Read and Understand: Lessons from the Life of Malcolm X

Yousuf Ali pictured reading the autobiography of Malcolm X. (Photo courtesy of Misba Saleem)
Yousuf Ali pictured reading the autobiography of Malcolm X. (Photo courtesy of Misba Saleem)

By YOUSUF ALI, Staff Columnist

There was a boy with no sense of direction

All that he knew is that he did not belong

His only reality was isolation

For clarity and purpose, he would long

Clear was his location, but where his heart was, he did not know

Thus, he would wander aimlessly in the darkness

Always finding himself in low after low

Until he reached the point where he could be no less

In the deepest of dark, a candle was lit

The boy finally began to see and comprehend

The puzzle pieces began to fit

Even if the journey has not end

Thanks to the life of a man whose names are many

But with a story unlike any

Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, Malcolm X, or El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. Whatever you wish to call him, there is no denying the greatness of this man. Indeed, his life exemplifies a myriad of virtues including learning, courage, justice and humility. Above all else, his story taught me the importance of learning and understanding.

My first exposure to Malcolm X came from a school project. The third grade was required to do a project where we presented the lives of a historical figure. When I mentioned the project to my parents, they suggested that I do it on Malcolm X. Of course, I knew nothing about him at the time, so we purchased a children’s version of his biography, and my reading of that text started a very long journey.

One of the main lessons I got from his life was the importance of learning. Indeed, Malcolm writes in his that, “No university would ask any student to devour literature” the way he did and that he was able to “read and understand.”  In the nearly seven years between that third grade class project and my reading of the actual autobiography, I read quite a lot, not for school, but just for my own benefit. As a result, I began to learn more about the world and when I finally read his autobiography, I finally began to make sense of all that I had learned.

Malcolm X. (Photo courtesy of aws.nypl.org)
Malcolm X. (Photo courtesy of aws.nypl.org)

When one looking at the life events of Malcolm, the deck appears to have been stacked against him, but he ultimately chose not to let that hold him back. Indeed, after his family was broken apart due to his father’s murder, he made several bad decisions that ultimately landed him in prison. Upon reflecting on this period in his life, he writes, “I don’t know, to tell the truth,  how I am alive to tell it today,” and that he “was dead — mentally dead.” It is only while being imprisoned that Malcolm reflects on his decisions, identity and purpose. This leads to him devoting himself completely to the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad to the point that he “would have gone to the electric chair” for him. However, it is important to understand that this devotion did not cause Malcolm to deny disturbing facts about the Elijah Muhammad once they were made clear.

The Nation of Islam’s strict moral code turned Malcolm from a pimp to a man who would not “[touch] a woman,” however, Malcolm would learn that his leader was not so scrupulous. After hearing rumors that  had fathered several children out of wedlock, Malcolm went to the leader’s second eldest son, W.D. Muhammad, who confirmed the rumors and told Malcolm that his father “would not appreciate efforts to help him.” Hoping that the son was wrong, Malcolm confronted Elijah Muhammad with the rumors, and he acknowledged their truth to Malcolm but decided “to hide, to cover up what he had done” rather than accept responsibility. This was a major blow to Malcolm’s faith in the Nation of Islam and it forced him “to muster the nerve, and the strength, to start facing the facts, to think for myself,” and eventually led him to break with the Nation completely. This was the lesson that allowed me to start to make sense of who I was.

Six years passed between my third grade project and my reading of Malcolm’s actual autobiography. In that time, I had read a lot of material on many subjects, and even though I had learned a relatively large amount, I was pretty much copying the words of others. When I finally got around to reading his autobiography, I discovered so many layers of his life that I was completely unaware of. In fact, this is one of the few books that has literally kept me up at night reading. After reading the autobiography, I realized that if I truly wanted to learn from this great man, I would have to, yes, read but also “read and understand.”  

When reflecting on Malcolm’s autobiography, it is impossible to overstate the pivotal role of learning in his life. Not only was he able to gain new knowledge, but he was transformed by it. Out of the many lessons that his story has taught me, this is probably the most important. The purpose of learning is not to show off or exalt oneself; rather, it is to improve oneself. This is only possible after attaining a sound understanding, and Malcolm’s story was the light that showed me this reality.

  • zupan

    Thank you for this Mousuf Ali. And I enjoyed reading, and rereading, your poem about Malcolm X.

    “In the deepest of dark, a candle was lit….”

    Thanks for making it shine a little bit more on this day.

    • Yousuf Ali

      Thanks for the comment. I am happy that my work is benefitting some people.