Essay: Malcolm X Family and Faith

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Malcolm X

Family and Faith in the Autobiography of Malcolm X

Few figures in the Civil Rights Movement of the mid twentieth century, if any, are as controversial as Malcolm X The extreme nature of his calls to action and of the general rhetoric he employed led many of his era -- and since -- to decry him as a violent, arrogant, and erratic man who was actually counter-productive to the Civil Rights cause. He was, as measured by his own statements and admissions, as ardently anti-white as he was pro-black, and this necessarily led to social and political divisions rather than increased conciliation as advocated by the other prominent leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet this division is something that Malcolm X claimed was always explicitly present in American society; his beliefs as shaped by the upheaval and destruction of his family during his youth and his involvement in the Nation of Islam led him not to eliminate this division, but to ensure that everyone in America and the world knew of the fallacy of American equality.

This leads to some interesting questions regarding Malcolm X's life and its relation to his espoused philosophical and political beliefs. While claiming that institutional racism prevented African-Americans from truly entering American society, Malcolm X's own position and influence seem to contradict this assertion. Rather than detracting from the validity of his description of racism at work in American society and culture however, Malcolm X's life absolutely affirms it. An incredibly intelligent man, Malcolm X was too astute to be fully caught by the trap of American racism he so thoroughly understood. His childhood, involvement in crime and prison, and ultimately his religion show the successful progression from oppression to exploitation of the racist system Malcolm X and other African-Americans lived in.

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, the lightest son of the Reverend Earl Little and Louise Little, in Omaha, Nebraska.

His family moved to Milwaukee shortly after Malcolm's birth after having experienced violence in Nebraska due to Earl Little's preaching. In a very basic sense, this illustrates the importance of family in the development of Malcolm X's perception of the racial issue in this country, and his successful exploitation of it. Earl Little's continued determination to propagate is views on the racial issue in the country despite -- and perhaps in spite of -- the danger such public action brought to himself and his family could not have helped but influence Malcolm X's own determination later in life.

It is not only the spirit of his father's advocacy that influenced Malcolm, however, but also the content, to a degree. Earl Little was a strong believe in Marcus Garvey, who believed equality could never be achieved in America and urged a return to Africa and a black nationalism. This can be seen echoed in many of Malcolm X's later statements and political/philosophical beliefs. Interestingly, Malcolm X also credits family with having spurred his father on to his beliefs and actions: "Among the reasons my father had decided to risk and dedicate his life to help disseminate this philosophy among his people was that he had seen four of his six brothers die by violence, three of hem killed by white men, including one lynching."

The destruction of family was something that had been consciously practiced in slave times, and the pattern continued with Earl Little's siblings. This type of familial destruction would continue to have a large and profound effect on Maloclm X's life and beliefs, as well.

When Malcolm X was only six, his father was killed by men opposed to his racial views and actions. Malcolm X's own immediate family began to undergo its own slow destruction, as money went from more than enough to scarce to non-existent, and food supplies dwindled with it. Equally as destructive -- or perhaps more so -- was the period when, as Malcolm describes it, "some kind of psychological deterioration hit our family circle and began to eat away our pride."

Eventually, his family was torn apart by the foster system, separating the by then largely numb shells of humanity that each relation had become. This deterioration of family and pride impacted Malcolm X's trajectory in several ways. It led to his basic abandonment of human connections and morality for many years, setting the stage for he violence and lawlessness that marked much of Malcolm X's adult life. Ultimately, however, the destruction of his family led Malcolm X to insist upon a larger black community that took care of each other in a way that seemed to supersede and perhaps even discount traditional familial ties.

Certainly, during his years in the urban ghettos of the northeastern United States, Malcolm X evinced little care for the laws of the land or of familial ties. Even when caring for his younger brother Reginald -- the same brother he would later disown and whose insanity he would put down to a punishment brought by Allah -- the only job he thinks to provide him with is a low-level street hustle that preys on people in the same state of destitution as Malcolm and his family used to be. The depravity of Malcolm X in this period is not in itself essential to the formation of his beliefs, but it set the stage for very important later developments.

Malcolm X's time in prison, which came about only because of his extensive and unabashed criminality, was also the time that his previous experiences were able to rearrange themselves with the help of new information, coalescing into the beliefs that Malcolm X consistently espoused until his assassination in 1965. As he himself put it, "the very enormity of my previous life's guilt prepared me to accept the truth."

This truth -- basically the world according to Elijah Mohammed, founder and leader of the Nation of Islam -- was wrapped up in the concept of white actions perpetrated against people of color for the specific purpose of rendering them powerless, and even of co-opting these disenfranchised peoples into acts of self-destruction. This is the guilt that Malcolm X became conscious of, and prison was the first place in his life that had provided the order and the restraint necessary for him to step back and see it.

It is impossible, then, to discus Malcolm X's time in prison and his relationship with his faith separately. It was in the immediately observable and concrete prison that Malcolm X was first able to conceive of the racial prison that existed in society largely through religious means. He notes that almost all religions present a God who looks like the people He is worshipped by, but Christianity "taught the 'Negro' that black was a curse. It taught him to hate everything black, including himself."

It is through this adversarial lens that Malcolm X was first able to truly perceive the racial constructs in society, and this certainly colored his relationship to his new faith.

The Nation of Islam was an entity unto itself; though using the Koran as a central text and keeping most other aspects of the Islamic faith, it was also defined by certain racial and anthropological beliefs. Still, Malcolm X's faith had the unique ability to give him a sense of purpose, community, and connectivity to other human beings -- specifically to other human beings of color -- that drastically changed his outlook on his past and his future. Ironically, the constraints of prison, which allowed him to clearly see and recognize the constraints of his earlier life, led him to the religion and faith that was to be his liberation, and which he envisioned as a liberation for all. He sums up the connection between his new found religion and the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Malcolm X Family and Faith."  July 29, 2009.  Accessed August 19, 2019.