November 15, 2016
By: Shane Austrie, John Lyons, Anthony Chawki
Should school districts have the freedom to ban English course material?
Who: Malcolm X
What: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Why: For its controversial views on violence, race, and politics.
Finished just after Malcolm X’s assassination, The Autobiography of Malcolm X recounts the life of Malcolm X, also known as Malcolm Little, and his commitment to and struggle on behalf of the civil rights movement. It is a collaborative book between Alex Haley and Malcolm X himself. Haley composed the book based on interviews he conducted with Malcolm X in 1963 and on his assassination in 1965. Scholars commemorate Haley as a ghostwriter. He tried to suppress his voice as a writer; however, he had many influences on the book itself, including pressing Malcolm X to avoid antisemitism. Still, the book expresses Malcolm X’s ideologies on black pride, black nationalism, and pan-Africanism. His language is powerful and his views are often considered extremist.
Figure 2. Interview of Alex Haley about Malcolm X and the book
Malcolm X was born in in Nebraska on May 19, 1925, although he moved many times in his early years due to threats his family received due to his father’s outspoken views of the Civil Rights Movement. Eventually, with influence from his brother, he converted to Islam and later became the national spokesman of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X’s background provides reasoning for his development as a Civil Rights activist. His father had already established himself as a figure in the black community, and Malcolm followed in his footsteps.
The black communities in America looked upon various leaders to bring unity to the community and reverse the prejudice and economic oppression that stood for so long. Such leaders included Booker T. Washington, W.E.B Dubois, and Marcus Garvey (Parker-Anderson). Each man employed his own unique tactics to highlight the discrimination against blacks and ultimately worked to improve these conditions. Dubois pushed for a politically-focused movement with a spiritual revival while Garvey argued that blacks should immigrate to Africa (Parker-Anderson).
Malcolm X brought his own original ideas to the scene, calling for justice in the community. In this particular quotation from the autobiography itself, Malcolm describes his experience growing up as a black man.
In fact, by then, I didn’t really have much feeling about being a Negro, because I was trying so hard, in every way I could, to be white. Which is why I am spending much of my life today telling the American black man that he’s wasting his time straining to “integrate.” I know from personal experience. I tried hard enough. (43).
He rejects the popular notion that whites and blacks need to integrate. Instead, he focuses on their division and makes it clear that he thinks the problem is unsolvable.
Despite progress after the Civil War, Malcolm was not pleased with his society. Even with the improvements to freed slaves’ lifestyles, many different injustices and inequalities existed (Parker-Anderson). Malcolm X’s goal was to remove the difference between African Americans and Caucasian Americans in any way possible.
Figure 4. Interview of Malcolm X
These unconventional ideas are espoused in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book now regarded as one of the most influential books in the U.S. It has been awarded a spot in an exhibit in the Library of Congress called “Books that Shaped America” (Parker-Anderson). This exhibit displays and highlights books that impacted America but were banned or challenged. In an article “Why The Autobiography of Malcolm X was banned,” Andrew Beniduz points to the fact that many people labeled it as a guide to crime and chaos. It included many instances of anti-white statements in its depiction of the intense racial divides at the time. These representations drew criticism and backlash.
With The Autobiography of Malcolm X, there was a fear that the book could inspire violence and cause violent revolutionary ideas to spread. In Journal of Black Studies, Nancy Clasby focuses on these fears. She notes that while Malcolm was not violent himself, he advocated self-defense and rejected the idea of non-violent protest (popularized by Martin Luther King Jr), which led to white America and the authorities to want to suppress his views (23). Malcolm X also showed little sympathy for people who tried to reach out to him. He alienated some of his family members, including his brother and, in one particular incident, a white student, who said there was nothing she could do to earn his trust (25). Similar themes are weaved in and throughout his autobiography; instances of his lack of remorse and views on the divide between races in America.
Due to its controversial tones and ideas, the movement to ban the book grew. Indeed, one of the most debated topics in schools was whether or not the book should be used in the curriculum. Marilyn Maxwell and Marlene Berman discuss this situation in their article “To Ban or Not to Ban: Confronting the Issue of Censorship in the English Class.” In the article they express the notion that school boards often censor works, removing controversial texts to create and establish a conformity of ideas (92). While this conformity helps to foster harmony, it may not allow the students to grow in their own opinions and develop strong independent arguments. Thus, Berman and Maxwell created “The Book Banning Project” to examine the use of books such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and The World According to Garp by John Irving. They found that students found reading these books to be a meaningful experience (Berman and Maxwell 96).
In 1993, parents in Duval county in Florida challenged the book as it disrupted racial harmony. Criticism in Florida spread and in a Jacksonville library students were only allowed to check the book out with a permission slip signed by their parents (Tracy).
Schools restricted access to Autobiography even when it was not part of the curriculum due to the perceived danger of Malcolm’s ideas on education in particular. He criticized schools’ ways of teaching and the lessons offered in the classroom. He writes,
Later, I remember, we came to the textbook section on Negro history. It was exactly one paragraph long. Mr. Williams laughed through it practically in a single breath, reading aloud how the Negroes had been slaves and then were freed, and how they were usually lazy and dumb and shiftless. (32)
In this quotation, Malcolm describes the open racism within the school system itself. Not only was the history of blacks in America condensed into a single paragraph, the text concentrated on the negative and demeaning aspects of black people and culture.
Opponents of the book’s censorship argue that these concerns need to be raised in the classroom, not just once or twice, but often. In his article, “Autobiography of Malcolm X Imparts Important Lessons About Teaching and Learning,” Eugene Gallagher argues for the educational value of the book. He mentions a passage in the book where the teacher tells Malcolm that his aspiration to be a lawyer was no suitable goal for a black man (Gallagher). Gallagher acknowledges that Malcolm was intimately familiar with the power of teachers to have a huge impact in the lives of their students, including negatively deterring them from reaching their potential (Gallagher).
The time period in which The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published and later censored are characterized by an intense racial divide. Black Americans and other minorities felt their voice was not being heard. Even though a full century had passed since the Civil War, racial prejudice and injustice lingered. Overall, the work of Civil Rights activists brought new ideas that clashed with the norms of the time, including educational norms. With, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, however, even though the book was censorship, it became influential nonetheless.
Clasby, Nancy. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: A Mythic Paradigm. 1st ed. Vol. 5. N.p.: Sage Publications, 1974. Print. Journal of Black Studies.
Gallagher, Eugene V. “Autobiography of Malcolm X Imparts Important Lessons About Teaching and Learning.” Diverse. Cengage Learning, 22 Feb. 2006. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.
Maxwell, Marilyn, and Marlene Berman. “To Ban or Not to Ban: Confronting the Issue of Censorship in the English Class.” ERIC – To Ban or Not to Ban: Confronting the Issue of Censorship in the English Class., Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 1997. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Oct. 1997. Web. 11 Nov. 2016.
Parker-Anderson, Scott. “Banned Books That Shaped America: The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Waldina. WordPress, 22 Dec. 2015. Web. 6 Nov. 2016.
X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine, 1992. Print.
Benudiz, Andrew. “Why The Autobiography of Malcolm X Was Banned.” Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.
Tracy. “10 Black Books You May Not Have Known Were Banned or Challenged – Page 4 of 10 – Atlanta Black Star.” Atlanta Black Star. N.p., 2015. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
Malcolm X, Censorship, Alex Haley, Civil Rights Movement, Schools, Injustice, Equality, English Class