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What age should my child read The Autobiography of Malcolm X?

I went to the Anthony Bean theater the other night to see El Hajj Malik, which is a play written by N.R. Davidson. The play told the story of Malcolm X through male and female actors by way of showing that Malcolm X lives inside all of us. The play was okay. I liked the intent more than the execution. I went with a friend who knew that I was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which had had me in its grips since I opened the first page. I had picked up a paperback copy at the Community Book Center and the woman there had said, “It’s a quick read.”

It’s an unsettling read, a compelling read; I would say a must read for anyone living in this country. I was finishing the last pages as I flew back into New Orleans today, the chapter that Alex Haley narrated himself, and again, like I am want to do, even though I know that Malcolm X was murdered, I was wracked with sobs on the Southwest flight when I got to that part.

In my edition of the paperback, his daughter, Attallah Shabazz wrote the foreword at the same time as the Malcolm X commemorative stamp was issued by the U.S. Post Office – ~1998. Although it had been decades since Malcolm X was murdered, his legacy as one of the most significant orators for the black people in this country is undeniable. He was killed when I was six years old, two years after JFK was shot, three years later, Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. He lived in a tumultuous time as all of these public figures did.

I’m fascinated by him, of when he says to Haley, “My whole life has been a chronology of changes.” Of how he made and remade himself many times, pushing himself into a man who helped transform a nation. Or did he? He was reviled by whites and some blacks during his time for being a segregationist, for being a racist. But when I read his words as he was going through one of his changes, that not all white men are the devil, in which he said, “… that the white man is not inherently evil, but America’s racist society influences him to act evilly. The society has produced and nourishes a psychology which brings out the lowest, most base part of human beings” and I think about 9/11, about Guantanamo, about the death penalty, and about the 2005 Federal Flood, I wonder if this society has healed at all since his death.

I’m not sure what age Tin should read The Autobiography of Malcolm X – I had read on one parent board that 10 years old might be too young to watch Alex Haley’s Roots or read the book while one parent said 7th and 8th grade was a good age (12-13 years old). I was thinking of this as I am haunted by this book, by this man, and today, Tin was sitting on my lap when I returned from my trip and we were reading Art from the Heart about Clementine Hunter, a book that a friend had given him for his birthday. In the book, Hunter is standing in a gallery at Northwestern State University in Natchiotches looking at her paintings on the wall – she had to go in on a Sunday because she wasn’t allowed in during normal business hours. Tin asked me again and again, “Why couldn’t she go into the gallery when it was open?” And I said, because these were dark times in the history of this country when there was segregation. “Why couldn’t she go into the gallery when it was open?” he asked several more times and I repeated the same answer.

A father told me the other day that he doesn’t want to initiate a conversation with his son about slavery, because he doesn’t want his white son thinking less of his black friends. That’s an interesting perspective, because I would say I fear a conversation with my son about slavery might make him think less of his white friends. There is a part of me that would love for Tin to read the story of Malcolm X right now – to hear his words right now – so he can know right off the bat that the plight of African Americans in this country has been scarred by slavery and its aftermath. I want him to know this now, so he can get that part out of the way – the anger, the disbelief, the shock – I want him to know now so that his perception of what this means for his life can broaden and change, much like it did for the most radical black man in our recent history, ElHajj Malik ElShabazz. 

I am very curious how other parents approach these topics with their children. In my Jewish household no one stepped gingerly around the topic of the Holocaust, it was on the table before I could speak my first word. Is slavery discussed in African American families the same way?

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by Rachel Dangermond

+ - 2 comments

June 25, 2017 - 3:07 pm

Rachel - Hi Adrienne and thanks for your comment. I do believe that we have to radically change the way we parent our children if they are going to be change makers. I know a lot of parents who want to prolong the innocence of their children but it comes at the cost of children forming their own assumptions about who we value and why. Reading with your child about the struggle to overcome racism in this country is empowering and I don’t think that it takes away their childhood. I met a woman who travels around the world producing plays about women’s lives when slavery was legal in this country. She does it because she said when she was growing up there were still kinfolks sitting around the kitchen table talking about slavery and Jim Crow, but that as a college professor at a HBCU she found her students – mostly African American – had no understanding of that period and often conflated slavery/Jim Crow/Civil Rights together as if it weren’t a timeline of occurrences with some standout milestones and leadership like that of Malcolm X that moved that timeline along – right now it feels that it has been at a glacial pace – but when we make our children historians then they can understand the world without judgment of who did what and when but instead as a shared history that has brought us here today.

June 25, 2017 - 2:07 pm

Adrienne - I’m African American and in my home growing up, there weren’t any conversations about slavery. I learned what I did from school (which was that my history began with slavery). This isn’t empowering or anything to feel proud about and I think most people don’t talk about it because it’s “sad”/ “the past”/ “over”, not realizing that it’s not over completely and we are still suffering from the effects of it. I think it’s interesting that some people thought that it would cause their kids to look down upon their friends because I was concerned that the talk about slavery would cause C (my 10 yo son) think less of himself. I chose to have the talk about slavery and I believe that I’ve made the decision to read this book with him because we’re African- Americans living in a society full of good and bad people, all with their own biases and prejudices. I want my son to have the knowledge of the history of the United States so that when he is faced with the reality that he is not seen as equal and will often not be treated equally, he will not be side swiped/heart broken. He will have enough love in himself and his people to know that what he’s taught, is not true and that he’s not full of hate and distrust in white people. I want to instill a new, more accurate narrative of his people in him and I want him to have the balance of love/action that Malcolm X demonstrated before his murder.

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