Critical Lives: Malcolm X

Malcolm X lives on. And the legands are told over again. This one is the newest.
Lorenzo Thomas reviews the book on Malcolm X–Critical Lives: Malcolm X — by Kofi Natambu (Indianapolis: Alpha Books)
The short but astonishingly eventful life of Malcolm X—to some, more properly and
reverently, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz—has, in the years since his assassination at the
lectern in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, achieved mythic proportions. His Autobiography
is a classic American story that ranks with Benjamin Franklin’s and Booker T.
Washington’s; Spike Lee produced an epic movie based on that life; the Postal Service
has commemorated it with a stamp; and people are willing to bid hundreds of thousands
of dollars to purchase his memorabilia.

We are long past the day of the apocryphal inner-city student who asked his teacher,
“Just who was Malcolm the Tenth anyway?” Still, there are some who do not really know
why the man born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 is celebrated.

Kofi Natambu’s marvelously lucid new biography will do much to solve that problem.

Malcolm’s early life was troubled by events that started before his birth. In December
1924, while pregnant with Malcolm, Louise Little–with her six children–was evicted from
their home in Omaha, Nebraska by armed members of the Ku Klux Klan because his
father Rev. Earl Little was an active organizer for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro
Improvement Association (UNIA). In the next few years the family moved frequently,
dogged by racist harassment. After they had settled in Lansing, Michigan in 1931, Earl
Little died from injuries sustained in a suspicious street accident. The fatherless family
was brutally battered by the economic forces of the Depression. Louise Little, literally
at wit’s end, was confined to the state hospital, her children sent to foster homes.

Bright but mischievous, Malcolm barely avoided reform school. Though he was an
excellent student, he was deeply hurt by the small town Midwestern racism he
encountered. Even making the basketball team didn’t help.

“As the team traveled to neighboring towns,” writes Natambu, “whenever Malcolm
showed his face on the court the opposing team’s fans would openly hoot and holler
‘nigger’ and ‘coon’ from the stands. Or they called him the derogatory name of ‘Rastus.’
Malcolm found very little support from his teammates or his coach when this behavior
occurred, which was all the time.”

Predictably, says Natambu, “loneliness, fear, and alienation in a nearly all-white
environment remained a major feature of Malcolm’s life as a student” Nevertheless,
he was elected class president in the seventh grade. That year he also met his older
half sister Ella Little-Collins and, in 1940, went to Boston to live with her.

Natambu vividly describes how Malcolm, always a quick study, transformed himself from
a Li’l Abner country boy into a hipster. The black Roxbury section of Boston contained no
lack of delights and temptations and Malcolm aspired to membership in the zoot-suited
fraternity of musicians, gambler, players, and hustlers who frequented the Roseland
Ballroom. Starting out as a shoeshine boy at the dancehall, he soon found a better job
and a girlfriend from the middle-class “Sugar Hill” section of town. By the time he returned
to Lansing in 1942, Malcolm—now seventeen and worldly wise, at least in his own eyes—
knew he needed broader horizons. A job as a dining car waiter on the New Haven Railroad
eventually landed him in Harlem and there he took to the “fast track” like a natural.

“Once he was in Harlem,” says Natambu, “Malcolm would spend nearly his entire
paycheck drinking liquor, smoking marijuana, and painting the town red with his
ever-expanding entourage.” Somehow his rapid descent into the underworld of gamblers
and corrupt cops was not entirely distracting and Natambu notes that Malcolm “still
harbored a desire for mainstream social acceptance and respectability.” But a three
month suspended sentence for petty theft in November 1944 sent him on an accelerating
downward spiral that soon allowed him to fully experience what Natambu terms “the
blatant racism and double standards of the criminal justice system.” Eventually he
received a long sentence for burglary that sent him to Massachusetts state prison.

“In the spring of 1948,” writes Natambu, “Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam
(NOI). It would prove not only to be his ticket out of prison, but also the start of a
completely new life.”

And what a life that would turn out to be!

While Malcolm learned the ropes in the penitentiary, four of his brothers had converted
to Islam and, through imploring letters, worked at getting him to join them They
managed to convince him to at least quit smoking and give up eating pork. He accepted
the challenge not as a step toward religious conversion but as a test of his will power.
When he refused the meat platter in the prison messhall it created a stir among the
inmates. “This attention,” Natambu says, “made him feel very proud. In refusing the
pork he felt he was also attacking the racial stereotype that blacks could not do without
pork in their diet. Malcolm was especially happy to see that his not eating it startled the
white convicts.”

He may have been making the right moves for the wrong reasons, but the incident was

“When Malcolm later studied and committed himself to Islam,” Natambu adds, “he
recalled that the act of refusing the pork was his first experience of the ancient Muslim
teaching in the Qur’an that ‘If you will take one step toward Allah—Allah will take two
steps toward you.’”

Paroled in 1952, Malcolm joined his brothers in Detroit and became active in Elijah
Muhammad’s Nation of Islam Temple #1. Having done a prodigious amount of reading
in prison, Malcolm had grown intellectually and was a much different young man thatn
the restless youth of six years earlier. Natambu carefully outlines his progress under
the tutelage of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam ministers who responded to
his intelligence and eagerness.

Before long Malcolm became the nation’s most effective organizer and spokesman. When
the then little known sect began to gain media attention in the later 1950s—first in the
pages of black weeklies such as the Los Angeles Herald-Dispatch and the Pittsburgh
Courier, and later in the white mainstream press—it was Malcolm whose voice and words
were spotlighted. Natambu is particularly good in recounting this period of Malcolm’s career.

Malcolm had developed into a masterful public speaker able to “challenge and persuade
his audience to rethink their ingrained notions of the world and the value systems that
constituted the ideological scaffolding of the reality they had been taught” Natambu stops
short of saying it, but clearly suggests that he—like Malcolm—believes that words do, in
fact, have the power to change our reality. “Regardless of whether Malcolm’s comments
were considered by the general public to be unfair,” he notes, “Malcolm insisted that
standing up for oneself and being completely honest in one’s appraisal of what was
necessary or of value in any public discussion of the serious issues and concerns facing
African Americans was crucial.”

Natambu also suggest that Malcolm’s most important work with the Nation of Islam
might have been designing and launching the newspaper Muhammad Speaks. And when
local New York television newsman Mike Wallace—with the help of veteran black
journalist Louis E. Lomax—produced a five-part “exposé” in 1959, it was Minister
Malcolm’s bold oratory that captivated viewers, myself included. Both he and Wallace
immediately became figures of nationwide importance.

All this time, of course, the State Department and the FBI were also watching the nation
of Islam and Malcolm closely. This scrutiny would only increase during the rest of
Malcolm’s tragically short but influential career.

In just a few years, as the Civil Rights struggle intensified, a gruesome season of death
descended upon the United States. Assassins would claim the lives of Mississippi NAACP
activist Medgar Evers; four little black girls in a Birmingham, Alabama church; President
John F. Kennedy, all in 1963; Malcolm himself on February 20, 1965; and later
Sen. Robert Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well.

Natambu brilliantly documents this period and all of Malcolm’s myriad activities. An
accomplished poet and cultural critic, he offers useful detail and fresh insight on what
seems, in retrospect, an amazing rush of events. Alpha Books’ Critical Lives series is a
useful addition to the publishing field and Kofi Natambu’s Malcolm X is a top-notch effort
that avoids hagiography in favor of a direct, informative assessment of an important
historical figure. Well selected illustrations add to the book’s value.

Malcolm has not reached the point where right wing commentators and think-tank
conservatives quote his words and distort his philosophy as they routinely do with
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But there has been almost as much damage done to history
by writers who present Malcolm as a socialist or late-blooming integrationist as by
others who have tried to depict him as an opportunist or psychopath. You’ll not find any
of those con games here.

Kofi Natambu’s Critical Lives: Malcolm X provides rich historical context—both national
and international—and tells this story with clarity and accuracy. He carefully avoids the
polemics that have marred many books on various aspects of Malcolm’s impact on his
times. Next to the eloquent Autobiography of Malcolm X (co-written with Alex Haley in the
year before Malcolm’s death), this excellent and unbiased study by Kofi Natambu is the
best available introduction to a man whose life did, indeed, make a difference in the world.


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