It wasn’t until I read this book that I appreciated what the X in Malcolm X means.
Malcolm was born in May 1925 to Earl and Louise Little. His mother was born in Grenada and was in fact very well educated.
At the time of his birth slavery had been abolished 60 years previously but America remained a deeply divided and segregated society. He grew up at a time when the segregation of black and white children in schools had been made illegal yet he was the only black boy in his school. Most other forms of segregation e.g. blacks sitting at the back in a bus were still “legal”.
Even then he was keenly aware that he was not allowed to pay any special attention to the white girls in his class.
He ended up being raised an orphan because his father was murdered when he was only six.
By this time Malcolm had already seen and heard a lot of his dad’s preaching re. pan Africanism inspired by Marcus Garvey. His father was himself an activist and although listed in the directory as “a labourer” he was a great speaker, preacher and much respected in the black community.
A house the Little family had bought was burnt to the ground when Malcolm was a toddler because some white neighbours weren’t happy with having black people move into the neighbourhood; they argued that the house could not be legally owned by a non-Caucasian.
After her husband's death Malcolm’s mother struggled to support her seven children and by the time Malcolm was 13 she was sent to a mental health institution after a breakdown. He grew up in a series of foster homes after that. Despite her fine education his mother couldn't get a decent job and after a hard day's work as a cleaner barely made 50 cents when white cleaners were getting $5 or $6 a week at the time.
Malcolm was an intelligent boy and did very well at school, however, when a teacher asked him what he wanted to be and he said a lawyer he was told to be realistic. Lawyer, "wasn’t a realistic ambition for a nigger", he was told, he should think about carpentry and other handy trades.
This discouraged him. He decided that if he couldn’t be a lawyer then school wasn’t worth it. He dropped out and went to live in New York with his half-sister Ella.
From age 14 to 21 he lived the life of a city boy: he relaxed his hair into a conk using a highly corrosive mixture of lye, potatoes and eggs. He bought a zuit suit. The conk and zuit suit were essentially the “in thing” for a rebellious young boy at the time.
He got involved in petty robberies and this eventually got him sent to prison were stayed for almost seven years.
In prison he converted to Islam and joined a group called Nation of Islam; they were an extremist Islamic group of the time. Upon joining the Nation of Islam one took on the last name X and if someone else in your mosque had the same first name you were “christened” 2X or 3X etc. This is how he became Malcolm X.
A new surname was required because you were breaking from your slave past. Last names were typically taken from a former slave owner because at the time slavery was abolished most black people didn’t have a last name. It made sense to take on the previous owner’s name so that any relatives that had been sold to other plantations could find you.
I am now not sure how true this is because Booker T Washington’s autobiography states that former slaves typically didn’t take on their owner’s name because they wanted to break from that past. Hopefully this will become more clear with further reading.
Over time Malcolm X who grew to be one of the key leaders in the Nation of Islam broke away from the group.
His views became more pan African and he decided to fight for improved rights in a more inclusive way. Nation of Islam excluded all other groups including other African American groups and societies from its own fight for black rights.
On his Hajj to Mecca Malcolm X also travelled to Europe and Africa meeting the likes of President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya. These and other African leaders helped him to mount pressure on the US to end segregation in America.
He met Betty X as a member of Nation of Islam. They married and had four children before he was murdered by members of Nation of Islam who didn’t like that he’d left the group and essentially no longer believed what they believed.
Harlem was initially introduced to me through rap songs by Puff Daddy and Mase; until now I didn’t appreciate what a significant place it was from a historical perspective until I read this book.
Harlem was not by any standards a nice place to live even in Malcolm X’s time but because black people were prevented from owning property and living in more well off neighbourhoods professionals such as black doctors and lawyers and important people in the civil rights movement lived here or stayed in a hotel in Harlem at one time or another.
Notably, when Fidel Castro came to the US he stayed in Harlem to many people’s surprise and was so impressed by Malcolm X he invited him to visit Cuba.
Malcolm X died just shy of his 40th birthday in 1965. He is now well known and accepted as one of the biggest leaders in the civil rights movement and that is why I chose this as one of my first books on African American history.
Malcolm X – By Any Means Necessary is available on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.
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