A twenty-year search by Bruce Perry for the historical Malcolm X has resulted in a more detailed and more intimate analysis of the famous black leader’s life than The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) by Roots author Alex Haley. In key respects, Perry’s book departs from and corrects the earlier work, which Haley wrote from Malcolm’s own memories. From the quotidian details of Malcolm’s life to the larger issues of his father’s death and Malcolm’s self-image, Perry provides a quite different picture. Yet, the two works complement each other by providing varying insights into the complex character of the man hailed by many as the quintessential spokesman for black nationalism pride.
Malcolm X, Perry argues, was shaped by his troubled childhood and youth. The son of a self-ordained Garveyite Baptist preacher who abused his family, young Malcolm knew little of the security which a happy childhood requires. His father, Earl Little, failed to tell his second wife, Louisa, about an earlier marriage and three children he had left without notice or financial provision. The daughter of a Scottish father and a Grenadan mother, Louisa followed Earl Little from place to place and job to job in the early days of their marriage. Montreal, Philadelphia, Omaha, and Lansing, Michigan were temporary homes for the Littles as Earl drifted without any apparent plan. Malcolm was born in 1925 in Omaha, where Louisa gave birth also to Philbert and Hilda. Attracted to the ideas of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, Earl Little became involved with the Omaha branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which Garvey had founded in his native Jamaica in 1914 and transplanted in the United States by the end of World War I. This was the closest thing to a sense of belonging that Malcolm found during his childhood.
Resistance by the Ku Klux Klan in Omaha was, according to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, one of the factors that prompted Earl to take his family to Milwaukee shortly after Malcolm’s birth. This was not true, Perry notes, although Earl did move his family from Omaha, and eventually to Lansing, Michigan. This migratory pattern was not the only problem that undermined young Malcolm Little’s sense of security. There was also tension related to his light skin color. His mother, whose parentage bequeathed her a fair complexion, emphasized that she was West Indian, not African American, and at times vigorously scrubbed Malcolm’s face and confessed to a white friend that if she bathed him enough she could “make him look almost white…” Yet, she encouraged Malcolm to play in the sun to darken his skin lest he think he was superior because of his fair color. According to Perry, this ambivalence left a mark on the boy’s psyche. Neither parent consistently approved of him. Malcolm felt that his mother saw her own light skin as evidence of her illegitimacy and his as a constant reminder of that.
Many other painful experiences dogged the steps of Malcolm. When he was only five years old his father died in Lansing. According to the autobiography prepared by Haley, Earl Little was killed by racists in the Black Legion, white men wearing black robes and hoods, who left him on a streetcar track to be crushed. Perry’s research indicates that Earl’s death was accidental, that he fell under the wheels of a streetcar. He suffered a partially severed leg and other injuries and died despite medical efforts to save him. Earl had frequently beaten his wife and otherwise abused her and the children, but his death became, somewhat ironically, further reason for Malcolm to be sensitized to problems of racial identity and the seeming hopelessness of his young life.
The young boy with such inauspicious beginnings experienced little relief. His mother Louisa suffered mental illness and was institutionalized when Malcolm was fourteen. Other disappointments, including failure in his effort to become a prizefighter, caused him to withdraw into an isolated world of his own. Rebellion against authority symbols, argues Perry, caused further difficulties that eventually drew him into a life of street crime and even prostitution.
His dreams of becoming a boxer, then an attorney, or a writer, all eluded him. In foster homes and often on the streets, he had little sense of direction, but he retained a strong desire to be somebody important. By the end of World War II, he had been involved in break-ins and other crimes, including homosexual prostitution. In Boston in 1946, where he lived with his half- sister Ella, he was arrested during a break-in attempt. By his own admission, which Perry takes seriously, Malcolm wanted to be stopped and courted arrest.
Malcolm was sentenced to a ten-year prison term but was paroled in 1952, two years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that triggered the Civil Rights movement. During the postwar period when black leaders were beginning to articulate their demands for reform, Malcolm was educating himself in prison. There he came into contact with the Lost-Found Nation of Islam movement led...
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