Books: Malcolm X: History as Hope

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Though he changed his views, he absolutely refused ever to believe that substantial change in black conditions would come about through turning the other cheek. Or through integration. Or through anything short of a relentless effort by black people themselves to take political power in their own communities, to work their own social revolution and to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. His prolonged misgivings about the possibilities of real integration in the U.S. still seem convincing. The Autobiography illustrates how well-equipped X was to be successfully folded into the white man's world. One is explicitly left with the feeling that if he found integration a fraud, it was one. "You can sometimes be 'with' whites," Malcolm X concluded, "but never 'of them." His early life was blighted by the murder of his father and poverty that eventually forced his mother to yield her children to welfare workers in Lansing, Mich., and drove her to a mental institution. Still, young Malcolm, tall, light-complexioned and smart, was elected president of his all-white junior high school class, and became a star basketball player.

His autobiography is excruciating when he recalls going to dances in the 1930s, learning to sip punch and stand around as if he did not want to dance. The devastating need of blacks to restore pride in their color and race still flames forth in Malcolm X's comment on the tragic folly of doting black parents who favored whichever child in the family was the palest. When, at age 14, Malcolm was told—like many other gifted blacks—that he should think of carpentry instead of law, he turned his back on the whole white world.

Dramatic Conversion. First in Boston, then in New York as a teen-ager in the early 1940s, he donned a zoot suit and painfully "conked" his hair. He graduated from show-stopping Lindy Hopper to pimp to taker and pusher of marijuana and dope. Malcolm X's scorn for authority, black or white, 30 years ago, presents remarkable parallels to youthful attitudes today. It was not merely that everyone he knew used marijuana and bitterly resented the white cops who tried to deprive them of it. They also regarded World War II as a white establishment disaster, like Viet Nam, to be avoided at all costs.

At 19, Malcolm X became a successful burglar who used two white middle-class girls as advance scouts. In 1946 he was caught and sentenced to ten years in jail. It was there, in a dramatic conversion, that he reformed his life, began copying the dictionary to improve his reading and writing, and became a disciple of Black Muslim Leader Elijah Muhammad.

Malcolm X worked twelve tireless years for the Black Muslims. It would take great cynicism to doubt that he passionately believed in and practiced what he preached—monogamy, abstinence from drugs, extramarital sex and drink, ceaseless work for the black community. But the mythology, the religion, the re-examination of history that buttressed the Black Muslim resolve, may still strain the credulity of new readers—even as they troubled a number of white and black men who otherwise admired Malcolm X during his life.

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