Malcolm X: Sex, Drugs and Jazz
Malcolm X lived two lives. It was only after his first life came to its natural conclusion that he began the next life, pursuing the work we know him for today.
He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of a Baptist minister. He experienced more misery in his first few years than most do in a lifetime. When he was 4, members of the Ku Klux Klan burned down his family’s house. Two years later, Malcolm’s father was killed brutally. According to the Autobiography of Malcolm X, people in town “always whispered that he was attacked, and then laid across some tracks for a streetcar to run over him. His body was cut almost in half. He lived two and a half hours in that condition.”
Without his father around, Malcolm’s family struggled to get by on welfare checks. The stress and grief wrecked his mother, who eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and was taken away to a hospital. All of these events undoubtedly shaped Malcolm’s philosophy later in life, yet for most of his adolescence, Malcolm did not rebel against white society, but actually lived by its terms, and flourished.While in seventh grade, Malcolm was elected class president at his mostly white school, a significantly different kind of leadership position than he rose to later in life, but notable nonetheless. So how did he get elected by a bunch of white kids? “My grades were among the highest in the school. I was unique in my class, like a pink poodle. And I was proud… I didn’t really have much feeling about being a Negro,” he said in the Autobiography.
His life only really began to change when he was 15 and went to Boston to be with one of his relatives. There he learned to dance and to hustle. He got a job working as a shoe shiner at a jazz club, started chasing after white girls, and oh, did we mention dancing? “I was whirling girls so fast their skirts were snapping… Circling tapdancing, I was underneath them when they landed – doing the ‘flapping eagle,’ ‘the kangaroo’ and ‘the split.'” Though it may sound odd, dancing was also where his “long-suppressed African instincts broke through.”
After Boston, he moved on to a life of debauchery in Harlem. He gambled, lived in a house full of prostitutes, hovered around musicians like Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. He started to sell drugs and use pot, opium and Benzedrine. All the while, he was followed by the police. “In those days only three things in the world scared me: jail, a job, and the Army,” he wrote. Yet, his attitude towards life was largely the same in this strange period and in his later life.
Looking back, I think I really was at least slightly out of my mind. I viewed narcotics as most people regard food. I wore my guns as today I wear my neckties. Deep down, I actually believed that after living as fully as humanly possible, one should then die violently. I expected then, as I still expect today, to die at any time.”
Throughout these episodes, Malcolm got some good practice outsmarting white people, much as he would do later. In one case, he had just burglarized a house and was in a getaway car when he heard police sirens. To be a black man in a white neighborhood was reason enough for suspicion. But instead of speeding faster, he advanced to the cop car and played dumb, asking them for directions. They just assumed a black man could not be that conniving and let him drive away. But though he escaped that night, the cops eventually caught up with him for the robbery and through him in jail.
“I had sunk to the very bottom of the American white man’s society,” he said about his thoughts being jailed. But it was in prison, with his life completely lost, that he began to study Islam and reevaluate his experiences up to that point. “I made up my mind to devote the rest of my life to telling the white man about himself – or die.”
All the ingrediants for his future success were already there. He turned his sharp, clever mind to studying in prison, and when he got out, he used his charisma and experience hustling to prosletyze for his new faith. If anyting, Malcolm X’s life is proof that sometimes your true calling only appears after you’ve blazed through every possible mistake.