Brooks Kolb

Brooks Kolb is a Seattle writer, artist, and a landscape architect.


written on the 58th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination (February 21, 1965)

Just in time for Black History Month, I woke up one morning realizing I knew absolutely nothing about Malcolm X or what he stood for.  Like any other ignorant white person, my stereotypical view restricted Malcolm to a black nationalist who strove to defeat white people “by any means necessary.”  Compared with the near divinity or sainthood of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he sounded like the Anti-Christ.  Even so, the fact that he is still revered by millions nearly sixty years after his death, in 1965, told me that the truth had to be more nuanced, more complex.  Before I had time to ignore that thought, I ran out to my local bookstore and bought a copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” 

I was not disappointed in my quest:  Malcolm’s complexity and essential humanity jumped off the page, beginning with the first paragraph.  His near cinematic description of Harlem in the 1940s and his vivid descriptions of the leading jazz musicians of the day, together with his account of his descent into a life of crime, made the book an instant page-turner.  Most unforgettable was his encounter with Billie Holiday in a Midtown Manhattan club called the Onyx:

“Billie, at the microphone, had just finished a number when she saw Jean and me.   Her white gown glittered under the spotlight, her face had that coppery, Indianish look, and her hair was in that trademark ponytail.  For her next number she did the one she knew I always liked so:  “You Don’t Know What Love Is”—“until you face each dawn with sleepless eyes…until you’ve lost a love you hate to lose—”

Somehow, I had expected Malcolm X to come across as a sanctimonious Muslim on the first page.  I thought the book would be a lecture.  Instead, I followed his exciting and dangerous journey from criminal “hustler” to upstanding moral leader; from atheist to devoted Muslim; with unflagging attention.  It was a journey surely as unexpected to him as it was to me, his reader.  That journey would take the form of an agonizing personal transformation from within the solitary confines of his prison cell. 

In “The Autobiography,” Malcolm makes much of the idea that Christianity is the white man’s religion.  Not only is it the white man’s religion, but the white man uses his religion to keep the black man “brainwashed” and under his thumb, promising that good Christian African-Americans will go to their reward in heaven for their sweat, toil, blood, and tears here on Earth.   As Malcolm so astutely points out, the white man, by contrast, does not need to be rewarded in heaven:  he has already achieved an earthly state of heaven in his land of milk and honey.  To inspect that land of milk and honey, Malcolm explains, a black man has only to take the subway downtown from Harlem and get off most anywhere.  He will find it flanking both sides of Central Park, not to mention everywhere below 59th Street.

To add insult to injury, the white man asks the black man to worship a Christ with blue eyes and blond hair.  (Malcolm X has a habit of referring to “the black man” and “the white man” as if each one is a single, allegorical figure representing a population of millions.  Women are –I presume–understood in their Biblical sense as Adam’s rib, a subset of ‘the black man’ or ‘white man.’)  This worship of a blond Christ is more than hypocritical, Malcolm suggests.  Adopting the manner of Socrates, he peppers a blond, blue-eyed Harvard divinity student with questions about Christianity.  “What color was Jesus?” Malcolm asks.  After a short but uncomfortable equivocation, the student finally admits that Jesus was “brown.”

 To Malcolm, this formulation—that black people will be rewarded only in heaven, and that while on Earth they are expected to worship a God who is falsely promoted as blond—demonstrates that Christianity is simply one more tool in the white man’s ample toolkit of racial oppression.  For these reasons, the Nation of Islam is the “true” religion for black people:  it is a religion organized by people of Africa for people of Africa. 

Fascinatingly, Malcolm relates how easy it was for him to convert people who attended the many small, evangelical storefront churches of Harlem:

“These congregations were usually Southern migrant people, usually older, who would go anywhere to hear what they called ‘good preaching.’…three or four nights a week, they were in their storefront rehearsing for the next Sunday, I guess, shaking and rattling and rolling the gospels with their guitars and tambourines.”

Obviously, many black people today, as in Malcolm X’s own time, would beg to disagree with his assertion that Christianity is only the white man’s religion.  No less a contemporaneous civil rights figure than Dr. Martin Luther King would certainly have rejected that idea.   However, that does not make Malcolm’s claim that Christianity is the white man’s religion an ineffective argument.   By making it, Malcolm fittingly and accurately arrived at a broader point, even though it was not the one he intended.  That broader point is that religion (any religion) can be easily hijacked to serve the political ends of the dominant group within any society. 

To give an example, one might reasonably ask, what is Christianity?  Arguably, the answer is that Christianity is whatever the dominant Christian group of any given era says that it is.  I am not speaking now of the sincere people of faith of any era; I am speaking of those in positions of power who are not afraid to use the pulpit for political ends.  In the Middle Ages, there were multitudes of innocent people of faith, but it was left to the Popes to decide who was a heathen.  As far as they were concerned, the heathens deserved to be burned at the stake. 

As a second example of religious hijacking, today one could be forgiven for believing that the main teachings of Jesus were that no woman should have an abortion under any circumstances and that homosexuals are sinners who must be converted to hetero-normality.

 Malcolm X initially made the mistake of assuming that, unlike Christianity, the Nation of Islam was pure enough not to be bent to malignant political purposes.  Later, his rupture with Elijah Muhammed demonstrated otherwise.  This leads to another broad conclusion, whether Malcolm realized it or not:  no “original” religion is immune from dissecting into several competing sub-sects or denominations.  As the Gnostic Gospels show us, the first cracks in Christianity appeared even before it was codified into the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.