‘It’s the hinge that squeaks that gets the grease.’
Sand nigger. I was 15 years old the first time I heard this racial slur. An Aussie with long brown hair and pasty white skin, who was drunk, screamed at me from across the road while I was walking to the local manoush shop for breakfast. It was December 2001 and I was studying at Punchbowl Boys High School—a scrawny second-gen Leb growing up in the ethno-slums of Sydney. Three months earlier, two airplanes hijacked by Muslim terrorists had crashed into the World Trade Centre. Twelve months earlier, Australian news media had been dominated by reports of ‘Lebanese-Muslim’ gang rapists plaguing Sydney’s streets (Abdallah, pp. 26–7). And three years earlier, I had seen the first reports in Australian newspapers and on TV news networks about local ‘Middle Eastern’ and ‘Muslim’ thugs involved in drugs, murders, theft and drive-by shootings (Collins et al., pp. 1–10). However, despite what the news headlines were saying about people like me at the time, I wasn’t interested in terrorism, sexual assault and organised crime. I was interested in reading. I spent my evenings and weekends consuming the great works of Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Hemingway, Joyce, Flaubert, Shakespeare, Austen, Charlotte Brontë and Mary Shelley. My teachers assured me that I would find myself within the pages.
The morning I was called a sand nigger, while I was reading Lolita at recess, searching for rust and stardust, a dark-skinned Palestinian boy called me a house nigger. ‘You won’t find yourself in those books,’ he said. ‘You’ll hate yourself.’ Two n-words in one day—the first insinuated that I was too Arab and the second insinuated that I wasn’t Arab enough. The Aussie and the Palestinian had my attention. I headed straight to the school library and pulled from the shelf the first book I found with a man of colour on the cover: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It was 115,000 words by African-American civil rights leader Malcolm X and African-American journalist Alex Haley, published in 1965. I read it with the same passion you might imagine of any radical young Muslim: no family, no friendship, no girlfriend (or boyfriend), no food, no television, no PlayStation and no sleep until I had entirely absorbed each sentence. As an Arab-Australian, I could now hear Malcolm’s voice inside my head, dismantling the politics of race around me, and as a Muslim who could trace his roots back to fifth-century Mecca, I could suddenly feel Malcolm’s spirit weaving itself through my history, as the original message of the Prophet Muhammad paved the way for one of the most important civil rights leaders who ever lived. Malcolmites found Muhammadans, Arab-Australians found Malcolmites, and I found a black star and a crescent moon rising over the suburbs of Western Sydney.
• • •
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is always accompanied by the subtitle ‘With the assistance of Alex Haley’ or ‘As told to Alex Haley’. It is simultaneously an autobiography and a biography, involving both the autobiographer, Malcolm X, and the biographer, Alex Haley. In his epilogue, which in some editions appears as a foreword, Haley details the nature of his collaboration with Malcolm X. Having already conducted a series of interviews with Malcolm, Haley was asked by a publisher if he felt he could get the now nationally known firebrand to consent to telling the intimate details of his entire life. In the context of this request, it occurred to Haley that very little was known about Malcolm, aside from some passing comments the minister had made during speeches and interviews regarding his criminal history and jail time before joining the black nationalist movement called the Nation of Islam (NOI), under the leadership of an ‘apostle’ named Elijah Muhammad (X and Haley, 1992, p. 443). Haley writes that Malcolm X was suspicious about the offer to produce an autobiography at first, and took two days to make the following decision: ‘I’ll agree. I think my life story may help people to appreciate better how Mr. Muhammad salvages black people. But I don’t want my motives for this misinterpreted by anybody—the Nation of Islam must get every penny that might come to me’ (1992, p. 444). After signing the contract, Haley claims that Malcolm X immediately pulled from his wallet a piece of paper and read to him:
This book I dedicate to The Honourable Elijah Muhammad, who found me here in America in the muck and mire of the filthiest civilisation and society on this earth, and pulled me out, cleaned me up, and stood me on my feet, and made me the man I am today.’ (1992, p. 445)
Haley then goes on to describe the additional agreements between him and Malcolm: he would not be allowed to write anything that Malcolm did not say, or leave out anything that Malcolm wanted in, and that in return Malcolm would give him all the time he requested to produce the 100,000-word ‘as told to’ story of his entire life. Haley also requested that he be allowed to include comments of his own about the text (1992, pp. 445–6).
The chronological narrative presented by Malcolm X and Alex Haley in The Autobiography of Malcolm X takes us from Malcolm’s birth to his early schooling, his criminal activities, his incarceration, his involvement with the NOI, and finally to his split with the NOI and his journey to Mecca. The Autobiography opens with the voice of a figure, whom we understand to be Malcolm X, describing the events of his childhood, while moving from Omaha, Nebraska, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and to Lansing, Michigan, when he was known as ‘Malcolm Little’. Malcolm X explains how as a young boy he’d cry when things weren’t going his way: ‘I had learned that if you want something, you better make some noise’ (1992, p. 11). This presents an opportunity for us to distinguish between Malcolm X as a narrator and Malcolm X / Malcolm Little as a character separate to Malcolm X as the real-life figure who existed outside The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In the early stages of the story, narrator Malcolm X is consciously establishing the distinct personality trait of character Malcolm X / Malcolm Little as a demanding, whingy child to foreground the emergence of the loud, outspoken black civil rights leader who is consciously and directly speaking to his reader.
Narrator Malcolm X explains that after his father was brutally and suspiciously murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan, his mother failed in her efforts to support her eight children and was sent to a mental institution. The children were separated and Malcolm Little was placed in a detention home in Mason, Michigan. Narrator Malcolm X explains that the ‘good white people’ (1992, p. 31) who ran the detention home unknowingly treated him and spoke to him as though he were an animal:
They would talk about anything and everything with me standing right there hearing them, the same way people would talk freely in front of a pet canary … what I am trying to say is that it just never dawned upon them that I could understand, that I wasn’t a pet, but a human being. (1992, p. 32)
It is during these years living in the detention home that narrator Malcolm X identifies one of the most important incidents of his youth. He is the only student of colour in his class and his grades are among the highest in the school. He has been elected class president and has ambitions of becoming a lawyer when his teacher confronts him: ‘“Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all like you here, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer—that’s no realistic goal for a nigger”’ (1992, p. 43). Completely disheartened by the experience, and with white people in general, narrator Malcolm X explains how he left the detention home to live with his older, ‘big, black, outspoken and impressive’ sister, Ella, in Boston (1992, p. 47).
From here he moved on to Harlem, where as a teenager he was introduced to crime, becoming a drug-dealer, thief and pimp. In the following chapters, narrator Malcolm X often interpolates the events of these years with critical analyses of the individuals and communities he encountered as a young man. He describes, for example, the perverse nature of his white male clients, explaining that some of them, particularly those who were impotent, would pay him to find a black man they could watch have sex with a white woman. ‘A sleek, black Negro male having a white woman. Was this the white man wanting to witness his deepest sexual fear?’ (1992, p. 138). This question reveals the analytical persona of the text’s narrator—a civil rights leader who consciously provides racial, social and cultural criticism of the events in his teenage years as an enlightened adult witness.
Narrator Malcolm X is also critical of himself during this time: ‘I was a true hustler—uneducated, unskilled at anything honourable, and I considered myself nervy and cunning enough to live by my wits, exploiting any prey that presented itself’ (1992, p. 125). Here we experience simultaneously a self-disgusted and self-reflective ‘Malcolm X’ figure and a proud, naive ‘Malcolm Little’ figure, presenting a critical contrast between the narrator who speaks to us in the present and the character of himself in the past.
Following a string of burglaries, character Malcolm Little and his best friend Shorty were finally arrested and convicted. The year was 1946 and Malcolm was 20. Narrator Malcolm X suggests, using very careful wording, that his and Shorty’s prison sentences of ten years were the result of their being arrested while in the company of two white women they had been sexing. ‘Later, when I learned the full truth about the white man, I reflected many times that the average burglary sentence for a first offender, as we all were, was about two years. But we weren’t going to get the average—not for our crimes’ (1992, p. 173).
Ironically, unjust imprisonment is the empowering moment for character Malcolm Little in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I believe that there are three elements in the Malcolm X narrative that explain his prison transformation from ‘true hustler’ to ‘enlightened witness’: first, a self-determined education focused on the development of literacy; second, conversion to a black nationalist reinvention of Islam called the Nation of Islam; and third, a paternal relationship with the NOI leader, a small and unassuming man named ‘The Honourable Elijah Muhammad’.
Narrator Malcolm X claims to have first heard about the teachings of Elijah Muhammad through his siblings during their routine prison visits. He was immediately struck by the teachings, which promised liberation to the black man, but he could not effectively communicate his enthusiasm to the outside world. ‘I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters that I wrote, especially those to Mr. Elijah Muhammad’ (1992, p. 197). This led character Malcolm Little to develop what narrator Malcolm X refers to as a ‘homemade education’ (1992, p. 197), which started with the very first word in the English dictionary, ‘Aardvark’ (1992, p. 199).
Narrator Malcolm X recounts how he trawled through the dictionary, from start to finish, copying out each word and its meaning. This strengthened his penmanship and broadened his vocabulary. ‘I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying’ (1992, p. 199). Character Malcolm Little read extensively throughout the remainder of his time in prison, from H.G. Wells to W.E.B. Du Bois to Aesop. He also joined the prison debating team, in a desperate attempt to begin sharing what he had learned with those around him. ‘My reading had my mind like steam under pressure. Someway, I had to start telling the white man about himself to his face’ (1992, p. 112).
Although we cannot sufficiently examine the multiple factors that shaped real-life Malcolm X’s transformation from criminal to civil rights leader separately from one another, The Autobiography does emphasise the unique importance of literacy as a tool for reforming racially marginalised and oppressed communities in the United States and around the world. In the 1997 documentary bell hooks: Cultural Criticism and Transformation, African-American feminist, activist and writer bell hooks states that, ‘If we look at someone like Malcolm X, he charts his own intellectual development through reading.’ This claim is easily demonstrated in The Autobiography:
Every book I picked up had few sentences which didn’t contain anywhere from one to nearly all of the words that might as well have been Chinese. When I skipped those words of course, I really ended up with little idea of what the book said … I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words. (1992, p. 198)
Living in a country where young people are basically forced to ‘read’ throughout 13 years of school, I could certainly respect character Malcolm Little’s desire and self-determined approach to improve his reading ability, but I found myself asking, is literacy simply a dictionary exercise? If so, then why isn’t every Australian youth a critically conscious civil rights activist by the time they finish high school?
In bell hooks: Cultural Criticism and Transformation, hooks goes on to argue that, ‘We cannot begin to talk about freedom and justice in any culture if we’re not talking about mass-based literacy movements because … degrees of literacy determine so often how we see what we see.’ For hooks, ‘critical awareness’ and ‘enlightenment’ are core functions of what it means to be literate, and can be recognised as central components of character Malcolm Little’s intellectual development: ‘No university would ask any student to devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me, of being able to read and understand’ (1992, p. 200). In this way, narrator Malcolm X extends the meaning of literacy from the activity of putting words together to the ability to deconstruct and critically respond to the information embedded within the words. This method of ‘understanding’ intentionally propels the Malcolm Little character within the scene towards the Malcolm X narrator who directly addresses us. Suddenly I could see the difference between forcing a student to read and teaching a student to think.
• • •
Throughout my upbringing, stories that emphasised and celebrated the power and significance of literacy were entrenched in my Arab-Australian Muslim household, which was so close to Australia’s largest mosque that I could regularly hear the Grand Mufti calling us to prayer. Beginning in the year AD 610, the Muslim Prophet Muhammad from the age of 40 is said to have received verses and revelations from Allah (God) through the Angel Gibreel (Gabriel) for a period of 23 years. The topics of these verses included theology, history, philosophy, economics, politics, science and nature, and they became the complete text that we now know to be The Holy Qur’an.
The Qur’an is formally regarded as Muhammad’s miracle because it was received and recited as a mercy to humankind from a man known to be illiterate. Not only the content but also the poetic wording of that content, which Muslim scholars argue can only be fully appreciated in the Arabic language that it was originally recited, was considered miraculous. In a biography on the Prophet Muhammad by Tariq Ramadan, In the Footsteps of the Prophet (2006), it is suggested that Muhammad had been illiterate until the age of 40. One night while he was meditating in the cave of Hira, the Angel Gibreel appeared before him with a message from God. ‘Muhammad. Read,’ said the Angel. Muhammad replied, ‘I am not of those who read.’ And Gibreel repeated, ‘Read in the name of your Lord, Who created humankind out of a clinging clot. Read, and your Lord is most bountiful, He who taught by means of the pen, taught humankind that which they did not know’ (Ramadan, p. 29). Some theorists argue, however, that this story does not literally mean Muhammad could not read (in the basic sense of the word), but rather that Muhammad had no particular flare with words:
The fact is that it would be highly unlikely for a successful merchant like Muhammad to have been unable to read and write the receipts of his own business. Obviously, he was neither a scribe nor a scholar, and he in no way had the verbal prowess of a poet. But he must have been able to read and write some basic Arabic—names, dates, goods, services—and, considering that many of his customers were Jews, he may even have had rudimentary skills in Aramaic. (Aslan, p. 29)
Here, Reza Aslan’s No God but God (2005) proposes a radical redefinition of the term ‘illiterate’. When Muhammad said to the Angel Gibreel, ‘I am not of those who read’, rather than mean that he did not recognise alphabetic and numeric symbols, he may have been suggesting that he was not among those scribes, scholars and poets who are masterful in their use of the Arabic language. For the Prophet Muhammad, literacy was far more than joining the Arabic alphabet together—it was the ability to craft, command and weave the Arabic language into a new belief system. This parallels the way we might understand the definition of literacy in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Character Malcolm Little had attained some basic reading and writing skills during his early schooling, but he did not become literate until his prison studies led him to what hooks calls ‘critical consciousness’ (2004, p. 28), and led him to a mastery of the English language, especially as an orator.
The narrative of the Prophet Muhammad’s life does not only explain the origins of his revelations, it is also a revelation in itself. In ‘Surat Al-‘Alaq’ from the Qur’an, Allah endows Muhammad with the ability to read (recite) and affirms the transference of knowledge as a divine force. ‘Read, for your Lord is most bountiful, who taught by means of the pen, taught humankind that which they did not know’ (Surah 96: 4–5). Here the ‘pen’ attains a supernatural and transcendent energy, equal in its power to the staff of Moses or the ark of Noah, with the ability to transform and liberate. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, it is this same ‘pen’ that transforms and liberates character Malcolm Little during the process of converting to Islam. Indeed, real-life Malcolm X did not only adopt the Muslim religion, he also adopted the Muslim tradition—tapping into a narrative about the miraculous properties of literacy that had been established by the followers of Muhammad 1500 years earlier. Narrator Malcolm X even seems to testify to this in the second half of his narrative, stating, ‘I silently vowed to Allah that I never would forget that any wings I wore had been put on by the religion of Islam’ (1992, p. 331).
This brings me to the second factor that contributed to Malcolm X’s prison transformation—his conversion to Islam. However, it is important to note here that the first version of Islam that character Malcolm Little adopted, while under the guidance of the Honourable Elijah Muhammad, differed significantly from traditional and orthodox Muslim beliefs. Founded by the elusive Wallace Fard Muhammad, the ‘Nation of Islam’ began as a small movement in Detroit in the early 1930s. Fard claimed to be from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and of royal parentage (Clegg, p. 20). His teachings drew from the Christian Bible and the Muslim Qur’an, emphasised black power and black separation, and claimed that the true nature of the black man was inherently righteous and the true nature of the white man was inherently wicked.
A man known as Elijah Poole, originally from Cordele, Georgia, had been regularly attending Fard Muhammad’s meetings at the time. It is said that during their first face-to-face encounter, Elijah lent into Fard’s ear and asked, ‘You are that one we read in the Bible that he would come in the last days under the name Jesus … You are that one?’ Fard replied, ‘Yes, I am the One, but who knows that but yourself, and be quiet’ (Clegg, pp. 20–2). Soon after, Fard Muhammad appointed Elijah Poole as his Supreme Minister, in preparation for leadership of the Nation of Islam. Then in 1934, while awaiting arrest on charges of disturbing the peace, Fard decided to leave Chicago. He declared Elijah Poole the ‘Messenger of Allah’ under the ‘original name’ of ‘Elijah Muhammad’ before he vanished. ‘The last words and handshakes were exchanged in an airport terminal, following over thirty months of instruction and friendship. For Elijah, the final moments were as pregnant with mystery and symbolism as the first, as the man he knew as Fard Muhammad, the second Jesus, the Mahdi, the Son of Man, and Allah in Person soared into the Chicago sky’ (Clegg, pp. 34–6).
In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, narrator Malcolm X explains that it was his siblings who first introduced him to the religion of the Nation of Islam: ‘My brothers and sisters in Detroit and Chicago had all become converted to what they were being taught was the “natural religion for the black man”’ (1992, p. 181). While character Malcolm Little was in jail, his siblings wrote him letters and visited him, promising they could get him out of prison. At first character Malcolm Little interpreted this literally, assuming they had planned a prison ‘hustle’. He was shocked to discover the abstract nature of the prison from which they could release him—the prison of his mind (X and Haley, 1992, p. 180).
They explained to him that God in the form of a man, named Master W.D. Fard, had delivered a message to Elijah Muhammad for the black people who were ‘the Lost-Found Nation of Islam here in this wilderness of North America’ (X and Haley, 1992, p. 187). They told him that this man was black. God was black! This had a tremendous psychological impact on character Malcolm Little, his siblings and the thousands of other African-American converts represented in the autobiographical narrative of Malcolm X. To embrace the vision of God as black after having been raised in a society that stressed for centuries that God was white, as depicted in the Renaissance portraits of Jesus, completely reversed the symbolic status of the ‘black’ and ‘white’ races in America.
Narrator Malcolm X recounts the theological narrative at the centre of the NOI religion that his siblings taught him during their prison visits—a story propagated by Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad that was influenced by Christianity, Islam and Black Nationalism called ‘Yacub’s History’ (1992, pp. 190–4). To begin, narrator Malcolm X explains, the moon separated from the earth, then the first people were created, who were black. They were the ‘Original Man’ and the ‘Nation of Islam’, founders of the Holy City of Mecca. Among them was the powerful Tribe of Shabazz, from which the African-Americans descended. ‘More than anywhere else in the story, the purpose here was to invent a mythical past that would appeal to African-Americans more than tales of African savagery and American bondage that many believed to be their sole roots’ (Clegg, p. 45). Narrator Malcolm X goes on to introduce Yacub, a mad scientist with an unusually big head, embittered towards Allah, who used recessive-gene structure to breed into existence a devil race—a bleached-out white race of people, the natural enemy of the righteous Tribe of Shabazz (1992, pp. 191–4).
The way in which real-life Malcolm X originally narrated the story of ‘Yacub’s History’ for his autobiography, in which he recounts it as a series of historical facts, leaves the impression that he undoubtedly believed in Elijah Muhammad’s teachings at the time that he shared them with Alex Haley. However, The Autobiography of Malcolm X also begins to dissect Elijah Muhammad’s teachings. After recounting ‘Yacub’s History’, narrator Malcolm X states: ‘I was to learn later that Elijah Muhammad’s tales, like this one of “Yacub”, infuriated the Muslims of the East’ (1992, p. 194). Here we are introduced to an older, future Malcolm X figure, who appears in the text to reveal some clues about the story to come—character Malcolm Little will be confronted with an opposing set of Islamic values and beliefs that will challenge his earlier convictions. He refers to ‘Yacub’s History’ as a ‘tale’, which implies that at some point during the development of the autobiography he no longer saw it as ‘The Truth’. Will he adopt a different form of Islam? Will he come into conflict with his new leader? These are questions that narrator Malcolm X wants us to ask as we read.
The Autobiography’s foreshadowing technique in this segment of the book also helps establish that Elijah Muhammad’s opponents were not only white supremacists and black integrationists; there was strong opposition from other Muslims too. Herbert Berg mentions some of these Muslim opponents in a biography on Elijah Muhammad from a series called Makers of the Muslim World (2013). They included African-American Orthodox Muslim converts and Muslim immigrants from the Arab Middle East such as Talib Ahmad Dawud, Jamil Daib and Ahmadiyya Adib Nuru-din. Between 1959 and 1962 each of these men argued that Elijah Muhammad was a fake, that his teachings were absurd, and that his movement was not a part of Islam. During his public debates with these critics, Elijah Muhammad is said to have often moved the argument from the theological to the personal. For example, he claimed that Dawud’s wife, who was a singer, dressed immodestly and shared with the world her filthy blues (Berg, 2013, pp. 121, 123). Berg offers a simple explanation as to why Elijah Muhammad responded in this way:
Elijah Muhammad may have relied heavily on personal attacks because these Muslim critics had centuries of traditional Islamic doctrine on their side. In many cases they knew the Qur’an better than he, and no doubt surpassed his knowledge of the Sunna and the sira. And his usual trump card, his unique access to Allah, held no value with these opponents. (2013, p. 123)
Although The Autobiography of Malcolm X does not identify the opponents of Elijah Muhammad and the NOI as specifically as Berg, narrator Malcolm X does recall his own early confrontations with orthodox Muslims in America. He claims that after he left jail and became a minister and a spokesperson for the NOI, he often encountered a number of ‘true’ Muslims who challenged the authenticity of his religious beliefs. Within the black-and-white motif that runs through The Autobiography, which often leaves very little room for different shades of brown, these Muslims could not be pigeonholed as either ‘black’ or ‘white’.
At one or another college or university, usually in the informal gatherings after I had spoken, perhaps a dozen generally white-complexioned people would come up to me, identifying themselves as Arabian, Middle Eastern or North African Muslims who happened to be visiting, studying or living in the United States. They had said to me that, my white-indicting statements notwithstanding, they felt I was sincere in considering myself a Muslim—and they felt if I was exposed to what they called ‘true Islam’, I would ‘understand it, and embrace it’. (1992, p. 366)
This was the moment I saw myself in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I was raised in one of Australia’s Arab households, where we regularly switched between speaking fluent English and fluent Arabic: ‘Salaam alaikum brother.’ I was frequently reminded through the stories and memories of my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles that we were originally from Lebanon and Syria—‘We went to school with Hassan Nasrallah.’ And I was acutely aware of my Muslim identity and history every time my name was called out, ‘Mohammed’ and ‘Ahmad’. My ‘generally white complexion’, which seemed to be narrator Malcolm X’s descriptor for the olive skin colour of many Arabs, was also a reminder that I was neither a white man—Anglo-Saxon/European/Caucasian, nor a black man—African/Indigenous. As I read the so-called ‘Muslim’ beliefs of the Nation of Islam, such as those of ‘Yucab’s History’, I sympathised with my fellow Arabians, Middle Easterners and North Africans who approached character Malcolm X to set the record straight on the faith of our ancestors.
The first and most fundamental pillar of orthodox Islam is the Shahadat, a declaration that states, ‘There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.’ The first section of this, ‘no god but God’, rejects both the Christian doctrine of God as man (Jesus Christ) and ancient polytheistic idolatry, which avowed that God and gods can be represented in statues, images and objects. In an attempt to prevent the future worship of men and idols, these beliefs resulted in a strict culture of aniconism—a complete prohibition of visual representations of Allah, Muhammad and a number of other spiritual figures in Islam. The second section of the Shahadat, ‘Muhammad is the Messenger of God’, is a proclamation that following from the lineage of Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, Muhammad Ibn Abdullah, who was born in AD 570, was Allah’s final messenger and following from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, the Qur’an was Allah’s final message.
The Shahadat alone made it easy for orthodox Muslims to dismiss the beliefs of the NOI, since Fard Muhammad could not claim to be Allah, and Elijah Muhammad could not claim to be a messenger of Allah under traditional Islamic doctrine. Nevertheless, while I fundamentally rejected the religious claims of the so-called Black Muslims in America, I also recognised why the beliefs of the NOI were originally more suited to the character of Malcolm Little than was the orthodox Islam I had learned in an Arab-Muslim household. Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad’s hybrid Islam was specifically designed to empower a people whose languages, cultures and histories had been torn away from them: ‘You don’t even know who you are … the white devil has hidden it from you, that you are a race of people of ancient civilisations, and riches in gold and kings’ (X and Haley, 1992, p. 186).
In The Autobiography, narrator Malcolm X explains that the dominant US religion, Christianity, had been transformed into an organised white-washed faith. ‘The teachings of Mr. Muhammad stressed how history had been “whitened”—when white men had written history books, the black man simply had been left out’ (1992, p. 201). Character Malcolm Little first identifies this pattern by deconstructing the classic Renaissance portrayals of Jesus, in which he is painted as a blond-haired, blue-eyed, white-skinned man. He began to contest the ‘whitening’ of history in debates about the complexion of Jesus during his final years in prison, with one example where he had come up against a tall, blond, blued-eyed Harvard seminary student who lectured in Bible class.
I stood up and asked, ‘What color was Paul?’ And I kept talking, with pauses, ‘He had to be black … because he was a Hebrew … and the original Hebrews were black … weren’t they?’ He started flushing red. You know the way white people do. He said ‘Yes.’ I wasn’t through yet. ‘What color was Jesus … he was Hebrew, too … wasn’t he?’ Both the Negro and the white convicts had sat bolt upright. I don’t care how tough the convict, be he brainwashed black Christian, or a ‘devil’ white Christian, neither of them is ready to hear anybody saying Jesus wasn’t white. (1992, p. 219)
In this interaction, we can see how adopting Islam, orthodox or unorthodox, was a frightening political gesture for African-Americans. Rather than rejecting Jesus, character Malcolm Little and the ‘Black Muslim’ members of the NOI could deploy Islamic ideology to access Jesus in a new and empowering way.
To appreciate the liberating force that ‘Islam’ had presented for character Malcolm Little, one needs to recognise the devastatating influence that White Jesus plays in shaping the psychologies of people of colour. In the early chapters of The Autobiography, we learn about the physical attempts that character Malcolm Little and other African-Americans made at ‘whitening’ themselves. Narrator Malcolm X describes the details involved in ‘conking’ his hair while he was a ‘homeboy’ on the streets of Harlem. Conking was the act of ‘relaxing’ a black person’s thick curly hair to straighten like a white person’s hair, and was achieved by applying burning chemicals such as lye to the scalp.
When character Malcolm Little began this practice, his best friend Shorty said, ‘Damn right it’s hot, that’s the lye … So you know it’s going to burn when I comb it in—it burns bad. But the longer you can stand it, the straighter the hair’ (1992, p. 63). Narrator Malcolm X describes conking as though it was an act of torture: ‘I gritted my teeth and tried to pull the sides of the kitchen table together. The comb felt as if it was raking my skin off’ (1992, p. 63). What drives a person to such self-inflicted violence? Narrator Malcolm X continues to provide retrospective critiques of his own behaviour to frame and contextualise the racial, social and political setting of his autobiography:
This was the first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are ‘inferior’—and white people ‘superior’—that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try and look ‘pretty’ by white standards. (1992, p. 64)
In this passage, narrator Malcolm X presents the practice of conking or ‘whitening’ a person of colour’s hair as a symptom of the broader ideology that ‘black is not beautiful’. The construction of God in the form of an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving white male thus sets a standard for what we should all aspire to be and to have, including His straight golden hair.
There are many factors in the orthodox Islamic religion that counteract the Western and American representations of Jesus/God as a white male. In Islam, Jesus is believed to be the prophet of God, not God or the Son of God, and since prophets from Abraham to Moses to Jesus to Muhammad had originated from Arabia and Africa, there was no debate among Muslims that these men were the same in appearance as any other Middle Eastern and African men. Most importantly, Islam, as a religion steeped in aniconism, forbade the representation of any of the prophets and of God, including Jesus, to prevent the worship of men, images and idols.
In recent years, support for offensive depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in the cartoons created by a Danish cartoonist in 2005, in the low-budget internet film/trailer Innocence of Muslims in 2012 and in Charlie Hebdo in 2015 have revealed that it is very difficult for many Westerners to understand aniconism as anything but an infringement on their freedom of speech. However, in the case of the Black Muslim movement, we see how aniconism offers alternative forms of freedom. For Malcolm Little and thousands of other African-Americans, adopting some of the principal philosophies of Islam was an empowering and liberating resistance to white supremacist propaganda that had been effectively used against them for hundreds of years.
• • •
Between 1998 and 2005, all Arab-Australian Muslims had been racialised, demonised and othered by the dominant white Australian public, media and politicians in relation to a series of crimes and antisocial activities throughout Sydney, including drug dealing, drive-by shootings, gang rapes and terrorist conspiracies. Take for example the Daily Telegraph’s description of the 14 young men who had been convicted of the 2000 Skaf gang rapes: ‘The gang rapists, Australian-born Lebanese Muslims roamed Sydney hunting for non-Muslim teenage girls they regarded as “Aussie sluts”’ (Devine). My concern here is not that the young men had been wrongfully convicted (indeed they were guilty), but that the white Australian news media had intentionally and shamelessly constructed the crimes as an issue of race and religion. This derailed the overwhelming evidence that gang rapes and sexual assaults are socially rather than ethnically conditioned, perpetrated by all cultural groups in Australia (Collins et al., p. 9).
While the cultural group under scrutiny during this time was collectively being labelled as ‘Lebanese’, and hence imagined as a foreign menace in Australia, anthropologist Ghassan Hage observes that the identities of these young men, and the broader community from which they emerged, were uniquely products of Australia, and therefore uniquely Australian:
The cultural forms exhibited by some Lebanese-Australian youths … that became generalised as ‘Lebanese behaviour’ and irked so many people were clearly a hybrid formation: the forms of working or under-class masculinity that were put on show were a touch Lebanese, but nothing that you can find exhibited in this way in Lebanon, except perhaps among Lebanese Australians living in Lebanon! They also contained a touch of the black and Latino American cultural subaltern hype that has been globalised by the mass media through the propagation of particular types of music, clothing, walking, etc. (Hage, p. 197)
I am particularly interested in Hage’s observation that the evolution of contemporary Arab-Australian Muslim identity contained an element of African-Americanness. This was certainly evident to me as an Arab-Australian Muslim youth growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney between 1998 and 2005—it was common for my fellow Arab-Australians and I to think, speak, dress, walk, get haircuts, drive cars and engage with members of the opposite sex in a way that was directly influenced by African-American films, TV shows, literature and music. A well-documented example of this ‘copy-cat’ behaviour could be found on 3 November 1998, when Sydneysiders woke up to read a front-page feature in the Daily Telegraph titled ‘Dial-a-Gun: Gang says it’s easier than buying a pizza’. The article pictured six young men of Arab backgrounds from Punchbowl Boys High School, who posed for the photograph after the journalists had invited them to ‘look mean’ (Collins et al., p. 2). The boys, who were identified as a ‘Lebanese gang’, were dressed in Fila and Adidas jackets and hoodies, had menacing expressions on their faces, and each had their fingers crossed in the shapes of letters or cocked in the shape of a gun.
The caption in ‘Dial-a-Gun’ indicated that the pictured ‘gang’ were ‘demonstrating their call signs … the hand signals are used to communicate simple messages between gang members’. However, in reality the hand signals of the boys were just emulations of the ‘Westside’ and ‘Eastside’ and ‘Thug Life’ gestures that young Arab-Australian men had learned from black gangsta rappers such as Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. The journalists who wrote the article also explicitly made the connection between the boys in the photo and African-American gang culture, stating that, like the ‘black homeboy gangs in the United States’, the ‘Punchbowl Homeboys’ wear ‘the same baggy jeans, sportswear such as Fila and Adidas, and listen to rap music’ (Casey and Ogg, p. 4).
The ‘Dial-a-Gun’ article in the Daily Telegraph presents one of the central questions I seek to address in this essay: Why do Arab-Australian Muslims identify with blackness?
Perhaps the most obvious explanation is that the black experience in the United States mirrors some of the experiences of being Arab in Australia. For example, let us consider the lyrics by Tupac from his song ‘Changes’, which was released worldwide shortly after his murder in 1996:
Can’t a brotha get a little peace?
There’s war on the streets, and a war in the Middle East.
Instead of war on poverty,
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.
Wars in the Middle East, wars against drug dealers and wars against young men of colour—these lines offer an immediate explanation as to why young Arab-Australian Muslim men living in a xenophobic and Islamophobic sociopolitical climate might have found the voices of African-American male rappers so seductive. The sense of persecution felt by the ‘Leb’ on an almost daily basis in Australia seemed to run parallel to the modern-day African-American struggle. How-ever, the danger in reducing Arab-Australian behaviour to simple copycat fantasies of African-Americanness is that it can easily be shrugged off as just a form of cultural appropriation—‘the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture’ (Blatchford).
A closer analysis of the relationship between Arab-Australians and African-Americans demonstrates that it is more complex than simply one cultural group plagiarising the behaviour of another. ‘Black Freedom beyond America and the Muslim International’ is the subject of Sohail Daulatzai’s Black Star, Crescent Moon (2012). The title for this book draws an emblematic link between African-Americans, represented by a black star, and Arabs in the East, represented by a crescent moon. Daulatzai lists prominent African-American musicians of the late 1980s and early 1990s who converted to Islam to illustrate the influence that Islam has had on African-American hip-hop:
‘The golden age’ (roughly 1986–94) is often referred to in nostalgic ways as a time when hip hop was at its creative and political peak. And with few exceptions, the era’s most significant artists embraced Islam, deeply influencing the rest of hip hop history as well so that the vast canon of songs expresses the relationship between Blackness and Islam, including Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers, X-Clan, Rakim Allah, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Gang Starr, Big Daddy Kane, the Wu Tang Clan, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth … as well as many others. (2012, p. 109)
The dates listed here reveal the links between the period when Islam began to influence African-American communities and prominent African-American figures such as Malcolm X and heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, the following period when the African-American hip-hop movement had erupted, and the later period when African-American popular culture began to influence the behaviour of young Arab-Australian Muslim men as seen in the 1998 ‘Dial-a-Gun’ article. Hence we discover that before Arab-Australian Muslim men were identifying with contemporary notions of African-Americanness, African-Americans were identifying with historical notions of Arabness through the adoption of the religion of Islam. In converting to Islam, many African-Americans embraced the teachings of the Arab prophet, Muhammad, visited the sacred Islamic sites in the Arab world and learned the Arabic language in order to pray, to recite the Qur’an and to respectfully engage with their fellow Muslims—as was the case for real-life Malcolm X in the final stages of his personal and political trajectory.
In another rap song by Tupac called ‘I Ain’t Mad at Cha’, the late rapper sings about the reformative effects that Islam had on one of his African-American male peers:
Collect calls to the tip sayin how ya changed,
You a Muslim now, no more dope games.
Heard you might be coming home, just got bail,
Wonna go to the mosque, don’t wonna chase tails.
This kind of conversion-to-Islam-while-in-jail narrative uncoincidentally corresponds with the popular Malcolm X story. We certainly discover in the music, films and literature that this is a mainstream African-American storyline.
While Tupac’s lyrics illuminate the transformative power that Islam can have on marginalised black men in the United States, the stories of African-American men reforming through Islam are also, but less noticeably, an empowering and uplifting experience for those who are born Muslim and who identify with Islam as part of their historical and cultural identities. I remember the pride emanating from my Arab-Australian Muslim male peers back in our Muslim-majority public high school, Punchbowl Boys, whenever we discovered that a prominent African-American had converted to Islam. In one particular incident, we were watching a documentary during modern history about former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. Following his first fight after his release from jail, he proclaimed to an interviewer, ‘I give all praise to God, and there’s only one God and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be unto him, is the messenger of God, and I’m just happy He blessed me with this victory.’ Suddenly, the Punchbowl boys began to drum on their desks, screaming, ‘Sucked in Christians. Tyson’s ours now.’ The relationship between African-American and Arab-Australian identities wasn’t determined just by the fact that the black civil rights struggle led to our empowerment. The reverse was also true: young Arab-Australian Muslim men gained a sense of value and self-worth from the discovery that our religion and historical figures led to their empowerment. In such a way, the religion of Islam reveals itself to be a cosmopolitan force among marginalised voices, creating a symbolic link between Arab identities, African-American identities and Arab-Australian identities.
• • •
By the time character Malcolm Little had been released from prison, he had taught himself to read and write and had converted to the NOI version of Islam, which included praying and abstaining from pig meat, gambling, alcohol, narcotics, tobacco and fornication (X and Haley, 1992, p. 255). We can clearly recognise the significant impact the teachings of Elijah Muhammad had had on the character Malcolm Little and the narrator Malcolm X throughout the autobiography, but it is equally important to recognise the inherent value of the man known as the Honourable Elijah Muhammad. This brings me to the third and final factor that I believe inspired the transformation of character Malcolm Little into the autobiographical narrator named Malcolm X in The Autobiography of Malcolm X—the direct and personal influence of the historical figure named Elijah Muhammad.
Over several years, character Malcolm Little had come to know Elijah Muhammad entirely through letters and pictures from inside a prison cell. When he was released from jail in 1952, he moved to Detroit to be with his siblings and to become a member of a temple of practising Black Muslims. Narrator Malcolm X describes the impact of watching ‘The Messenger’ make his way up to a podium for the first time:
From the rear of Temple Number Two, he came toward the platform. The small, sensitive, gentle, brown face that I had studied in photographs, until I had dreamed about it, was fixed straight ahead as the Messenger strode, encircled by the marching, strapping Fruit of Islam guards. The Messenger, compared to them, seemed fragile, almost tiny. He and the Fruit of Islam were dressed in dark suits, white shirts, and bow ties. The Messenger wore a gold embroidered fez. I stared at the great man who had taken the time to write to me when I was a convict whom he knew nothing about. He was the man whom I had been told spent years of his life in suffering and sacrifice to lead us, the black people, because he loved us so much. And then, hearing his voice, I sat leaning forward, riveted upon his words. (1992, p. 226)
The narrative voice of the text dramatically slows down in this scene. Narrator Malcolm X leaves a lasting first impression of Elijah Muhammad by literally making his first impression of him last. This sets up a stark contrast between the way narrator Malcolm X sees Elijah Muhammad—gentle, sensitive, fragile, great, riveting—and the way narrator Malcolm X sees character Malcolm Little—uneducated, unskilled, unhonourable, nervy, cunning, exploitative (1992, p. 125).
While narrator Malcolm X seems to describe his first impression of Elijah Muhammad as unforgettable, biographers such as Clegg describe first impressions of Elijah Muhammad as completely unremarkable. Ironically, this is achieved by comparing the first impression one might have had of Elijah Muhammad to the impression one might have had of the great civil rights figure known to the world as ‘Malcolm X’.
Unlike Malcolm, Muhammad was not charismatic in the conventional sense and had neither a flair for dynamic oratory nor an impressive command of the English language. In appearance he was an unimposing man, standing five and a half feet tall and weighing less than 150 pounds. Balding, the leader was a fair-skinned man with a disarming gentleness. His slender body was almost delicate in form and, according to a contemporary, appeared ‘tiny and transparent and breakable as a china doll’. Like his slow gait, his countenance complemented his small stature. To some, Muhammad’s thin lips, pronounced cheekbones, and deep-set brown eyes were reminiscent of Oriental features. (Clegg, p. 117)
This comparison between the two men makes you wonder how an individual like real-life Malcolm X could be seduced by someone like Elijah Muhammad …
In An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad (1997), Clegg explains that when Fard Muhammad disappeared in 1934, Elijah Muhammad was left with the responsibility of leading the NOI. This was not an easy task—there was contestation and competition for leadership throughout the next decade and the controversial black organisation had drawn the attention of government law enforcement, particularly because members were evading military service on religious grounds (p. 73). In this context, Elijah Muhammad’s prison sentence on eight counts of sedition was a blessing in disguise:
Four years in jail and prisons did more toward consolidating his authority over the Nation of Islam than a decade of bickering, purges, and wandering could ever have done. The FBI had, in fact, enhanced his power rather than diminish it. During the period between 1931 and 1942, he was simply the embattled Supreme Minister of a schismatic movement that had too many conflicting and ambitious personalities disputing his claim to the messengership. After 1942 and especially following his release from prison, he had unquestionably become the premier martyr of the Muslims—their ‘little lamb’ and saintly ‘Messenger of Allah’. (Clegg, p. 97)
Clegg goes on to argue that Elijah Muhammad’s sacrifice for the African-American people enabled followers to reimagine his physical characteristics:
His petiteness was part of his charm and underscored the meekness and humility of Allah’s chosen one as an example of God’s humility and humbleness that his chosen messenger would be so unexpected … His public demeanour tended to emphasize strength, as did the dark suits he wore, the oversize Qur’an he often carried, and his calculated approach to the podium. If nothing else, his lean physique and pleasant face attracted attention and sympathy of many African-Americans who found the tremendous message of the small Messenger of Allah irresistible. (2007, p. 117)
This ‘new light’ in which Elijah Muhammad’s followers now perceived him matches the light that narrator Malcolm X claims to have first seen in Elijah Muhammad in The Autobiography. Up until he discovered Elijah Muhammad, the parentless Malcolm X narrator explains that he had only ever known about hustles and scams, and that he had been rejected by his white foster family, teachers, the government, law enforcement and even other black people such as West Indian Archie, who had plotted to kill him (1992, pp. 144–5). For this young man, Elijah Muhammad became more than a leader, he became a father. ‘The paternal, custodial role of Muhammad in the organisation appealed to many blacks who sought order and a system of authority in which they could believe’ (Clegg, p. 118).
As a devoted follower of Elijah Muhammad, character Malcolm Little went out on the streets of Detroit ‘fishing’ for new NOI members. Soon after, he was invited to address the ‘brothers and sisters’ with lectures at the Muslim Temple (1992, pp. 229–33). Narrator Malcolm X quotes from one of the early speeches he had given about his ‘Messenger of Allah’ during this period.
This little, gentle, sweet man! The Honourable Elijah Muhammad who is at this very hour teaching our brothers and sisters over there in Chicago! Allah’s Messenger—which makes him the most powerful black man in America! For you and me, he has sacrificed seven years on the run from filthy hypocrites, he spent another three and a half years in a prison cage! He was put there by the devil white man! (1992, p. 241)
Here the words ‘little’, ‘gentle’ and ‘sweet’ from the perspective of real-life Malcolm X are counterpoints to the words ‘breakable’, ‘transparent’ and ‘not charismatic’ in Clegg’s description. Judgements about the extent of Elijah Muhammad’s power and authority depended entirely on perception. This reaffirms the fluidity of ‘truth’ in autobiographical literature: there isn’t an inherently ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ version of the Malcolm X narrative, there are simply versions.
During character Malcolm Little’s rise to Minister in the NOI, narrator Malcolm X explains why his last name is changed from ‘Little’ to ‘X’. He argues that ‘Little’ is a slave name that belonged to the white family who ‘owned’ his ancestors during slavery. ‘X’ symbolised the unknown because his real last name had been lost when his ancestors were kidnapped from Africa (1992, p. 229). At this point in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as real-life Malcolm X becomes a nationally recognised voice within the African-American civil rights struggle, we move towards a time in which the story unfolding is adjacent to the period in which the story was written. Narrator Malcolm X and character Malcolm Little are merging into the same figure. Thus, the analytical tone of narrator Malcolm X begins to match the tone of the autobiographical character who now calls himself ‘Malcolm X’:
One particular university’s ‘token-integrated’ black Ph.D. associate professor I never will forget; he got me so mad I couldn’t see straight … He was ranting about what a ‘divisive demagogue’ and what a ‘reverse racist’ I was. I was racking my head, to spear the fool; finally I held up my hand, and he stopped. ‘Do you know what white racists call black Ph.D’s?’ … And I laid the word down on him loud: ‘Nigger!’ (1992, p. 327)
Here, narrator Malcolm X celebrates how character Malcolm X is perceived, or, more precisely, how he believes he is perceived, by the dominant white American culture and by opposing black civil rights figures. Both narrator and character have embraced the ‘divisive demagogue’ and ‘reverse racist’ persona.
As the historical timeline brings the Malcolm X who is telling the story even closer to the Malcolm X who is experiencing the story, the autobiography’s already established literary technique of foreshadowing re-emerges to reveal that the trajectory of the narrative is inevitably going to shift: ‘In the years to come, I was going to have to face a psychological and spiritual crisis’ (1992, p. 242). This crisis reveals itself in the final chapters of the text, when in 1963 Elijah Muhammad is at the centre of a major Black Muslim controversy. The 67-year-old is facing paternity suits from two of his former secretaries, both of whom are in their twenties, who charge that he has fathered their four children (1992, p. 340). When character Malcolm X confronts Elijah Muhammad about the allegations, he is told that like David with his adultery and Noah with his drunkenness, this is the Messenger’s test and fulfilment of prophecy (1992, p. 345). This exposes the distinction that narrator Malcolm X makes between his own character and that of his leader:
What began to break my faith was that, try as I might, I couldn’t hide, I couldn’t evade, that Mr. Muhammad, instead of facing what he had done before his followers, as a human or as fulfilment of prophecy—which I sincerely believe that Muslims would have understood, or at least they would have accepted—Mr. Muhammad had, instead, been willing to hide, to cover up what he had done. (1992, p. 353)
This passage is pivotal in the development of the story: up until now the character of Malcolm Little / Malcolm X has been a man who sees himself in debt to Elijah Muhammad. ‘When I was a foul, vicious convict, so evil other convicts had called me Satan, this man had rescued me’ (1992, p. 344). Elijah Muhammad was a figure of purity and integrity in the Malcolm X narrative. Then suddenly, as character Malcolm X’s faith is broken, the debt is cleared and Malcolm X is released. ‘That was how I first began to realize that I had believed in Mr. Muhammad more than he believed in himself’ (1992, p. 353). Narrator Malcolm X now places himself in a higher moral position than the so-called Honourable Elijah Muhammad. From this point onwards, the Malcolm X narrator and the Malcolm X character in The Autobiography of Malcolm X exist on the same timeline as real-life Malcolm X, who is living out his ‘true-to-life’ events, which includes the process of developing his autobiography. Narrator Malcolm X describes a plot to silence, discredit and even murder him in order to conceal the sins of Elijah Muhammad. The first sign of this plot took place after the assassination of president John F. Kennedy in 1963. Real-life Malcolm X responded to the incident with a comment that made headlines all over the United States. As narrator Malcolm X recounts:
Without a second thought, I said what I honestly felt—that it was, as I saw it, a case of ‘the chickens coming home to roost’ … I said that the hate of white men had not stopped with the killing of defenceless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, finally had struck down the country’s Chief of State. (1992, p. 347)
Narrator Malcolm X explains that, having been instructed earlier by Elijah Muhammad not to discuss the JFK assassination with the press or the public, he was suspended for 90 days by his leader for the ‘chickens coming home to roost’ statement (1992, p. 348). Although Elijah Muhammad may have been genuinely frustrated with real-life Malcolm X’s comments and the negative press it brought the NOI, narrator Malcolm X suggests that the suspension was actually because he had begun to pose a real threat to Elijah Muhammad, since he was unwilling to dismiss the leader’s sexual transgressions. Narrator Malcolm X states that, ‘I hadn’t hustled in the streets for years for nothing. I knew when I was being set up’ (1992, p. 349). This reveals the trademark of the character that narrator Malcolm X has been building for himself throughout the book—the development of ‘street hustler’ in the early stages of the autobiography informs his suspicions and insights as a civil rights leader in the final stages, solidifying the tension that has been building in the narrative arc of the autobiography for the last 350 pages.
From the moment narrator Malcolm X constructs Elijah Muhammad as a father-figure, he sets the Oedipal complex in motion: a son must kill his father as a natural process of growing up. This aspect of The Autobiography was particularly painful for me to read during my formative years as an Arab-Australian arts practitioner in Western Sydney. I studied at Punchbowl Boys High School from 1998 to 2004, back when the school was infamously surrounded by barbed wires and cameras and heavily associated with ethnic gangs, drive-by shootings and drugs (Rolfe). I came to hate the dominant cultural group of students at the school, who were from Arab and Muslim backgrounds, and by extension I also came to hate myself (precisely as the dark-skinned Palestinian had predicted). When I wasn’t reading dead white literature, I was wasting my lunchbreaks writing short stories about a blond-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned version of ‘Mohammed Ahmad’ named ‘Michael Alan’.
I waited patiently for an opportunity to escape Punchbowl Boys when the local arts officer, let’s call him the Honourable Mr Guy Law, appeared before our school assembly like a glowing white Jesus and invited the boys to participate in his community arts programs for underprivileged youth. I followed the Honourable Mr Guy Law to the Bankstown Arts Service and worked with him for the next ten years, running a series of writing initiatives for young people of colour like myself.
At first Mr Guy Law was extremely supportive, helping me write grant applications to fund a writers’ group and a sequence of literary anthologies, and smiling affectionately in the background whenever I had the opportunity to shake hands with our local politicians. In addition to the events of September 11, this was during the time when the ‘Lebanese’ gang rapes in Western Sydney fostered a major media and political stigmatisation of Arab and Muslim Australian males as potential sexual predators (Switzer, p. 123), so there was significant credibility for a white-run arts organisation in Bankstown to gain from ‘saving’ a ‘good Muslim boy’.
Unfortunately, as my abilities and reputation as an arts worker in Western Sydney began to exceed Mr Guy Law’s own, he became extremely hostile towards me. When I told him about the first grant I had received to write my debut novel, he pushed me in a knee-jerk reaction and said, ‘You selfish little bastard, taking all that money for yourself.’ When I received an Australia Council award for my work in community cultural development, he invited himself to the award ceremony and went around the room that night telling my family members, ‘If it wasn’t for me, your son would be working at McDonald’s.’ And when I received a scholarship to complete my doctorate of creative arts, he sniggered at me, ‘Next you’ll steal my job.’ Ironic—while these white men are employed to empower a generation of culturally diverse artists, the idea that we might one day obtain the skills needed to determine our own destinies, making their positions in our communities irrelevant, terrifies them. We constantly find ourselves in a Malcolm X / Elijah Muhammad paradigm of kill-or-be-killed.
• • •
Shortly after his suspension, real-life Malcolm X separated from the Nation of Islam and established his own organisation, Muslim Mosque, Inc. This coincided with a trip to Mecca, in which he conducted the Muslim pilgrimage known as Hajj and adopted orthodox Islam. In the autobiography, the next metamorphosis of character Malcolm X is conveyed through a letter that real-life Malcolm X had sent from Mecca to his family and followers:
Here is what I wrote … from my heart: ‘Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and the overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad, and all the other prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.’ (1992, p. 390)
In this recitation, we can feel character Malcolm X’s shift in consciousness. His repetition of the term ‘all colors’ indicates that he no longer sees black people and white people as inherent enemies or as inherently good or evil. ‘All’ is written in italics at the end of Malcolm’s letter as to distance himself from his former beliefs and former master.
In Black Star, Crescent Moon, Daulatzai observes that Malcolm X’s pilgrimage to Mecca, and more broadly his engagement with the Arab world, radically altered and expanded his civil rights trajectory from a national movement to an international one:
For Malcolm … Islam was not only the link between Africa and Asia but also what connected black Muslims in the United States to the broader Muslim Third World, linking their struggles through the Muslim International and revealing it to be a space for overlapping diasporas and shared histories of struggle. (Daulatzai, p. 6)
While there are indeed unique attributes to the African-American struggle, Daulatzai graciously positions it here as an extension of the struggle against white supremacy and European colonialism throughout the world. Although Islam is not a religion exclusive to people of colour, and certainly while not all people of colour are Muslim, adopting the Muslim religion enabled real-life Malcolm X to recognise and exemplify the cultural and historical connections between African-Americans, Arabs, Africans and Asians. I believe this also connects the inspiration that Arab-Australian Muslims drew from notions of African-Americanness to the inspiration that African-American Muslims drew from Arab Muslims in the ongoing ‘Black Star’ and ‘Crescent Moon’ exchange. Arab-Australian Muslims don’t just copy popular black culture, as the ‘Dial-a-Gun’ article insinuated, we participate in a web of interconnected histories and identities that form and shape our own unique position in the world. Grey Noble, Scott Poynting and Paul Tabar call this strategic hybridity—the sense of self that we fashion in response to different contexts, reflecting a high degree of plurality (p. 39). This explains why my Arab-Australian Muslim peers at Punchbowl Boys High School, who proudly wore Malcolm X T-shirts and caps, displayed posters of him in their bedrooms, regularly quoted him in the classroom, and considered him to be ‘one of us’, instead of us being one of him.
• • •
Many scholars classify The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a ‘conversion narrative’. ‘The protagonist in this sub-genre of autobiographical writing undergoes one or several fundamental change(s), so-called conversions, within his life and personality’ (Oehl, p. 85). More specifically, The Autobiography is often labelled an ‘education narrative’. This is defined by Moritz Oehl as a ‘sub-genre’ of conversion narrative that attributes the transformations in one’s life to a specific improvement in education (p. 86). The education conversion narrative can easily be recognised in the chronological order of the Malcolm X autobiography, from orphan to honours student to hustler, pimp, thief, prisoner, minister, civil rights leader to Hajj. Each of these transitions in the text are accompanied by a radical shift in the consciousness of the main character and narrator of the story.
In the context of being an education narrative, the story of Malcolm X radically influenced the philosophies of my work as a teacher in the arts and humanities. Growing up in one of Australia’s most densely populated and culturally diverse communities, I was habitually shocked to discover during my day-to-day interactions as an adult that the young people in Western Sydney were numb to the overrepresentation of whiteness and underrepresentation of colour in almost every aspect of Australian life. This included the fact that more than 90 per cent of the books our youth read in school were written by white authors and only featured white characters with white problems.
In March 2013, having grown tired of the inadequate and negative representations of Indigenous, migrant and refugee communities in mainstream Australian media, film and literature, I founded Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. I believed that the best way to improve the lives of the racially marginalised members of my community was to turn each of them into Malcolm X. I ran free writing workshops in dozens of local public high schools, which in the western suburbs of Sydney were usually underfunded, underresourced and overrepresented with white teachers and staff members. For most of the students of colour who attended these workshops, I was the first Arab-Australian man who had ever taught them.
I always started my workshop with a geography/history lesson: I projected two images up on a screen. One was a picture of a fair-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed man and the other was a world map. ‘Who is this man?’ I asked. ‘Jesus,’ the students of colour answered in unison. ‘And where is he from?’ I asked. ‘Middle East,’ the students of colour responded, pointing at that intersection on my map between Africa and Asia. ‘And what did the people in the Middle East look like 2000 years ago …’ A hinge squeaked through the classroom as the students decolonised their thinking. To be in the presence of a child’s critical awakening is to be in the presence of Malcolm X.
• • •
As The Autobiography of Malcolm X reaches its final scenes, narrator Malcolm X begins to set the theme of his life story, what he calls a series of changes (1992, p. 390). Having returned to America from Mecca, real-life Malcolm X is growing increasingly paranoid that members of the NOI are planning his assassination—former brothers who would attempt to make heroes of themselves to get into Elijah Muhammad’s good graces (1992, p. 365). The fear of assassination is very present to the historical figure we know as Malcolm X while the autobiography is being completed and it begins to steer the tone of the writing: ‘When I am dead—I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form—I want you to just watch and see if I’m not right when I say: that the white man in his press is going to identify me with “hate”’ (1992, p. 439). By the time the autobiography reaches its final paragraph, there is a firm sense of doom in the voice of narrator Malcolm X. The pulse signifies a calmer, resigned Malcolm, someone who has given in to the vision of death.
Yes, I have cherished my ‘demagogue’ role. I know that societies often have killed the people who have helped to change those societies. And if I can die having brought any light, having exposed any meaningful truth that will help destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America—then, all of the credit is due to Allah. Only the mistakes have been mine. (1992, p. 440)
This is perhaps the most unsettling literary twist in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Narrator Malcolm X is well aware that he will not live to see the book we are reading in print. All of a sudden, real-life Malcolm X is speaking to his reader from beyond the grave. This reinforces the literary proposition that any voice comprises multiple voices, and that the inherent voice of any author or poet is always phantasmagorical, ghostly and in itself always haunted (Bennett and Royle, p. 75).
Following the final words of narrator Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X becomes both a biography of Malcolm X, as Alex Haley proceeds to explain the events after Malcolm X’s assassination, and an autobiography of Alex Haley, as Haley charts in first-person his affiliation with Malcolm X and the development of the very text we are reading. As Oehl notes:
The ‘Epilogue’ is especially remarkable for its disclosure of the problems of writing an account of someone’s life and further helps us to understand the role Alex Haley had in the writing about the life of one of the most important African-Americans of all time. (p. 89)
One insight we gather from the epilogue is the autobiography’s complex use of ‘voice’. Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle argue that, ‘Literature encourages us to think about the idea that there may in fact be no such thing as a voice, a single, unified voice (whether that of an author, a narrator, a reader or anyone else). Rather there is difference and multiplicity within every voice’ (p. 75). This theory can be identified in the multiple layers of voice that operate simultaneously in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. When the ‘real-life’ man known as Malcolm X first began to create his autobiography, he did so while still under the servitude of the NOI and reserved his highest praise for the Honourable Elijah Muhammad. But half-way through the development of the autobiography, real-life Malcolm X had separated from the NOI and had attempted to distance himself from the grasp and teachings of Elijah Muhammad as much as possible. This was not only going to have serious consequences for the intended trajectory of the Malcolm X narrative, but also for the story that had been told so far. Haley explains that real-life Malcolm X had begun to revise the entire book after his split with the NOI, rewriting sections to align the story with his present-day understanding of the ‘truth’, especially concerning the way he now remembered and viewed his father–son relationship with Elijah Muhammad. Rather than respond to Malcolm X’s rewrites with a judgement about which was the factually ‘true’ version of history, Haley considered the most artistically sophisticated version of any number of truths that derived from the life of Malcolm X: ‘I stressed that if those chapters contained such telegraphing to readers of what would lie ahead, then the book would automatically be robbed of some of its building suspense and drama’ (1992, p. 467).
This interaction between Malcolm X and Alex Haley enables readers to conceive some of the alternative realities that could have been developed for an autobiography of real-life Malcolm X: Had Malcolm X begun the autobiography at a later stage in his life, he would never have spoken so highly of Elijah Muhammad and the NOI to begin with. Had Malcolm X finished the autobiography before his split with the NOI, his account would only have offered the ‘adoration’ and ‘surrender’ that initially characterised his relationship with Elijah Muhammad. If Haley had allowed Malcolm X to rewrite the entire story after the split had taken place, there would now be an account in which narrator and character Malcolm X are critical of Elijah Muhammad while he was being ‘saved’ by Elijah Muhammad. Each of these possibilities could be considered an accurate and truthful account by and about real-life Malcolm X—they are all realities, running through the same time and space; they simply belong to different perspectives.
In the end, Haley claims to have fought for the account that he believed would sustain the greatest sense of drama and suspense. As a result, we can now identify two distinct voices in the text operating simultaneously: the ‘pre-NOI voice’, in which Malcolm’s original convictions remained intact, and the ‘post-NOI voice’, which included interjections from narrator Malcolm X such as, ‘I was later to learn’, throughout the text (Oehl, 2006, p.92). This reminds us that ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ are fluid concepts in language and literature. It is not a question of whether Alex Haley and Malcolm X must lie to tell a more interesting version of the truth; rather they must decide which truth is the most interesting for the purposes of reading.
A significant portion of Alex Haley’s epilogue is devoted to quoting and explaining the hundreds of stories and ideas that real-life Malcolm X shared with him for the autobiography. In addition to revealing how the book was crafted, this enables readers to hear the storyteller behind the written words. bell hooks defines the notion of ‘voice’ as embodying the distinctive expression of an individual writer—what a writer/narrator sounds like (1989, p. 11). In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, one can interpret this definition of voice quite literally. We are constantly reminded that real-life Malcolm X is speaking his story to Alex Haley, which leaves the effect of narrator Malcolm X speaking directly to the reader. This can be categorised as the ‘speaking voice’.
We are drawn away by what we might call the ‘reality effect’ of a speaking voice that is produced in part through the conversational language—the lexical items and syntax, the topic, use of the present tense, repetition—and in part through the explicit reference to the fact that the narrator is speaking and ‘telling’ us something (Bennett and Royle, p. 71).
The spoken-word form in The Autobiography of Malcolm X evokes recitation and oral storytelling techniques that scholars also recognise in Arab literary traditions:
From as early as the 5th Century BCE, the Arabs, originally a largely illiterate people who were proud of their tribal genealogies and histories, developed an incredibly descriptive and rhythmic language. This was achieved mostly through the custom of memorising oral narratives from generation to generation. As ancient nomadic cultural traditions were lost as a result of urban settlement, they were recaptured in the collective consciousness through the art of poetry and story-telling. (Bokhari and Seddon, p. 15)
Perhaps the most significant example of the oral transmission of text from the Arab world is the ‘miraculous’ development of The Holy Qur’an. Although the word ‘scripture’ has historically referred to written text, Bokhari and Seddon argue that this definition cannot be strictly applied to the Qur’an because its original transmission was oral—spoken-word revelations from Allah to Gibreel to Muhammad to the people of Mecca and beyond. In Arabic the word ‘Qur’an’ literarily means ‘to recite’. As Bokhari and Seddon point out, preserving Muhammad’s recitations was indeed a priority to him and his early followers, but it must be understood that this was not an impossible task in a society that had a developed oral tradition (p. 36).
This explains why the earliest known parchment from the Qur’an, discovered at Birmingham University library in 2015, which carbon dating suggests could be as early as the time when Muhammad received the revelations (some sceptics even claim they date from before that time), contains revelations identical to sections of the written and spoken recitations in the Qur’an today (Kennedy). Alongside the documentation of Muhammad’s revelations in the ‘memories of men’, parts were written on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels (Bilefsky).
Although such ‘parts’ reveal that written transmissions of the Qur’an were not completely absent during the accumulation of Muhammad’s revelations, we are able to use the Birmingham parchment to recognise the consistency between oral transmission—the primary way in which the Qur’an had been documented and preserved—and the written transmission that, among a small percentage of educated individuals, had emerged from the Arab-Muslim world as early as AD 610.
Paralleling the oral traditions from the ancient Arab poets and prophets are the oral storytelling techniques used to create The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Malcolm X, a historical figure whom we know was influenced by The Holy Qur’an from the time he entered prison through to his assassination in 1965, stood before Alex Haley and recited the events of his life as well as his ideological views on race, politics, religion, class and gender. Meanwhile, Alex Haley sat at a typewriter and transcribed his words (X and Haley, 1992, pp. 443–6). For me, this pattern continues to represent the symbolic link between ancient Arab-Muslim and modern African-American literary traditions that informs the way we read Malcolm X in Arab-Australia.
• • •
My grandparents, parents and 22 aunts and uncles migrated from Lebanon to Australia in 1970. As soon as the mens’ voices had cracked, they entered the workforce, and as soon as the women could bear children, they were married off and became full-time housewives. Not one of my first-generation Australian relatives on either side of my parents was privileged enough to finish high school. I was born in 1986 to a family of illiterates. From as early as five years old, while living in the pre-gentrified ghettos of inner west Sydney in a five-bedroom house with 30 relatives piled on top of one another, I remember feeling a profound fascination with books. I rummaged through the draws and closets of my parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins and grandmother searching for any document that contained some words.
During my explorations, I read my father’s father’s name, Mohammed Ahmad, etched into a gold ring; the thin instruction manual inside a box of condoms; a Hustler article about a Russian man who had sexual intercourse with the empty eye socket of a blind woman; and a Women’s Weekly feature about a 200-kilo British woman who was so fat the doctors stitched up her lips. It wasn’t until my senior years in high school that I initiated a self-determined approach to reading, which included setting up a home library of texts that I could select and purchase on my own accord. At first, reading was simply the act of putting the words of the author together, but as I devoured more literature, from Aesop to George Orwell to Salman Rushdie to Toni Morrison, I began to weigh the ideas and narratives of these texts against one another, until suddenly reading had become the ability to pull the author’s words apart.
I was 15 years old the first time I was called a sand nigger. And 15 years old the first time I was called a house nigger. Eighteen years later, I pulled apart The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The Prophet Muhammad recites. Read in the name of thy Lord … who taught humankind by means of the pen. Malcolm X speaks. Read and understand. The Punchbowl Homeboys dial-a-gun. And a squeaky Arab-Australian gets the grease. •
Michael Mohammed Ahmad is the founding director of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and the multi-award-winning author of The Tribe (Giramondo, 2014) and The Lebs (Hachette, 2018).
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