Last month, this writer wrote an introduction to series of articles that are intended to draw lessons from the life of Malcolm X. In this part, we will examine his life from his birth up until he leaves school, using Martin Heidegger to illuminate universal lessons.
Martin Heidegger, in his magnum opus, Being and Time, notes that the Individual is THROWN into the world that has its own worldviews and these worldviews interact with the individual. For example, we are THROWN in this world and we are told that the sun is actually a star that is brighter than other stars because it is closer to the earth than the other stars, and it appears that it revolves around the planet we are on. According to science however, the opposite is true. If we were THROWN in Memphis, ancient Egypt, then we would be told that the sun is a god named Ra which rises in the morning to give the world light after it had won its battle with the giant serpent of chaos, Apep during the night. By virtue of its life giving properties, it is worthy of worship. If you were born at the zenith of the Aztec Empire then you would be told that the sun couldn’t move on its own. That at first it couldn’t move at all, that the gods themselves had to be sacrificed and that humans have to repay the debt, and keep the sun moving, with their own sacrifices. Your acceptance or rejection of these ideas would have spiritual, psychological and sociological consequences.
Likewise, Brother Malcolm was THROWN in the world in 1925 in Omaha, the United States of America, the seventh of eight children whose parents propagated Marcus Garvey’s teachings. The ideas that were dominant during that time were rationalist’s offspring – Darwinism. That is, the belief that the European race was more evolved than other races of man. One has to note how that idea came into mainstream acceptance. When Columbus “discovered” the territory that would become known as America, a new colony was to be established. To achieve that aim the colonisers had to wrestle the land away from America’s tribes – the Navaho, Sioux, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Iroquois. And they had to abduct, transport and enslave African tribesmen – the Wolof, Ba Kongo, Mande, the Akan – to work on cotton fields which where labour-intensive.
These activities needed a philosophical justification by merchants who did not want their enterprises to be disturbed by European Crowns. John Locke, who is regarded by many as America’s founding philosopher, fulfilled this justification. He argued that any unlawful taking away of property by anybody is tyranny. Due to the prevailing narrative that African tribesmen, and American tribesmen, however, were only a few degrees above an ape and not fully human, when the Yoruba is abducted from West Africa to work the land that belonged to the Cherokee, it is like taking a British oxen to graze land where buffalo used to. It is for the above reasons that Basil Davidson argued, in his documentary Equal but Different, that capitalism caused racism.
Malcolm was born sixty years after the abolition of slavery. His parents were propagators of Marcus Garvey’s philosophy that stressed black dignity. For this work, they were prosecuted by the Ku Klux Klan and forced to move from their home in Omaha, Nebraska to Lansing, Michigan where his father continued to spread Garvey’s ideas. In 1931, Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, was killed in a car accident. The community in Lansing, however, suspected that The Black Legion, a white supremacist group, attacked Earl Little and had a streetcar run him over.
After the death of her husband and under pressure from the social workers, Malcolm’s mother began to deteriorate psychologically. Subsequently the social workers, the courts, and doctors split the family apart – sending the mother to Kalamazoo Asylum Hospital, and the children to different homes, with Malcolm eventually ending up at a Reform School. Up until then Malcolm had seen how the racist ideas impacted those who resisted it – his parents. For the first time, at Reform School, he would experience racism first hand.
At the Reform School Malcolm was liked by the couple that ran the school – Mr. and Mrs. Swerlin. “They”, Malcolm said, “all liked my attitude, and it was out of their liking for me that I soon became accepted by them – as a mascot, I know now.” Malcolm was given privileges and was kept close where he could observe white people’s attitude towards Negroes.
Malcolm said, “Mrs. Swelin said, with me standing right there. ‘Niggers are just that way…’ That scene always stayed with me. It was the same with other white people, most of them local politicians, when they would come visiting the Swerlins. One of their favourite parlor topics was ‘niggers’. One of them was the judge who was in charge of me in Lansing. He was a close friend of the Swerlins. He would ask about me when he came, and they would call me in, and he would look me up and down, his expression approving, like he was examining a fine colt, or a pedigreed pup. I knew they must have told him how I acted and how I worked.”
Malcolm continues, “What I am trying to say that it just never dawned upon them that I could understand, that I wasn’t a pet, but a human being…Thus they never did really see ME.”
This is astonishing. What did white people at the Reform School see when they looked at Malcolm? They only saw the outward – a Negro – and took the racist ideas, given to them by their upbringing, that were given expression by Locke (to further the interest of a small elite of slave-traders decades before) and they projected those ideas on to Malcolm, instead of seeing the individual.
What happened later at the Reform School is also important. Malcolm said,
“Somehow, I happened to be alone in the classroom with Mr. Ostrowski, my English teacher…I was one of the school’s top students but all he could see for me was the kind of future that white people could see for black people. I know that he probably meant well in what he happened to advise me that day…He told me, ‘Malcolm, you ought to be thinking about a career. Have you been giving it a thought? I told him, ‘Well, yes, sir, I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.’ Mr. Ostrowski looked surprised, I remember, and leaned back in his chair and clasped his hand behind his head. He kind of half-smiled and said, ‘Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic…We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer – that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you CAN be. You’re good with your hands – making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry?’
Returning to Heidegger, after the Individual has been thrown in the world he interacts with its ideas. The following is how young Malcolm interacted with the idea put forth by his English teacher. He says,
“It was a surprising thing that I had never thought of it that way before, but I realized that whatever I wasn’t, I was smarter than nearly all of those white kids. But apparently I was still not intelligent enough, in their eyes, to become whatever I wanted to be. It was then that I began to change – inside.”
That is, Malcolm refused that idea. And that refusal resulted in his change of behaviour. He said,
“I drew away from white people. I came to class, and I answered when called upon. It became a physical strain simply to sit in Mr. Ostrowski’s class. Where nigger had slipped off my back before, whenever I heard it now, I stopped and looked at whoever said it. And they looked surprised that I did. I quit hearing so much ‘nigger’ and ‘What’s wrong?’ – which was the way I wanted it. Nobody, including the teachers could decide what had come over me. I knew I was discussed.”
After this behavioural change, that is, his refusal to play the role assigned to him, that of a Mascot, Mrs. Swerlin arranged for Malcolm to leave the Reform School to stay with his aunt, Ella, in Boston. In the next part of the series we will examine the challenges he faced as he as young man.
Malcolm faced the ideas of his time – racism. He had a choice as to how he could respond to them. He could have, like millions of other Black-Americans agreed with these ideas and do as was expected of him. Or he could join the path less travelled, a far more hazardous path. This is a universal question: should one accept what society tells him to be true? If one was born in the Ancient Egyptian or Aztec Empire and was asked to sacrifice to the sun-god, a human or livestock, or else risk stopping the movement of the sun – what should the individual do?
The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, advised us to “take counsel with one’s heart”. This is a Prophetic tradition, for the Prophet Ibrahim, peace be upon him, knew deep down in his heart that the idol-worship of his people was not the correct way. So he destroyed them and left his town to search for the truth. In the eighth grade, the young Malcolm did not know the intellectual origin of race-theory. However, he knew in his heart that it did not correspond to reality and so he rejected it
We have been thrown in a world where we are told that man is a consumer, that having a good credit score is a civic virtue. That the pursuit of happiness is the goal of life and one could achieve that happiness by consuming products and services. These ideas, like the ideas of Locke centuries ago, exist to further the interests of a small elite. Even without understanding the intellectual history of these ideas, deep down within our hearts we know that something is not quite right. We, like the young Malcolm must reactivate this Prophet Tradition and listen to our hearts.
This article is Part 2 of 4, please find the next installment in the series in the March issue of Hikaayat.