Teaching Malcolm X in the 21st century: Part Two


by Christopher Paslay


Note: This is a continuation of an article posted on February 8th





It’s interesting how many teens associate Malcolm X with the phrase “by any means necessary”.  But those who’ve studied Malcolm X closely will understand he never advocated violence.  As Attallah Shabazz wrote so eloquently in the forward to the current edition of her father’s autobiography, “Malcolm X never advocated violence.  He was an advocate of cultural and social reconstruction—until a balance of equality was shared, ‘by any means necessary.’  Generally, this phrase of his was misused, even by those who were his supporters. . . . ‘By any means necessary’ meant examine the obstacles, determine the vision, find the resolve, and explore the alternatives toward dissolving the obstacles.” 


Teaching the life of Malcolm X should not be a means of encouraging revolution, even of the “creative” kind proposed by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Just as with pride and self-expression, teens today have no problem rebelling against authority.  As teachers, we don’t need to whet their appetites for civil disobedience.  We don’t need to get them any angrier than they already are.  If anything, we must find ways to dispel their anger and replace it with tolerance and compassion; we must teach them that taking responsibility for an unpleasant circumstance or situation—not resisting it—is the best way to go about changing it.




We all know the impact education had on Malcolm X’s life (even if it was a homegrown one in prison).  A whole world opened-up to him when he taught himself to read and think critically: “Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade.  This impression is due entirely to my prison studies. . . . I saw that the best thing that I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words. . . . I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages.  I’d never realized so many words existed!  I didn’t know which words I needed to learn.  Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying . . .”


Starting with the word aardvark, Malcolm copied out the entire dictionary, word-by-word.  It took him years to do so.  And as a result, he went from an uneducated inmate with no direction, to an intelligent, impassioned civil rights activist who changed the lives of many. 




America today is more diverse than it’s ever been.  Teachers and students alike are of many races and cultural backgrounds.  In order to tackle the treacherous terrain of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, we must explore the material with an open mind and non-biased eye, and balance our lessons with humility, dignity and responsibility.

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. 


African American literature must be taught with great care






by Christopher Paslay


NOTE: This article was published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on February 22, 2006.


The students I teach are growing up in a world where race seem less of a pressing issue than ever before. Billionaires can be black (BET founder Robert Johnson), rappers can be white (Eminem), and top golfers can be a little of everything (Tiger Woods). That’s why I find teaching African American literature a challenge: Many kids just aren’t as obsessed by skin color as previous generations.


Discussing books such as The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, or Booker T. Washington‘s Up From Slavery can make students—both black and white—quite uncomfortable. So can more modern texts, such as The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, with its segregated, southern backdrop.


With much of its content focusing on race, bigotry and hardship, black literature has the tendency to rip the blinders off students’ eyes, bringing them face-to-face with the harsh realities of America‘s past.  It is a world their parents or grandparents may have known, but that is new, and often disturbing, to them.


Of course, there is a flip side to African American literature.  There are uplifting tales about triumph and survival—those things that unite us and make us human. Writer Toni Morrison has a body of work that transcends race and color, as do authors Maya Angelou and Alice Walker.  Then, there are black writers whose work centers on individuals, rather than members of a group. Names such as William Melvin Kelly, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes and Dudley Randall come to mind.


But teaching African American literature is still challenging, and the subject matter should not be taken lightly, particularly when it comes to more militant writers such as Malcolm X or Amiri Baraka, who preach black power and rejecting the American establishment. Analyzing such work can be tricky business. It must be done thoughtfully so as not to promote resentment in white students or patronize black ones.


Black literature is an incredibly unique and sensitive genre. The minute you delve into it, you lose your innocence. Although many of its themes are about love and compassion, it still can be politically charged. There’s something there that says, Let’s look at all the issues involved with race. Let’s look at all the ways people of color have been disrespected in America.


That’s what’s so hard to address in a high school setting, especially one that is culturally diverse, as the Philadelphia schools are.


When race is the central issue of a work (and it is central to most African American literature), I can see the uneasy expressions on some of my students’ faces and hear the uncomfortable shuffling as they squirm at their desks. Every so often one of them will say: Why are we doing this stuff today?


I pause and explain that we must study work from a diverse group of authors. I tell them that we study African American literature because it’s important to become aware of our own differences so we can understand them, so we can tolerate them, so we can celebrate them.


Race relations have a come a long way in the last 50 years. The hip-hop culture, along with the diversity that comes from living in a metropolitan city, has helped many teenagers look past a person’s skin color. But prejudice and bigotry still exist.


Although many of my students consider themselves color-blind within the confines of their own environments, eventually they’re going to be hit with the realities of opposing viewpoints and, ultimately, racism. When this happens, they must be prepared to deal with it in an insightful and non-violent manner.


African American literature is a very complex genre. Its body of work is broad and thought-provoking. And it must be taught with great care.