“By any means necessary”

Kabir Babar reviews the diary of one of the 20th century's most iconic figures, Malcolm X

“By any means necessary”
This year marks the 90th birth anniversary of Malcolm X, and the 50th anniversary of his assassination and the publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In the decades since his death, hundreds of books about the man have been published. Some of them contain transcripts of his speeches and letters, but nothing significantly new has appeared in recent times until the release of the diary Malcolm kept during his tours of Africa and the Middle East in 1964.

Malcolm X in Mecca at Masjid al Haram
Malcolm X in Mecca at Masjid al Haram

The existence of this diary has been known for decades; it was referred to in the Autobiography, but it was not until 2002 that the diary surfaced at an auction, was acquired by Malcolm’s family and deposited in an archive for access to scholars. Despite a publication date of 2013, legal disputes between the publisher of the book and the family led to delays until the case was settled last year. Now, a half-century on from when it was first written, Malcolm’s desire to see his chronicle turned into a book has been realised at last.

The diary covers a period between April and November 1964. This was a tumultuous period in Malcolm’s life, marked by his break with the Nation of Islam and his efforts to create his own organisations to further the causes of black rights and unity. More importantly, it was a period marked by deep philosophical changes, during which his sister and others encouraged him to explore a more orthodox Islam and perform the Hajj. The diary goes some way to chronicling the changes of thinking he experienced during this time, and the potentially wider scope of activities this evolution entailed. For Malcolm was internationalising the struggle for black rights.

During his trips, he met with dozens of heads of state, including Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. He was a state guest of Saudi Prince Faisal, addressed the Ghanaian parliament and encountered ambassadors from Cuba to China. And as the diary records, wherever he went, he spoke out of the mistreatment of blacks in the US, enlightening people who knew little beyond what the Western mainstream press and US government propaganda had fed them. He encouraged African nations to unite and support their African-American cousins across the Atlantic. He also considered the continuation of a goal his father had once envisioned: the indictment of the US for racism before an international court. Just how successful he would have been in any of these causes is, of course, impossible to determine, but his activities certainly made the US government nervous, for it attempted to monitor and counter him as much as possible.

The Hajj was a transformative experience for Malcolm. Earlier, in the US, Malcolm had been ever sceptical of white people: once, when asked by an earnest young woman what she could do to help the black cause, Malcolm dismissed her with a curt “nothing”. But in Mecca he saw something he had never encountered in the US: “People from every rank, from king to beggar, are all here eating & sleeping alike – of every colour & class – The Hajj equalizes all.” Shortly after his return to the US, when stopping at a traffic light, a white man in a neighbouring car thrust his hand out towards Malcolm. “Do you mind shaking hands with a white man?” he asked with a grin. And Malcolm responded, “I don’t mind shaking hands with human beings. Are you one?” This incident indicates that, while never failing to challenge his interlocutors, Malcolm had softened his attitude towards whites. In the Autobiography, Malcolm would write that he regretted his dismissal of that young woman who had wanted to aid the black struggle. Now, with caution, he would reach out to and befriend peoples of all races and creeds.

The diary also reveals much about the humanity of the man: the humbleness he felt in Mecca, his fear of speaking before a conclave of representatives from 73 countries, his gratitude for being treated with respect on his visits and the loneliness he felt despite all this attention. Malcolm’s observations on the psychology of others is no less interesting: during his Hajj, he met a Pakistani general who “had been in the States several times & spoke English well; in fact, his ‘air’ was more English than Pakistani, which probably wasn’t his fault because his country was colonized by the English for some time.” Of the Arabs and their seeming lack of interest in promoting the Hajj and Islam, he observed, “the Arabs are poor at public relations. They say ‘Insha Allah’ & then wait, and as they are waiting the world passes them by.”

Thus, the diary is insightful, but reading it is not as profound an experience as reading the Autobiography or listening to Malcolm’s oratory. The text of the diary is often in shorthand and seems to have been written more as a record to stimulate Malcolm’s own memory than a work for unedited publication. A substantial chunk of the diary is a straightforward narrative of names and dates: “Dinner at Essien’s, met 3 Americans and take them back to TV studios, do TV program; one girl from Detroit (studying medicine); one from Ala. in the Peace Corps; man from Ahmerst (Yale).” Yet, interspersed with these somewhat perfunctory notes are unpolished passages of great import; on 14 September he wrote: “When we all learn to think as human beings instead of as capitalists, communists & socialists this will then be a world for all human beings.”
"Do you mind shaking hands with a white man?"

While the diary is substantially longer than the 40 or so pages of the Autobiography that discuss these journeys, at places the latter provides more details than the former. This is disappointing, but the diary still contains a great deal of information not found in the Autobiography. Therefore, the diary is not a replacement for the Autobiography or vice versa; one supplements the other.

The book was edited by Malcolm’s daughter Ilyasah Al-Shabazz and the writer and activist Herb Boyd. They have done their best to be faithful to the manuscript; their editing consists largely of explanatory interpolations in square brackets. They have also made some efforts to supplement the main text with useful material such as photographs of Malcolm, hitherto unpublished reproductions of documents and pages from the diary’s manuscript, contextualising passages from other sources, footnotes and annotations that provide biographical sketches of some of the people Malcolm encountered during his travels. A tributary epilogue by Al-Shabazz in which she reflects on her own Hajj experience rounds off the book.

All this is useful material – but it could go much further. Not all abbreviations are explained in full, and not all on the first appearance. Photographs are of poor quality. The biographical information found in the annotations/commentary section is largely taken from generic online encyclopaedias. There is no index and the transcription contains some minor errors. But the editors are aware of the limitations of this first edition and acknowledge that there remains much work to be done. Irrespective of these flaws, the publication of this seminal document of the 20th century is something for which to be grateful, and one wonders why it has received little attention in the mainstream Western English language press.
"I don't mind shaking hands with human beings. Are you one?"

He was born with the name “Malcolm Little” and died with the name “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz”, but posterity will always remember him as Malcolm X. Feared, threatened and eventually murdered in the land of his birth, Malcolm seems to have found a small measure of peace during his sojourns in Africa and the Middle East. “Never have I felt more relaxed, more at peace, or nearer to God than here today at Medina. [...] I haven’t really felt like this since ‘my prison years’ when I would spend days upon days in solitude, hrs. upon hrs. studying and praying. There is no greater serenity of mind than when one can shut the hectic noise & pace of the materialistic outside world, & seek inner peace within one’s self.”

At home, he was often maligned as a man of hatred and violence; abroad he was feted as a shining prince. It is perhaps for this reason that Malcolm was most proud when the Nigerian Muslim Students Society made him an honorary member and gave him the name “Omowale” – “the son who has come home”.

Kabir Babar is an antiquarian and bibliophile who discusses books at www.facebook.com/KabirBabarSPQR