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The Nation of Islam and the African American Community
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a remarkable narrative about the transformation of the Black Power movement icon, Malcolm X. Growing up in a world of racism and segregation, Malcolm X was able to overcome his life of crime and develop into one of the most influential African Americans in United States history. At first Malcolm held a great distaste toward whites, mainly from personal experiences throughout his childhood. When introduced to the extremist teachings of Elijah Muhammad, it was clear that Malcolm readily accepted the idea that the white man was the devil (Haley 162). The teachings of Muhammad and his Nation of Islam did not just appeal to X, but were accepted by a large portion of the African American community for personal, social and economic reasons.
The Nation of Islam was referred to as the “natural religion of the black man” (Haley 158). Elijah Muhammad was the leader in this cult-like religion and believed he was the messenger of God. The origin of the rivalry between blacks and whites is described as “Yacub’s History.” In the story, it is believed that the black man was the original man. Over time, a male was born from the displeased portion of the community and decided to break the peace of the people. He was a genius and figured out how to split the human genome into black and brown genes. Mr. Yacub moved to an island and over the course of 1000 years, a “bleached-out” race was created. The white race eventually went to live with the black race, but then was taken to the caves of Europe because the race was filled with murderers and rapists. It was believed that Allah (God) had Moses raise the race to civilization (Haley 168-70). This story appealed to blacks, as it deemed them the superior race. Muhammad also taught others to believe that whites have hidden the true identity of African Americans. He suggests that by stealing them from their native land, whites prevented blacks from learning their true family name and language (Haley 164).
The religion affected African Americans personally because it finally gave them a reason to have pride in their race. As mentioned earlier, Malcolm X had numerous grievances caused by the white man. They killed his father, put his mother in an insane asylum, separated his brothers and sisters, and told him that he would never amount to anything because he was African American (Haley 162). Many of these injustices were shared by other African Americans who had suffered the unfairness of inequality. The belief in the “white devil” satisfied angry blacks because it viewed whites as evil or impure, something of which had always been associated with blacks in the past. X noted in the text that the “teachings of Muhammad stressed that history had been ‘whitened’…the black man had been simply left out” (Haley 177). Malcolm believed this was the number one reason why African Americans, supporters of Muhammad or not, could relate to the religion’s beliefs. Once educated about black history in the United States, African Americans felt even more alienated toward whites, especially after learning the true horrors of slavery. Finally, the radical story of Mr. Yacub and his creation of the white race was somewhat of a biblical parallel that served as a scientific explanation for the black man’s oppression.
Socially, the Nation of Islam gave African Americans power, along with equal standing in the rivalry between blacks and whites. Because of charismatic leaders and speakers such as Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, the black community had a great respect for the religion. As an organization, the Nation of Islam united African Americans around the country and allowed them to spread their beliefs to “brainwashed blacks” that were raised to believe that “black was a curse…and to look for his pie in the sky…while right here on earth, the slavemaster white man enjoyed his heaven” (Haley 166). For the first time, the religion also considered blacks to be superior, not overshadowed by whites. The fact that African Americans were stripped of their human rights as soon as they were forced onto the slave ships is another point made by X. He questions “how is the black man going to get ‘civil rights’ before he first wins human rights?” (Haley 183). He explains that blacks must first think of their own people as a great race and culture. By way of the Nation of Islam, followers were not allowed to “dance, gamble, date, attend movies, or sports, or take long vacations from work” (Haley 226). These strict ground rules disconnected them from American society because they were so particular. Reasons for these regulations stem back to the anti-white philosophy. Malcolm preached that “the white man wants the black man to stay immoral, unclean, and ignorant…we never can win freedom and justice and equality until we are doing something for ourselves!” (Haley 225). Through the religion, African Americans were able to have a strong message to the white society for awareness of their needs as United States Citizens.
A large portion of African Americans were in the lowest economic classes in the 1950s and 1960s. Because the civil rights movement led by activist Martin Luther King Jr. specifically catered to middle-class blacks, families like X’s did not support his view of non-violent tactics and integration. Martin Luther King Jr.’s followers were embodied as a “brainwashed black imp, some dyed-in-the-wool Uncle Tom, would nod at me then go running to tell the white man” (Haley 186). The opposite views of X and King split the African American community. Also, some were still supporters of Marcus Garvey and his “back to Africa” movement of the late 1800s. In fact, Malcolm X’s own father was a preacher of Garvey’s views. Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam’s teachings were influenced by the pan African movement and provided a faith for all African Americans, regardless of economic status. Also, the religion taught African Americans to be self-sufficient and to “be your own boss.” Instead of trying to move up in the white man’s world, blacks were encouraged to form their own businesses and support each other. In this way, they would be able to live amongst whites, even though they were separated, and provide a positive example for other families of low financial status.
All African Americans were affected personally by the inhumane treatment of blacks throughout history. Even today there is racial animosity between whites and blacks. Although times have changed drastically, black history still haunts America. As portrayed in the Autobiography of Malcolm X, blacks were able to rise in power and status, regardless of heavy racism. They could join civil rights groups or religious organizations such as the Nation of Islam. By this religion, there was a position in society for African Americans that presented them with a power to protest against the handling of black rights. Through economic means, African Americans were able to overcome fiscal pressures and losses controlled by the white man.