This is the third article of the Malcolm X series. In the previous two articles we highlighted certain lessons by looking into the racist ideas that were prominent during Malcolm’s time. Then we noted how Malcolm’s parents tried to reject those ideas and the fatal consequences that followed. We then saw how those ideas were directly imposed onto Malcolm, his initial adherence to them in school, and finally his rejection of them by dropping out of school when he felt limited by them.

In this article we are going to examine the period of Malcolm’s life from the time he left school up until his incarceration. To better understand this period of Malcolm’s life we will turn to two thinkers – the 20th century German philosopher, Martin Heidegger and the 12th century Muslim theologian, Imam Al-Ghazali.

In his magnum opus, Being and Time, Martin Heidegger teaches a concept called the Theyself. At the initial stages of our lives, Heidegger argues, we are absorbed in the They. The They is a phenomena that we are always interacting with. The They provides us with with our everyday self – the They dominates us and tells us  this is how it is and we begin to understand oneself only through the lens that the They have provided.

After dropping out of school, Malcolm went to live with his aunt in Boston. He started looking for a job and he met a street hustler named Shorty. Shorty got Malcolm a job as a shoeshine boy in a ballroom and later introduced him to the underworld. It is there where Malcolm earned the name Detroit Red. Detroit Red sold marijuana, worked for a brothel and turned to burglary to support his cocaine habit.

Malcolm noted “Cocaine produces, for those who sniff its powdery white crystals, an illusion of supreme well-being, and a soaring overconfidence in both physical and mental ability. You think you could whip the heavyweight champion, and that you are smarter than everybody. There was also that feeling of timelessness.”

In order to gain a deeper understanding of Detroit Red’s inner drive, we turn to Imam Al-Ghazali’s Ihya Ulum Deen. In it Al-Ghazali writes that man has in him three souls – the pig soul, the dog soul and the Shaykh soul. This is proven by science -the pigsoul is what neuroscientists call the R-stem. For now we will concentrate on the Pig Soul and return to the other two souls later.

The Pig Soul is motivated by the stomach and genitals. At the core of the Pig Soul is fear. The Pig Soul is classed by social scientists as the consumer. The consumer wants to buy stuff – the latest clothing, food, drink and so forth, something that  advertising agencies understand all too well.

For example, cosmetics companies and fashion companies spend billions advertising the preservation of youth. Seen from a psychoanalytical perspective, this is done to numb man’s fear of death. The zenith of consumption is drugs and all of these distractions exist in order to numb fear. Edward Bernays, the father of Public Relations, posited that consumerism can be a useful means to control the masses. Those in power keep the masses in constant fear then provide them a means – consumerism – that they can use to subside their fears and not question the actions of those in power.

Detroit Red was living in a state of constant fear that the police would arrest him and that other hustlers may rob him or kill him. So he used drugs because, in his words: “Staying high on narcotics kept me from getting nervous.” This is the world he lived in, alongside thousands of Black-Americans in the ghettoes.

In Heideggerian terms, Detroit Red rejected what the majority of African-Americans were prey to. Most African-Americans were pulled away from their authentic selves and saw themselves the way 1940s American society wanted them to be. They could only see themselves through the lens of  ‘a nigger.’ A nigger was inferior to the white man and belonged in the ghettos to rot in squalor.

Detroit Red rejected the above. But in doing so he fell pray to another trap. He accepted the Theyself of a ‘Hustler’ imposed on him by the criminal world. A hustler was crazy according to the criminal class, someone who would kill anyone who showed him any disrespect without a second thought.   

Finally, in 1944, the police caught up with Malcolm and he was arrested and sentenced to ten years in jail for robberies.

During this period of Malcolm’s life we see a young man in a constant search for his authentic self in a world telling him otherwise. This is a archetypal story as told in many fictional works such as in Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. In the children’s tale Pinocchio has a desire to be a ‘real boy’ but his adventures lead him to strange places such Pleasure Island which represent, in its exaggerated form, the consumerist Theyself. Martin Heidegger warns us that the They pose a danger, for the more the They pulls the Individual towards the Theyself –  into what Nietzsche calls the herd mentality – the further away the Individual is pulled away from his authentic self.

In conclusion, despite what he sees on television the reader may recognize that the society around him is in a poor state. He may want to reject the Theyself of his society. But the danger for any seeker of truth is the rejection of one falsehood for the falsehoods of another. It is for this reason that the Prophet, peace be upon him, asked his Lord; “Allah show me truth as truth.”

In the next entry we will see Detroit Red’s transformation from being a prisoner to being the Minister of the Nation of Islam.

This article is Part 3 of 4, please find the next installment of the series in the May issue of Hikaayat.

Part 1 is available here.

Part 2 is available here.