Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) is the most controversial of the Black men discussed in this essay. Having become "streetwise" through his experiences in Harlem and the Roxbury area of Boston, Malcolm held a fairly typical male view of women in general and Black women in particular. Some of this was learned through various experiences he had with women (including his mother and his halfsister), but much of it was influenced by other Black men.
As part of the indoctrination process of all Muslims, Malcolm was taught that the true nature of man is to be strong, while that of woman is to be weak.23 Malcolm basically held these views prior to joining the Muslims, so his involvement with Islam merely reinforced this attitude. Under all circumstances the woman is to be respected, sheltered, protected24—and kept in her place. While this view might be paternalistic in the context of white male/white female relationships, it is, arguably, less paternalistic in the context of Black male/Black female relationships: Black women have never had the luxury of being protected and respected. Thus, Malcolm was not wrong for adhering to a philosophy that called for the protection, defense, and honoring of Black women, since Black women’s lives had been at the mercy of White men.
After his days of hustling, Malcolm so distrusted women—all women—that he had no desire to marry during his early involvement in the Nation of Islam. Most women he had relationships with during his youth were not trustworthy,25 and he concluded during his early days as a Muslim that nothing had changed in this regard. He even warned men to be careful about getting married. Although he was ultimately attracted to and married Sister Betty, he initially concealed his real feelings for her.26
Malcolm claimed to base much of what he believed about women on his close contact with the prostitutes with whom he had lived sometime before becoming a Muslim. Ironically, he had the deepest respect for these women, inasmuch as he believed them to be more honest than the more morally respected women.27 During most of his time with the Muslims he did not address sexism in general, or sexism against Black women in particular. Indeed, during much of his career as a Muslim minister, Malcolm blamed Black women for the condition of Black men.28 He believed that Black men were not able to fulfill their potential because of nagging, selfish, domineering Black women. He felt that no woman, regardless of race, class, or age, can ever hope to be anything but the weaker, dependent sex.29 In addition, Malcolm believed that the only way the Black man himself can gain the respect of other men is to respect and protect the Black woman.30
In his Autobiography, Malcolm reports that some of the Muslim women often sent complaints to Elijah Muhammad that Malcolm’s teachings on women were too harsh.31 However, as Malcolm began to be more critical about the teachings of Elijah Muhammad’s version of Islam, his views on women’s issues slowly began to change. During Malcolm’s early years as a Muslim, he had been little more than an unthinking automaton who essentially parroted whatever Muhammad taught. In a revealing passage from his autobiography, Malcolm implies that some of his harsher teachings about women were a direct result of his uncritical acceptance of Muhammad’s influence. He reflected on this some months after his break with Muhammad:
In my twelve years as a muslim minister, I had always taught so strongly on the moral issues that many Muslims accused me of being "anti-woman." The very keel of my teaching, and my most bone-deep personal belief, was that Elijah Muhammad in every aspect of his existence was a symbol of moral, mental and spiritual reform among the American black people.32 [Of course, Muhammad himself fell short in this regard.]
Malcolm’s wife, Betty Shabazz, shed some light on why Malcolm was so influenced by Elijah Muhammad:
People must remember that Malcolm never had a father from the time he was six years old. He really grew up by himself, so that this need for a father image probably had a lot to do with his profound faith in Elijah Muhammad. And Elijah Muhammad did, in a way, take him on as a son.33
While Malcolm became less critical of Black women, he did not become significantly more sensitive to the nature of Black women’s social experiences.
Alex Haley records Malcolm as saying: "’You never can fully trust a woman. I’ve got the only one I ever met whom I would trust seventy-five percent. I’ve told her that, I’ve told her like I tell you I’ve seen too many men destroyed by their wives, or their women.’" But, interestingly, Malcolm goes on to say: "’I don’t completely trust anyone, not even myself. I have seen too many men destroy them – selves.’"34 Malcolm implies that his distrust went much deeper than a distrust of women.
Whatever Malcolm’s views on women, it is fair to say that he was committed to his wife and daughters. His wife writes passionately about his love for her and their daughters.35 She knew how he disliked nagging women and told him prior to their marriage that the one thing she would not do was to argue with him.36
According to Shabazz, Malcolm had a "high regard for motherhood," and he urged men to always remember that they were born from their mother’s womb and that mothers suffer greatly on account of their sons: "He used to talk about the honor of being a mother and how the key to the future and the key to humanity, actually, was through the woman."37 In regard to Shabazz, Malcolm had the following to say in his Autobiography:
I guess by now I will say I love Betty. She’s the only woman I ever even thought about loving. And she’s one of the very few—four women—whom I have ever trusted. The thing is Betty’s a good Muslim woman and wife. You see, Islam is the only religion that gives both husband and wife a true understanding of what love is.
The Western ‘love’ concept, you take it apart, it really is lust. But
love transcends just the physical. Love is a disposition, behavior, attitude, thoughts, likes, dislikes—these things make a beautiful woman, a beautiful wife. . . . Islam teaches us to look into the woman, and teaches her to look into us.38
Eugene V. Wolfenstein wrote a psych-history on Malcolm in 1981, in which he argues that Malcolm’s views on women were related to his early childhood relationship with his mother and father.39 Wolfenstein maintains that Malcolm’s view of women was a result of displaced hostility. In a more recent biography of Malcolm, Bruce Perry suggests that Malcolm’s "male chauvinism was the predictable result of past tyranny," that is, the fact that his mother and half-sister denied him warmth and emotional support.40 Both theories have some explanatory value. But it is important to keep in mind that Malcolm’s earlier views on women were essentially the view of many, although not all, Black men during and since his time.
To Malcolm’s credit, after his trip to Mecca and his travels throughout Africa and the Middle East, he began to think critically about male – female relations in the Black community. Since he did not live long enough to work through the implications of this change, it is difficult to know just what his revised views about women would have been. However, in a significant statement made during an interview in Paris three months before he was assassinated, he left an important clue:
One thing that I became aware of in my traveling recently through Africa and the Middle East, in every country you go to, usually the degree of progress can never be separated from the woman. If you’re in a country that’s progressive, the woman is progressive. . . . So one of the things I became thoroughly convinced of in my recent travels is the importance of giving freedom to the woman, giving her education, and giving her the incentive to get out there and put that same spirit and understanding in her children. And I frankly am proud of the contributions that our women have made in the struggle for freedom and I’m one person who’s for giving them all the leeway possible because they’ve made a greater contribution than many of us men.41
Perhaps not surprising then, after Malcolm broke with Elijah Muhammad and formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) he began phasing women like Maya Angelou into leadership positions.42