by Christopher Paslay
Over ten years ago, when I first began teaching in the Philadelphia School District, I asked my department head to order a class set of The Autobiography of Malcolm X so I could use it with my English classes. Without hesitating, she gave me the following advice: Stay away from Malcolm X. When I asked her why, she told me he was too difficult a subject, and that if I wanted to do an autobiography of an important African American, I should instead try Gifted Hands, the remarkable story of neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Although I never taught Gifted Hands, I stayed away from Malcolm X. I knew from studying him in college that his autobiography was filled with challenging subject matter, and as a rookie teacher educating a multi-racial class of students, I didn’t want to butcher the material; I was afraid of sounding either too bleeding-heart or too insensitive.
As time passed, however, my fascination with Malcolm X took hold once again; it wasn’t long before I began experimenting with his autobiography in class—teaching it in bits and pieces—tinkering with lessons in a trail-and-error sort of way.
Today I teach Malcolm’s autobiography from start to finish—from the Forward by Malcolm’s daughter Attallah Shabazz to the Epilogue by Alex Haley. Because I believe all races can learn something from reading his life story, I’m sharing four tips I’ve learned to better teach Malcolm X to a 21st century, multicultural class of high school students.
TIP ONE: BALANCE THE THEME OF PRIDE WITH THE THEME OF HUMILTY
Traditionally, pride is a major theme of Malcolm X’s autobiography. Pride is one of the reasons why Malcolm X changed the lives of so many people; he gave people hope by making them feel good about themselves. But in the 21st century, pride has a way of getting our young people into trouble. Many times, our youth are so proud that they don’t listen to their parents; they are so proud that they don’t heed the advice of teachers and police officers; they are so proud that they rather pull the trigger of a gun than back down.
What our students really need today is humility. Our students need to learn that it takes a stronger person to walk away from a confrontation than to engage in one. The ironic part is that it was Malcolm X’s humility—not his pride—that saved him. He wasn’t able to let Allah into his life until he first humbled himself—got down on his knees and prayed for forgiveness. In his autobiography he states, “The hardest test I ever faced in my life was praying. . . . bending me knees to pray—that act—well, that took me a week. You know what my life had been. Picking a lock to rob someone’s house was the only way my knees had ever been bent before. I had to force myself to bend my knees. And waves of shame and embarrassment would force me back up.”
TIP TWO: BALANCE THE THEME OF SELF-EXPRESSION WITH THE THEME OF DIGNITY
Another traditional theme of The Autobiography of Malcolm X is self-expression. But just like with pride, I don’t believe our youth are short on self-expression. Take a look at the way they dress, the way they wear their hair. I’m not singling out any particular culture or style, I’m just making a reference as a whole: Most of our youth don’t lack self-expression.
Tattoos and piercings are commonplace. So are extravagant styles of dress, from “gangsta” to “gothic”. And with so many pop singers peddling sex, it’s a wonder any of our young ladies come to school wearing any underwear.
And where does dignity factor into self-expression? Let’s look at Malcolm’s life for the answer: he was never able to truly express himself until he first got back his dignity. He got his dignity back by shedding all the props and gimmicks of the popular culture, by no longer conking his hair or wearing that flamboyant zoot suit; according to Malcolm, a zoot suit was “a killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.”
In the 21st century, students must understand that humility is just as important as pride.
Part Two of this article will be posted on Wednesday.