On the Side of My People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X. – book reviews
Hassan B. Sissay
On the Side of My People. A Religious Life Of Malcolm X. By Louis A. DeCaro Jr. (New York and London: New York University Press, 1996. Pp. 361. $29.95.)
This is probably the most definitive work to date on the controversial but celebrated civil rights advocate. Louis DeCaro is a skillful researcher and deserves the commendation of anyone who is interested in comprehending the phenomenal transformation of Malcolm X from a dope dealer, thug, and hustler to a major African American civil-rights leader. DeCaro discusses some familiar events in the life of Malcolm, including his difficult early childhood, his dose relationship to his parents, life in the streets, and conversion to the Nation of Islam (NOI). Also covered in detail is the pervasiveness of racism and discrimination in America at the turn of the century, including an analysis of the social ramifications of the influx of African Americans to urban centers.
The narrative examines how his father taught the young Malcolm to “embrace a black God, a black aim, and a black destiny.” The author depicts a son who was thoroughly influenced by his father’s constant and persistent struggle against racism and intolerance. The writer maintains that just before Malcolm’s birth, the family home in Omaha was attacked by members of the KKK. Malcolm’s experience with racism, racist institutions, and the controversial and racially motivated murder of his father were major contributing factors to his profound mistrust of the establishment and his pervasive anti-white rhetoric. He stated that “he was born in trouble,” and developed a complete disregard for the moral principles espoused by white America.
Malcolm hated religion and particularly Christianity because of its alleged inability to address satisfactorily the economic, social, and political needs of the African American community. The author provides an excellent review of events leading to Malcolm’s conversion to Islam while incarcerated, his recruitment of fellow inmates for the NOI, and initial correspondence and meeting in Chicago with the Nation’s leader, Prophet Elijah Muhammad. Furthermore, the author maintains that once Malcolm joined the NOI, he quickly became the rising star of that organization and dedicated considerable energy and time to promoting it. Among other things, Malcolm edited the Messenger Magazine, wrote a column entitled “God’s Angry Men,” and became the main propagandist and defender of the NOI. He visited university campuses to address students about Islam, was frequently called upon to give speeches in other Mosques or Temples, and intervened in disputes between NOI members and law-enforcement agencies.
Anxious to expand his knowledge of orthodox Muslim practice. Malcolm visited Mecca on a pilgrimage and subsequently underwent a major change in his view of whites. Once described as blue-eyed devils in his speeches, Malcolm discovered in Mecca that there were thousands of pilgrims from all over the world who were of all colors including white. According to DeCaro, Malcolm’s experience in Mecca was a turning point in his life and career. Thereafter, he reduced his racial rhetoric and embarked upon promoting the concept of unity and brotherhood among the Muslims of the world. In a subsequent visit to Egypt, Malcolm indicated that “there is no color prejudice among Muslims, for Islam teaches that all mortals are equal and brothers.”
Significantly, the author points out that the notion that the NOI was linked to the world body of Islam was Malcolm’s idea and not that of Elijah Muhammad. In fact, Malcolm not only called for the internationalization of Islam, he also advocated close links between African Americans and Africans. The two, he maintained, could unite and build a formidable world bloc. Malcolm believed that Africans would never gain international respectability until African Americans first gained respect and recognition in the United States.
The author notes that Malcolm established the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU)–patterned after the Organization of African Unity (OAU)–to focus on non-religious issues such as education, politics, economics, and community development. He attended the second OAU conference in Cairo as a representative of African Americans, and he used the opportunity to inform African heads of state about the plight of blacks in America. Subsequently, Malcolm toured African countries and had an audience with Africa’s premier nationalist, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. In Nigeria, a Muslim students’ organization gave him an award and also named him “Omwale,” meaning “the son has come home” in the Yoruba language.
Prior to his assassination, Malcolm formed “Muslim Mosque Incorporated” to correct past religious misinformation and promote orthodox Muslim practice. A Sudanese Imam, Shaykh Ahmed Hassoun, was assigned to serve as a missionary to Malcolm’s organization. His task was to help dispel the distorted image of Islam among Americans. Furthermore, Malcolm secured scholarships from the Cairo-based Supreme Council on Islamic Affairs for young African Americans.
Finally, there is an excellent discussion of reactions to Malcolm’s assassination by various groups and leading Americans in the epilogue entitled “Now He’s Gone.” Indeed, there is much information in this book for anyone interested in the fascinating history of Malcolm’s religious degeneration and regeneration. Although DeCaro’s text will undoubtedly take a major place among the volumes that focus on Malcolm X and other black civil-rights leaders, this reviewer has two minor criticisms. DeCaro should have avoided extensive narrative on previously published facts about Malcolm X’s early childhood experiences, and instead expanded on his promotion of better relations between Africans and African Americans. Also important and worthy of elaboration were Malcolm’s efforts to internationalize the NOI and how his attempts were frustrated by Elijah Muhammad. These criticisms notwithstanding, this book is a welcome addition to the literature on Malcolm X, and it belongs in every college library.
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