Malcolm X is one of the most prominent African-Americans in American history who advocated for racial equality and tolerance. Malcolm Little was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, to a Baptist minister and a Marcus Garvey journalist. Malcolm’s life has been heavily affected by his father since he was a teenager. As a child, his father would teach him Garvey and inspire him to become an active person. While growing up, Malcolm X became aware of racial differences in the society thanks to Marcus Garvey teachings that he was being given and the constant discrimination against blacks that he would witness around him. As a result, Malcolm X grew up to become a preacher who talked about racism, discrimination, and segregation (Benson 2). Following his life Malcolm X perception and understanding of racial identity changes throughout his life.
The first view of racial identity change that Malcolm witnessed was when he was a young child. As a child Malcolm experienced several traumatic experiences that were a result of unfair discrimination. First, Ku Klux Klan men burned down their house in Michigan forcing them to move to the country. The White Black Legion group attacked and killed his father. After this incident, their insurance company that was run by whites refused to give his mother their benefits hence they ended up starving thus they were sent to welfare. Malcolm viewed these incidences that resulted in the destruction of their family as deeds of white racists in their society. “It’s like the Negro in America seeing the white man win all the time. He’s a professional gambler, he has all the cards and the odds stacked on his side, and he always dealt with our people from the bottom of the deck” (Malcolm and Alex 17). While in school people would refer to him as “nigger” and even though he got good grades in school, his teacher used to tell him that his objective of becoming a lawyer was unrealistic for a black man. Therefore, the social values of Lansing, Michigan where Malcolm X grew had imposed limited racial identity among blacks hence planting the idea that blacks were and will always be less important compared to their white counterparts in Malcolm. Malcolm then moved to Boston, Massachusetts to live with his half-sister Ella where he experienced life in a new setting resulting in a new perspective about racial identity (Benson 5). In Boston, he discovered the world of underground hipsters where he was shocked to find many black people who were in an interracial relationship with whites. “In one sense, we were huddled in there, bonded together 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.” (Malcolm and Alex 54). The passage shows that in Harlem nightclub the boundaries of racism were removed. Hence it countered the racism forces in the outside world. It was in Boston that Malcolm started behaving in the stereotypic behavior of black men by remaking himself into a lawless image of a black hustler with a brightly colored suit. “This was my first huge step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are inferior and white people are superior –that they will even violate and mutate their God-created bodies to try and look pretty by white standards.” (Malcolm and Alex 56). The act of conking the hair was imposing shame for being black. Malcolm was actively involved in this image even dating a white girl so that he can gain status in the society. The acts of trying to mimic and date a white girl by Malcolm are examples of his growing understanding of his black identity and racism in general.
Another change in view about racial identity that Malcolm experienced was when he was sent to jail in Boston for stealing. In prison, he had the chance to read several books about racism which enabled him to develop his understanding of racial relations in the society (Benson 8). As a result, he started viewing racism as a blind attack in general and not a personal attack like he used to think. He converted to Islam to know his errors and have a guaranteed path to redemption. After conversion, he started to believe that all white men were bad following the teachings of Elijah Muhammed. He continued preaching this message after coming out of the prison until when he visited the city of Mecca where he meets white people who were untainted with the issue of racism. “The American Negro has been entirely brainwashed from ever seeing of thinking of himself, as he should, as a part of the nonwhite peoples of the world” (Malcolm and Alex 352). When he returned to America, he was determined to help other non-white races in the country to come together and destroy white oppression. He returned to American as an Islamic leader who was dedicated to achieving racial harmony in the country. “America needs to understand Islam because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem” (Malcolm and Alex 364). The need for racial harmony was the final view of racial identity that Malcolm X experienced, and it became an important part of his usual preaching about race. In his entire life, Malcolm had experienced real discrimination and racism including losing his family as a result of racial prejudice by the whites. However, he grew up learning and understanding the importance of racial identity which became part of him, and many people consider his fight for racial harmony as his legacy in America.
As a political leader, Malcolm X can be compared to the like of Martin Luther King JR. Just like his view on racial identity, Malcolm X critical phases as a political leader are in line with the racial view that he held at the moment. The first critical phase of Malcolm X as a political leader was after he was released from prison and joined the Nation of Islam. When he joined the Nation of Islam, he became the spokesperson for the group. Malcolm X became a national figure after moving to New York spotlight where he was one of the most fruitful and respected black leaders in the African American Liberation Movement of the 1960s (Wolfenstein 12). Unlike Martin Luther who believed that full integration of black people into the American society, Malcolm X believed that it would have been best if black were separate and self-governing a philosophy he called “Black Nationalism,” which was separated into three categories: an economic philosophy, social philosophy, and political philosophy. Malcolm X philosophy required a separate society for the blacks and another one for the whites so that the whites cannot oppress the blacks (Wolfenstein 18). The philosophy was based on the teaching from Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam. “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” (Malcolm and Alex 421). The quote was from Malcolm when he visited Mecca writing to one of his friends. Malcolm had just found out that Elijah had been lying to him and that the racism problem was only worse in America which means it can be fixed. Therefore, this marked a changing phase for Malcolm as a political leader because he stopped following and started resisting the Nation of Islam’s anti-white rhetoric and separatist tendencies which he viewed as an obstacle to progress. After his return in America, he formed an organization called Muslim Mosque Inc. which had the primary duty of mobilizing Muslims and non-Muslims to the cause of black equality. Unlike the confrontational stance that they had taken while in Nation of Islam, Malcolm X took a peaceful and positive stance. “I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color” (Malcolm and Alex 423). Malcolm was now recognized as an international leader, and the information he had acquired about the racial identity enabled him to know how to handle the issue of racism (Wolfenstein 45). The message of peaceful cohesion and black equality that Malcolm was spreading while at Muslim Mosque is the most important phase of Malcolm X as a political leader.
In conclusion, Malcolm X grew up experiencing racism and discrimination which resulted in the destruction of his family and the death of his father. His remaining family was split up because of white prejudice and power that they used to oppress the blacks. Just like any other child, Malcolm X grew up being rebellious while learning why racial identity was of much importance in his life. The only information that he had was that being black was a bad thing in the society due to the discriminations that they had to underwent and how they were treated as inferiors. Once he was arrested and converted to Islam, he embraced his racial identity but considered the whites as enemies. The notion can be seen in his Black Nationalism philosophy as a black leader who wanted the whites and blacks to live in separate societies. However, when he traveled outside the country to Africa and Mecca, he realized that racism was unjust in America. While traveling, he met and witnessed white people who were not tainted with the issue of racism hence he understood that the color of the skin does not matter and that everyone in the society should be treated as an equal human being. He came back and shared his ideas with the Americans which made him start an organization that would mobilize for the involvement of black people in the society. Malcolm X had showcased how an individual can rise from the lowest depth of the community to become one of the most respected individuals in the world.
Benson, Thomas W. “Rhetoric and autobiography: The case of Malcolm X.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 60.1 (1974): 1-13.
Malcolm, X., and Alex Haley. The autobiography of Malcolm X. Aeonian Press, 1940.
Wolfenstein, E. Victor. The victims of democracy: Malcolm X and the black revolution. Guilford Press, 1981.