Thursday, 19 December 2013

Week Forty-Nine - Jeanette

The Autobiography Of Malcolm X by Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley) (1965)
Recommended by Sarah

A little over a year ago, Sarah and I were in Egypt.

We weren’t just arsing about in the pyramids (although we did that, too): we were working as part of the TEMPUS project at the universities in Cairo and Assiut. We were there at a turbulent time. President Mohamed Morsi had granted himself unlimited power, and there were sweeping protests against this. If you remember the story, you probably recall UK news emphasising violence and disorder.

That contradicts what I saw. Sarah and I went to Tahir Square with our Egyptian host. Yes, there were some disturbing embers of conflict – rubble, tanks, streets closed off – but the protests we saw were non-threatening. They had a message to be heard, the people were determined, but the method was intelligent serious debate and not aggression. Protesters even organised the street clean-ups. This politically engaged attitude was also present in the students Sarah and I met at the universities. Apathy wasn’t on the table. Incredibly inspiring, and something Sarah and I talked of over the crazy sludge that is Egyptian coffee (which I got rather addicted to).

As the first time Sarah and I had spent much time together, I found that she herself was pretty inspiring. She is involved directly in the campaign for women bishops. I recently went to an event that she organised, and was saddened and shocked at the depth of opposition within the Church of England hierarchy to women bishops, while also being supremely impressed with the fire of those working for progressive change.

With her willingness to stand up and be counted, it makes sense to me that Sarah studied, and retains a very strong interest in, African-American history and those who fought for political and human rights.

Malcolm X is a divisive figure. While everyone (everyone non-racist) can feel comfortable with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X is often accused of ‘reverse racism’. That, in his anger at the oppression of African-Americans, he espoused an uncompromising solution: complete segregation of black and white. He had a penchant for calling white people ‘devils’ and was especially suspicious of any who supported civil rights and integration.

I very much respect Malcolm X. From my relatively privileged position, I still get so worked up over inequalities that I want to throw paint at things; fuck, if I was a black person in post-war America I’m sure I’d be angry, feel that white people were devils, and distrust their efforts to ‘help’.

My mother, with the baby in her arms, just made it into the yard before the house crashed in, showering sparks. I remember we were outside in the night in our underwear, crying and yelling our heads off. The white police and firemen came and stood around watching as the house burned down to the ground.

The Black Legion, a local version of the Ku Klux Klan, set that fire. A white man raped Malcolm’s grandmother (resulting in her pregnancy with Malcolm’s mother). White men murdered Malcolm’s father, the Reverend Earl Little, because of his vocal support for Marcus Garvey. As a child, the Little children were called ‘nigger’, ‘darkie’ and ‘Rastus’ so much ‘we thought those were our natural names’. Malcolm, academically top of his class, was told to give up any thoughts of being a lawyer and to be a carpenter instead.

Yes. I’d be really fucking angry, too.

Malcolm Little (the X came slightly later: it symbolises the true African family name that an African-American could never know) responded, at first, through hustling, drugs, pimping, crime and, as he terms it, being ‘mentally dead’. He is hard on himself for collaborating with racist America by exploiting other black people (selling drugs) and trying to ‘whiten’ his look by straightening his Afro hair. He ends up in prison, and begins to read, everything from rare anthropology texts to the dictionary itself. His curiosity is piqued as to how and why slavery and exploitation occur.

First, always ‘religiously’, he [the white man] branded ‘heathen’ and ‘pagan’ labels upon ancient non-white cultures and civilizations. The stage thus set, he then turned upon his non-white victims his weapons of war. […] Europe’s chancelleries for the next century [19th] played a chess game of naked exploitation and power from Cape Horn to Cairo.

It is during this period when he becomes taken with the Nation Of Islam (NOI), led by Elijah Muhammad. NOI teachings draw from mainstream Islam – there is no God but Allah, total adherence to the Qur’an, prohibitions on alcohol and pork, for example – but have a specific American cultural context. For instance, the ninth platform of NOI reads:

WE BELIEVE that the offer of integration is hypocritical and is made by those who are trying to deceive the Black peoples into believing that their 400-year-old open enemies of freedom, justice, and equality are, all of a sudden, their friends.

Also not a part of mainstream Islam, and far more dubiously, NOI holds its own creation myth. White people were the result of genetic engineering. Over six thousand years ago, when all humankind was black, the scientist Mr Yacub (the biblical Jacob), was embittered towards Allah. He holed up on the island of Patmos and created a ‘bleached-out white race of devils’ (the Jews). This white race stirred up trouble, until they were exiled to Europe; they remained in caves, living savagely, until Allah sent Moses to ‘civilise’ them.

This I find very troubling. I don’t have a problem with African-Americans calling white people ‘devils’ on account of their collective racist behaviour. I do have a problem with a bogus scientific explanation for devilishness that specifically targets Jewish people. We all know where that can lead.

As well as this ‘Dr Yacub’ business, the other big gripe I have with Malcolm X is his frankly atrocious attitude to women. He casually and routinely comments on a woman's attractiveness, and how women in general are manipulative, have little purpose but  to support a man and family, and should basically be treated as babies or pets. It's worth noting that this attitude predates his NOI days (although the organisation didn't exactly stop his misogyny).

Malcolm X rose through the NOI ranks very quickly, and helped membership and visibility. His rousing and inflammatory speeches brought the race debates in America to a new intensity; he explained and challenged racism on TV and in print, often in the face of stupid and insulting interviewers.

Soon, far more people knew his name than that of Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X writes that he remained loyal to Muhammad, even when scandal broke over the latter’s fondness for impregnating his secretaries. He even massaged his speeches in light of Muhammad’s indiscretions. 

I began teaching in New York’s Mosque Seven that a man’s accomplishments in life outweighed his personal, human weaknesses. I taught that a person’s good deeds outweigh his bad deeds. I never mentioned the previously familiar subjects of adultery and fornication, and I never mentioned immoral evils.

However, like the character Syme in Nineteen Eighty-Four, who is eliminated because he ‘sees too clearly and speaks too plainly’, the eloquent and high-profile Malcolm X is expelled from the NOI. Relationships deteriorate quickly. Malcolm X tries to regroup – he undertakes a pilgrimage to Mecca, spends much time in Africa, and converts to Sunni Islam – but, by the end of the Autobiography, the mood is very sombre indeed.

I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form.

He didn’t. Nation of Islam members murdered Malcolm X in February 1965.

I felt very galvanised reading The Autobiography Of Malcolm X, just as I was when I saw those Egyptian protests. For we need people who are not going to sit down and shut up.

It’s how shit gets done in this troubled world.