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The Two Conversions of Malcolm X

Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X at a Nation of Islam rally, 1961

In Dreams from My Father, President Obama recalled his confusion about identity when he was a student at the Punahou Academy in Hawaii. “I had no idea who my own self was.” He didn’t feel comfortable talking about white folks with his black friends on the basketball court. Then one night it hit him that black people “were always playing on the white man’s court…by the white man’s rules.” He said he was haunted thereafter by the possibility that “being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat.”

To find out more about what he might be facing, Obama read Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, and Du Bois. But these black writers didn’t speak to him. He concluded that they had all ended up victims of Jim Crow in one way or another. However, the book that didn’t let him down was The Autobiography of Malcolm X:

Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will. All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life.

Malcolm X embodied a blackness that could stand up to the white man’s rules. There may be no slave master’s name to be X-ed out in Obama’s story, but knowledge of his father’s Africa came later; and anyway it was his valiant mother who first put him in touch with his black heritage. In the absence of his father, Obama received the breath of masculine racial pride from Malcolm X—who at the time of his assassination in 1965 was characterized by most whites and many blacks as an extremist.

Yet Obama also found in him a symbol of “some hope of eventual reconciliation,” which he may well conceive of himself as representing as well. He can perhaps imagine black and white meeting in his person because they do so as equal ingredients. In Obama’s account, he didn’t have to be ashamed of the black part of himself, because Malcolm X showed him that being black didn’t mean being conquered. Black nationalism was black macho. The image that Malcolm X projected held the promise of retaliatory power. In his eulogy for Malcolm X, the actor Ossie Davis praised the “shining prince” of “our living black manhood.”

Angela Davis has observed that the cult of Malcolm X as the personification of black manhood implied that male supremacy was the only response to white supremacy and obscured the part of his legacy that stood for intellectual growth. Most civil rights histories cast him as the pivotal voice in a drama of mass transformation, the shift in general black opinion away from believing in the effectiveness of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence to conceding the justice in the militancy of the disaffected blacks in the Northern cities. People still view King and Malcolm X as opposites, though James Cone in his engaging Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (1991) argued that they complemented each other, shared the same social goals, and were even moving toward one another at the end of their lives. But everyone finds in Malcolm X the Malcolm X that he or she needs, because in the last year of his life his political thought was branching out in different directions.


The Autobiography of Malcolm X, first published in 1965 and written with the help of Alex Haley, opens with stories of racial violence as family history. He was born Malcolm Little; his mother told him that when she was pregnant with him in Omaha in 1925, mounted Klansmen knocked out their windows with rifle butts. He describes his father, Reverend Earl Little, an itinerant Baptist minister, as a six-foot-four, very black, one-eyed man who did not frighten easily. The Littles were followers of Marcus Garvey, whose crusade for black pride following World War I inspired millions of black people around the world.

Garveyism advocated a black nationalism that challenged segregation by rejecting white society in favor of self-sufficiency. Garvey deemed the struggle for equal rights in America pointless and held that the true destiny of black people was to find their own homeland, to return to Africa. Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association did not die out with his imprisonment for fraud in 1925 and subsequent deportation back to Jamaica in 1927. Former UNIA members then turned up in other organizations or religious bodies. Garveyism helped to prepare the way for many alternative faiths in black communities. Malcolm X began his public career by advocating the Nation of Islam’s separatist program, in which one can discern an echo of Garvey’s race solidarity movement.

The Littles ended up in Lansing, Michigan, where the local white hate society wore black robes instead of white ones. Malcolm X’s first vivid memory, he said in his autobiography, was of the night in 1929 when the Black Legion burned down their house. His father shot at them, but the family barely escaped with their lives. In 1931, his father was killed in a gruesome accident. Black people whispered that the Legion had attacked him and laid his body across the tracks where he was nearly cut in half by a streetcar.

After his father’s death, his mother found it hard to look after eight children. Malcolm X remembered the humiliations of charity. Some days he was so hungry he was dizzy, he said. He and his siblings watched helplessly as their mother drifted toward a complete breakdown. In 1937, she was taken to the state mental hospital in Kalamazoo where she remained for twenty-six years. Her children went into foster care.

Malcolm X was eventually moved to a reform school in Mason, Michigan. “I noticed again how white people smelled different from us, and how their food tasted different.” He was allowed to go to school in town and to have an after-school job washing dishes. Because as a black kid he was a novelty, he was popular. Looking back, he admitted that he was proud of trying so hard “to be white,” not realizing that he was little more than a mascot. Nevertheless, he stayed near the top of his class until an incident just before he entered high school that he called “the first major turning point of my life.” He said he wanted to become a lawyer and his English teacher told him “that’s no realistic goal for a nigger.” He should plan on carpentry instead. A change came over him that baffled his teachers and friends.

His father’s oldest child from his first marriage, Ella, lived in Boston. Malcolm X had visited her in the summer of 1940 and found her and Boston much different from anything he knew in Lansing. Ella arranged to take custody of him. “No physical move in my life has been more pivotal or profound in its repercussions,” he said. He arrived in Boston a hick in a green suit. In the black section of Roxbury, he who had never smoked became enthralled to poolrooms and bars, pimps and gamblers.

Instead of going to school, he got a job as a shoeshine boy at the Roseland Ballroom. It had mostly white dances, but more than two decades later he got excited recalling his proximity to Duke Ellington or Count Basie. He took to wearing the zoot suits of the hipster, a style banned by the War Production Board in 1942 ostensibly because the suits used up too much material, but probably because the look was associated with draft dodgers. Malcolm X pretended to be mad when the draft board finally caught up with him.

He also “conked” his hair, i.e., straightened it with the use of lye. “This was my first really big step toward self-degradation,” he said, “when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair.” He was a wild lindy hopper, escorting his black girlfriend off the dance floor one night only to look into the eyes of a white girl, Sophia he calls her in the Autobiography, with whom he would have a relationship throughout the war. “Even among Harlem Negroes, her looks gave me status.”

A job selling sandwiches on the railroad took him to New York. There was Billie Holiday having a drink at the Braddock Hotel on 126th Street. His sort of job was plentiful in wartime, so he didn’t care how he behaved toward passengers and superiors. He switched to working as a waiter at Small’s Paradise, one of Harlem’s hottest dance clubs. The job at Small’s didn’t last and in time he was such a part of the scene that he had a nickname, “Detroit Red,” because of his bright red hair. He listened to the old-time hustlers. “My ears soaked it up,” he said.

I was a true hustler—uneducated, unskilled at anything honorable, and I considered myself nervy and cunning enough to live by my wits, exploiting any prey that presented itself. I would risk just about anything.

Malcolm X was a numbers runner; he peddled reefer to famous jazz musicians on tour; he sold reefer on 110th Street, “the worst of the ghetto,” once he got too hot to sell it anywhere else; he was such a sharp poker player in Grand Central Station that police warned him not to let them catch him there again without a ticket; he steered white civilian thrill seekers—Harlem was off-limits to white servicemen—to speakeasies and to prostitutes, black and white. “I got my first schooling about the cesspool morals of the white man from the best possible source,” he said: “from his own women.” Sophia came down often from Boston to be with him, even though she was married. He said he had little respect for her. He has harsh things to say about white women—and about women in general—throughout the book. He also returns more than once in the Autobiography to the “weird sexual tastes” of rich white people.

In retrospect, he saw himself and his fellow hustlers as “black victims of the white man’s American social system.” He paid particular attention to the squalid fates of old-timers, the paranoia and bleak final sick rooms. His memories of Harlem included tender portraits of losers—“Cadillac” the pimp, “Alabama Peaches” the white hooker, “Jumpsteady” the cat burglar. Though hustlers drew together for comfort, the laws of the streets were merciless, and criminals also preyed on one another. Malcolm X’s autobiography as a conversion tale stresses the evil he was saved from, but at the same time he was looking back on a period and a milieu rich with interest. He noted that Harlem was then a very tense place, and you could smell the trouble to come.

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