The Pilgrimage of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

with the assistance of Alex Haley
Grove, 455 pp., $7.50

Malcolm X was born into Black Nationalism. His father was a follower of Marcus Garvey, the West Indian who launched a “Back to Africa” movement in the Twenties. Malcolm’s first clash with white men took place when his mother was pregnant with him; a mob of Klansmen in Omaha, Nebraska, waving shotguns and rifles, warned her one night to move out of town because her husband was spreading trouble among the “good” Negroes with Garvey’s teachings. One of his earliest memories was of seeing their home burned down in Lansing, Michigan, in 1929, because the Black Legion, a white Fascist organization, considered his father an “uppity” Negro. The body of his father, a tall, powerful black man from Georgia, soon afterwards was found literally cut to pieces in one of those mysterious accidents that often veil a racial killing.

His mother was a West Indian who looked like a white woman. Her unknown father was white. She slowly went to pieces mentally under the burden of raising eight children. When the family was broken up. Malcolm was sent to a detention home, from which he attended a white school. He must have been a bright and attractive lad, for he was at the top of his class and was elected class president in the seventh grade. Many years later, in a speech on the Black Revolution which is included in the collection, Malcolm X Speaks, he was able to boast bitterly, “I grew up with white people. I was integrated before they even invented the word.” The reason for the bitterness was an incident that changed his life. His English teacher told him he ought to begin thinking about his career. Malcolm said he would like to be a lawyer. His teacher suggested carpentry instead. “We all here like you, you know that,” the teacher said, “but you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger.”

Malcolm X left Lansing deeply alienated and in the slums of Boston and New York he became a “hustler,” selling numbers, women, and dope. “All of us,” he says in his Autobiography of his friends in the human jungle, “who might have probed space or cured cancer or built industries, were instead black victims of the white man’s American social system.” Insofar as he was concerned, this was no exaggeration. He was an extraordinary man. Had he been wholly white, instead of irretrievably “Negro” by American standards, he might easily have become a leader of the bar. In the underworld he went from marijuana to cocaine. To meet the cost he took up burglary. He was arrested with a white mistress who had become his look-out woman. In February, 1946, not quite twenty-one, he was sentenced to ten years in prison in Massachusetts. The heavy sentence reflected the revulsion created in the judge by the discovery that Malcolm had made a white woman his “love slave.” In prison, he went on nutmeg, reefers, Nembutal, and benzedrine in a desperate effort …

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It Was Xenophanes December 23, 1965