It would be fascinating to get Malcolm X’s take on the current surge of racial tension in America. At first glance, we seem to have made great strides toward equality since the civil rights movement. We elected Barack Obama, a black man, president. Twice. We almost universally condemn outright racism. But is it possible that racism (most notably against African-Americans) hasn’t receded so much as it has evolved and become more refined? “The elegant racist,” Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, “knows how to injure nonwhite people while never summoning the specter of white guilt.” Housing segregation, for instance, is both devastating and hard to detect. And according to the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for prison reform, racial minorities are more likely than whites to be arrested, to be convicted and to face stiff sentences. With recent racially charged events like the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City — as well as the rising plea for more representation of minorities in children’s literature from the We Need Diverse Books movement — I can’t think of a more appropriate time for a book about the early years of Malcolm X.
Malcolm’s own daughter Ilyasah Shabazz (“Growing Up X”) and Kekla Magoon (“How It Went Down”) have written just such a book, choosing, as Shabazz explains in a thorough and thoughtful author’s note, to use the novel form as opposed to straight nonfiction for the sake of cohesion and the chance to take a few artistic liberties. “X” follows a teenage Malcolm Little as he escapes Lansing, Mich., and follows a trail that leads him to Boston, then to Harlem, back to Boston, and ultimately to prison after years of crime catch up to him. Not surprisingly, the most interesting journey of the story is the one that takes place inside Malcolm’s mind and heart.
On his first bus ride out of Michigan, Malcolm sees a black body hanging from a tree near the side of the road. An older black man sitting nearby tries to shield Malcolm’s eyes, but Malcolm has already seen it, and his thoughts go directly to his own father, an activist who may have met a similar fate back when Malcolm was just 6. Years later, when Malcolm is in Harlem and committed to his new life as a hustler, he hears Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit,” that haunting song about lynching. It hits young Malcolm at his core. He sits there in silence long after Holiday has left the stage. But Malcolm isn’t quite ready to process the depth of this hurt. Instead of reflecting on his father this time — the fascinating evolution of his relationship with his dead father, incidentally, is one of the book’s highlights — he muses: “Got to have some reefer after that. A little whiskey.”
Skillfully rendered moments like this are what make the novel so successful. Shabazz and Magoon expertly guide the reader by presenting loaded scene after loaded scene, often making us watch young Malcolm choose the wrong path or opt for the buzz of the street over the pull of family and principle. The result is a satisfying (and appropriate) complexity. Malcolm’s love for his mother, father and siblings is palpable, even when he’s pulling away from them or sabotaging those bonds.
There are a few minor missteps. The pacing is off in places — in the first third of the book we’re unnecessarily yanked back and forth in time — and I longed for more reflective depth from Malcolm, especially given the major historical events taking place around him, like the Great Depression and World War II. Still, “X” is a powerful, honest look at the early years of one of our country’s most important civil rights leaders. Most exciting of all is the prospect that his story will awaken a new generation of young activists, inspiring them to step into what remains a vital fight.