The Three Lives of Malcolm X

Originally published at on February 2, 2015.

“My life has always been one of changes.” –Malcolm X

Everyone knows about Malcolm X. He’s the man wearing the goatee, black horn-rimmed glasses and intellectual demeanor in photos from the 1960s. He’s the “angry and violent” civil rights leader as opposed to the “peaceful” Martin Luther King Jr. But do we really know Malcolm X? I didn’t, until I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (co-authored with Alex Haley) and found much to admire.

There is, of course, Malcolm X’s fierce stand for civil rights, which he vigorously pursued up until the moment of his assassination. As interesting as that is, what I mainly want to discuss here, what inspired me most, was his ability to change. His adult life strikes me as passing through three stages, each clearly distinct from the others.

In his younger years in Harlem, Malcolm X, then using his birth name Malcolm Little, was a hustler. He began shining shoes, but moved on to running numbers in betting schemes, selling drugs, pimping and eventually burglary. No doubt he was as sharp as a tack even then, but he was uneducated and mostly spoke slang to the extent that many couldn’t even understand him. He was high on drugs all the time, carried guns, and ruined lives. He was, to be blunt, an unrepentant scumbag and he ended up in Charlestown State Prison.

In prison, his second life began. He improved his vocabulary by copying the dictionary by hand, further educated himself by reading as many books from the prison library as he could, and participated in organized debates between inmates. The results are enviable. Forever afterward, he would think quick on his feet and speak in lucid and powerful sentences.

It was also in prison that he began his conversion to the Nation of Islam, then headed by Elijah Muhammad. The Nation of Islam reversed the white supremacy dominant in America by proclaiming that black folk were superior and white folk were “devils.” The lifestyles of members of the Nation of Islam were to be squeaky clean, and after leaving prison, Malcolm Little, now Malcolm X, would exemplify that, going so far as to become a minister.

This second phase is the one that remains strongest before the eye of history, but Malcolm X was not done evolving.

Traitorous goings-on within the Nation of Islam around the time Malcolm X performed the hajj and toured the Middle East and Africa resulted in his expulsion from the group. The Islam that he witnessed while traveling was one of people of all nationalities coming together to worship Allah without any distinctions of class or color. All were part of a shared humanity — even whites.

Whereas before, Malcolm X — now using the name Malik El-Shabazz — had advocated a racist ideology, he now applied a new “yardstick” to everything:

“ . . . that to me the earth’s most explosive and pernicious evil is racism, the inability of God’s creatures to live as one, especially in the Western world.”

Many were shocked by Malcolm X’s change of tone upon his return from Mecca, but before his new efforts could take off, Nation of Islam assassins gunned him down during a presentation. From criminal to Nation of Islam minister to internationalist leader for civil rights, his life had indeed been, as he himself described, “one of changes.”

Throughout the autobiography, Malcolm X unflinchingly relates many of his worst traits at different times in his life, many of his dirtiest deeds, and his biggest mistakes. Twice his thought underwent a shift so radical that he completely renounced his former lifestyle and beliefs.

In his own words:

“Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.”

This speaks to me, because I’ve experienced similar changes. Once deeply Christian and conservative politically, I’m now an atheist who identifies in politics most closely with the style of intellectuals who go where their reason leads them, often in defiance of the simple Right-Left divide: Gore Vidal, Hunter S. Thompson, Bernard Henri-Levy, Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Amartya Sen, Slavoj Zizek, Camille Paglia, Gianni Vattimo, Paul Krugman, Andrew Sullivan, and others.

Of course, few people change completely. Often there is an unchanging core to one’s personality that offers guidance through the changes. This is true for me, and I believe it was true for Malcolm X. Somewhere in the pimp Malcolm Little was the enlightened Malik El-Shabazz, and it is this thread of conscience-driven mutability running through each incarnation of the man that I find so impressive.

I write about the intersection of arts and ideas, my small contribution to the #ThinGraphiteLine between civilization and its collapse.