Heard you might be coming home, just got bail
Wanna go to the mosque, don’t wanna chase tail
It seems I lost my little homie, he’s a changed man
Hit the pen and now no sinnin’ is the game plan
Pools of empty light regularly dot the endless concrete corridors of the Norfolk Prison Colony. They illuminate a lifeless pattern that glows only with the promise of another tomorrow dictated by the clockwork routine of prison life. There’s no warmth found in these pools of light.
But in one of them, you can find hope. At least for fifty-eight minutes out of every hour.
For the other two minutes of each hour Malcolm X waits in his bed while feigning sleep to avoid the regular patrol of the prison guard. Once the guard passes, X slips out of his bed and back into the pool of light cast into his prison cell by an unblinking corridor light, and cracks his book back open.
The first book he reads is the dictionary, he copies down words on its first page and then silently reads them back to himself. This takes Malcolm X the entire night. Then, after months of painstakingly building a vocabulary, he begins to read the works of H.G. Wells, of Gregor Mendel, of Mahatma Gandhi, and of W.E.B. Du Bois. He reads histories, novels, science fiction, and fables. Malcolm X, a man who came of age on the race-divided and crime-rich innercity streets of America, gains his education on the concrete floor of his prison cell. He reads, he learns, and he begins to question.1
And then one day, his brother comes to visit.
i i i
It’s during this visit that Malcolm X is introduced to the religion of Islam. Although this isn’t Islam in its original and authentic form, far from it. The Islam that Malcolm X’s brother brings to him is something of an offshoot, it’s a unique and American sect of Islam that in a way follows the pattern of Mormonism – a unique and American sect of Christianity.
The version of Islam that Malcolm X is brought to has, like Mormonism, its own unique mythology. A mythology that’s wrought with scientific fallacies, historical impossibilities, and genetic absurdities. But what’s more telling is that the beliefs expounded by Christians in the Church of Latter-Day Saints and Muslims in the Nation of Islam are both rooted in a sense of outside persecution. And while persecution for the Mormons came from other Americans who also considered themselves Christians but who resented the Mormons’ cultish secrecy and their leader’s quirky predilection for marrying multiple underage wives, persecution for members of the Nation of Islam came from the Devil himself.
For who but the Devil would’ve trafficked in flesh that was cut off from its native land and then raped so brutally so many millions of times that its own identity was forgotten? Who but the Devil would teach this flesh to hate its own kind – its language, its customs, and the very color of its own skin? Who but the Devil would try to bring that flesh to a religion which taught that God looked nothing like it, but instead that God in fact looked just like the Devil himself? A religion that told that flesh that heaven, escape from its condition, would only come after death while the Devil created its own heaven here on earth from that flesh’s toil?
And who but the Devil himself would keep the poorest and least of that flesh caged behind bars so it would remain deprived, oppressed, and ignorant?1
To Malcolm X, a man who’d grown up in poverty because his father was murdered by white men, been told as a child by a white man that he was a nigger who could never be a lawyer, had white men pull him away from his own black family and place him in white foster care, shined white men’s shoes for nickels as they danced in all-white dances clad in hundred-dollar suits, sold drugs and women to the very same white men who treated him like a social degenerate, whose red hair came from the white slavemaster who’d raped his grandmother, and who’d been put in a cage by white men because the only way he knew to make a living was on the streets – it was an argument that rang with a deafening amount of truth.
And because the Devil is not someone you can live alongside, Malcolm X knew the Devil must be fought. So following his release from prison into the warm early-summer days of 1957, two years after Rosa Parks made way into American legend by refusing to move from her seat on another city bus that forever changed the history of a nation, Malcolm X set out to begin his war against the Devil.
i i i
The years that followed have become strewn with misconceptions and inaccuracies. But the funny thing is, the most misleading statement made about the Civil Rights movement aren’t about the life of Malcolm X.
If there’s one event that captures the way that era has been willfully misrepresented, it would be 1963′s March on Washington. It was during the March on Washington that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, words that have become emblematic of the successes of the Civil Rights movement and that have posthumously become King’s final message. The March on Washington is often heralded as a sign of the progress the Civil Rights movement made, and the Speech is conveyed to today’s generations of children as King’s last message to America.
Neither of these assertions are true.