The Autobiography of Malcolm X Book Club, Part 3
Malcolm and the Nation of Islam (Chapters 11-15)
At the urging of his siblings, imprisoned Malcolm writes a letter to Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad responds, and before long Malcolm is not just a true believer, but a crusader. This motivates him to improve his reading ability, but almost every book is too difficult for him. So he gets a dictionary and copies the first page:
I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words – immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of those words meant… Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that “aardvark” springs to mind…
I was so fascinated that I went on – I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that… That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary… [D]uring the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.
Malcolm’s religious conversion and free reading fill his life: “[M]onths passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.” By the time Malcolm gets paroled, he’s a changed man. His brother gets him a job in Detroit as a furniture salesman. He predictably dislikes what he sees:
Now I watched brothers entwining themselves in the economic clutches of the white man who went home every night with another bag of money drained out of the ghetto. I saw that the money, instead of helping the black man, was going to help enrich these white merchants…
Still, Malcolm likes living with his pious brother and his family, and loves the local temple of the Nation of Islam:
I never had seen any Christian-believing Negroes conduct themselves like the Muslims, the individuals and the families alike. The men were quietly, tastefully dressed. The women wore ankle-length gowns, no makeup, and scarves covered their heads. The neat children were mannerly not only to adults but to other children as well.
…I thrilled to how we Muslim men used both hands to grasp a black brother’s both hands, voicing and smiling our happiness to meet him again. The Muslim sisters, both married and single, were given an honor and respect that I’d never seen black men give their women, and it felt wonderful to me.
His main frustration: His fellow Muslims aren’t trying hard enough to make converts. Malcolm finally meets Elijah Muhammad, who gives him a green light to proselytize. He goes home to Detroit and gets to work:
Beginning that day, every evening, straight from work at the furniture store, I went doing what we Muslims later came to call “fishing.”
Before long, Malcolm masters public speaking. He spends more and more time in Chicago with Elijah Muhammad and becomes one of his ministers. He gets to work in Harlem. The crowds love him, but Muslim’s strict code scares off most of the potential converts:
Any fornication was absolutely forbidden in the Nation of Islam. Any eating of the filthy pork, or other injurious or unhealthful foods; any use of tobacco, alcohol, or narcotics. No Muslim who followed Elijah Muhammad could dance, gamble, date, attend movies, or sports, or take long vacations from work. Muslims slept no more than health required. Any domestic quarreling, any discourtesy, especially to women, was not allowed. No lying or stealing, and no insubordination to civil authority, except on the grounds of religious obligation.
Malcolm claims he spent over ten years celibate:
[I]t had been ten years since I thought anything about any mistress, I guess, and as a minister now, I was thinking even less about getting any wife.
Soon after, though, he marries Betty X, a fellow Muslim. His New York temple starts getting media attention. In 1959, the Nation of Islam is featured on a Mike Wallace television special, “The Hate That Hate Produced.” The Nation’s ranks swell – and so does bad blood with mainstream black leaders. Malcolm fiercely opposes integration:
“So let us separate ourselves from this white man, and for the same reason he says – in time to save ourselves from any more ‘integration!'”
One of the Nation’s key projects is recruiting former drug addicts to help current drug addicts:
In the ghetto’s dope jungle, the Muslim ex-junkies would fish out addicts who knew them back in those days. Then with an agonizing patience that might span anywhere from a few months to a year, our ex-junky Muslims would conduct the addicts through the Muslim six-point therapeutic process.
By the early 60s, Malcolm is a major media figure. He repeatedly attacks Northern liberals and mainstream black leaders. What’s his alternative? Despite a lot of violent rhetoric, his main practical suggestion is self-improvement:
The black man in the ghettoes, for instance, has to start self-correcting his own material, moral, and spiritual defects and evils. The black man needs to start his own program to get rid of drunkenness, drug addiction, prostitution.
Malcolm scoffs at Martin Luther King and his “Farce on Washington.” He speaks at universities around the country. Chapter 15 ends with a striking exchange with a “little white college girl”:
She demanded, right up in my face, “Don’t you believe there are any good white people?” I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I told her, “People’s deeds I believe in, Miss – not their words.”
“What can I do?” she exclaimed. I told her, “Nothing.” She burst out crying, and ran out and up Lenox Avenue and caught a taxi.
Ideological movements often develop massive gaps between theory and practice. The Nation of Islam is a notable example. The theory, as Malcolm keeps reminding us, is that “The white man is the devil.” Given this theory, there are two plausible practical courses of action:
1. Violent resistance. If your opponent is the devil, appeals to conscience or mutual self-interest are futile. The devil enjoys your suffering. If you want him to stop, you need to kill him, cripple him, or at least make him feel your pain.
2. Leaving the country. If the devil is too strong to beat or intimidate, you might as well get out of Dodge. On the assumption that the devil is the cause of all your troubles, starting over in a new country where he doesn’t reside should be safe and effective.
Malcolm doesn’t seriously push either of these strategies. His rhetoric is occasionally violent, but almost all of the violence that he actually describes (wait for part 4) is black-on-black. One common intra-black criticism of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm admits, is that the Muslims are all talk; unless a fellow Muslim is in trouble, they don’t lift a finger. And while his father preached “back to Africa,” leaving the country is not on Malcolm’s radar.
So what practical steps does Malcolm preach and practice? Bourgeois virtue! Puritanism! Clean, honest, polite, disciplined, hard-working, studious, traditional living. Bizarrely, then, his recommendations overlap almost perfectly with the hard-line view that poverty is primarily caused by irresponsible behavior, so poor people should repent and emulate the middle class. While Malcolm provides no statistics, this prescription seems very effective. At least on his account, Black Muslims behave well and quickly enjoy the predictable fruits of their good behavior.
Malcolm occasionally tries to reconcile his theory and practice by blaming black’s irresponsible behavior on whites:
I knew that our strict moral code and discipline was what repelled them
most. I fired at this point, at the reason for our code. “The white
man wants black men to stay immoral, unclean, and ignorant. As
long as we stay in these conditions we will keep begging him and he will
control us. We can never win freedom and justice and equality until we
are doing something for ourselves.”
This is one of the most absurd conspiracy theories of all time. Even if whites are devils, how does black drunkenness, drug addiction, gambling, and crime redound to whites’ benefit? Even if black drunkenness, drug addiction, gambling, and crime somehow benefit whites, precisely how do whites trick blacks into embracing these vices? There’s nothing during Malcolm’s life of crime that’s remotely consistent with such a story. Instead, Malcolm’s first-hand experience fits the common-sense theory that impulsive choices – not malevolent coercion – are the chief causes of poverty and vice.
You might reply that an effective creed needs an Enemy. If you want to sell puritanism, you have to coat it with hatred of the Other. Yet I see no reason to believe this. Some puritanical creeds – e.g. literal Puritanism and extreme environmentalism – constantly inveigh against the Evil Ones. But plenty of others – e.g. health nuts and exercise fanatics – forget the reprobates and focus on self-improvement.
Overall, chapters 11-15 of The Autobiography of Malcolm X are a classic tale of cult dynamics. The new creed is thrilling at first. Members acquire a sense of purpose. They find meaning. They become part of a community. In the process, though, they start parroting a lot of nonsense and non sequiturs. (How is the brutality of slavery in the 19th-century an excuse for drunkenness in the 20th?) Cult members deify their leaders, and demonize their enemies. Those who embrace the cult for social reasons often enjoy their membership for the rest of their lives. Those who embrace the cult for its ideas, however, eventually paint themselves into a corner.
Why? Because if you take the ideas seriously, anomalies multiply. You see conflicts between the doctrine and the facts. You see conflicts between the doctrine and itself. Worst of all, you see conflicts between the doctrine of your living god and his all-too-human behavior. To stay in the cult, you have to live a lie. To be true to your ideas, you have to leave the cult. And even if you take the latter route, the cult may refuse to let you go in peace – as Malcolm is soon to discover.