Ralph Ellison began his 1952 novel with the sentence; “I am an invisible man.” (Ellison 3) These five words summed up the way in which the majority of Black Americans felt about their place in society at the time. The Civil Rights Movement was still years away, and the caste of American society had placed the Black American near the bottom. The application of the minority movement in the 1960’s and after in American has affected my life. It is through the struggle of Malcolm X and his lingering affects on public policies and social awareness that I feel his life has affected mine, and my understanding of the minority situation in politics.
The self-awareness of the Black American was limited to only what the white establishment would allow – and in the majority of the country, that was very little, as I have seen on a daily basis through being discriminated against. However, the essence for the change that would occur had already been born. The awakening, in the late 1950s, of the Black American would take place in religion, politics, self-awareness and literature. This would become exemplified by the manner in which women in the black communities were treated. The rise of domestic violence was an issue, even in 1950s America – and in both the homes of blacks and whites.
There would be, though, differences in which this awakening would manifest itself. For some, like those who would march with Martin Luther King, non-violence and pacifism would be the dominate tool to their awakening. For others, the awakening would come in the form of a religious rebirth, and strong assertion of their place in society. It is through the goal oriented life of Malcolm X that I have personally found strength in my own endeavors, through working relationships with others as well as with education opportunities, and on a more personal note, through relationships. The dynamic which Malcolm X achieved through his lectures, and active protests has aided me in being more direct in my own situations of discrimination.
Those who would come to admire Malcolm X would see him as a visionary, a warrior, and a martyr to the cause of equality. Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925. His early life would be marred with violence at the hand of racist attacks on his family. One such event, as Malcolm himself would chronicle in his autobiography took place when he was four years old. Two white men set fire to his home in the dead of night. “Our home was burning around us”; he recounted. (X 3) His father, a minister, would give chase and shoot at the two men, but they would escape. The investigation into the incident would see more attention placed on the gun which his father used to defend his family, than on the two attackers who nearly killed them.
While his father was a large and strong man, Malcolm recounted that it was his mother who enforced the discipline in the family. “I’ve said that my mother was the one who whipped me”, Malcolm X wrote. (7) This early distinction about the roles of authority would affect his adulthood.
There would be a vast change in the life of Malcolm X in his early adulthood. Just before he was to turn twenty-one, Malcolm would be sent to prison for grand theft. His time in prison would see him lose all faith in God, and be called Satan by his fellow inmates. (154) His last years of prison life would be spent, at the direction of Elijah Muhammad, reading and educating himself about history, culture and the ways of the world.
As Malcolm X educated himself, so have I educated myself, not only through religion, but through literature. Malcolm X was a true inspiration through me pursuing an education beyond middle school, or high school, it was through his strength against adversity that I too found a means to gain acceptance to the future I had planned out for me, although not high and mighty as Malcolm’s, it is a future that required knowledge, skill, patience, and a world which denied me most of those things.
This education into the history of the Black Culture, and the ways in which it had been subdued by the dominant white traders, would prepare him for his eventual induction into the Muslim faith. The changes that over took Malcolm X would manifest themselves in a way the enabled him the confidence, drive and self-worth to become a minister for the Nation of Islam. The importance of removing the damage done to the Black man, by the white establishment was paramount to the rebirth of Black culture and the rise of Islamic traditions in the United States.
The problems that plagued the Black population, according to the views of Islam were the fact that “the white man has brainwashed us black people to fasten our gaze upon a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus!” (222) This brainwashing came to create the rift between the black members of society, and between the man and women of that culture. “The black man needs to start today to shelter and protect and respect his black women!” (223) This quote from one of X’s early sermons illustrated to important issues in the black culture.
Firstly, that there was a responsibility being neglected in the role of the black male to uphold his place of caregiver to his wife and family – as well as to the community as a whole. This was an important issue to realize, as the teachings of Islam would tell. “The white man wants black men to stay immoral, unclean, an ignorant”. (223) This would lead the strict code of conduct that was as the heart of daily life in the Nation of Islam.
However the second issue that this concept created was the hierarchy within the Nation of Islam. As with the white Christian faith, the men of the faith were formally of a higher order than that of the women. While the faith would preach protection of women to men, it would not teach the women to stand for their rights as strongly. Though the Nation of Islam would not teach the subjugation of the women of the nation, they would not be inspired to achieve the levels of strength or power as the men were.
The other side of the awakening is illustrated from the point of view of Maya Angelou. From early in her childhood, as she would recount in I know why the caged bird sings, there were vast differences in the ways that girls and boys were seen – even within the black culture. One early example of this came when she and her brother were moved to their grandmother’s home in Stamps, Arkansas. “When I was described by our playmates as shit color [her brother Bailey] was lauded for his velvet-black skin.” (Angelou 23)
I also have been called names by the public. Maya Angelou’s tie in with Malcolm X is their shared struggle, and their overcoming of prejudices, and the lives they changed through their own actions. I think that Maya Angelou and Malcolm X are both mentors of mine because their revelations and descriptions of discrimination are vivid and relatable. For me, Maya Angelou’s work touched upon relative imagery from my own childhood, and being called names from society.
The things that I have learned from Maya Angelou and more succinctly with Malcolm X is that society always has a way of discriminating against a person, no matter what their skin color, or personal background. I have had trouble in my past that is similar to Malcolm’s criminal background, so that I’m not only discriminated against for my color but often times when someone knows what I’ve done in the past, they never let me grow out of it. Malcolm X taught me that strength comes from learning from one’s mistakes and making one’s life better because of those mistakes.
Through Malcolm X’s strength and his fighting I have found my own ground to stand upon for my education, livelihood, and future happiness. Malcolm X began his adult life in prison, and his final position as a spiritual leader has in turned inspired me to change my life for the better. I believe that Malcolm X had an epiphany in prison, and thus began his self-education. I too had an epiphany a few years ago, during some rough spots in my life, and that vision told me that I was supposed to go to college, and get a real education. It is in this fact alone, that Malcolm X is a mentor of mine, albeit, posthumously.
Ellison, Ralph. The Invisible Man. Random House Inc. New York. 1952.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why The Caged Birds Sings. Chivers Press. Random House Inc. New York. 1969.
Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Grove Press. Parallax Publishing Co. Vermont. 1965.