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THE Pan-Africanist philosophy that Malcolm X began to advocate in the last years of his life has come to dominate the thinking of the black movement of the 1970s. "New bridges must be built," Malcolm once declared. "In our people's minds, Africa is too far away." Blacks at Harvard have set about to build those bridges, to begin to protest the injustices in Angola and South Africa. Malcolm would have approved of the Massachusetts Hall takeover. His words might well have served as inspiration for the occupiers who were threatened with a court injunction. "Some people say they're worried about going to jail," he said once, "but if you were born black, you were born in jail." Malcolm would have been pleased, too, with the long lines of white supporters who marched around Mass Hall for seven days. "I have been convinced," he said, "that some American whites do want to help cure the rampant racism which is on path to destroying this country."
The Autobiography of Malcolm X. a film documentary, presents some of the events that went into the making of this man whose thinking has had such a tremendous impact at Harvard and across the country. The film is a montage of Malcolm's speeches and press conferences interspersed with footage of the hell in which black Americans still live. The use of montage is effective, and shows a great deal of imagination in overcoming the lack of documentary footage of Malcolm's life. Although according to Louis Lomax. Malcolm could draw on any given day "more people than Adam Powell. A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King, and Roy Wilkins put together," the white news media largely ignored Malcolm and as a result there is little film footage available on Malcolm's life. The lack of material causes the film to gloss over many of the subtler changes that Malcolm underwent during his life. The five or six stages that Malcolm went through in formulating his final philosophy are boiled down to two or three. But given the constraints under which the filmmakers had to work, they've put together a documentary that has the approval of Betty Shabazz, Malcolm's widow. What emerges from the film is a telling illustration of the cause and effect relationship between black life and black militancy.
THE KIND OF life into which Malcolm was born is depicted by film-library footage of Southern plantations and Ku Klux Klan meetings while the narrator, James Earl Jones, repeats the first paragraph from Malcolm's autobiography:
When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha. Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we better get out of town because "the good Christian white people" were not going to stand for my father's "spreading trouble" among the "good" Negroes of Omaha with the "back to Africa" preachings of Marcus Garvey.
Unlike the book, the film spends little time on Malcolm's early years. The documentary describes only one incident in Malcolm's childhood--a conversation with his English teacher. "What do you want to be when you grow up," his teacher asked him. "I've been thinking about being a lawyer," Malcolm replied. "But you've got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer--that's no realistic goal for a nigger," the white teacher advised.
This narrated exchange is followed by footage of Malcolm's famous speech, "Teaching a Man to Hate Himself is Worse Than Teaching a Man to Hate." The speech is spliced with scenes from the movies and television shows with which white society tried to teach Malcolm to hate himself, the movies and shows that have taught millions of blacks to hate themselves. There are pictures of Amos and Andy, Steppin' etchit, watermelon eating contests, and cute little Shirley Temple, as she walks into her all white birthday party, telling the slave girls. "I'll be sure to save you some cake."
MALCOLM left high school soon after he was told he couldn't become a lawyer. Coming to Roxbury, he entered a life of crime, "selling black women to white men, and white women to black men." He eventually wound up in prison, the step that has been the turning point in so many black revolutionaries' lives. Malcolm's life in prison is represented with newsreel scenes of the police brutality that is all too familiar to blacks in prisons and in ghettos. They are bloody scenes, ugly scenes, scenes like the one in which a white state trooper tells his men before a riot. "If we shoot, we shoot to kill."
A man a lot less bright than Malcolm could easily have perceived the racist nature of the system that put him in prison and locked his people up in the teeming ghettos of America. With Malcolm the realization was as unequivocal as the attack of a vicious police dog tearing at his leg. While in prison, Malcolm was introduced to the teachings of the Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad. The two corresponded, and upon leaving prison. Malcolm became Elijah's right hand man.
The film shows several of the speeches Malcolm made while he was a Black Muslim, including the one in which he said, "President Kennedy is a trickster. Black people put him in office and he's got time to take a stand in Vietnam, but not against racism." In the integrationist era of the early 1960's, Malcolm's words were anathema to the mass of blacks and their leaders. He was denounced as a "devil" and a "hate monger." After Kennedy's assassination in 1963. Malcolm said. "It's just the chickens coming home to roost," a statement with which even Elijah Muhammad couldn't cope. Elijah imposed a 90-day suspension on Malcolm--a suspension that was never to be lifted.
BUT MALCOLM stubbornly refused to let any man do his thinking for him. Leaving the Muslims, Malcolm began to articulate a Pan-Africanist philosophy. He traveled through Africa, and then made a pilgrimage to Mecca.
While there, Malcolm adopted a new name and a new perspective.
Upon returning to the United States, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz said.
What I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held, and to toes aside some of my previous conclusions. I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed, while praying to the same God, with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. We were truly the same brothers, because their belief in one God had removed the white from their minds, the white from their behavior, and the white from their attitude.
Malcolm's new ideas were to profoundly influence young black leaders in America. The documentary includes clips from speeches by Stokely Carmichael, H. "Rap" Brown, and Jesse Jackson that illustrate Malcolm's influence on their thinking. "No one has fought for civil rights." Malcolm says in the film. "They have begged for civil rights." That speech is followed by scenes of armed black students leaving a Cornell building.
Unfortunately, Malcolm's mix of aggressive militancy and brotherly love was to estrange him even further from the Black Muslims and from the white power structure. Malcolm originally attributed the bombing of his home to the Black Muslims, but later said, "This is something much bigger than them. I know what they can do, and this is bigger than them."
But once the attacks on Malcolm's life began, they were not to stop until February 21, 1965, when three black assassins found their mark. In the film, the shooting is portrayed in still photographs while Betty Shabazz describes the shooting.
HOW did the black leaders react to Malcolm's death? There are scenes of Martin Luther King deploring "the violence in American society," while Elijah Muhammad says. "Malcolm is a victim of his own preachings." But to the black masses, Malcolm's death meant quite a different thing. Perhaps the feeling is best described by the woman in the film who says, "He meant deliverance for my people."
Malcolm did mean deliverance. Deliverance from mindless bigotry and the bowing and scraping of the integrationist approach of the 1960's. He heralded a new day in the struggle for freedom. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, though rough in spots and limited by the scarcity of documentary footage of Malcolm's life, gives a compassionate view of the man most responsible for shaping the course of the present black revolution, a man who was not afraid to die, but called for freedom "by any means necessary."
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