This historical fiction piece about Malcolm X follows him through incarceration with flashbacks to his childhood and teenage years. Written by his daughter it is hard to know where this 336 page book is factual and where it takes artistic freedom with filling in the blanks. A few creative liberties are mentioned in the author’s note at the end, but some sources in the back would help clarify, as she was a toddler when her father was killed. The time frame of Malcolm X’s life and a large portion of the book covers his introduction and conversion to The Nation of Islam, but it never mentions even in the timeline at the end that he left it, or that they were responsible for his assassination. The book is beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time, it is also so very humbling and empowering. I just don’t know that younger middle school readers (the stated intended audience is 12-18), will really grasp the content, his condition, and his searching, while trying to keep all the characters, time frame references, and slang straight. With the mention of his girlfriend who he is/was sleeping with, as well as the drugs, the alcohol, and the abuses occurring in prison, older teens might be able to handle the book better, and be tempted after to dig deeper to learn about him going for Hajj, becoming Sunni, changing some of his views, and ultimately being gunned down in front of his family.
Malcolm Little is living between Roxbury and Harlem and going by the nickname Detroit Red. When the story opens, Malcolm and his friend Shorty are about to tried for stealing a watch, a crime that he acknowledges he committed, but undoubtedly doesn’t deserve 8-10 years in prison for at age 20. Nearly every chapter starts with a flashback to an earlier time and then concludes with the atrocities of prison life at hand. As the narrative flips back and forth Malcolm’s story and awakening emerges.
Born in Omaha the Little family’s home is burned down by the Ku Klux Klan, they move a few times as the growing family grows closer together and establish themselves as followers of Marcus Garvey in advocating for Blacks. Malcolm’s preacher father is killed when Malcolm is six years old and his mother institutionalized when he is 13, for refusing to feed her children pork amongst other things, and thus leaving the family grasping as they know she isn’t crazy, yet cannot get her released. Malcolm is incredibly bright and attends a nearly all white prep school, but even after being class president, a teacher discourages him from pursuing his dreams of being a lawyer, and Malcolm drops out of school and ends up being a hustler. His white girlfriend, a married woman in Boston and her friends convince him to rob some wealthy white neighborhoods and when he later takes a stolen watch to be fixed he is arrested and found guilty of grand larceny, breaking and entering, possession and more. He is sentenced to Charlestown State Prison and day-to-day life is rough.
The guards at the overcrowded prison are aggressive, the food un consumable, and being put in the hole as punishment is beyond inhuman. Malcolm is filled with anger and rage and is still trying to hustle people. He learns his family has become followers of The Nation of Islam and he doesn’t want to hear it, he doesn’t want to hear about his prison mates preaching the Bible and he doesn’t want to hear about God. He feels betrayed by God and feels guilty for not being a man his father would be proud of, the refrain: up, up, you mighty race! echoes throughout.
Throughout it all his family’s love is felt in visits, letters, and warm memories of life before his incarceration. His flashbacks to events in his childhood that defined him, inspired him, molded him, show what a beautiful family he had and how racism in large part destroyed it. His parents valued education and discipline and his elder siblings carry that torch and pass it on to the younger children, they are a large family and their love is palpable for each other and for the liberation of Blacks in America.
Little’s sisters write letters and eventually get Malcolm transferred to a much nicer prison, Norfolk, where he really channels his rage into reform, determined not to leave the same man he entered as. He has access to a full library, he joins the debate team, he takes classes, converts to The Nation of Islam and then refuses to get a polio shot and is sent back to Charleston for the remainder of his sentence.
The book concludes with his release, and teases that members of his family are becoming uneasy with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. At the very very end, he meets Betty, the lady who will be his wife.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that this chunk of Malcolm X’s life shows the transformation of his thinking, how outside influences forced him to dig in to himself and reflect in such a profound way. The book is as timely as ever as the systemic racism that is determined to see people of color fail is still running and growing. There is a little mention of how veterans are treated better in other countries on the front lines than they are at home when they return that I wish was explored more, but there are so many characters that flit in and out of Malcolm’s prison world, it is hard to tell them apart as it is Malcolm’s story and his development that is being told.
Not surprisingly, I wish there was more about him converting to Sunni and going for Hajj. The book stops before then and I am sure that most readers, will not understand the difference between The Nation, the Ahmadis mentioned, and Sunni Muslims. This concerns me as the acceptance of Elijah Muhammad as a Prophet is hard to read. I think some conversation with readers would be necessary as the book offers little if any to differentiate.
I like that each chapter starts with a direct quote of Malcolm X and the the fact that the relevance of his words in today’s world don’t need any explanations or context is devastatingly powerful. I also appreciate how engaging and smooth the writing is. You really feel the layers of Malcolm X the character, being pealed back and him coming into the proud confident leader that he is known to be.
There is profanity, mention of him sleeping around, memories of kissing his girlfriend, alcohol consumption, cigarettes, drug use, violence, beatings, abuse.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I don’t think I would do this as a book club for middle school. Possibly if I was a high school teacher I would offer it as outside reading or extra credit when reading about the Civil Rights Era, or if I was teaching the Alex Haley, Auto Biography of Malcolm X.