The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a profound and significant book. I have selected 10 quotes from the autobiography that struck me as insightful and made me think. As the struggle for racial equality continues in this country, sometimes the first (and best) thing we can do is read a book.
1. “I had learned that if you want something you had better make some noise.”
In the opening pages of his autobiography, as Malcolm X describes his childhood, I see how his fervor for activism was rooted in his experiences and realization that silence was ineffective.
2. “What I am trying to say is that it just never dawned upon them that I could understand, that I wasn’t a pet, but a human being. They didn’t give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position. But it has historically been the case with white people, in their regard for black people, that even though we might be with them, we weren’t considered of them. Even though they appeared to have opened the door, it was still closed. Thus they never did really see me.”
Themes of acceptance and inclusion are explored in this section. Ultimately, Malcolm X paints a vivid picture of the invisibility Black Americans felt. I cannot imagine the emotional turbulence that these strong heroes endured as their human lives were equated to animals’.
3. “But you’ve got to be realistic about being a negro. A lawyer — that’s no realistic goal for a negro. You need to think about something you can be.”
Malcolm X is alone with his English teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, when the topic of career choices comes up. As a recent high school graduate, I can list off many instances sitting with my English teacher in our classroom. Quotes by Maragaret Atwood and Maya Angelou are plastered around the classroom. I am sitting at a desk with my own English teacher next to me. She smiles as I tell her about my own dreams of being a journalist or a lawyer or a psychologist, or maybe even an English teacher. She listens thoughtfully. Neither our different skin colors nor our different religions matter in that moment, because dreams are a shared experience by all people. We spend most of our time with our teachers (second to our families). They are meant to inspire us and instill hope in our future. However, in the early teen years of Malcolm X, his teachers did not believe in him simply because he was Black. He was not valued for his mind, rather disregarded for his skin color. And yet, as Malcolm X is about to tell this story, he expresses to readers that Mr. Ostrowski did not mean harm. Out of love and respect for his teacher, Malcolm X makes excuses for him and sympathizes with him. Truly an incredible man with character.
4. “This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are inferior and white people Superior that they will even violate and mutilate their God created bodies to look pretty by white standards.”
While beauty standards seem to be changing all the time, they have also remained as restrictive as ever. Malcolm X undergoes a painful process of straightening his hair with burning chemicals just so he can have “white man’s hair.” And yet, decades after Malcolm X attempted to change his hair, we are still trying to change our appearances. As a Bengali, I grew up watching commercials for hazardous chemical face washes to instantly lighten your skin. In fact, I was told to scrub my skin hard in the shower so that I could be light-skinned. However, you could imagine my surprise when I heard friends wanting to tan — what a strange thing it was to me, to want to have darker skin. Why is it that the Black man’s hair is considered ugly? Why is it that dark skin is ugly? I resonate with what Malcolm X expressed, that God created my body to look a certain way so why would I want to “mutilate” it?
5. “I had experienced for the first time, the Muslim teaching, ‘If you will take one step towards Allah — Allah will take two steps towards you.'”
Malcolm X has a spiritual reawakening in prison. He had led a life of crime up until prison. He first learns about Islam from his brother, a religon about peace and brotherhood, and Malcolm X is immediately drawn in. His time spent in prison consisted of mostly reading books and reflecting. Malcolm X realizes this later in life: Because he took the first step to remove crime and drugs out of his life and anchor himself to something more than the glamour of the material world, God opens doors for him.
6. “It’s a crime, the lie that I’ve been told to generations of black men and white men both. Little innocent black children, born of parents who believe that their race had no history. Little black children seeing, before they could talk, that their parents considered themselves inferior. Innocent black children growing up living out their lives, dying of old age — and all of their lives ashamed of being black. But the truth is pouring out of the bag now.”
Malcolm was aware in his day that Black people in America seemed to be born into a system of generational racism and inherit the gene of inferiority. How much longer can this go? I think Malcom X eerily predicted the future — the one which we currently live in where racism is not something new, rather it continues even now exposed by phones and cameras.
7. “I guess by now I will say I love Betty. She’s the only woman I ever even thought about loving. And she’s one of the very few — four women — whom I have ever trusted. The thing is, Betty’s a good Muslim woman and wife. You see, Islam is the only religion that gives both husband and wife a true understanding of what love is. The Western ‘love’ concept, you take it apart, it really is lust. But love transcends just the physical. Love is disposition, behavior, attitude, thoughts, likes, dislikes — these things make a beautiful woman, a beautiful wife. This is the beauty that never fades. You find in your Western civilization that when a man’s wife’s physical beauty fails, she loses her attraction. But Islam teaches us to look into the woman, and teaches her to look into us.”
This was one of the sweeter moments I read about in the life of Malcolm X. Living in a society that idealizes “Prince Charming” and the practice of dating multiple people to find the “one”, Malcolm X urges us to remove ourselves from our physical and lustful desires. Rather, he sees in his wife a companion and supporter. Through her he finds strength.
8. “This negroe has jumped into uniform and gone off and died when this America was attacked by enemies both white and non-white. Such a faithful, loyal non-white as this – and still America bombs him, and set the dogs on him, and turned fire hoses on him, and jails him by the thousands, and beets and bloody, and inflicts upon him all manner of other crimes.”
That’s the truth.
Just sink it in…
9. “I said, ‘the Brotherhood! The people of all Races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one! It is proven to me the power of the one God.'”
Malcolm X details extensively his pilgrimage to Mecca. It is a beautiful chapter and a must-read for each and every one of you reading right now!
He doesn’t waste words, and simply states that the unity of human beings is the strength of our humanity.
10. “Constantly, wherever I went, I was asked questions about America’s racial discrimination. Even with my background I was astonished at the degree to which the major single image of America seem to be discrimination.”
We are more than this. And saying it to ourselves isn’t enough.
My single image of America would have to be my community: my Italian, Catholic English teachers teaching Black and Brown students, the Mexican grocery worker helping the elderly white couple, and the busy streets of New York City filled with people of all races.
What is your single image of America?
I encourage you all to read this book. Although, I must warn you, it won’t be a little “light reading.” I found the words of Malcolm X pulling at my heart and pondering over just how incredibly true they were then and still are now. It’s uncomfortable at times. It’s also exhilarating. Ultimately, it’s transformative.