Tuesday, March 31, 2015

X, a novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon

Ilyasah Shabazz, youngest daughter of civil rights activist Malcolm X, has already written two books about her famous father, but now she, with Kekla Magoon, has written a fictionalized version of his youth and the circumstances that led to his conversion to the Nation of Islam.  X, a novel makes for fascinating, gritty reading that once you start will be hard to put down, even if you have already read The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (yes, the author of Roots).

Almost from the beginning, Malcolm Little's life is filled with strife, anger, and disappointment.  Living in Lansing, Michigan, his father, Earl Little, a black activist, is killed, pushed in front of a streetcar most likely by the Black Legion (a splinter group of the KKK) when Malcolm is 6 years old.  As a result, the Little family is forced to live in abject poverty, his mother working only when she could pass herself off as white and get a job.

Malcolm is an intelligent, straight A student, even becoming class president in junior high, but he has always been a bit of a wild child as well, mostly stealing food to help feed his family.  When the authorities finally succeed in having his mother committed to a mental institution against her will. the now teen aged Malcolm, his brothers and sisters are all placed in different foster homes.  Malcolm is stunned when a teacher he likes tells him that he "didn't need a high school diploma to be a nigger." (pg 83)  Suddenly, Malcolm realizes that what he often took for friendliness by the white kids was racism, plain and simple.  Naturally, when his half sister Ella comes to Lansing from Boston, and invites Malcolm to come live with her, he jumps at the chance to get away and start over.

In Boston, Malcolm has a room and bed of his own plus plenty of food to eat, but his eyes are also opened to the racism that still surrounds him, and it doesn't take long for him to become completely disillusioned about the lessons his father had taught him about pride and equality for black people.  And it doesn't take long for him to discover liquor, jazz, drugs and women, particularly one white woman named Sophia as ways to shut out what he knows to be true.

But life soon becomes very dangerous and dark for Malcolm in Boston, and after seeing Harlem in New York, he decides that is where he belongs, where he can start over again.  But it doesn't take long for trouble to find him in Harlem and Malcolm is forced back to Boston.  Malcolm has never let go of Sophia, even after she marries, and once he is back in Boston, she proposes a scheme that will bring Malcolm, his friend Shorty, Sophia and her sister an abundance of money.  But when he is caught by the police, Malcolm is sent to prison and it is there that he is really able to start over, finally finding his true self when converts to Islam.

X, a novel is narrated by Malcolm but you need to remember that it is a historical fiction and the perspective is not that of the real Malcolm X.  The story begins in Harlem, in 1945 with Malcolm fleeing from a numbers runner he cheated but immediately and continuously begins to move fluidly between his past and his present.  Shabazz and Magoon don't spare the reader much in writing about the kind of gritty debauchery Malcolm fell so easily into, but they also make it clear that his self-destructive behavior resulted from a combination of disillusionment with this father's teachings, cruel racism, feeling that he can't change any of it, and the desire to keep these truths at bay in a constant haze of women, liquor, and reefer.

I found this to be one of the most compelling novels I have read in a long time.  My only complaint is that I thought a few short footnotes would have been useful to explain some people young readers may not be familiar with, for example, Marcus Garvey.  And although there are useful notes in the back of the book and a timeline of Malcolm X's life, it is kind of annoying have to flip to the back to find something.  But, I also think it is the kind of novel that will lead you seek out more information about this controversial but often misunderstood man regardless of what you may think of his activism.

No matter what you feel about X, a novel, it is definitely a book that will make you think.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book as received from the publisher, Candlewick Press

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