Black History Month celebrates the many aspects of African-American tradition that have shaped America’s moral conscience, culture, traditions and, although not as frequently discussed, intellectual life.
Even today, the tradition of activists like Richard Allen, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey continues through men like Dale Long, who recently visited the University of Dallas campus for the Annual MLK symposium.
Many members of the previous list are included in the University of Dallas’ American Civilization courses and Core readings, but one key figure’s work remains conspicuously absent: that of Malcolm X.
There are likely many reasons for this omission, most prominently his nuanced approach to violence.
Nevertheless, his contribution not only to the African-American liberal arts tradition, but also to the general American liberal arts tradition, warrants his autobiography’s place in the Core.
Malcolm X’s historic transformation from pagan pimp to devout Muslim and African-American apologist was made directly possible by his own discovery of the liberal arts.
Malcolm X was a product of a unique restorative justice program at the Norfolk Prison Colony in Norfolk, Mass. Instead of having limited freedoms and little intellectual engagement, inmates were given open doors, open libraries, and instruction by educators from neighboring colleges Boston College, Boston University, MIT and even Harvard.
As an inmate, he grew to be one of the most powerful intellectuals in the public sphere. As a largely self-directed learner, Malcolm absorbed all he could. His iconic horn-rimmed glasses resulted from his hours and hours reading under poor prison lighting.
As he would say, “I read myself blind.”
While in prison, he was a member of the storied Norfolk Prison Colony debate team, which defeated teams from MIT, Harvard, Columbia, Yale and Boston University. Even Oxford and Cambridge came to test their teams against the wit and rhetorical genius of Malcolm X, to no avail.
“Once my feet got wet,” Malcolm said, “I was gone on debating.”
Debating, in the highest sense of the word, elevated his mind to the search for truth.
Many of these debates are outlined in his autobiography, including debates on revered patrons of the Core such as Shakespeare and Homer.
After he was released from prison, Malcolm X engaged in dialogues with public policy officials, academics and other civil rights activists.
Most notably, he had a spat with well-respected Kennedy adviser and Harvard academic Arthur Schlesinger Jr. on the Nation of Islam. After an intense but civil discourse, Schlesinger retracted his position.
His vocabulary was second to none and his ability to articulate the distinctions between viewpoints was even credited by his opponents.
Regardless of readers’ political leanings, Malcolm X can be appreciated as a crucial contributor to the rhetorical liberal arts tradition as well as one of the most consequential teachers of the 20th century.
In fact, the life and legacy of Malcolm X is itself a part of our Western tradition.
There are many things we can learn today from Malcolm X, and current UD students tend to agree.
“At a majority Catholic or homeschool-educated population, it would be nice to broaden our horizons with a more racially sensitive document, beyond just ‘Letters From a Birmingham Jail,’ ” my friend Noah Crawford said. “In a lot of ways, we are simply out of touch with African-American culture. Something like Malcolm X’s autobiography could go a long way to correct that.”
As for what many see as intensely violent rhetoric, Malcolm X always claimed that the reason he encouraged African-Americans to arm themselves was because the right to bear arms and the right to self-defense are inalienable human rights. His argument is simple: any who deny the right to self-defense based on the tone of someone’s skin denies that person’s status as a human being.
Malcolm X was always quick to point out that had a white man advocated the same right to self-defense, no one would bat an eye. Robert Penn Warren, the famous southern writer, would describe his approach to violence as, at worst, “a little guerilla warfare against the Klan.”
Affirming the dignity and humanity of African-Americans became the sole purpose of Malcolm X’s debates after he experienced the transcendent universality of Islam on his pilgrimage to Mecca.
I think it is appropriate to let Malcolm X speak for himself on his view of education as a way of correcting racial injustice:
“You can’t legislate good will — that comes through education.”