Giftedness: Malcolm X

The history of Malcolm X is very sad, for he was a greatly talented individual denied care and education. The essay below is a reflection on his auto-biography, and presents how improved education and experiences can produce great changes. It also demonstrates how giftedness denied can be perceived as destructive.

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Reflecting on The Auto-biography of Malcolm X
It’s very hard for me to express honestly what I think of Malcolm X’s writings without appreciating that he would not care less what I thought. It’s difficult not to patronise; it’s impossible to sympathise; it’s unbecoming to cast a light and not realise the shadow we cast. I have a great deal of respect for the author and know that I am as the unwary girl who gets “Nothin’” from him despite her best intentions. Malcolm X was an extraordinary individual, and I wish he was afforded the time to defend the criticisms I make of him here.
I am not speaking (only) of race matters when I state that in reading this biography I was struck by an overwhelming sense of irony and injustice – I found the experiences of the narrator highly ironic, and ultimately unjust. Racial injustice proved to create a great monster in Malcolm X – the monster of ignorance.
It is evident that Malcolm was a gifted boy whose opportunities were limited on account of his race. He remembers having the latter point laid out to him plainly at school by a teacher. He describes (I think – I’m drafting this from memory alone, which is always perilous for me) how this teacher dissuaded him from seeking a career (in law). He explains how he subsequently left school and sought employment. This was done partly out of necessity, but we can imagine that a different path might have been followed in a different culture or society. A society that did not discriminate on a racial basis might have allowed a gifted individual such as Malcolm to persist with his academic life and career.
His formal education cut short, in moving to Brooklyn Malcolm entered a world of opportunity and freedom. Should this transition or time of great discovery have occurred at a university or college, the student should have realised a synonymous joy to that which he describes. A bird leaving the nest can well enjoy the power, excitement and freedom of first flight. Instead, deprived of the advantages and securities of the school environment, Malcolm was simply released into the wild. There, he quickly learnt to move with the pack, and to hunt. Certainly he enjoyed power, excitement and freedom, but it proved a fashion of fools. He might have learnt to do otherwise, but he did not, and to his regret he soon found himself caught, trapped and caged in prison.
Removed from the challenges and stimulus of society, the gifted prisoner seeks again to advance and educate himself. He returns to his schooling, with himself as the master. The confident assertions Malcolm makes about successfully learning from the confines of the prison library are very unfortunate. I recognise that many (including Nelson Mandela) have gained great knowledge and value when seeking education from within the walls of a prison, but I would not afford Malcolm an honorary degree at that time. Instead, and by his own words, Malcolm seemed to be single-minded in his studies, attention and intent. His prison education, like that of others who have suffered incarceration, served to fuel his anger at the historical injustices that had ultimately punished him. I recognise his moral crusade and support the call for emancipation according to the Declaration of Independence. Ironically though, I don’t think that Malcolm back then would have allowed himself to agree with me! I don’t think that, at the time, Malcolm himself appreciated the truth of his position, or the position he was trying to assert. He was motivated instead by personal reasons, which he then demonstrated as universals. Malcolm’s education as such was only a service of self-justification. He was too emotionally invested in his studies to appreciate alternatives, and locked in with a peer group incapable (for whatever reason) of successful debate, he was denied the opportunity to challenge his conclusions.
The irony to this point is that the conclusions Malcolm made were in many ways correct, but his method was inherently flawed. He was right that his world was against him, and that his world was prejudiced against black Americans. Yet Malcolm, at this time, had failed to explore beyond his own perspective. The world was not against black people because Malcolm was black, but against Malcolm because Malcolm was black. ie. Racism was his very personal experience. Of course Malcolm knew this, and yet he continued to define others only in terms of his own experiences. I contend, as suggested, the ultimate irony is that a regime of ignorant prejudice denied Malcolm the educational experiences that would have resolved his own ignorant prejudices. It is no surprise that a self-taught man comes to see the world in personal terms, or that he judges himself and others only by the values and standards that he holds personally to be true. Malcolm was a harsh and hard-edged realist, not an idealist. Nevertheless he lived in times that were marked by change, and these changes meant that people and society were able increasingly to respect him.
An individual as intelligent as Malcolm X can only hold beliefs that are false or flawed for as long as they prove valid. It is with great remorse that Malcolm discovers his long-held ignorance, and he quickly changes his position when he realises his prejudice. I wonder what more Malcolm might have made, on reflection, of his studies and arguments in prison in the light of the world he discovers outside of his national “prison” of America. Away from racial discrimination in the USA, Malcolm is immersed in brotherhood and harmony whilst in Mecca. He describes it as a life-changing experience, and advocates loudly that all seek to broaden their horizons. I think that although he had argued successfully against reconciliation for 15 years, he had never understood it until then. In the face of true society, rather than racial segregation, Malcolm’s beliefs change. If only he had not been vilified, repressed, imprisoned, and discriminated against, he might have enjoyed this revelation many years before.
I know that Malcolm was correct in many of his arguments, beliefs and ideas: African-Americans were repressed by their nation; powerful racist forces were intent on maintaining the status quo; self-determination and self-empowerment were necessary to improve the lot of African-Americans; African-American culture and society needed support; democracy was not succeeding. Malcolm recognised a culture of injustice and found strength to fight it. I believe he was successful in his fight, and that he was right in his struggle, but when you “fight fire with fire” you risk becoming your own enemy. Malcolm is clear about the role he played in the movement for racial equality – he understands that he presents one of the “fronts” in the war, and that his approach enables advances by other more “civil” players in the movement. He is highly critical of his counterparts in the body of his story, but then his attitude and descriptions of them is far more accepting (and intelligent/strategic/respectful) towards the end. To quote Ossie Davis, “No one who knew him before and after his trip to Mecca could doubt that he had completely abandoned racism, separatism and hatred.” Following his visits to Mecca Malcolm was a different man of different and greater awareness. I think he had changed his mind.

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