I am probably the least likely person to read the autobiography of Malcolm X. As a white, conservative Christian, I embody virtually everything wrong with the world from Malcolm X and the current “woke” world’s point-of-view. I am one of the “white devils” that Malcolm X so vehemently fought against during his eclipsed, but brilliant career.
And yet, after the encouragement of a friend to read what is widely considered one of the most important American books of the 20th century, I admit that I found myself captivated and surprisingly empathetic to Malcolm X’s person and story. Further, there can be little doubt that his remains an important story to be told, especially in the wake of never-ending racial tensions and the call for reparations for slavery.
Malcolm X proves to be a fascinating character some 50+ years after his death. Undeniably brilliant and driven, Malcolm X made a mark on the world by sheer force of will and because the facts undergirding his inflamed rhetoric were largely on his side. Through his life and speech, he demonstrates the truth that blacks were victims of many injustices and whites had, generally, encouraged it or sat by while it happened. This led to the races being odds with one another and hypocrisies on both sides. Malcolm X pointed that out and everyone hated him for it.
The Flaws of Malcolm X
But he was a man with significant flaws, and his book bears that out. By the end, he begins to admit to several of them. (As is almost always the case with men of controversy like this, it sure would have been nice to see what a few more years of thought and experience might have done for Malcolm X.)
For one, Malcolm X was a man for whom moderation held no real value. Whatever he did, thought, felt, or believed, he was all in, in a way most of us mortals wouldn’t dare to tread. The chip on his shoulder—rightly earned through childhood hardship—drove him to see the world myopically and, literally, in black and white.
He believed the line that Elijah Muhammad et al. were selling about whites being literal devils and blacks being the “original” and sanctified race, and his absolute belief in that reality made nuance impossible. In the world of human relations, nuance is a necessity, especially if you hope to educate in a way that effectively changes hearts and minds.
In a related manner, Malcolm X clearly fell prey to a con-artist and Scientology-level scam when he fell under the spell of Elijah Muhammad. The founding myth of the Nation of Islam (NOI)—that an evil scientist named Yakub created the white race through centuries of selective breeding on the island of Patmos—is so absurd it is hard to believe anyone could base their entire worldview upon it.
And yet, Malcolm X did exactly that for over a decade. It, at least, calls his own credibility into question. Conversion or not later in life, the bulk of his work was founded on a myth that L. Ron Hubbard would have laughed off as absurd. (It is no wonder that the NOI and Scientology are now in cahoots.)
See, I don’t believe Elijah Muhammad expected many people to believe the myth. He only needed enough to carve out a comfortable life for himself, family and future mistresses. Recall that the Nation of Islam had only 400 members when Malcolm X stumbled upon these teachings while in prison.
But because Malcolm X believed the myth and he was an “all or nothing” personality, he took it and ran with it and grew the NOI to levels no one could have possibly imagined. Soon, that mythology was held by hundreds of thousands, and intelligent men like Malcolm X, who should have known better, legitimized it by preaching it.
Flaws Reveal the Bigger Picture of That Time
But as I said, had the black situation not been what it was historically, there would have been far fewer grievances to give rise to the likes of Elijah Muhammad in the first place. Therefore, Malcolm X’s rhetoric—once removed from the myth—held a very uncomfortable ring of truth.
The first third, for example, of the book details what was a common experience for many blacks in America in the early 20th century: Malcolm was without a father figure due to violence against him, the surrounding network was inadequate, educational opportunities were limited and discouraged, and a life of crime offered a more lucrative life.
That’s not to say criminal behavior is “excused,” but it is better understood. If it is the case that blacks remained systemically segregated and outcast and without opportunity (even in the north), then whites need to be aware of that real history. And for heaven’s sake, if more whites had simply encouraged and educated blacks and opened doors, how much misery could they have alleviated?
As his speaking career blossoms, Malcolm X becomes famous for seeing no real compromise between the races, a position he ultimately retracts after his conversion to orthodox Islam. (A fascinating reality about this book is that it is written in the midst of his NOI indoctrination, his move away from the NOI, and his conversion to Islam.) So when he advocates black separation (not segregation), he is belittled by everyone, including the mainstream Civil Rights movement and especially by whites.
Malcolm X correctly points out the hypocrisy of the whites: they had enforced segregation for years, but if a black person now advocates separation, they are dangerous? The same was true of gun ownership. If a white person advocated gun ownership, they were defending the 2nd Amendment. But if Malcolm X did it in the name of protection, he was inciting violence among blacks. These were the kinds of inconsistencies that Malcolm X excelled at pointing out, and they are still worth considering. As Christians committed to truth, we need to be committed to it even when it is uncomfortable.
He also proves to be the kind of integral and committed figure that men like Martin Luther King, Jr. may not prove to be historically. No one has ever accused Malcolm X of financial impropriety, greed, adultery, or being anything but 100% committed to his beliefs.
Lessons for Today
So where does it book leave us today? Malcolm X speaks of many whites who were sympathetic to his teachings and agreed with them. Early in his career, he didn’t want their help. After his conversion, he did. And generally, his advice was that whites could make a difference in personal relationships among both blacks and whites, encouraging one another to see a common humanity and be advocates of peace and equality. That remains good advice.
What of the lingering phrase, “white devils?” That is a far more complicated question. As I said above, whites should be aware of the historic injustices of slavery, colonialism, and segregation. As Christians, we oppose all evil, no matter who committed it. But historic evils committed by whites does not mean that all whites are devils or that all whites have what they have through dishonest means. Virtues and injustices must be judged on a personal basis for that is how God will judge us. And systemic evils are changed when individuals - including those in power - change.
To expose Malcolm X’s hypocrisy, his selective hatred of whites and praise of blacks along racial lines is the problem, not the solution. By the end of his life, he seems to have understood that, but the body of his work—while he was speaking for the NOI—is what remains most acutely in our collective memories.
As a Christian, I appreciate the need to listen to others, for it is always good to hear the cries of our neighbors. It gives us credibility as we form opinions on policies or the issues of the day. After reading this book, I didn’t walk away “woke” or in agreement that reparations solve our problems. I actually agree with Malcolm X’s cure to what ails the black race, or indeed, any ethnic group: he advocated a moral and upright life, free from basic vices and crime.
In the end, he did not see any race as an enemy. And he did not trust the government enough to be a true solution to the black man’s plight. I’d say we need a bit more of all of that. Again, it would have been fascinating to see his thought development in time. Though far from perfect, he seems to have the intellectual honesty and unconventional courage that would have made a significant difference in time.