This section contains 1,709 words
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Critical Review by Robert Bone
SOURCE: "A Black Man's Quarrel With the Christian God," in New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1966, pp. 3, 14.
In the following review, Bone demonstrates the use of Malcolm X's autobiography as a means of understanding the intentions and convictions of the proponents of the concept of "Black Power" in the civil rights movement during the latter half of the 1960s.
In the month of June, 1966, the Negro protest movement entered a new phase. For the first time, during the so-called "Meredith march" to Jackson, Miss., the younger activists raised the slogan of "Black Power!" In the same month, less than a year after its initial publication, Grove Press brought out a paperback edition of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The two events are linked by more than a coincidence. For Malcolm's book, without a doubt, has had a major impact on the younger generation.
White liberals and Negro leaders alike have joined in condemnation of the new slogan. But before we resign en masse from CORE and S.N.C.C. (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and before we fill the air with charges of "nihilism" and "black nationalism," it behooves us to read, and even to reread Malcolm's book, and especially the last five chapters, which describe the transformation that took place in his mind and heart after his break with Elijah Muhammad and the Black Muslims. We might then better grasp the spirit and intent of these young men, who are in mood and outlook and political perspective nothing other than the heirs of Malcolm X.
The main events of Malcolm's life are by now familiar. His childhood in Michigan was a nightmare, replete with images of violence and misery. His adolescence in Boston, "conked" and zoot-suited, did little more than prepare him for the hustler's life he was to enter when he moved to Harlem. He became a pusher, a procurer, a gunman, and eventually was sentenced to 10 years in prison for armed robbery. There he was converted to the Nation of Islam, and for 12 years he devoted to the Muslim cause his impressive forensic and administrative talents. Not much more than a year before his death, he was "isolated indefinitely" by the Black Muslims. His last months were devoted to a pilgrimage to Mecca, and an attempt to found a splinter group called the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Malcolm's inner history is less widely understood. His life has been from start to finish a challenge and rebuke to historic Christianity. The son of a Baptist minister, he encountered only violence and humiliation from "the good Christian white people" of his native state. He retaliated through a life of crime, which proclaimed louder than words his denial of Christian community and negation of Christian values. It was the Nation of Islam, with its anti-Christian demonology, that rescued Malcolm from criminality and elevated his rebellion to a metaphysical plane. Nor did his rupture with the Black Muslims mitigate his opposition to the Christian faith. On the contrary, it confirmed his alienation by drawing him still closer to Islam.
In the end, it is Malcolm's metaphysical revolt that matters. For around his quarrel with the Christian God clusters a series of explosive issues that are of paramount concern to Negroes of the coming generation. These include the historic relationship of Christianity to white power, the freeing of the black man's mind from the tyranny of white culture and the formation by the American Negro of an adequate self-image—or putting it another way, his conquest of shame.
To all of these issues Malcolm addressed himself with eloquence and passion from the time of his conversion to the Nation of Islam. It is to that curious sect that we must therefore turn in order to discover the sources of his personal power.
The Muslim indictment of historic Christianity might be summarized as follows. The Christian religion is the tribal religion of white Europe. Since the time of the Crusades, the Christian church has instigated, championed, and proclaimed as holy the white man's depredations into Africa. Throughout the centuries, and in every corner of the globe, the church has been the willing instrument of white power. She has been guilty of sanctifying white supremacy, blessing the white man's wars of conquest, and justifying in the name of God slavery and segregation. Without pity or remorse the Christian church has aided and abetted the white man in his criminal designs upon the colored world.
In the consolidation of white power, the church has played a crucial part. The whip and gun, although in ample evidence, remained a last resort. Far handier was the apathy, resignation, or even willing cooperation of the victim in his own enslavement. To secure this acquiescence, the blessings of the white slavemaster's religion were bestowed upon the blacks. They were taught to endure humbly and without complaint the cruelties of the slavemaster, and to look for their reward in Heaven, while the white man enjoyed the products of their labor here on earth.
The permanent effects of this indoctrination are apparent in "the brainwashed black Christian" of the present day. He has been convinced of his inferiority; his manhood has been crushed by an overwhelming sense of shame. And here again, the Muslims claim, it is the church that taught the Negro to hold his blackness in contempt, and to revere the color white.
It is difficult, for example, to believe at the bottom of one's soul that black is beautiful if one has been taught for centuries to worship a blond and blue-eyed God. For if God is man idealized, then the black man who worships a white God is through every act of worship buried deeper in a sense of worthlessness and shame. Rehabilitation, the Muslims have discovered, will require a new sense of self as well as a new concept of God.
All of this, as Malcolm never ceases to affirm, rings true to the potential Muslim convert. It corresponds to his experience, his knowledge of the white world. It comes in a package, to be sure, which also contains a good deal of magic, Puritan fanaticism, ignorance and hate. These extraneous features of the sect, Malcolm came to realize, had limited its growth and obscured its central insight. What if they were cut away? A movement might emerge shorn of racism, separatism, and blind hate, which yet preserved the explosive force and liberating energy of the Muslim myth. This is the direction in which Malcolm X was moving for a year or more before his death.
Hatred, to be sure, does not respond so readily to the imperatives of ideology. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we understand the spiritual transformation that enabled Malcolm to transcend his hate. When he returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca, he announced to the reporters, "In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I never will be guilty of that again—as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man." He then explained that in the Holy World his attitude was changed by virtue of the brotherhood that was extended not only to himself but to all Moslems, of whatever nationality or race.
Malcolm's explanation of his new attitude toward whites ought not to be accepted at face value. The casual encounters, however gratifying, of a visit to a foreign land, do not constitute an adequate basis for a profound personality change. What took place in Malcolm's heart was perhaps confirmed in Mecca, but initiated in Chicago: namely, his betrayal by Elijah Muhammad and expulsion from the Muslim sect. It was this experience that laid the groundwork for his new relations with co-religionists of white complexion.
What is at issue is Malcolm's education in the nature of evil. For 12 years he endorsed a demonology which proclaims that the white man is a devil. On no account is any white man to be trusted; however friendly his behavior, covertly he is plotting your betrayal. When betrayal came, however, it was by a black man and in Malcolm's world, the black man par excellence. Under the impact of this trauma, the simple equation of white with evil had to fall. If a man's moral nature cannot be reliably inferred from the color of his skin, then we must confront what James Baldwin has called the mysteries and conundrums of the human heart.
It was this confrontation, this inner growth, that made possible the next stage in Malcolm's political development. For want of a better term, it might be described as a tactical black nationalism. Toward the end of his life, Malcolm wrote that he now wanted "an all-black organization whose ultimate objective was to help create a society in which there could exist an honest white-black brotherhood."
This is as far from the separatism of the Black Muslims as Malcolm's attitude toward whites is a departure from their racism. In both instances, there remains a healthy skepticism, which places the main responsibility for brotherhood where it belongs: on the whites. The political expression of that skepticism is the transitional demand for black power.
Perhaps, in the light of Malcolm's book, we can better understand the rivalry between the youthful militants of S.N.C.C. and their erstwhile parent organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. For these young men are finished with appeals to Christian conscience; that is the meaning of their new slogan. "Freedom Now!" is addressed to whites; it is a shorthand version of "Give us our freedom now!" But "Black Power!" is addressed to Negroes; it is a call to mobilize their full social weight for the achievement of specific goals. The essence of the shift is psychological. It has nothing to do with black supremacy, but much to do with manhood and self-reliance.
For centuries, the American Negro has felt the weight of white power. Now he proposes to organize a countervailing power with a base among the poorest of the poor. Those whites who are inclined to cry "Foul!" would do well to contemplate the strange career of Malcolm X. For Malcolm's ascent from the lower depths to his final vision of human brotherhood suggests that black power may be after all redemptive; and apostasy, one man's way to heaven.
This section contains 1,709 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)