'Black Men Are Watching Every Move I Make'

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It's embarrassing to admit this, but I basically cried my way through last chapter and a half of The Autobiography Of Malcolm X, this weekend. As I mentioned before, I'm working on a piece about black nationalism in the age of Obama for the magazine. Like a lot of black folks, I read The Autobiography as teen-ager. The book has enormous power for those of us looking for a narrative which explains our world.I went back to see if it held up for me as an adult and see whether it was still relevant in an time that I do not believe Malcolm ever expected to come to pass.


I was surprised to find a rather persistent sexist as my guide--Malcolm's thoughts on women are akin to much of what you hear in hip-hop, though less profane. I was intrigued by his complicated thoughts on Jews--which are overly broad and wax and wane between sympathy and resentment. But overall, I found the story to be much stronger than I remembered, and his rendering of the emotional scar of racism (via Alex Haley) is probably the most affecting I've ever read.

Perhaps most arresting is the fact that you are reading the words of man who is perfectly clear that he is about to die.  Here is Malcolm summing up the incredible sweep of his life:

I believe that it would be almost impossible to find anywhere in America a black man who has lived further down in the mud of human society than I have; or a black man who has been any more ignorant than I have been; or a black man who has suffered more anguish during his life than I have. 

But it is only after the deepest darkness that the greatest joy can come; it is only after slavery and prison that the sweetest appreciation of freedom can come. For the freedom of my twenty-two million black brothers and sisters here in America, I do believe that I have fought the best that I knew how, and the best that I could, with the shortcomings that I have had. I know that my shortcomings are many. 

My greatest lack has been, I believe, that I don't have the kind of academic education I wish I had been able to get -- to have been a lawyer, perhaps. I do believe that I might have made a good lawyer. I have always loved verbal battle, and challenge. You can believe me that if I had the time right now, I would not be one bit ashamed to go back into any New York City public school and start where I left off at the ninth grade, and go on through a degree. Because I don't begin to be academically equipped for so many of the interests that I have. For instance, I love languages. I wish I were an accomplished linguist. 

I don't know anything more frustrating than to be around people talking something you can't understand. Especially when they are people who look just like you. In Africa, I heard original mother tongues, such as Hausa, and Swahili, being spoken, and there I was standing like some little boy, waiting for someone to tell me what had been said; I never will forget how ignorant I felt.  Aside from the basic African dialects, I would try to learn Chinese, because it looks as if Chinese will be the most powerful political language of the future. 

And already I have begun studying Arabic, which I think is going to be the most powerful spiritual language of the future. I would just like to study. I mean ranging study, because I have a wide-open mind. I'm interested in almost any subject you can mention. I know this is the reason I have come to really like, as individuals, some of the hosts of radio or television panel programs I have been on, and to respect their minds -- because even if they have been almost steadily in disagreement with me on the race issue, they still kept their minds open and objective about the truths of things happening in this world. Irv Kupcinet in Chicago, and Barry Farber, Barry Gray and Mike Wallace in New York -- people like them....

Every morning when I wake up, now, I regard it as having another borrowed day. In any city, wherever I go, making speeches, holding meetings of my organization, or attending to other business, black men are watching every move I make, awaiting their chance to kill me.

That section just brought me to pieces. I was wrecked on the Boltbus to Baltimore (I was traveling this weekend) well into the evening at the hotel where I was staying. It captured so much of why Malcolm was killed. The Nation of Islam was necessarily limited. Claiming, as a central tenet, that the white is man is literally the devil is inconsistent with telling people to go where their curiosity takes them. By focusing on "black men" looking to kill Malcolm, the humanity of his murder is made manifest. Nations--regardless of color--erect boundaries and sometimes violently punish those who violate them. In that sense, reading this section put me in the mind Bruno or Galileo. 

And then there was the way in which Malcolm's life was defined, and ultimately confined, by racism. There's that terrible scene when Malcolm, smartest kid is his class, an athlete, and extraordinarily popular, tells his teacher he wants to be a lawyer. And his teacher tells him, effectively, "that's no realistic goal for a nigger." That kind of psychic murder is the sort of thing which was, and still is, visited on on black children since we arrived here. 

I have sometimes remarked that Barack Obama reminds me of Malcolm, in his bearing, in his sense of irony, and in the almost epic quality of narrative. But mostly it's in his curiosity about the world, in his deep belief in intelligence and altering your views as evidence presents itself. The great tragedy of Malcolm X's life is how that curiosity was circumscribed and perverted. The great joy of Barack Obama is seeing that curiosity unbounded and rewarded.

I don't say that to clean Malcolm X. I don't buy the image of him as a complete convert to integration--nor do I need it, anymore than I needed it for Grant or Lincoln. My Valhalla is made of people--conflicted, complicated, people.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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