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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 to replace the drugs. He was a vicious prisoner, often in solitary. The other prisoners nicknamed him “Satan.” But the prison had an unusually well stocked library to which he was introduced by a fellow prisoner, an old-time burglar named Bimbi. Through him, Malcolm first encountered Thoreau. Prison became his university; there also he was converted to the Nation of Islam, the sect the press calls Black Muslims.

The important word here is conversion. To understand Malcolm’s experience, one must go to the literature of conversion. “Were we writing the history of the mind from the purely natural history point of view,” William James concludes in his Varieties of Religious Experience, “we would still have to write down man’s liability to sudden and complete conversion as one of his most curious peculiarities.” The convert’s sense of being born anew, the sudden change from despair to elation, bears an obvious resemblance to the manic-depressive cycle, except that the change in the personality is often permanent. But those who experience it must first—to borrow Gospel language—be brought low. James quotes the theological maxim, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” It is only out of the depths that men on occasion experience this phenomenon of renewal. The success of the Black Muslims in converting and rehabilitating criminals and dope addicts like Malcolm X recalls the mighty phrases James quotes from Luther. “God,” he preached, “is the God…of those that are brought even to nothing…and his nature is…to save the very desperate and damned.” Malcolm had been brought to nothing, he was one of those very desperate and damned when he was “saved” by Elijah Muhammad, the self-proclaimed Messenger of Allah to the lost Black Nation of that imaginary Islam he preaches.

The tendency is to dismiss Elijah Muhammad’s weird doctrine as another example of the superstitions, old and new, that thrive in the Negro ghetto. It is not really any more absurd than the Virgin Birth or the Sacrifice of Isaac. The rational absurdity does not detract from the psychic therapy. Indeed the therapy may lie in the absurdity. Converts to any creed talk of the joy in complete surrender; a rape of the mind occurs. “Credo quia absurdum.” Tertullian, the first really cultivated apologist for Christianity, is said to have exulted, “I believe because it is absurd.” Tertullian was himself a convert. Black Nationalists may even claim him as an African, for his home was Carthage.

There is a special reason for the efficacy of the Black Muslims in reaching the Negro damned. The sickness of the Negro in America is that he has been made to feel a nigger; the genocide is psychic. The Negro must rid himself of this feeling if he is to stand erect again. He can do so in two ways. He can change the outer world of white supremacy, or he can change his inner world by “conversion.” The teachings of the Black Muslims may be fantastic but they are superbly suited to the task of shaking off the feeling of nigger-ness. Elijah Muhammad teaches that the original man was black, that Caucasians are “white devils” created almost 6,000 years ago by a black genius named Yakub. He bleached a number of blacks by a process of mutation into pale-faced blue-eyed devils in order to test the mettle of the Black Nation. This inferior breed has ruled by deviltry but their time will soon be up, at the end of the sixth millenium, which may be by 1970 or thereabouts. To explain the white man as a devil is, as Malcolm X says in the Autobiography, to strike “a nerve center in the American black man” for “when he thinks about his own life, he is going to see where, to him personally, the white man sure has acted like a devil.” To see the white man this way is, in Gospel imagery, to cast out the devil. With him go his values, as he has impressed them on the Black Man, above all the inner feeling of being a nigger. To lose that feeling is to be fully emancipated. For the poor Negro no drug could be a stronger opiate than this black religion.

With rejection of the white man’s values goes rejection of the white man’s God. “We’re worshipping a Jesus,” Malcolm protested in one of his sermons after he became a Black Muslim Minister, “who doesn’t even look like us.” The white man, he declared, “has brainwashed us black people to fasten our gaze upon a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus.” This Black Muslim doctrine may seem a blasphemous joke until one makes the effort to imagine how whites would feel if taught to worship a black God with thick African lips. Men prefer to create a God in their own image. “The Ethiopians,” one of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers1 observed a half millenium before Christ, “assert that their gods are snub-nosed and black” while the “Nordic” Thracians said theirs were “blue-eyed and red-haired.” When Marcus Garvey, the first apostle of Pan-Africanism, toured Africa, urging expulsion of the white man, he called for a Negro religion with a Negro Christ. Just as Malcolm Little, in accordance with Black Muslim practice, rejected his “slave name” and became Malcolm X, so Malcolm X, son of a Baptist preacher, rejected Christianity as a slave religion. His teacher, Elijah Muhammad, did not have to read Nietszche to discover that Christianity was admirably suited to make Rome’s slaves submissive. In our ante-bellum South the value of Christian teaching in making slaves tractable was widely recognized even by slaveholders themselves agnostic.2 The Negro converted to Christianity was cut off from the disturbing memory of his own gods and of his lost freedom, and reconciled to his lot in the white man’s chains. Here again the primitivistic fantasies of the Black Muslims unerringly focus on a crucial point. It is in the Christian mission that what Malcolm X called the “brainwashing” of the blacks began.

Racism and nationalism are poisons. Sometimes a poison may be prescribed as a medicine, and Negroes have found in racism a way to restore their self-respect. But black racism is still racism, with all its primitive irrationality and danger. There are passages in the Autobiography in which Malcolm, recounting some of his Black Muslim sermons, sounds like a Southern white supremacist in reverse, vibrating with anger and sexual obsession over the horrors of race pollution. There is the same preoccupation with rape, the same revulsion about mixed breeds. “Why,” he cried out, “the white man’s raping of the black race’s woman began right on those slave ships!” A psychoanalyst might see in his fury the feeling of rejection by the race of his white grandfather. A biologist might see in the achievements of this tall sandy-complexioned Negro—his friends called him “Red”—an example of the possibilities of successful racial mixture. But Malcolm’s feelings on the subject were as outraged as those of a Daughter of the Confederacy. He returned revulsion for revulsion and hate for hate. He named his first child, a daughter, Attilah, and explained that he named her for the Hun who sacked Rome.

But hidden under the surface of the Black Nationalist creed to which he was won there lay a peculiar anti-Negroism. The true nationalist loves his people and their peculiarities; he wants to preserve them; he is filled with filial piety. But there is in Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslim creed none of the love for the Negro one finds in W. E. B. du Bois, or of that yearning for the ancestral Africa which obsessed Garvey. Elijah Muhammad—who himself looks more Chinese than Negro—teaches his people that they are Asians, not Africans; that their original tongue is Arabic. He turns his people into middle-class Americans. Their clothes are conservative, almost Ivy League. Their religious services eschew that rich antiphony between preacher and congregation which one finds in Negro churches. The Nigerian, E. U. Essien-Udom, whose Black Nationalism, is the best book on the Black Muslims, was struck by their middleclass attitudes and coldness to Africa and African ways. In Black Muslim homes, when jazz was played, he writes that he was “often tempted to tap his feet to the tune of jazz” but was inhibited because his Black Muslim hosts “listened to it without ostensible response to the rhythm.” In their own way the Black Muslims are as much in flight from Negritude as was Booker T. Washington. Indeed Elijah Muhammad’s stress on Negro private business and his hostility to trade unionism in his own dealings with Negroes are very much in the Booker T. Washington pattern. The virtues of bourgeois America are what Elijah Muhammad seeks to recreate in his separate Black Nation. This is the banal reality which lies behind all his hocus-pocus about the Koran, and here lie the roots of his split with Malcolm X.

  1. 1

    Xenophon of Kolophon, Fragment No. 16 in Diels: Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker.

  2. 2

    See Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution, pps. 158-60.

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