fall apart with the Nation of Islam, when Elijah Mohammed is shamed in the press as a prolific adulterer, making Malcolm question his faith in him, because he reveres Elijah Mohammed to almost God-like status. Malcolm X himself is considered a demagogue – a rabble rousing figure troubling the elites – because of the sheer number of people he converts to Nation of Islam. Martin Luther King is also now prominent and a movement around civil rights is bubbling up with peaceful protests that began with Rosa Parks on a bus, refusing to give up her seat.

A parting of ways

Malcolm X makes an ill-informed comment to the press about JFKs assassination, along the lines of “chickens coming home to roost”.  Elijah Mohammed is not impressed, so he and Malcolm X decide to go their separate ways. However, fundamentalists in Nation of Islam never really leave him alone.

Malcolm X wrote “I have never felt that I would live to be an old man. It runs in my family, men have violent deaths.”

Before he dies, Malcolm X goes on pilgrimage to Mecca where he learns the traditional way to worship as a Muslim, and comes to accept Muslim white people as brothers. The phenomenal development of this man from vulnerable, fatherless child, to criminal, to a devout, articulate and well-educated man of faith, and advocate for the human rights of others, I can only imagine what else he could have achieved if he was permitted to live beyond his 39 years of life.

Sadly he was needlessly murdered on February 21st 1965 by three Nation of Islam members, but his legacy remains, especially among the Black Lives Matter #BLM movement in 2021. Malcolm X said in 1965 “teenagers in ghettos today are just like I was with the wrong heroes and idols.” If you’re a young black man in the ghetto in 2021, I think you’ll find the 1960s civil rights movement in America is full of heroes, including Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Maya Angelou, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.

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From tiny acorns mighty oaks grow.

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