Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska on this day, May 19th, 1925. I consider him one of the signal figures in the spiritual history of the United States. I’ve written here about him before. But, I never feel I’ve quote captured what I hope to share. So, one more time…
Malcolm was the fourth of seven children. His father a Baptist preacher and an outspoken advocate of Black self-reliance. The family moved first to Milwaukee and then to Lansing.
His father was killed when he was six years old, while ruled an accident the family believed in fact he was murdered for his outspoken call for social justice. His mother was committed to a mental institution when he was thirteen. After bouncing from foster home to foster home, he fell onto the streets and into crime.
At the age of twenty, while serving a term in prison Malcolm discovered the Nation of Islam. While a controversial American religious movement with little connection to normative Islam, it offered him sobriety and a purpose. And he embraced it like a life raft in a raging sea. There he also received a new name.
Malcolm quickly rose to leadership. But at the same time he was increasingly aware of the problems within the Nation as well as how far its teachings were from authentic Islam. He delved deeply into the religion that the Nation had lifted its name from, and eventually converted.
Within his conversion we find the beauty to be found in the Muslim faith. For him a major step in his deepening spirituality, now as Hajj-Malik El Shabazz.
I think about his relationship with first the Nation and later with normative Islam. For African Americans, particularly black Americans in the mid nineteen sixties, the complicity of the Christian churches not only with slavery, but with its half life continuing at that point for just shy of a century, had soured many hearts with that tradition.
With Islam here was a religion that, while it has many, many shortcomings as well, at least preached racial unity from its inception. This proved something powerful. And opened a world of possibilities both for him as a person, and, truthfully, for all of us. While still holding everyone to a sharp accountability, Malcolm X’s Islam was a path toward reconciliation of both the spirit and the world.
But they were too late to shut down his message. Mr Haley finished the project and the Autobiography of Malcolm X was published later that year. The Wikipedia article on the book tells us “When the Autobiography was published, the New York Times reviewer described it as a ‘brilliant, painful, important book.’
In 1967, historian John William Ward wrote that it would become a classic American autobiography. In 1998, Time named the Autobiography of Malcolm X as one of ten ‘required reading’ nonfiction books. James Baldwin and Arnold Perl adapted the book as a film; their screenplay provided the source material for Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X.”
One could call it one of the great American spiritual narratives. If you haven’t read the Autobiography, you might find it worth while doing so. It is an indictment of white America. Brutally honest, with both himself and the world he found himself in. And at the same time the Autobiography sings a deep and authentic song of hope.
Because of his death people can speculate without consequence as to where his spiritual and political journey would take him. Me, I like to think he would have found Sufism. There are aspects of his spiritual journey that suggest it could have been the culmination of the journey.
But, of course, only a fond fantasy. Malcolm X’s life becomes one of those great ifs.
Kind of like ours at this moment. Where this choice or that dictates a whole different story going forward. Doors opening and closing, all depending on what we, that is you and I choose to do.
May we choose wisely…