Malcolm X | Critical Essay by R. L. Caserio

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Malcolm X.
This section contains 4,790 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by R. L. Caserio

SOURCE: "Malcolm X," in Cambridge Quarterly, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 84-94.

In the following essay, Caserio analyzes The Autobiography of Malcolm X, using the works of other modern African-American writers as a means of comparing and contrasting the views expressed by Malcolm X with those of his contemporaries.

In 1963 Malcolm X was asked by a free-lance writer named Alex Haley to tell the story of his life, so that it could be published as a full-scale autobiography. Malcolm X was at that time the chief of staff of an American religious sect called the Nation of Islam, whose members were identified as 'Black Muslims' by the national press. Its leader was and still is a Georgia-born black man named Elijah Muhammad, who claims he has been chosen by Allah to be the saviour of American negroes. The sect requires of its members an ascetic moral discipline, and it encourages their education and their economic betterment. Its theology, or cosmology, is simple: God is black, the Devil is the white man, and a scientist named Yacub, at the beginning of recorded history, grafted the devil white race from an original black people. In 1959 a television special on the sect, entitled 'The Hate That Hate Produced', had been broadcast, and the most formidable exponent of this hate was said to be Malcolm. Originally he agreed to dictate his memories to Mr. Haley, because he thought it would help outsiders 'to appreciate better how Mr. Muhammad salvages black people'.

But during the period in which he was dictating his story Malcolm's life changed considerably. He broke with the Nation of Islam, in part because he discovered that it was not the authentic Mohammedan religion. This break seems to have thrown him into a painful and lonely self-awareness. He thought it was necessary to go on with the book, in order to justify his devotion to the Allah of Mecca. And that justification meant going in detail into what he called his 'sordid past', because he wanted to convey the sense that a pilgrimage he made to the East in 1964, and his discovery there of a larger humanity in himself and in others, had been preordained, in a sense pre-written, in all his life's experience. In spite of the popularity of the autobiography, however, the public image of Malcolm, contrived by those he frightened, endures. Without the book one would be likely to believe that Malcolm X was just a seething crackpot. He was shot down at a public rally in 1965, but he is usually not listed or mentioned in any roll call of honourable American public figures who have been assassinated.

In spite of the religious pressure which shaped the book—significantly, perhaps, because of it—I find Malcolm's life has the narrative interest of a nineteenth-century Bildungsroman. Malcolm was a strange, peculiarly American repetition of Pip or Julien Sorel or Eugene Rastignac, determined to become what he was, to find a vocation in which he would justify himself, and which would also suit the terms society sets to define its best men. But Malcolm became disillusioned, like his prototypes: and he had to recreate his world, at least his way of seeing it, in his own terms, so that he could believe in it again. Malcolm's father was a disciple of Marcus Garvey, and was murdered by whites. The fact represents the limits of his first expectations: he would be able to 'make it' only in the black world. He became a hip Harlem celebrity and a criminal, and he was a celebrity and a success because he was a criminal. In 1946, just before he was twenty-one, he was arrested for a minor robbery attempt, and was sentenced to ten years in prison. There he underwent a religious conversion, and became a follower of Mr. Muhammad, in whom he figuratively found his father (and Garvey) again. The pilgrimage to Africa curiously both rejected and vindicated his 'fathers': Malcolm brought Africa, in the form of what he believed to be its most authentic religious spirit, back with him to America. But this last step in his education kept him, I think, in the eyes of his countrymen still illegitimate, if not still criminal.

In the autobiography one sees Malcolm change continually, playing as many parts as Ralph Ellison's Rinehart in the novel Invisible Man. Rinehart is a kind of extraordinary Harlem politician; he seems to hold the community together by encapsulating its contradictions. He is, among other things, a pimp, a one-man general employment agency, a priest, a gigolo, a bookie, a collaborator with the white police. But this epitome of American black men incorporates too much: the narrator of Invisible Man wonders if Rinehart isn't the symptom of schizophrenic illness. Yet Malcolm, for all the roles he passed through—he never did ally himself with the police, however—was not schizophrenic. The autobiography illustrates how possible and yet how difficult it is for a man to unify his disparate experiences and to mature. The identity of Malcolm's assassins is not reliably certain, but I think it is reasonable to believe that he was murdered by those who couldn't accept or allow his development. Certainly Elijah Muhammad encouraged his Muslims to turn against Malcolm, and to force Malcolm's withdrawal. What one gathers from Malcolm's narrative is that Mr. Muhammad could not respond to changes taking place in himself. When he trespassed his own religion's laws concerning adultery, he told Malcolm that such was Allah's plan. To the reader he seems a split person desperately holding himself together, embodying precisely the illness he diagnosed in his people. They have not been able to grow, perhaps, because they have wanted a double existence, to be both black and white at the same time, without realising what it might mean to be either. Malcolm, although he was in anguish, could not lie about his saviour. The Muslims formally silenced him, ostensibly because of something he said to the press about the assassination of President Kennedy, and Malcolm then uncovered a Muslim plot against his life. What this betrayal crystallised compelled him to find again some new, truthful way of going forward.

Nothing in Malcolm's adventures was merely private, and one senses that he was indeed tracking down the expectations of a people. But at the same time it would be wrong to claim for certain that Malcolm's experience is representative. The values he actively created for himself, to justify his way of seeing us, he too conveniently attributes to Allah and to 'society'. In spite of all he shows, one is likely to feel that his diagnosis of American sickness is itself unhealthily monolithic or abstracted. Yet it is also one of the convincing wonders of his book that he can point to the sickness in the live bodies, even in the hair, of his people. When he was in his teens. Malcolm periodically straightened his hair, so that his appearance would conform to white standards of beauty. Until I read Malcolm I never realised consciously that most black Americans, at least up until the last few years, have tortured themselves with cosmetics and wigs in order to look 'better', that is, more white. The process of straightening is called 'conking'. A conk in a barbershop, even in the forties, cost up to four dollars, so Malcolm with the help of a friend conked his own hair. He describes the first time he did so as a major event. The actual conking process consisted of submitting one's scalp to a mixture of eggs, vaseline, potatoes, and lye. The lye had to be combed into the hair, and this burned fiercely, but the longer one could stand the burning, the straighter the hair would become. The lye had to be applied with rubber gloves, and rinsed off ten or twelve times, since any of it remaining would burn sores into the scalp. For years Malcolm conked faithfully, but he considered it later his 'first really big step toward self-degradation':

I don't know which kind of self-defacing conk is the greater shame—the one you'll see on the heads of the black so-called 'middle class' and 'upper class', who ought to know better, or the one you'll see on the heads of the poorest, most down-trodden, ignorant black men. I mean the legal-minimum-wage ghetto-dwelling kind of Negro, as I was when I got my first one. It's generally among these poor fools that you'll see a black kerchief over the man's head, like Aunt Jemima; he's trying to make his conk last longer, between trips to the barbershop. Only for special occasions is this kerchief-protected conk exposed—to show off how 'sharp' and 'hip' its owner is … I don't see how on earth a black woman with any race pride could walk down the street with any black man wearing a conk—the emblem of his shame that he is black.

But this cosmetic enactment of social degradation is a relatively minor point in the social analysis which Malcolm opens up. Many converts to the Nation of Islam were junkies. As ex-addicts these converts went after their old friends, to reclaim them from addiction. Conversion took the form of the addict's breaking the habit; and at the same time breaking the white man's hold on his life:

When the addict's withdrawal sets in, and he is screaming, cursing, and begging, 'Just one shot, Man!' the Muslims are right there talking junkie jargon to him. 'Baby, knock that monkey off your back! Kick that habit! Kick Whitey off your back!' The addict, writhing in pain, his nose and eyes running, is pouring sweat from head to foot. He's trying to knock his head against the wall, flailing his arms, trying to fight his attendants, he is vomiting, suffering diarrhea. 'Don't hold nothing back! Let Whitey go, baby! You're going to stand tall, man! I can sec you now in the Fruit of Islam!'

This is gruesome, not only because of the physical details. A reader is likely to draw back at the sight of a man exchanging a physical addiction for a spiritual one. Yet this, at the height of his preaching for Elijah Muhammad, was Malcolm's analytic method. The intimate crying-out of a sick man's nerves is at once translated into a public structure. True, in America skin can still be fate. But Malcolm tended to hide how he persuaded persons to choose to see that. He didn't just cleanse his converts' vision, but helped create it, as a shaping force. Malcolm's whole life proved the connection between intimate and public fact. But I come round to my doubt that the proof is representative.

Truthful descriptions of black experience and white are rare. I know how easy it is, for those of us who don't have Malcolm's very special experiences or strength, to feel we're justly getting at all the truth when we see our living exclusively in the aspect of 'issues'. I myself, a young white man, believe in the conclusions of his social analysis, and in the practical economic and political aims of the Organisation for Afro-American Unity which Malcolm founded after his return from Mecca. But in Shadow and Act (1966), Ralph Ellison asks. 'Are American Negroes simply the creation of white men, or have they at least helped to create themselves out of what they found around them? Men have made a way of life in caves and upon cliffs, why cannot Negroes have made a life upon the horns of the white man's dilemma'. This question was asked in a review of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma. We are always hearing and reading about the dilemma and its horns, and next to nothing about the life.

Malcolm's later views raise serious problems for his imitators. He did not by any means grow soft, but his condemnations changed their target, and his thinking became more flexible. His life as we have it now is what he was actively growing away from, so young people are likely to be trapped in their imitation, modelling themselves on ideas or theories he was beginning to modify, or discard.

One thing is certain: had he lived, he would not have retreated into a politics of Love. There is a euphoric moment in the story when Malcolm, in a car, has stopped for a traffic light, and a white man, stopped beside him, calls out: '"Malcolm X!" … and when I looked, he stuck his hand out of his car, across at me, grinning. "Do you mind shaking hands with a white man?" Imagine that! Just as the traffic light turned green, I told him, "I don't mind shaking hands with human beings. Are you one?"' The 'Are you one?' shows his persisting toughness. You would have to prove yourself before you dealt with him. I think this is an astonishing question to ask in America, where the commonness and omnipresence of 'humanity' is great political and diplomatic capital, yet the numberless specific and non-negotiable forms of that humanity are ignored. The last President attended a number of churches: 'aren't all gods one, and all human beings?' I expect the new President will do the same, to help create the unity that we all, for the sake of 'law and order', supposedly want. But on the basis of this totalitarian assertion of oneness, there can only develop more 'understanding' and 'love', and more disgust at the lie it makes of the life we know. I think there was in Malcolm's orthodoxy and intransigence, personal and religious, since they did not stunt him, something both holy and most significantly humane. And I say this bearing in mind the contrast of Martin Luther King, whose religion was more conventional and peaceful.

Dr. King's conventionality to be sure was more effective politically. His tactics were suitable to most of the country's belief in tolerance and fair play; before Memphis at least he never seemed to the general public to be a trouble-mater. But here I cannot help expressing some bitter feelings towards the press. At times Dr. King's cunning passivity, although it was only a tactic, has struck me as similar in outward appearance to the passivity of the 'objective' news reporter, who shrewdly illuminates an 'issue' but divorces his feelings, or his passions, from it. Dr. King was indeed passionate, but his characteristic 'image' was self-effacement. And this image especially attracted newsmen, because self-effacement characterises daily American journalism, with the result that non-feeling or stingy or 'reasonable' thinking usually become identified with wisdom and objectivity. Malcolm effaced himself before Allah, but then, the thinking seemed to go (as it did in regard to Muhammad Ali), how could a black man in America legitimately believe in Allah? And when Malcolm said that America was a sham, and spoke with hatred rather than firm and self-effacing Christian meekness in his voice, he became identified with hate, as if that emotion excluded all other feelings, and especially ruled out thought or objectivity. But the most serious injustice the newsmen do Malcolm is simply to forget him, or to believe that at best his memory is poisonous. His conviction that whites and blacks can work for common freedoms and hopes only by working separately is still behind news stories about black self-help projects, but these stories are often followed up by editorials sadly reflecting on the 'racism' implicit in separatism and self-help. But 'black power' has grown from Malcolm's book and from those who took up his work and I hardly think it sad. Maybe Malcolm opposed the nagging pressures for 'integration' because he was strongly capable of unifying his own life. Those who longed for togetherness (although most civil rights workers wanted simple justice), embarrassed even by the healthy differences between black and white, struck him as themselves fragmentary. Certainly he believed that 'giving' integration to Negroes only confirmed the white man in his specious feeling of superiority.

As a contrast with Malcolm's response to Harlem life Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land (1965) is worth reading. Mr. Brown was also a juvenile criminal, like Malcolm he dangerously experimented with the use of drugs, and he also went through a conversion, although a very personal and not religious one, in reform school and prison. Moved especially by the hopelessness of the Harlem streets, which he saw sapping the lives of his friends and his brother, Mr. Brown went to live in lower Manhattan, and worked and studied hard enough to get into law school, and to write his best-selling autobiography. In describing his growing up Mr. Brown writes in a language which is movingly authentic, and here one does find at least as much of the real life as of the dilemma. But I find his maturity sad, it is a growing isolation from Harlem, his community, a perpetuation of a split; he seems to save himself and withdraw. In 1955, Mr. Brown remembers, he first became aware of the changes the Black Muslims were working in Harlem. He had a conversation with a street friend named Alley Bush who had become a Muslim in prison. Alley tried to convert Mr. Brown, whom he here calls by his nickname, Sonny:

'If you're not mad [at white men], I feel sorry for you, Sonny, because you're crazy, and you're lost, man. So there, black man, you've got to be mad, brother.'

'Alley, man, you can gel mad about this shit, but if you can't do anything about it, it's gon fuck with your mind, you know? Unless you stop being mad because you realise you have to stop, for your own good.'

'How the hell are you gon stop bein' mad when you've got a foot up in your ass?'

I said, 'Look, man, if you're going to live, you got to try and take the foot out of your ass. There's some things, man, that anger doesn't mean a damn thing to. You can get mad if you want to, but why bother if nobody's going to pay any attention to you? Alley, the way I feel about it is that we—you, me, the cats we came up with, probably all the cats that were in jail with you—we were angry all our lives. That's what that shit was all about. We were having our revolution. The revolution that you're talking about, Alley, I've had it. I've had that revolution since I was six years old … I rebelled against school because the teachers were white. And I went downtown and robbed the stores because the store owners were white. I ran through the subways because the cats in the change booths were white.

'I was rebelling every time I went someplace like [reform school or prison] … But nobody was winning. That revolution was hopeless. The cats who had something on the ball and they could dig it in time, they stopped. They stopped. They didn't stop being angry. They just stopped cutting their own throats, you know?'

So Mr. Brown wasn't convinced, because he identified self-defeating criminality with social rebellion. In the final pages of his book he records a conversation with another friend, whose dream is not to be a black revolutionary, but to own two bars in Harlem, and two Cadillacs, and to be a great lover. 'You dig it?' the friend asks Sonny. 'Yeah, I dig it. It sounds like a pretty hip life.' 'I don't know, man, but that's what I want to do, Sonny.' 'Yeah, Reno, I guess that's all that matters, that a cat docs what he wants to do.' But I think Malcolm's doing what something larger seems to demand of him, the vitality of his continuing opposition, and his faith in the persuasive power of his intellect and of his truth show themselves as more positive and more valuable.

It should be emphasised, however, that Malcolm, and the Nation of Islam, represent nothing very new; and no doubt a strong sense of this, even weariness in response to it, negatively influenced Claude Brown, and many like him. Our racial experience remains trapped in repetition. Malcolm's insights and ideas are already present in The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. DuBois, published in 1903:

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, the sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings….

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanise America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible to be both a Negro and an American.

This is exactly Malcolm's position after his return from Africa. A reader may ask, however, if this isn't a kind of traditional American liberal viewpoint. I doubt if it is, but DuBois' statement is special anyway, because it was written as part of a criticism of Booker T. Washington's leadership of American Negroes. Washington's leadership meant that blacks had to sacrifice political power, civil rights, and higher education, in exchange for industrial education, a chance to accumulate money, and the conciliation of whites. Now Malcolm's break with Elijah Muhammad actually repeated DuBois' break with Washington. This has been pointed out in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse (1967). 'Elijah Muhammad carried out Booker T. Washington's philosophy of economic self-sufficiency and self-help', Mr. Cruse writes, 'more than any other movement'. And Malcolm's break with Elijah came when, after Mecca, Malcolm realised this was not enough; the militant self-centredness of the Nation of Islam had to be seen as part of a broader human struggle, even as part of the attempt by developing coloured nations to disengage themselves from white power. Again one is led back to DuBois. DuBois wanted to emphasise the dignity of the American Negro's African past, and to connect his condition with that of the colonial peoples of 1903. But in doing so, he did not urge emigration; he rejected Garvey. 'By the irony of fate, nothing has more effectually made this programme [of emigration] seem hopeless than the recent course of the United States toward weaker and darker peoples in the West Indies, Hawaii, and the Philippines [Malcolm would probably have added Vietnam]—for where in the world may we go and be safe from lying and brute force?' The characteristic of our age,' DuBois emphasised, 'is the contact of European civilisation with the world's undeveloped peoples.' So Malcolm finally argued that the United States would do no more than bungle its best intentions for the world, as long as it refused to recognise its blindness to the experience of an undeveloped nation within its own borders. In the last year of his life Malcolm saw very clearly, and in the chapters 'Out' and '1965' the facts and evaluations he brings forward are not marked with the crudeness of thought of the junkie episode.

The black man in North America was economically sick and that was evident in one simple fact: as a consumer, he got less than his share, and as a producer gave least…. For instance, annually, the black man spends over $3 billion for automobiles, but America contains hardly any franchised black automobile dealers. For instance, forty per cent of the expensive imported Scotch whisky consumed in America goes down the throats of the status-sick black man; but the only black-owned distilleries are in bathtubs…. Or for instance … in New York City, with over a million Negroes, there aren't twenty black-owned businesses employing over ten people. It's because black men don't own and don't control their own community's retail establishments that they can't stabilise their own community.

The black man was sickest of all politically. He let the white man divide him into such foolishness as considering himself a black 'Democrat', a black 'Republican', a black 'Conservative', or a black 'Liberal' … when a ten-million black vote bloc could be the deciding balance of power in American politics, because the white man's vote is almost always evenly divided. The polls are one place where every black man could fight the black man's cause with dignity, and with the power and the tools that the white man understands, and respects, and fears, and co-operates with. Listen, let me tell you something! If a black bloc committee told Washington's worst 'nigger-hater', 'We represent ten million votes', why, that 'nigger-hater' would leap up: 'Well, how are you? Come on in here!'

Malcolm still knew his enemy, but he was no longer replacing one kind of addiction with another.

I have said nothing about Malcolm's prose. Of course, the writing is Mr. Haley's, and mostly it is Reader's Digest writing, much of which, ironically, needs condensation. But I hope readers won't be put off by this. The sort of mind or person Malcolm was can't be gauged by scrutinising a sentence or a paragraph of this prose. The significant units of the book are the chapters, and their interest is in their factualness, in what they, in spite of the mismanagement of words, make clear in broad outline about Malcolm's life. Claude Brown's writing is alive in a better way. Although Mr. Haley tried to transcribe Malcolm's speaking voice, the tone isn't personal, and the autobiography could be read suitably over loudspeakers at a rally. Mr. Brown's voice comes through without one's having the sense that a microphone needs to authenticate it. I expect English readers would find reading Mr. Brown very difficult, however, because of the specialness of the dialect, but this is the kind of daily speech one actually hears. Yet Mr. Brown doesn't seem able to connect his Harlem with his university speech; his awareness is tolerant and 'private', while Malcolm is relatively intolerant, does not believe in every man's finding his own way alone, and is decidedly 'public'. Is there no meeting ground for the two kinds of awareness? And is there a way in which the American black experience remains, at least in its completeness, inaccessible to written language? In DuBois' writing there is frequently a horrible kind of blankness and fakery. The following sentences are from The Souls of Black Folk:

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil [of colour]. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideous-ness of Georgia?

Perhaps Mr. Haley's transcript of Malcolm, when it is insensitive and coarse, gives us only the more modern equivalent of DuBois' affectation. I trust it is only affectation, and not the symptom of a very uncertain hold on reality. DuBois was an historian, and in sorting out, for example, the history of the Freedmen's Bureau and of Negro education, his hold was strong. And Malcolm, as an historian of himself and his people, had an equal strength. But the suggestion that black experience is essentially inaccessible in writing, especially to whites, isn't very convincing. Certainly Invisible Man is proof against the suggestion. But that novel does bring out something more to the purpose here. In the end its narrator gives up his political activity and goes underground, realising that he has been failed by what sociology, history and politics have offered him, in the way of language and thought that can help him adequately to define and realise himself. Ellison rather explicitly points out through the narrator the large applicability of this failure, for all its specific racial conditioning. If there is a black reality which has not found its way into adequate language, then I have the feeling that this means the same is true of white reality, and that this inarticulateness and inadequacy argue our mutual condition.

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