Teaching Malcolm X in the 21st century: Part One



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. 




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.”




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. 


6 thoughts on “Teaching Malcolm X in the 21st century: Part One

  1. I personally enjoyed the book. Sounds like you want to examine Malcolm’s entire life–both sides, multiple views, and possibly from a virtuous point of view.
    Wasn’t pride one of the seven deadly sins? Why was that? Seems like an interesting topic. Is the “me generation” still alive? What does EGO have to do with all this? Is EGO the separation from the whole? Does EGO state–I am better than you? Superior? Dominate?
    Seems like Self-Expression is in the same vein. I am separate. We are diverse.
    I like that you are examining both sides because the –Humble and Dignified side of life has been disparaged. In fact, in many circles, you are a chump. You are just there and nobody notices you.
    The Pilot of the New York flight that landed in the Hudson is a perfect current example of dignified and humble.
    Malcolm X went through a transformation and went from pride to humble and self-expressive to dignified.
    The Tao states that the tallest tree gets cut down first!! Also, the ocean is low and silent and all eventually flows to it.
    Sounds like an interesting class!!

  2. Malcolm’s auto is the best book for teaching Black on Black crime.
    Ask your students the name of any other civil rights leader that was murdered by blacks?

    I am a Elijah Muhammad fan and think that if you read Malcolm’s autobiography from another persperctive you’d wantm to know how…
    1) did a girl named Laura become a drug addict?
    2) How did a friend called shorty thet loved Music more than money get 15 years and Malcolm only do 10?
    How did Mr. Muhammad build temples and Mosque in every city, buy prisoners cars and have the greatest reform program on the planet?
    Where did he get the money?
    Why his comments about JFK the worst thing to say?
    These questions I already have the answer to but do you?
    Teach the truth about how drugs are the new slavery. Todays kids know drugs more than they know segregation. They know prison more than they know Jim Crow. Malcolm’s book explains all these things if you search hard enough.

    • Nothing is more complex than a person attempting to do the right thing. I say bravo to Mr. Chrisopher Paslay for his courage to presevere against against his own administration to reach all the kids in his class.

      But, to the many white teachers that do not want to teach Malcolm X because of his racist stance just teach his mistakes that are still relevant and visible today.
      Teach the 4 devestating D’s that defined and destroyed Malcolm X
      1.Dropping out of school-todays youth need education more than ever
      2. Drugs and the effect of drugs- Malcolm x was a drug dealer and like most dealers he got addicted to his own product.
      3. Detainment- prison is the end result that most young men see in their horizon more than they see college or marriage. This is a tragedy.
      4. Death by murder- Malcolm x although he changed and became a national figure he still died by murder. This occurs all to often in the inner cities of America.
      These 4 lessons can be taught without bringing segregation, Jim Crow, white devil, Yacub or slavery into the picture.
      This is a challenging aspect of Malcolm’s story but most kids today can relate to this than they can race hatred.

      God Bless you Mr. Paslay and keep up the good work.

  3. You are doing a brilliant job! Keep it up and let it inspire others who don’t want to face the challenge. I am sure any ‘real’ teacher would have jumped at the opportunity to tackle the misconceptions surrounding this brilliant historical figure and teach thier students the facts rather than the contorted views that the media have fed to the generations of today. You are a REAL teacher.

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