'She Had Broken the Spirits of Three Husbands'

Ella And Betty.jpg

Malcolm X, pulling from his hustler days, and explaining why men went to prostitutes:


Domineering, complaining, demanding wives who had just about psychologically castrated their husbands were responsible for the early rush. These wives were so disagreeable and had made their men so tense that they were robbed of the satisfaction of being men. To escape this tension and the chance of being ridiculed by his own wife, each of these men had gotten up early and come to a prostitute.

Here he is on what pimps and prostitutes knew about relationships:

Most men, the prostitutes felt, were too easy to push around. Every day these prostitutes heard their customers complaining that they never heard anything but griping from women who were being taken care of and given everything. The prostitutes said that most men needed to know what the pimps knew. A woman should occasionally be babied enough to show her the man had affection, but beyond that she should be treated firmly. These tough women said that it worked with them. All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak: they are attracted to the male in whom they see strength.

I think this passage is fairly typical of Malcolm's attitude:

Every month, when I went to Chicago, I would find that some sister had written complaining to Mr. Muhammad that I talked so hard against women when I taught our special classes about the different natures of the two sexes. Now, Islam has very strict laws and teachings about women, the core of them being that the true nature of man is to be strong, and a woman's true nature is to be weak, and while a man must at all times respect his woman, at the same time he needs to understand that he must control her if he expects to get her respect.

This sense that women are weak, and need to be made aware that they are weak, pretty much flows throughout the Autobiography. It was not an atypical thought at the time. But from The Autobiography, there is this sense that, even in the Nation, Malcolm was seen as particularly harsh in his views of women.

What's interesting about the weakness theme is that person in the book whom Malcolm has the most respect for, the character who comes out the cleanest, is his older sister Ella who is exactly the kind of "domineering" and "demanding" woman whom he seemingly detests. But his respect for her strength is quite clear:

Ella wasn't just black, but like our father, she was jet black. The way she sat, moved, talked, did everything, bespoke somebody who did and got exactly what she wanted. This was the woman my father had boasted of so often for having brought so many of their family out of Georgia to Boston. She owned some property, he would say, and she was "in society." She had come North with nothing, and she had worked and saved and had invested in property that she built up in value, and then she started sending money to Georgia for another sister, brother, cousin, niece or nephew to come north to Boston. All that I had heard was reflected in Ella's appearance and bearing. 

Ella is the last of Malcolm's siblings who converts to Islam. She also leaves the Nation before Malcolm does, comes back, and then leaves again:

I've said before, this is a strong big, black, Georgia-born woman. Her domineering ways had gotten her put out of the Nation of Islam's Boston Mosque Eleven; they took her back, then she left on her own. Ella had started studying under Boston orthodox Muslims, then she founded a school where Arabic was taught! She couldn't speak it, she hired teachers who did. That's Ella! She deals in real estate, and she was saving up to make the pilgrimage. Nearly all night, we talked in her living room. 

She told me there was no question about it; it was more important that I go. I thought about Ella the whole flight back to New York. A strong woman. She had broken the spirits of three husbands, more driving and dynamic than all of them combined. She had played a very significant role in my life. No other woman ever was strong enough to point me in directions; I pointed women in directions. I had brought Ella into Islam, and now she was financing me to Mecca.

Ella, at cost to herself, was directly responsible for Malcolm's hajj, the epiphany which followed, and the last step in Malcolm's evolution. Again, I don't insert Malcolm's relationship with Ella to clean him. To the contrary, I think it tells us something about the sexist mind, the human mind in general, oppression and respect.

A few months ago I wrote about gay marriage in the context of self-defense. The notion was that if you are gay, marriage rights, represent--among other things--the ability to protect you and your family. This is not just true of marriage rights, but any right. Voting rights are about self-defense, about preventing people from gaming the system so as to make your community more exploitable. What sets Ella apart, in Malcolm's eyes, is her economic power, and her will to accumulate that power. He still, in many ways, considers her indomitable will unnatural, and the chief cause of her failed marriages. But her power forces respect.

There are limits to this kind of thinking. That respect does not urge a fundamental rethinking of gender as a whole. Indeed, in his travels, Malcolm is blind to the gender oppression of Saudi Arabia (he says something like "women are almost invisible.") Moreover, it shows how people can set their mind to a prejudice, and make exceptions without altering course. It was almost as if to Malcolm, Ella wasn't really a woman.

More on this front tomorrow. I must confess that it was extremely hard to read those passages, and even to commit them down for this post. To have someone so important to my life take positions which I find abhorrent now, and many people found abhorrent then, is difficult. But of course the difficulty comes mainly from asking people to live for you, instead of focusing on your own problems, and thus living for yourself.

The picture is of Betty Shabazz and Malcolm's sister, Ella Collins. They had both just come from viewing his body in the morgue.
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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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