I’ve never really had too many people ask me about a book until I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Inquiries ranged from hopeful to perplexed, skeptical to encouraged. But the one constant I received was the question—Why? Regardless of who asked, it always felt loaded and that always invigorated me to press on in reading my tattered, two-dollar paperback.
The honest answer to their question is that I read it because my first Greek professor suggested it. That was enough for me. I didn’t have any agenda when I picked it up, just curiosity about a figure I knew was controversial. Today, it sits in my pantheon of favorite works, solidified as one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Reading Compliments to Your Subcultures Canon
Growing up, my evangelical community had its own canon of literature. I’m sure many are familiar with the books, music, and stories which solidifies their group’s mores. Now there was much I appreciated about the suggested resources, but the problem was that the music, books, and stories I learned from growing up as an evangelical, was the sole point of contact I had with what is a much broader cultural landscape. Thankfully, as I grew in my love of reading, people encouraged me toward books that may not reinforce these ideals, and to authors I may or may not agree with. And when I started to read outside my cultural circle of evangelical, it was one the most beneficial things I had ever done.
As I plowed through The Autobiography of Malcolm X, tons of things caught me off guard, but one moment stood out among the rest. When Malcolm was traveling to the Middle East in hopes of completing his pilgrimage to Mecca he was struck by the array of people from all races participating together. Their religious convictions expunged whatever racial hierarchy existed, flattening the racial economy and bringing people together to worship as equals. It is a feat to consider and witnessing this became formative to his thought, which likely contributed to his conversion to Sunni Islam. But embedded in the realization, was a nagging question about Christians and race—it was more than a truism that Dr. King spoke about Sunday mornings being some of the most segregated time of the week. I wondered what it would be like for churches to embody the kind of racial solidarity which impacted Malcolm X.
Looking for Unapproved Ways of Learning
Growing up I hadn’t learned anything about Malcolm X. It’s not that people were attempting to hide this towering figure from me, but far less insidious is that he wasn’t within the bounds of the reading material of the evangelicalism I grew up in. It was in or out, and he was out.
But people are complex and multifaceted and so are their ideas. And reading is iconoclastic. It’s acting in good-faith, not relying on straw men or dismissing people because we don’t think they are right.
If we are willing to listen—to those we agree with, to whose we disagree, and even those we have no category for—we are in a position to learn so much. Malcolm X helped me to see more clearly the potency of racial harmony. It’s good that we have those we love, but a wide range of thoughts, opinions, and examples will only serve to build us up. C. S. Lewis can illustrate the beauty of imagination and Dorothy Day has pushed me to think seriously about poverty. Mother Teresa is upheld for her work in Calcutta, but I am also thankful for the ways which Shane Claiborne challenges my thinking about these issues here in the states. I am just as apt to learn from Liz Bruenig as I am from Ross Douthat, from Robert George as from Cornel West.
Time and time again we are confronted with the ability to craft our world into our own likeness—to choose what to read, who to follow, how to subscribe so that the stories we read are only by those we already agree. But when we step outside of our bubble, when we are willing to leave the safety of what we know and the comfort of our ideological homes, then we place ourselves in jeopardy of learning and growing in ways we never thought possible.
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