The Devil in the Details: Malcolm X as Revolutionary—or not?

In honor of May 19th being Malcolm X day, I thought I’d take a look at some of the biographies available for children of the Civil Rights leader. This is not as easy a prospect as if I were looking for biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr., of course. MLK has thousands of biographies written about him—new ones appear all the time, and they are easily available in libraries and schools for kids of all ages. This is partly because of his message of non-violence, but also because in children’s publishing, editors prefer books (in America, Canada, and the UK, anyhow) that they think white readers will accept. And Malcolm X, who once proclaimed white people as devils, is a much harder sell than Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Archer places Malcolm X next to other leaders–and concludes Malcolm X is the voice of the “young ghetto blacks”.

All of the biographies (there are three of them) available in the Newcastle University Robinson BookTrust collection (a children’s literature collection given to the university by the charity BookTrust) are for older readers, and one has no pictures. The pictureless text is in a collection entitled They had a dream: The Civil Rights struggle from Frederick Douglass to Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (Penguin 1996). Archer, a white radical who mistrusted the government, once said, “I cannot tell how much good my books have done in developing a new awareness of the whole truth about America and the rest of the world in the younger generation, although they are fortunately in tune with the thinking of many young people about what is wrong in our society and how to correct it” (http://archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv77986). But Archer’s biography of Malcolm X begins with the idea that “Malcolm X was stung when The New York Times ran a poll of the city’s blacks that found Martin Luther King, Jr., chosen by 75 percent as doing the best work for blacks.  Only 6 percent voted for Malcolm.” (186). The entire biography places Malcolm X’s work alongside of King, and in the context of how white people reacted to it. The phrase “black ghettos” is constantly repeated, and Archer labels Malcolm X’s mother a “mulatto” (188), a word that even in 1993 (when the book was first published) was not considered a reasonable way to describe someone of mixed heritage. The final lines of the biography attempt to praise Malcolm X, but instead remind the reader of Malcolm X’s criminal past and also emphasize the poverty of African-Americans: “The young ghetto blacks could believe and follow a man who had been there himself as an underworld pimp, dope addict, con man, armed robber, and convict, and who had then transformed himself into a world-famous, respected black leader, entirely on his own initiative. What he could do, they could do, too” (222). Despite Archer’s good intentions, the book’s discussion of race would not do anything to debunk the sense of white superiority that Malcolm X fought against.

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Just the facts–including the fact that “black people are not really the chosen ones”.

 

Michael Benson’s Malcolm X: Just the Facts Biographies (Lerner 2005) also subtly suggests a racial hierarchy, beginning by describing how “Malcolm had the lightest skin of any of the family.  He looked like his mother more than his father.  Malcolm’s hair and skin were reddish brown, while his brothers and sisters had darker coloring.  (At the time, some people thought that a black person with paler skin might be mistaken as white.  Looking white could be helpful in getting a job.)” (7). There is no follow-up to suggest the inequality of a system that makes it easier to get jobs based on your skin color; in fact, it is inserted as though Malcolm X might have been luckier than his siblings. Benson’s biography is also careful to emphasize that Malcolm X was a reformed racist himself upon his return from Africa in 1964: “He was a changed man.  He had gone to Africa to find his true religion.  He had learned that many of his earlier beliefs about race were false.  White people were not really devils, and black people were not really the chosen ones” (80). It is only when he realizes that white people are all right that he is “able to do things he never dreamed of” (80).

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Malcolm X for beginners–and for “us”.

 

Only one of the biographies I looked at was written by a Black author, and this is clear from the book’s text. Bernard Aquina Doctor’s Malcolm X for Beginners (Writers and Readers 1992) does not talk about “young ghetto blacks” or even “African Americans” but “we, us, and ours”: “Malcolm believed that the destiny of Blacks in America was up to Blacks.  We could not, should not, expect any politician, any group, no matter how well meaning, to attain for us what we want.  We need to take our destiny in our hands, do whatever we must to obtain our freedom, our human and civil rights” (164). The book’s publisher, Writers and Readers, “was formed in England as a publishing cooperative where everybody shared the work and the profits. [The publisher, Glenn Thompson] wanted to prove that nonreaders would read if offered books that addressed their concerns; but most importantly, he wanted to “advance the needs of cultural literacy, rather than cater to an ‘advanced’ but limited readership” (From the Firm’s declaration of intent). Out of these ideologies, Writers and Readers began publishing the immensely popular Beginners series, a comic-book style, trade-paperback series of nonfiction reference titles” (http://www.forbeginnersbooks.com/aboutus.html). Doctor’s book is the only one that is designed, not as a reference biography (something kids use to look up quotations for a report) but an actual artistic creation, with illustrations (unfortunately somewhat let down by the printing process) that place symbols of American freedom next to examples of American oppression.

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America as land of the free–and home of the brave–in Doctor’s text.

And it is the only one that suggests that Martin Luther King, as well as Malcolm X, changed his mind: “Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as an advocate of peaceful civil disobedience.  But before he was assassinated in 1968, Dr. King was forced to reconsider his views.  Like his followers, he was beaten by police, thrown in jail, and denied his civil rights” (104-105). By showing MLK’s experience with a racist society, Doctor puts Malcolm X in a different light from other biographers—not a white-hating advocate of violence, but a man who experiences the same everyday racism as other Blacks—even those most acceptable to white people—and wants to do something about it.

 

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