Books: Malcolm X: History as Hope

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Today whites may still disagree with, but nevertheless understand more easily than five years ago, the Muslim's somewhat Nietzschean contention that Christianity was a white man's device that unmanned blacks by forcing them to worship a white God and taught them to be patient with any ignominy. One can disagree with but nevertheless understand the need to modify African history so that, for example, slavery appears as a unique white invention.

But what is one to make of such a personage as the prophet. W. D. Fard? According to Black Muslim dogma, Fard came from Allah to Elijah Muhammad in Detroit in the year 1931. He soon mysteriously disappeared, but only after he had explained that the white race was a cruel joke played on the black world by a satanic black named Mr. Yacub. After generations of breeding blacks for light skin on the Island of Patmos. Yacub succeeded in creating the fiendish white race, which was eventually turned loose in the desolate wastes of prehistoric Europe.

The rest, Black Muslims preached, is history: commerce, capitalism, expansion, colonialism, slavery. That cycle, they (and Fard) consolingly insisted, would soon come to an end. The black world, overcoming the white demons, would restore civilization to its pre-white peace and harmony. In a fond and perceptive preface to the autobiography, New York Times Correspondent M. S. Handler, who admired Malcolm X, called this kind of thing "sheer absurdity." Hostile critics have assumed that Malcolm X either didn't believe it, or if he did he was slightly cracked.

To take so literal a view is to miss one overwhelming characteristic of Malcolm X's thought, his integration of history, religion and mythology, and his profound and necessary sense of history's possibilities as a man-created aid to faith and policy. Browbeaten by the delusions of science and scholarship, white society has lately and perhaps foolishly begun to discard such conceptions. But it takes shortness of memory or lack of imagination or both not to see that W. D. Fard's cyclical vision is hardly more farfetched than the mythology of Marxism, which also explains past horrors, justifies present conflict and assumes that the story will end in peaceful victory—when the state shall wither away. The millennial curve of Christianity from the Old Testament Genesis to a vaguely predicted Judgment Day offers similar encouragements.

Human Rights. When Malcolm X broke with the Black Muslim movement in 1964 and then made his famous voyage to Mecca, he simply broadened his concept of history to include the real world of Islam with its possibilities of world brotherhood. Then he was shot.

As a man and a personality, Malcolm X seems likely to endure in literature as the subject of a classic American autobiography. The book has already sold 1.2 million copies and is used in schools and colleges all over the U.S. As a practical ideologue of black revolution and human rights, he has already been outstripped by events. The much harried Black Panthers, often the victims of their own inflammatory language, are trying to carry out a program of education, self-defense and a self-help that in some ways resembles Malcolm X's final program. Their thought, however, is tinged with a Marxian notion of solidarity, not merely of race but of economic oppression.

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