In the Wilderness of
North America: Reality and Allegory
dedicated to Jamal and Imad
I just finished reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X, as Told to Alex Haley. It is an extraordinary account of an extraordinary man. No one should ever do themselves the disservice of judging this man before reading his autobiography in its entirety. In fact, no one should do themselves the disservice of trying to understand American history without reading this book in its entirety.
This was the first time that I read it myself in its entirety. When I was younger, in college, I had skimmed parts of it, but did not realize fully what I was reading, even though my friends and I during those influential years liked to think that Malcolm’s life had a primary influence on our own young lives, given parallels between the Black struggle in American and our own people’s struggles in Palestine and Lebanon, and the hardships of an immigrant community fleeing war to America. I may sound like an old man saying so, but there is something to be said for re-reading important works after one has gotten along in years, and has been blessed with life experiences and insights, if only because of the merit of age and the passing of time.
Reading it this time, I was injected with a special enthusiasm to read it straight through from cover to cover, because I found an old first edition paperback copy (published 1966) at King's Used Books (a four-story used bookstore in Detroit, the largest used bookstore in the country.) The excitement to read this first edition was due to the fact that I was holding in my hands a copy that was originally purchased and touched by someone who was a contemporary of Malcolm X and who may have heard him speak, and who had just witnessed the event of Malcolm's assassination the year before the publication of this first paperback edition, when Malcolm's words still reverberated loud and clear and fresh throughout the air, sea and land of this globe. (I mean this in literal terms; towards the end of his life, Malcolm had had an audience with many, many heads of state on every continent, befriended important artists and writers of the time, appeared on hundreds of television and radio programs all over the World, and caused exhilaration in audiences wherever he went, whether they were in the streets of Harlem or in the lecture halls of Harvard, Oxford, Cairo or Accra.)
I also found and purchased another first edition, a hard cover, published in 1965, the same year that Malcolm's earthly life was snuffed out by people who were terrified of the words of this most humble and dignified man. I will give it to my friend Jamal, who, upon receiving his American citizenship years ago, was asked if he would like to change his name on his new certificate of citizenship. (This is a very strange notion. I take it the assumption is that when a person becomes a citizen he would automatically want to adopt an Anglicized name? How peculiar.) Anyway Jamal snidely obliged, and inserted "Malcolm" into the middle of his name, thereby becoming Jamal Malcolm Lastname.
The amazing life story of Malcolm X is one of historic and legendary proportions, and not just because he influenced an entire generation. In every one of its aspects, his own life personified, in the most mythical and grandiose manners, the very essence of human history in its American context. His boyhood story began with deprivation and hardship, founded deeply in genocide and slavery, racial subjugation, and the inhumanity of a segregated society and its brutal methods. His youth fell under the pressing thumb of ignorance and the need to survive in the jungles of
While still in prison, the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad opened Malcolm's eyes to a methodological, critical, uncompromising, passionate, and bold look at the meaning of life in
Malcolm saw in the preachings of the Nation of Islam, even with all its inventive tales of ancient scientists playing with genetics and creating new races, the most truthful telling of why the descendants of African slaves in America live in such an inhumane, destitute circumstance, and a most ingenuous way of countering the tricks perpetrated by those in power, by dishing out a few philosophical tricks of its own. Malcolm’s conversion to the Nation of Islam was God’s way of showing him a way out, but not necessarily all the way to the truth, all at once. Even more so than Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm would become, after prison, the Nation of Islam’s most vigorous and eloquent proponent and builder, while at the same time experiencing his own political and philosophical growth alongside his work within the Nation. He built the Nation’s membership from 400 at the time of his joining it, to 40,000 at the time that he was banished from its leadership. This then becomes the second chapter of the fable of the "Lost-Found Nation of Islam in the Wilderness of North America": Malcolm grows to legendary stature, whereby he single-handedly commands the attention of the world, influencing the popular racial and political mood of the country and the world, but also aggravating a most elemental and story-book resentment and envy from his brethren, just as the envy that Prophet Joseph experienced from his own brothers. After his exile from the Nation, his Pilgrimage to
Throughout this, and while struggling against a sense of betrayal from the Nation of Islam, as well as the real physical dangers of threats on his own life and that of his wife and daughters, from white supremacists, government agents and ex-brethren in the Nation, he did not lose the focus of his philosophical compass, that being the demand for justice. Just as he was beginning to form a new organization to serve Muslims in American along the lines of the original Islamic faith that was revealed to him overseas, based on the oneness and equality of humankind under the Oneness of a common Creator; just as he was beginning to form a second, secular organization to unite and strengthen African-Americans; just as he said that he would formally raise the issue of slavery, discrimination and the human rights of African-Americans at the United Nations; just as he said that he would remain firmly against the violence that bigotry perpetrated against Blacks in America, while simultaneously seeing the equality of all humankind and his willingness to work with everyone for the purpose of justice, this earthly realm and its very fallible human inhabitants delivered into his blessed chest the message that they were not ready for someone of his eminence. The sudden metamorphosis of Malcolm X into Haj Malik El-Shabazz, a new butterfly of intense vibrant colors that bewildered, astonished, disoriented, enraged, or freed those who looked upon it, was too much for us. Once Malcolm’s mind and heart were opened by his Creator, he saw and was not willing to accept human society's abuse of the meekest of its members; and indeed like many a prophet throughout time who were mistreated and rejected by their people, the world proved that it was not ready for his rebuking of it and his foresight. He flew high above the wilderness to see it for what it really is; he flew too high and close to the sun, yet also stayed within the depths of this wilderness, to be an active and forceful part of the people’s struggle. May God grant his soul mercy and peace.