X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

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I am Malcolm.
I am my father’s son. But to be my father’s son means that they will always come for me.

They will always come for me, and I will always succumb.

Malcolm Little’s parents have always told him that he can achieve anything, but from what he can tell, that’s nothing but a pack of lies—after all, his father’s been murdered, his mother’s been taken away, and his dreams of becoming a lawyer have gotten him laughed out of school. There’s no point in trying, he figures, and lured by the nightlife of Boston and New York, he escapes into a world of fancy suits, jazz, girls, and reefer. But Malcolm’s efforts to leave the past behind lead him into increasingly dangerous territory when what starts as some small-time hustling quickly spins out of control. Deep down, he knows that the freedom he’s found is only an illusion—and that he can’t run forever. – [X]

As you lot may have noticed, non-fiction month at The Book Wars coincides with Black History Month in Canada and the States. Now, I know this book has been categorized as fiction*, but this fictionalized account of Malcolm X’s childhood speaks volumes of personal truths, coupled with historical accuracy– I couldn’t not talk about it this month; especially given that the story is presented to us by Ilyasah Shabazz who is the third daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, along with the fantastic Kekla Magoon.

X: A Novel is an easy book to sink into, mainly because it has an interesting narrative structure. The book opens with Malcolm in the year 1945, running for his life. The rest of the novel, however, focuses on showing us what and where he has been running from, with the final chapters catching us up with the prologue. What I loved about the style of this novel, though, is how the memories of Malcolm’s childhood, often rise up in a ghost-like manner, interrupting his present and his future. It is an incredible feat, in my opinion, to go back and forth in time so often and have it read so well. This, I feel, stands true to the easily ignored fact that many of the civil rights activists suffered great trauma in their pasts. No trauma has a tidy ending, and this account of Malcolm’s early years does not allow us to turn a blind eye on that. Of course, when this is contrasted with the Malcolm that we (or I) know best (calm, collected, with hard insights to offer alongside wry smiles) …

… the book serves to highlight just how difficult it can be for one to bear the burden of their past with such dignity and courage.

As a child, though, Malcolm could not foresee what the future would have in store for him. Dignity and courage meant different things to him then. The first shock comes in the knowledge that his mother had to lie about who she was in order to provide for their family:

How could anyone mistake Mom for white? Mom was a proud black woman, the proudest I know … We had a picture of Marcus Garvey on the living-room wall, talking about going back to Africa, talking about the power of blackness and the strength of the Negro heart. I couldn’t imagine looking at Mom and not seeing that.

“They all think I’m white,” she said after a moment. “That’s how I keep a job.” – Page 31.

The second is the knowledge that in a world that can cruelly end your life for speaking up (as it did his father’s), a young Malcolm finds that sometimes doing the right thing (when your life hangs in the balance) is sometimes overrated:

“He won’t do it again. Anything like that. Ever,” Mom insisted.

I glanced at her. Sure I would. Put those chickens in front of me again, they’d be mine. I’d just take a minute to learn how best to run with the crate – Page 39.

Once he is forced to move away from his mother and siblings, he stays with his half-sister Ella in Roxbury, a neighbourhood that grants him two contradictory things at once– invisibility (from white people) and visibility (with people of colour). In the city, anything is possible …

It’s not so hard–being black–when I’m surrounded by so many others, and everyone seems to be getting along just fine, from the rich-looking dark men in pressed suits to the vagrants in the alleys. Mothers lugging babies and groups of pretty girls in short, smooth dresses with purses to match. Schoolboys with satchels and newsboys on bikes. Milkmen and mail carriers and shopkeepers and barmaids. All Negro.

No such thing as “just a nigger” in Roxbury. I love it. – Page 87.

… until he realizes there are things in his past that simply won’t stay behind him. Just because he’s left home, does not mean he can be seen with a white girlfriend:

There are so many rules for how to be a black person, things you cannot say and places you cannot go. In Lansing there was signpost on every road leading in from the outskirts of town: NO NEGROES AFTER DARK. I’ve never seen such a sign in Boston. Maybe here you’re just supposed to know. – Page 199.

Just because he wants to forget that lynching is a cruel and persistent practice, he cannot do so. I think this scene particularly is what stood out for me in the book. Whether Malcolm really did see Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit” (though I know they were friends) or not, this scene hits hard because of the knowledge that it happened at all, with or without Malcolm present:

Slight rustles of anticipation among the crowd. The first mournful strains squeeze out. She’s known for this song, “Strange Fruit.” It’s slow, haunting melody about the horror and the senselessness of lynching innocent Negroes. She sings of the swinging bodies, how they hang among the branches like unnatural, disturbing fruit. Negro men, women, and children hanging from the tree limbs, blowing in the wind. – Page 221.

With every encounter and reminder of the terrible racism that is present around him, Malcolm is being pushed unwillingly towards an uncertain future. I really don’t want to give away anymore and I fear that I’ve already shared too many bits from the novel.

Rather helpfully, at the end of the book, are notes about the characters (which ones were real, which ones weren’t), a timeline (for Malcolm X and his family), a note on historical contexts, as well as a detailed section on further reading. This last section is divided up into a few subheadings and I’ve included with those subheadings, the books I’m most interested in reading:

There are many more books mentioned, so if you do get to read this gem of a book, you’ll know what to pick up next. I think for readers who are especially hesitant about non-fiction and biographies, this book is a great starting point. X: A Novel is perfectly paced and perfectly balanced. It is about finding hope and humanity between hard truths and comforting lies, and I just cannot recommend this book enough.

*I have tentatively categorized this book as both “History” and “Historical Fiction”.