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In a recent Sunday night Medium Cool post that focused on autobiographies, several people mentioned that The Autobiography of Malcolm X had had a profound effect them. That was a pivotal book for me, too, and we decided to dedicate a Medium Cool to this.
I don’t want to direct the conversation in any particular way, so let’s just see where this conversation takes us.
Loved the Front Page Challenge interview. I would like to add a couple more.
Root causes and police brutality Los Angeles 1962
House Negro, Field Negro
The Ballot or the Bullet, April 12, 1964
I’m gonna bookmark this. I just got it from the library so need to read it first.
I was struck by what a hard read this was, starting right away with the childhood privations and going on relentlessly, even in the “We can’t be racist—we’re not Southern” North (Omaha and Michigan, etc.). I think when I read this decades ago as a teenager it might have had a slight air of unreality about it, like a novel or a parable from a different land. I knew racism existed, but it hadn’t affected me directly, and I hadn’t seen much of it. I was an Air Force brat, and the two high schools I went to were very diverse. One, in a small Texas town (not far from Uvalde), had Blacks and a lot of Latinos, and the other was a DOD-run school on Okinawa—all of the above plus various Asian-American (or just Asian) groups.
The book retains all of its power half a century later.
@Narya: An essential read, but in addition the movie Malcolm X gives a lot of the look and feel.
Gin & Tonic
It’s been at least 50 years since I read this book, and probably 45 since I read Gravity’s Rainbow, so I don’t have much of substance other than to note that Malcolm makes a brief and not very respectful appearance in Pynchon’s novel.
@Narya: Same here. I have seen the movie, which is amazing. Denzel *becomes* Malcolm X.
I had never read it, but took up the challenge when this discussion was mooted two weeks ago. Alas, the real world kept intervening and I have only got about a third of the way through so far. 2 observations, that may evolve as I read further:
I found it hard to go back to what I was thinking when I first read the book when I was about 16 years old. I don’t think the fact that he came off as very intelligent, very aware, and very confident that he was the equal of any white man was that novel for me. I think what really hit me was two things. First, what an incredible failure the main stream media was in providing a full picture of what he said and did. I think we take it for granted now that the media is mainly there to sell a narrative the the people that own the media want to see, but for a 16 year old ~1970 Walter Cronkite and the network news were the “very serious people” who had to be trusted and reading this book was the beginning of my realization of what a crock that was. I think the other thing that hit me was how Malcom identified that the forces against him were actively evil. He went through a progression from all white people to some white people but he was firm (and I think this is why the serious people needed to undermine him) that the people he was against needed to be considered the enemy of the good and not just another political faction, let alone the faction that should have all the power in the country. There were some other things that struck me on re-reading that didn’t carry into my memories of the first reading. Lots of misogyny. Also a lot of disclaimers about how he wasn’t trying to boast or titillate while he was boasting about his dancing and dropping names of famous musicians left and right. Anyway an interesting re-read. The world has changed so much from the time he wrote it, but I think some of the serious problems he identified remain.
@eclare: I haven’t seen the movie, but now I will get it. I would be really interested in how they try to set the context.
I have been ill and did not get to finish a new read of the autobiography. But some impressions.
Growing up, we had records of many of his speeches. I remember being impressed by his focus and sincerity. And from that time to now, I got the feeling that he was a man of incredible integrity. He could not be bought or induced to betray other black leaders, not even those he disagreed with or appeared to mock. I think that this made him particularly dangerous to those in power, who assumed that black people were weak or defective and could easily be brought down.
In a wild way, both Benjamin Franklin and Malcolm X remind me of each other. Both gave us inspiring autobiographies (which may not be as revelatory as people believe). Both were, in different ways, tremendous and curious intellects. And both were willing to re-invent themselves and change with the times. Franklin grew up with his country, started out a British subject and became an American. Malcolm outgrew the Nation of Islam but was always a fierce advocate of black liberation.
@PAM Dirac: What you said about Walter Cronkite etc resonates with me. I do think Walter Cronkite was an old-fashioned really journalist who was a good guy, and things changed after that.
But really, who knows?
But yes, the book opened my eyes to the media spin, trying to make his out to be a bad guy. MLK, too.
I read this when I was about sixteen and I literally had never met an African American except the one back girl who attended our high school (One out of around 1000 students.) This was back in around 1969 and I lived in central Iowa. My parents were leftists and had been involved in the Civil Rights Movement mostly through fundraising through our church. I was raised on grape boycotts and that sort of thing. Meanwhile, my life was white, middle class, with a college professor dad and a political activist mom. No television. We all read books.
I don’t remember being shocked by the Autobiography. I already knew about Jim Crow. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. I read Malcom X during the same time period as the Chicago police riots, Watts, Bobby Kennedy’s death, the Kent State murders and Jackson State. I was pretty used to political violence since I was coming of age politically in the midst of it. I also read Soul on Ice, Manchild in the Promised Land and I know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I wanted to learn about other people’s lives.
None of these books were used in the classroom or available in the school library. This is back in the days when Black History was a new concept. My American History teacher was considered progressive and bought a textbook on Black history to use in conjunction with our regular textbook.
He talked about given a different set of circumstances, he might have made a great lawyer. I wonder if his integrity and intellect would have allowed him to win a court victory when he knew it went against the truth of the situation. He would have gone about it in quite an irritating bull in a china shop way, charging quite confidently one way, the heading the opposite way when the evidence led there, but his integrity and intellect and tenacity might have made him a good scientist. Hell even on the path he was on, it would of been fascinating to know where he would have been at age 60 or 70.
I think he took his job seriously and tried to do a good job, but I think the whole premise was flawed. I remember in the mid-70s when there was a lot of talk about the bad effect of violence on television arguing that the most dangerous shows on television were the evening news shows because they were based on the premise that a handful of rich white guys in NY could tell the whole country everything anybody would ever need to know, at least about the state of the country.
I read his autobiography when I was 18. It changed my views profoundly and turned me from a fairly conventional middle class ‘liberal’ student towards a much more radical bent. It also inspired my study courses at University. He was an inspirational figure for me at the time, and I still don’t understand why he is not considered far more deeply as part of the mid 20th century intellectual pantheon in the US.
I think as a lawyer, Malcolm would have been as successful as Thurgood Marshall, who
won 29 of the 32 civil rights cases he argued before the Supreme Court.
In lectures and debates, Malcolm often sounds like a prosecutor delivering an indictment against the government for its support of the racist oppression of black people.
But Malcolm also challenged black people to throw off the internalized oppression of fear and self-hatred. This was before the era of black pride and black power.
ETA. I recall that Clarence Thomas claimed that as a young man he was a great admirer of Malcolm X. I wonder what happened.
I was affected deeply by reading the autobiography as an early adolescent. I responded to many aspects of the book noted in previous comments.
I’m amazed that I could read the book and talk about it back then. Some people lashed out when I talked about Malcolm X and what he said, but they didn’t directly criticize me. They lashed out at well-known black figures, maybe as a way to get to me.
My community and extended family were openly racist as a matter of course. It was not a topic for discussion. I asked my mother why only white people lived in our village, and black people lived in the town next to us. She told me it was written in the deeds that no one could sell to a black family. This was not an outrage to her. She thought the races shouldn’t mix.
My friends and I were innocent, yet racist, teen-aged girls. We wanted to date the black boys from town to shock our families and to rebel. We saw them as exotic instead of as human beings. It took a long time for me to realize that we were using these young men and thus as racist as anyone else.
I look back on that world and realize that we haven’t left it behind. I was living an illusion when I thought change had come to this country.
Like some others, I read this around 40 years ago at the end of my teens and/or college years. I watched the movie as well–I like many Spike Lee movies. Google tells me that came out in 1992.
Anyway, I’m afraid I’m not much help to this discussion. I watched the movie The Menu last night. Think it’s quite stupid.
@wonkie: CRT!! CRT!! MARXISM!!
Haven’t had time this past month to do anything let alone read much I want to read. But this book lived in our bathroom in the 1960s and I read bits of it then. One part I remember was about rabbits and them going in circles when they were hunted. As kid who liked rabbits this stayed with me. But I think the point was about people acting in predictable patterns and that one could use that against them if needed.
Like many of the previous commenters, I grew up in a liberal house in a mostly white place. But I lived for a few years in NJ in a town where everyone went to school together and where family friends were black and we visited back and forth. Made the racism of a segregated city in Northern Illinois easier to see. It is a long time ago and yet where I live now is like getting in a time machine to that place.
I didn’t get to do a re-read.
Malcolm had a level of self-awareness and introspection that seems almost alien these days. His analysis of race relations in America was spot on and much of it is as valid now as it was then.
I’ll just comment on the side that there is a recent biography “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X” which I read and found informative and, I would say, gripping.
We had a city council person who took her oath with the book. She was quite the activist until she resigned.
@HumboldtBlue: Succinct and true.
I found the book to be great but I had already been exposed to many of the ideas from the militant brothers in the Army. When I think of Malcolm I think of some of those dudes after the King assassination who basically saw MLK as an Uncle Tom and were not surprised at all that he was murdered..
@raven: I never saw MLK in the way you describe, but of course I wasn’t a young black soldier in the US at the time. But what reading him did for me was to lift my thinking from ‘moral outrage’ at the resistance to to full civil and political rights for US Black people to a curiosity about the structural reasons for the things that I thought were simply unbelievable.
My parents would tut tut (disapprovingly of course) when watching news from the US in the late 1960s, but until I read Malcolm X and listened up in my studies I didn’t ‘get’ the deep history and the structures that perpetuated so much that was so terrible. Those learnings and insights have informed my professional working and activist life since.
Currently reading Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women & The Politics of White Supremacy and it is AMAZING!! So many parallels to our current time. So much of it (textbooks, curricula, etc.) are just continuations of fights from the 30’s-on. Much/most of the book is centered around the the Lost Cause/Dunning revisionist history, anti-Communism and the extreme White-lash to Brown Vs. Board of Education, Integration etc. But it really shows how the other side has been using the same tactics and framings forever. I still have one chapter left, which is about busing in Boston in the 70’s.
Also just started the PBS series Fight The Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World. The first episode is a pretty great primer on racial justice in America and how it set the stage for the invention of hip-hop, breakdancing, street, fashion, graffiti art etc. I would recommend it as a history documentary, even for those who aren’t into hip-hop/rap.
@UncleEbeneezer: Thanks for the rec on Fight the Power! Sounds good, and I do like hip hop.
@UncleEbeneezer: Just finished the third episode of Fight The Power and agree it did a great job of tying together the racial history and tensions in this country to the music that came out of that era.
@Aussie Sheila: I wasn’t in the US.
@raven: Apologies. I have misread you. I didn’t mean any disrespect.
I was intending to reread the book, but life intervened. So, this will be more about me than the book. The first time I read it was during the late 70s when I was in my early twenties. My childhood was odd, we were the only black family in an otherwise white upper middle class suburban neighborhood near Boston. My parents were staunch integrationists, they were the first in their families to go to college (Mom with a degree in mathematics, Dad in electrical engineering), their approach to civil rights was to demonstrate they could function in the white world as well as any white person. As such, there was very little discussion of race during my childhood, aside from the occasional school-related issues (getting called names I’d never heard before, the 5th grade teacher who decided to screen The Birth of a Nation during class). My parents were followers of Martin Luther King Jr, and while they never said anything explicit, I got the impression from them (and TV) that Malcolm X and organizations like SNCC were misguided radicals.
So, by the late 70s I was a fairly confused young adult with identity issues and having some difficulty figuring out my place in the world. My Dad had gone through his own changes by then; he’d quit his suit-wearing career in the defense industry, grew an Afro, and could even be seen wearing a dashiki on occasion. He passed his copy of the The Autobiography of Malcolm X along to me. Reading it led me to question, for the first time, my own understanding of everything that had happened in my life to that point. After that I read some of his collected speeches (By Any Means Necessary and Malcolm X on Afro-American History) and the idea that I could not and should not allow my personhood to be defined by “white civilization” stuck with me. I can’t say that my life immediately changed for the better (I’m still working on it as I approach 70), but it did allow me to stop feeling shame and start being myself.
@Marc: I appreciate your sharing all of that.
@Marc: I appreciated reading your comments.
@mvr: I wrote of the less white mix of family friends in less segregated small town New Jersey in the 1960s compared to where I mostly grew up in Illinois (really my folks friends because I was all of 8 yo when we moved away). So I did some Googling and one of the people I was thinking of was a friend of Malcolm X’s (as well as an important black journalist back in the day). I knew my folks thought well of Malcolm X but this puts more perspective on that.
As a kid the thing I also remember is that as the black power movement became more prominent in civil rights activism, white folks like my parents became less part of organizing things and more part of supporting things. At least in my folks case this was basically accepted as part of what needed to happen. But it does mean that my folks engagement was not as deep in the 1970s as it was in the 1960s.
Raven could have mentioned that he was a (white) soldier serving in Korea and then in Vietnam.
@Steeplejack: Ok. I didn’t know. Once again apologies if I have offended.
That book is a narrative of the personal growth that led a man to see his world more clearly than anyone. When I think about it and the man, I think about the loss we suffered when death cast him in stone. Because he was above all a beautifully fluid being, to me it’s almost the meaning of his life. One of those people that is as close to self-made as it’s possible to be. Pains me almost physically that his American story was cut off in the middle.
I didn’t (and don’t) think an apology was necessary. You were working from incomplete information.
@delphinium: Another series that you might never guess did a similar thing is the ESPN documentary about the OJ Simpson case. A six part series that was incredible. The whole first episode, iirc, did a deep dive into the history of LAPD/LASD, Watts Uprising, the Latasha Harlins killing (and acquittal of Soon Ja Du), Rampart Police Scandal, and Rodney King all setting the table for the OJ trial and verdict. It’s a really great history of about 40 years of Los Angeles.
@Marc: “I could not and should not allow my personhood to be defined by “white civilization” stuck with me. I can’t say that my life immediately changed for the better (I’m still working on it as I approach 70), but it did allow me to stop feeling shame and start being myself.”
That’s really cool that it had that positive effect on you. One of the things I love about Fight the Power, Summer of Soul and so many other great documentaries that cover that time period is seeing, in addition to great fashion and music and style, is the incredible joy and pride that people were finally having celebrating their culture and being unapologetically Black. It’s a lovely and inspiring thing.
I think a lot of thought and ideology of the various ethnic groups in the US owe a debt that is consciously acknowledged to Malcolm X. Certainly, male actvists like Frank Chin and the late Jeffrey Paul Chan take on Malcolm’s spirit and verbal identity. And female activists like Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs worked side by side with him. His direct and indirect contributions to the formation of Asian American identity is incalculable (and fortunately are acknowledged by the pioneers and their successors in the Asian American movement)(well, most of the time…).
@Montanareddog: After watching Roots on its rebroadcast a few years on, I saw that Alex Haley had interviewed Malcom X for this book-that’s what got me to read it a few decades ago.
What stuck in my mind was the dance clubs in Harlem-watching Cab Calloway singing Minnie The Moocher in Blues Brothers kinda brings that back.
@Aussie Sheila: Not at all!
@WaterGirl: It’s not really chronological. Walter Winchell was a McCarthyite, and he predated Cronkite. I think it’s just that Cronkite was a decent person in a high position and, sadly, such people were either all too rare or unable to ascend the mountain due to prejudice. And we should guard ourselves against ‘ah, the old days, before everything sucked.’
Because the old days were worse by pretty much every metric. Especially for people like Malcolm X.
@Marc: I , too, appreciate your comments. I have often wondered about Anita, the lone brown face in a white school. I found out years later that she had been turned down for the cheer squad even though she was a state champion baton twirler. I also found out years later that the reason my mother suddenly pulled me out of the elementary school Camp Fire Girls was the troop leader’s refusal to allow Anita in. My mother was involved in the ACLU, but Anita’s family wasn’t interested in taking legal action. My mother never mentioned any of this while I was in school. Later, in college, I ran into Anita. This was in around 1973 and I was struck by her appearance. Her hair was straightened, and she was wearing turquoise eye shadow that looked really in-congruent on her brown skin. She was not friendly–in fact, I remember her looking angry–so our conversation was brief. She was getting a master’s in education. I think her family tried to deal with racism by keeping their heads down and just working away at being very respectable and middle class. Her dad was a college professor, and her family was active in the Methodist church. I wonder how her life turned out and I hope she found some kind of peace of mind.