Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Other Autobiography of Malcolm X

Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon, X: A Novel

Detroit Red has fallen afoul of Harlem’s nastiest gangster, and probably will die. Postwar America’s a tough place for a young black man, and even his prodigious hustling skills can’t survive forever. Desperate and scared, Detroit Red begins tracking backward in his life, recovering the memory of his prior life as ambitious young Malcolm Little, and the path that will eventually turn him into Malcolm X.

Ilyasah Shabazz, acclaimed public speaker and sometime civil servant, has written one prior book about her father, and one about being his daughter. She admits having no memory of her father, who was assassinated when she was an infant; like many young idealists, she discovered his teachings in college. She’s spent her adult life rediscovering her father while living up to his example, and has invited us to join her on that journey.

Everyone—teachers, peers, family, everyone—recognizes young Malcolm as a natural leader. His overwhelmingly white schoolmates elect him class president, and he aspires to a legal career, despite his penny-ante hustling and shoplifting to pay family bills. But his teacher tells Malcolm that, outside school, he’s always “just a nigger,” destined for tradesmanship, maybe. Disgusted, Malcolm hops a passing bus for Boston, determined to become his own man.

Malcolm Little, the future Malcolm X
Once there, Malcolm discovers two worlds. His sister introduces him to The Hill, a remarkably integrated community, where Malcolm nevertheless feels alienated from its affluence. Roxbury, by contrast, is mainly black, a neighborhood where fast talking, keen observation, and guile get instantly rewarded. This suits Malcolm’s natural gifts, and guided by a mentor (who may have duplicitous motivations), Malcolm soon wears fine fedoras and expensive zoot suits.

This, Shabazz’s second book about Malcolm X, aims for high-school readers, but like most YA fiction, invites all ages to participate. Shabazz reconstructs the Back East culture of institutional racism, economic destitution, and political nihilism that kept black Americans segregated, even in progressive Northeastern cities. Her evocation of jazz-age aspirations, and deep-rooted inequality, immerse readers in the miasma of World War II-era city life.

Shabazz’s story travels within Malcolm’s memory. Suddenly slipping into memory, Malcolm encounters his father, whose idealism couldn’t prevent a lynching, and his mother, diagnosed insane by Michigan authorities for refusing welfare handouts during the Depression. His parents encouraged Malcolm’s learning, and his many siblings apprenticed him in leadership. He enjoys remarkable advantages in an era of overwhelming bigotry. But he witnesses blatant injustice white peers never have to face.

Ilyasa Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X
But he dedicates those skills toward dangerous ends. His constant thievery costs his widowed mother a job in deeply segregated Lansing, and he organizes his brothers into a bush-league mafia. In Roxbury, he embraces a lifestyle of curbside swindling, easy credit, and under-the-table work, and when Boston proves too small for his ambitions, he replants himself in ritzy, corrupt Harlem. Shabazz paints Malcolm as a Mario Puzo antihero.

The future Malcolm X appears a very conflicted figure herein. This isn’t ordinary hero worship; as first-person narrator, Malcolm confesses to bleak cynicism that excuses gaming the system. The illusion of wealth during periods of widespread poverty entices him into rash decisions with disastrous consequences. His apprenticeship in crime presages his jailhouse conversion. Given the skills to become a leader or a desperado, Malcolm initially makes the wrong choice.

In ways not necessarily obvious, Shabazz also invites audiences who don’t remember Malcolm’s War-era milieu to rediscover the past. Malcolm’s fondness for Glenn Miller and Marcus Garvey, his discovery of three-card monte and 4-F ostracism, encourages readers to investigate the past for themselves. Shabazz clearly anticipates high-school-aged readers to rediscover American history through her book, but this aging white guy felt inspired to blow the dust off some period CDs.

Shabazz’s intense mix of historical detail and introspection goes beyond Malcolm’s bestselling autobiography. This isn’t only about one man; Shabazz writes about Malcolm’s time, but also about ours. The overt Jim Crow bigotry Malcolm discovers permits contemporary readers to recognize how far America has come since eras of institutional racism. But subtly closed doors and tacit injustice remind us that important barriers still exist; we confront them every day.

This novel isn’t a political broadside, like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, nor a position piece, like Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. It’s an opportunity to uncover the circumstances that turned a promising youth into an ambitious criminal—and then into one of his generation’s greatest leaders. It’s also an opportunity to observe what choices we make daily, and an invitation to engage with our world.

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