The Autobiography of Malcom X and Me

The five to nine regular readers of this blog will be well aware of my love for public radio. My mornings are often filled with podcasts produced by PRI, NPR and other such public radio providers. One of my favorite shows is Studio 360. Every week I forgive Kurt Anderson for his gushing over New York City and settle into an hour of mostly interesting discussions on music, art, books and other forms of human expression.

This week’s show focused entirely on The Autobiography of Malcom X written with Alex Haley (Roots). For nearly an hour, Anderson and Co. interviewed many different people about their response to this historical work. The program was pretty in depth and thorough, exploring how the book was created, the reaction by the public at the time and it’s legacy with family members, radical activists, Chuck D and even a dude from that stupid Tea Party (which is actually a fairly articulate, if totally misguided expression). I could not help but remember this book and my own history with it. As this blog is taking a bit of a detour of the topic of music these days, I figured I would rant out here and encourage the 4-7 readers I have to go check out both the book and the Studio 360 show.

I was in the 12th grade when I first read The Autobiography of Malcom X. As awesome as my 11th grade history teacher, Douglas Graney is, I did not read this book during his History Class, nor did I read it for my Political Science course I took with him the following year. Instead, I had enrolled my self in an African Studies class for one of my Senior Year electives.

I was not, at that time interested in Hip-Hop at all. I did love the films of Spike Lee and John Singleton and the Huges Brothers. They made my favorite movies, but that was the extent of my black facination as a suburban white boy. My desire to take a class in African studies was to understand a continent in a context beyond a shopping mall for slave owners. In my short 17 years at that point, Africa was a continent I knew almost nothing about.

I found myself in a class of mostly black young boys, some of them I knew, others I had never met before. There was one other white kid in the class, dressed more the part for black facination then your’s truly (I had waist length hair and listened to Green Day). We did learn quite a bit about tribalism, the different countires, politics and make-up of Africa. It was pretty cool actually. I also learned a lot about a segment of my highschool population I had almost no interaction with whatso ever. It was quite a learning experience both historically and personally.

Our project for the year was to read a book related to Africa or African Americans. The problem with this project is that we were not provided with a suggested reading list. All, but one person read The Autobiography of Malcom X. This was a pretty telling point in it’s own way. I think for everyone in the class, it was the opportunity to delve into a “subversive” topic in American History. I am sure, my experience in that class room tells me actually, that many of those young, black men were attempting to conect with a context that they had not been presented before now. They got to chose their educational path, and their foundation for this learning was laid down by this book.

Even by that point, I knew that education had failed me, despite going to one of the most well funded public school systems in this country. But to see 22 or 23 black kids unconciously but collectively decide that this was the history lesson they wanted to know was eye opening beyond belief. I extracted more from listening to those kids then I did actually reading the book, and I read the shit out of that book. It’s a compelling tale of poverty, fun, sin, redemption, anger, education, love and learning. But, that class room for the three weeks we all gave our oral presentations and then discussed that book was some of the most enriching learning I have ever experienced.

Listening to Kurt Anderson’s report made me wish I was more of a reader. To this day, there are only about three other books that I could add to a reading list for that class. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang mirrors itself with the alagories of Hip-Hop but is so much about poverty and how it largely effected black communities that it should be read by all kids in highschool. Go Tell It On The Mountain is the only book by James Baldwin I have read to date, but it was so burning and essential. I feel I have failed myself in not taking more time out for James Baldwin. What is the What is a controversial book by Dave Eggers, but while it is not a true biography, Eggers immagination injected into the life of Valentino Achak Deng is a great read (I actually listned to this book and didn’t “read” it in traditional context, but whatever).

My study of history and politics pretty much ended in highschool. In college I moved on to Woman’s Studies where I read Jamcia Kincaid and Julia Alvarez because history seems to forget women too. Highschool taught me enough to know that I don’t know nothing. The Autobiography of Malcolm X may be one of the most important books I was ever exposed to, not because of the content or what I extracted out of it, but what so many of my peers did, and what they shared with me.

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