1. In one sense, we were huddled in there, bonded togethher in seeking security and warmth and comfort from each other, and we didn’t know it. All of us—who might have probed space, or cured cancer, or built industries—were, instead, black victims of the white man’s American social system.
This passage from Chapter Six, “Detroit Red,” describes the Harlem nightclub as a family network and a safe space that counterbalances the overwhelming forces of racism in the outside world. The description is typical of the autobiography in its portrayal of members of the Harlem community as victims of racial oppression. Faced with this political reality, those who frequent these nightclubs must concern themselves mainly with the basic matter of surviving the conditions of the ghetto. The nightclubs have become something of a home for these blacks. Malcolm’s assertion that the nightclub regulars use this family network without knowing it underscores how vital this support is to their survival. Many of the regulars are poised, aggressive hustlers on the outside, but their need for “security and warmth and comfort” persists on the inside.
This passage also focuses on the wasted potential of the black masses. It refers indirectly to Malcolm’s hustler friends, such as Sammy the Pimp, whose considerable business skills might have helped him build industries instead of a pimping empire. Similarly, West Indian Archie’s photographic memory and quick math skills might have gotten him far in school instead of in gambling rackets. Malcolm’s reference to the lofty career aspirations that form part of the American dream—probing space or curing cancer—underscores that these opportunities are not open to blacks, however. Instead, blacks, discouraged from pursuing any but the most menial jobs, can find a place for themselves in America only on the lowermost rungs of society.
“Yes! Yes, that raping, red-headed devil was my grandfather! That close, yes! My mother’s father! She didn’t like to speak of it, can you blame her? She said she never laid eyes on him! She was glad for that! I’m glad for her! If I could drain away his blood that pollutes my body, and pollutes my complexion, I’d do it! Because I hate every drop of the rapist’s blood that’s in me!”
This passage from Chapter Twelve, “Savior,” an excerpt from one of Malcolm’s early speeches as a Nation of Islam minister, demonstrates the fierceness of his anti–white sentiment. The “raping, red-headed devil” is Malcolm’s grandfather, a white man on the Caribbean island of Antigua who fathered Malcolm’s mother, Louise, by raping her mother. Though the man is Malcolm’s own grandfather, Malcolm condemns him for his odious actions and for the oppression that he represents. In his youth, Malcolm does experience benefits from having lighter skin, such as his father treating him well and his easier time integrating into his white school. But such benefits eventually only frustrate him because they illuminate the depths of the real racial boundaries he faces.
Malcolm’s agitation about “his blood pollut[ing] my body” reflects his belief in the Nation of Islam’s genetic theory of race, which holds that white people were bred from black people by a mad scientist in order to unleash evil on the world. The racist values behind this attitude put Malcolm on a parallel with racist whites. Furthermore, by dwelling on the rape of black women by white men and the evils of interracial intercourse, Malcolm evokes the debate on miscegenation, a term that denotes the mixing of races and that racist whites use to denounce interracial sex as an attack on white racial purity. While Malcolm’s rhetoric is as fanatical as that of white racists, we can easily understand it as a reaction to the white rhetoric that oppresses his people. The unity he seeks among blacks requires excluding whites, just as the unspoken unity among whites requires excluding blacks. It is not surprising, then, that Malcolm X’s racism against whites has many of same characteristics as white racism against blacks.
America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.
In the course of recounting his pilgrimage in Chapter Seventeen, “Mecca,” Malcolm reveals his continued faith in Islam as a potential source for social change in America, but also reveals the difference between his experience of Middle Eastern Islam and the form of Islam he has practiced in the United States. While affiliated with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm uses Islam as a vehicle for promoting spiritual, social, political, and economic self-sufficiency among black people. Malcolm’s is a simplified version of Islam, bent around demonizing whites and giving a rigid version of independence to black people. Later, in Mecca, at a time of personal upheaval and exile from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm discovers a much deeper Islam that is concerned with universal theological questions rather than with immediate political concerns. This quotation, steeped in the wisdom his experiences have given him, shows that Malcolm believes that America’s race problem is resolvable. Malcolm bases his contention that Islam “erases from its society the race problem” on his experience of brotherhood in Mecca with white-skinned Muslims. His ability to live closely with them, without a trace of racial tension, enables him to see beyond the racial hierarchy of American society.
I reflected many, many times to myself upon how the American Negro has been entirely brainwashed from ever seeing or thinking of himself, as he should, as a part of the nonwhite peoples of the world.
This quote, made by Malcolm after his 1964 trip to Mecca and Africa, and recounted in Chapter Eighteen, “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz,” shows the strength of his commitment to a broader perspective on race relations and oppression. While still blaming white people for the difficulties that black Americans face, Malcolm suggests a unified global black community as a potential remedy for the struggle of blacks everywhere. Unlike his claim that Islam can be a tool that helps all Americans redefine their understanding of race, Malcolm’s perspective here focuses on building up black power rather than on expanding both whites’ and blacks’ perspective. His assertion that whites have “brainwashed” blacks in order to disempower them reflects his belief that blacks throughout the world must work together to overcome white oppression.
I’ve had enough of someone else’s propaganda.…I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.
This passage, from a letter Malcolm writes while in Mecca to some American friends, appears in Chapter Nineteen, “1965,” and shows how Malcolm’s understanding of America’s race problems has matured. He is no longer willing to submit unquestioningly to the propaganda of “someone else”—namely Elijah Muhammad—in deference to whom Malcolm has been squelching his own opinions for the past decade. Malcolm resists the Nation of Islam’s anti–white rhetoric and separatist tendencies, which he now sees as an obstacle rather than an aid to progress. In a stunning reversal of policy, Malcolm broadens his work for racial equality by opening the door to conversations with white people and collaborations with white organizations.
In committing to the abstract ideals of truth and justice, Malcolm sets the stage to eclipse his status as a black political leader by becoming a global political figure. However, while this letter does signal a major change in Malcolm’s perspective, his subsequent actions do not necessarily back up his claims here. On returning to New York City, for example, Malcolm receives a flood of requests from white people to join his new organization. His rejection of them on the grounds that whites must work with their own people before attempting to form a coalition with blacks reveals limits to his new outlook. Nevertheless, his openness to having white people work for racial justice at all marks a step of progress from his earlier belief that black people are the only ones who can improve black lives.