Take and Read: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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by M. Shawn Copeland

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Editor's note: "Take and Read" is NCRonline's newest blog series. It will feature each week a contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."

"Take and Read" will be published every Monday at http://ncronline.org/feature-series/take-and-read.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
by Malcolm X with Alex Haley
(Random House, 1965)

On Feb. 21, 1965, Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little and known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, N.Y. His autobiography, written in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize winner Alex Haley, was published shortly after his death but without, as sociologist and historian Manning Marable has noted in Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, his final revisions and approval. Still, The Autobiography of Malcolm X holds a secure place in the canon of 20th century American literature and has become a staple in courses in African American studies. The Autobiography lays out in raw, mesmerizing detail one man's struggle for his own subjectivity or personhood and his advocacy for beneficial change in the social conditions of black Americans.

From the mid-1950s and through the decade of the 1960s, the civil rights movement held the attention of the American public. These were years of intense cultural and social ferment as the nation grappled with the ignominy of segregation and the ambiguities of integration. The urgent and eloquent appeals of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., along with freedom rides and sit-ins carried out by hundreds of black and white college students shamed the nation with an activism forged from nonviolent protest, a commitment to redemptive suffering, and neighborly love.

Still, there were other voices including that of Malcolm X. In July 1959, the New York-based television program "News Beat" broadcast a five-part series by Mike Wallace on the Nation of Islam (NOI), featuring Malcolm, among others. His scorching anti-white rhetoric gave weight to the charge that the NOI taught love's opposite -- hate. Malcolm's participation in the program established him as a powerful spokesperson for the Nation and its version of black separatism. He soon appeared on national television and radio talk shows, conducted interviews with major magazines, and lectured on college and university campuses. He also came to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. By the middle of 1963, Malcolm had grown disenchanted with the Nation and the immoral behavior of its leader, Elijah Muhammad. In December of that year, Muhammad suspended him from NOI ministry: Malcolm had violated a direct order by commenting publicly on the assassination of President Kennedy. Within months, Malcolm repudiated the Nation, converted to Sunni Islam, formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity, and, made the pilgrimage to Mecca. He travelled and lectured widely in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Europe; he also changed his views on race relations and cautiously endorsed the aims of the civil rights movement. On the cusp of the bright achievement of his humanity, Malcolm X was gunned down before the age of 40.

I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1968 as a second year novice or newly professed ("neo-professed") sister of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Felix of Cantalice, more familiarly known as the Felician Sisters. The four years spent in religious formation in Livonia, Mich., have proved the most enduring influence of my life, rivaled only by my graduate school encounter at Boston College with Bernard Lonergan and his most brilliant student, Fred Lawrence.

I came to religious life after the Second Vatican Council concluded. During our formation, the council's challenge to religious women to examine and renew their lives was a priority. Our novice mistress was young, perceptive, very smart, and held a master's degree in theology. In daily sessions with us, she advocated holistic human development and growth in the spiritual life through cultivating an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, prayer, meditation, theological study, and reflection. She oriented us toward the future of a changing world. Still, old rules jostled against the new: Visits from family, relatives, and friends were limited to once a month and not at all during the canonical year, but there were prudent exceptions (a visit to a gravely ill grandmother). There was almost no access to television or secular newspapers or magazines, but popular and scholarly Catholic periodicals along with the latest theological books were readily available.

I was a novice in more ways than one: I was a novice in "black matters." I was the only black woman in my group of 24 or 25, and there was another young black woman in the high school preparatory program. Out of the more than 3,000 Felician sisters in the United States, only one black woman from the Buffalo, N.Y., province, had professed final vows. My formal introduction to social oppression and the social suffering it causes came from learning about the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jewish people. Still, I did not grow up ignorant of racial discrimination: I could not attend the Catholic school nearest my home because as the sister said, "We do not take colored children." Despite Detroit's cunning patterns of social segregation, youth and geography placed me on the sidelines of the organized black struggle for civil rights. Like the other postulants and canonical novices, I was insulated from the day-to-day political events of U.S. society. But, shortly before the retreat prior to first profession of vows, Detroit exploded. On July 23, 1967, a routine police raid on an after-hours drinking club ignited smoldering black resentment at systemic bias and discrimination. Five furious days of rebellion left more than 40 persons dead and hundreds injured, more than 7,000 arrested, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. When the news reached us, a world away in suburban Livonia, I was stunned, apologetic, and very sad. I now know I was naïve. I was a novice in "black matters."

In September of that same year as second year novices, we went back to classes at Madonna College. With permission, I met monthly with other black women religious, seminarians, and the lone black priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit. We wrestled with meanings of race and identity in relation to religious vocation; we studied and discussed books by black authors. Taking cues from Gaudium et Spes, we too sought to "scrutinize the signs of the times," to analyze and interpret the social condition of black people in light of the Gospel and to situate that interpretation within the context of the renewal of Catholic theology.

During this period, someone loaned or gave me a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I was galvanized and could not stop reading: I read after completing homework assignments, during study hall, after my chores, in my spare time. After we retired for the evening, I sat up to read in the glow of the exit light -- our novice mistress coughed ever so discreetly before climbing the stairs to our dormitory to bless us. I will be forever grateful to her; she helped me immensely as I navigated uncharted waters.

The person and voice of The Autobiography of Malcolm X were unlike anyone and anything I had ever met or read. I was shocked at his criminal past, drug use, exploitation of women, and the rage he spewed at white people, but I agreed with his attack on institutional racism and its lethal impact on black life. I admired his ability to lead and maintain a separate sphere for Black Muslims, even as I disagreed with his theology, which breached everything I believed about the Gospel. Still, I admired his discipline and courage to change his life; indeed, through his self-transformations, he made of his life a radical, complex, and beautiful work of art.

Malcolm X was the first revolutionary I ever "met" and I wanted to be one too -- a revolutionary black nun! Under the direction of our novice mistress I first tried writing theology, and Malcolm gave me something to theologize about: Nothing ought to be more sacred than the liberation of my people. Malcolm taught me seriousness of purpose, black pride, love of black history, and love of black people. He taught me resistance, resolve, and daring. He led me to black consciousness.

I came late to serious study of King's thought, but as I read our contemporary theological landscape, he remains the consummate practical-political theologian of the American experiment in social democracy. Obviously, it is much too simplistic to set Malcolm as King's opposite, to constrict him to the field of black power nationalism and separatism. James Cone in his Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or A Nightmare cautions against such an approach. To do so poses a Manichean vision of life in America: Martin or Malcolm, integration or separation, white or black. To do so flattens the ambiguity and contradictions as well as the joys and pleasures of human living, ignores the infinite circumference of divine grace, and dismisses the cost of struggle for a nation -- a world -- without racism.

I have taught and still teach The Autobiography of Malcolm X as well as his speeches and interviews. The first time was at Saint Norbert College in an undergraduate course on grace. I structured the reading, mainly fiction, to help students discern the fitful responses we humans make to the gift and movement of grace. I still remember the student who, in a thoughtful and well-written paper, drew out connections between Malcolm's self-transformation and Lonergan's categories of intellectual, moral, and religious conversion. I was elated. Two very disparate men, each of whom so important to my intellectual development, came together in my classroom.

Much has changed in American society, the church, and the global order since I was a novice tackling The Autobiography of Malcolm X and wrestling with the density of the black lifeworld. My life has changed and not changed: I am no longer a vowed woman religious, but I still ache to be a revolutionary, to bring about change in society and church; I still ache for justice for all creation in our broken world. Today I take up and read The Autobiography of Malcolm X with critical appreciation for the sharp organic intellectual Malcolm was and for his capacity to critique and shift, even change, his religious, cultural, and social horizons. But, The Autobiography still indicts the continuing Christian betrayal of the Gospel and its failure to effectively counter the myriad ordinary ways race and racism shape our thinking about ourselves and our interactions with one another.

In the last months of his life Malcolm X came to articulate the necessity of authentic relationships between human beings, to insist that the struggle against white racist supremacy is a human problem. All of us, whatever our racial-ethnic and cultural backgrounds, "as human beings [have] the obligation and the responsibility, of helping to correct America's human problem. … In our mutual sincerity we might be able to show a road to the salvation of America's very soul" (p. 383, 385).

As a political theologian, my work interrogates the meaning of being human in cultural and social conditions that insult our humanity and mock our efforts at authentic solidarity. Malcolm's words water my hope: Words from a man who lived through the brutal and brutalizing effects of the vicious and long reign of sin that structural racism is. Malcolm's example summons us to live in such a way that the truth, intelligibility, goodness, and beauty of our concrete social order might be manifest and nourish the flourishing of each and every one of us.

[M. Shawn Copeland is a theology professor at Boston College and author of more than 80 articles, reviews, and book chapters.]

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