The concept of family, which often extends beyond biological ties, plays a very important role in Malcolm X’s life. Unfortunately, this idea of family often serves to leave Malcolm even more alone than he was before, rather than acting as a bulwark against life’s challenges.
Malcolm grows up in a fairly large family, the son of Earl Little, a traveling preacher, and Louise Little, a light-skinned Granadan woman. Family life was not perfect and was itself subject to the racist forces of society. For instance, later in his life, Malcolm realizes how his father favored him the most because he was light-skinned. Even more powerful, though, were the racist and un-merciful forces of society arrayed against his family, and which soon tore it apart. First, Malcolm’s father is murdered, probably by the Black Legion, a white supremacist group. Then, his mother is regularly harassed by government officials throughout the Depression, until she is finally declared insane and sent to a mental institution. The kids, meanwhile, are sent to live with different families in the area. “The Welfare, the courts, and their doctor, gave us the one-two-three punch.”
After the destruction of his own immediate family, and perhaps because of that destruction, Malcolm seeks time and again to form new families, whether biological or otherwise. He follows his half-sister Ella to Boston, and then when he moves on to New York he invites his brother Reginald to come live with him. He later creates a kind of family of street hustlers, with his mentor Shorty and “Sammy the Pimp.” And finally, the most important family structure in Malcolm’s life is the family of brothers and sisters in the Nation of Islam, with Elijah Muhammad as its head.
But like his original family, each of these “family” groups are beset by tensions both internal and external. Malcolm and Reginald have different temperaments, and Malcolm turns his back on his brother after Reginald is forced out of the Nation of Islam. After his time in prison, Malcolm makes a point to seek out Shorty and Sammy, but Sammy has died and Malcolm’s life is now so different from Shorty’s that their friendship no longer has a foundation. Meanwhile, Malcolm’s reverence for Elijah Muhammad set the bar so high that Muhammad could never fulfill Malcolm’s expectations. As Malcolm puts it: “That was how I first began to realize that I had believed in Mr. Muhammad more than he believed in himself.” The closeness of his family-like ties to the Nation, and especially to Mr. Muhammad, are part of what make it so difficult for Malcolm when his conflict with Elijah Muhammad leads to his “isolation” from the Nation (including the fact that several of Malcolm’s other biological siblings also cut ties with him when he is expelled).
While Malcolm’s siblings and would-be brother figures do support him at various points in his life, they nearly all fail him in the end. Malcolm’s life, then, is at least partially the tragic tale of a man devoted to ideas of family unity but who was never able to find or build family structures that could withstand internal tensions or external forces, leaving him to fend for himself against a violent world.
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Family and Dysfunction Quotes in The Autobiography of Malcolm X
It has always been my belief that I, too, will die by violence. I have done all that I can to be prepared.
Eventually my mother suffered a complete breakdown, and the court orders were finally signed. They took her to the State Mental Hospital at Kalamazoo.
It was seventy-some miles from Lansing, about an hour and a half on the bus. A Judge McClellan in Lansing had authority over me and all of my brothers and sisters. We were "state children," court wards; he had the full say-so over us. A white man in charge of a black man's children! Nothing but legal, modern slavery—however kindly intentioned.
"Malcolm, one of life's first needs is for us to be realistic. Don't misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you've got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer—that's no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You're good with your hands—making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don't you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person—you'd get all kinds of work."
I looked like Li'l Abner. Mason, Michigan, was written all over me. My kinky, reddish hair was cut hick style, and I didn't even use grease in it. My green suit's coat sleeves stopped above my wrists, the pants legs showed three inches of socks. Just a shade lighter green than the suit was my narrow-collared, three-quarter length Lansing department store topcoat. My appearance was too much for even Ella. But she told me later she had seen countrified members of the Little family come up from Georgia in even worse shape than I was.
In one sense, we were huddled in there, bonded together in seeking security and warmth and comfort from each other, and we didn't know it. All of us—who might have probed space, or cured cancer, or built industries—were, instead, black victims of the white man's American social system. In another sense, the tragedy of the once master pickpocket made him, for those brother old-timer hustlers, a "there but for the grace of God" symbol. To wolves who still were able to catch some rabbits, it had meaning that an old wolf who had lost his fangs was still eating.
Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn't have gotten me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Muhammad's teachings, my correspondence, my visitors—usually Ella and Reginald—and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.
And Allah blessed me to remain true, firm and strong in my faith in Islam, despite many severe trials to my faith. And even when events produced a crisis between Elijah Muhammad and me, I told him at the beginning of the crisis, with all the sincerity I had in me, that I still believed in him more strongly than he believed in himself.
And that was how, after twelve years of never thinking for as much as five minutes about myself, I became able finally to muster the nerve, and the strength, to start facing the facts, to think for myself.
We both had to leave to make appointments we had, when he dropped on me something whose logic never would get out of my head. He said, “No man has believed perfectly until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”
Back at the Frankfurt airport, we took a United Arab Airlines plane on to Cairo. Throngs of people, obviously Muslims from everywhere, bound on the pilgrimage, were hugging and embracing. They were of all complexions, the whole atmosphere was of warmth and friendliness. The feeling hit me that there really wasn't any color problem here. The effect was as though I had just stepped out of a prison.