When Malcolm X was in prison he heard the message of Elijah Muhammad. He wanted to know if it was true, so he went to the prison library and started seriously reading – particularly history and philosophy.
He often read deep into the night, sitting on the floor so he could read by the faint light that came into his cell – jumping back in bed when a guard walked by.
Elijah Muhammad said that whites had “whitened” history. When Malcolm X learned American history in seventh grade there was just one paragraph about blacks. So he had no idea how terrible slavery was – or how blacks had fought against it. He did not know that West Africa had civilizations of its own. He did not know that all of mankind came from blacks. He had been lied to his whole life:
It’s a crime, the lie that has been told to generations of black men and white men both. Little innocent black children, born of parents who believed that their race had no history. …. Innocent black children growing up, living out their lives, dying of old age – and all of their lives ashamed of being black.
Here are some of the books he read (from 1948 to 1952):
- “Wonders of the World”
- Will Durant: “Story of Civilization”
- H.G. Wells: “Outline of History”
- W.E.B. Du Bois: “Souls of Black Folk”
- Carter G. Woodson: “Negro History”
- J.A. Rogers: “Sex and Race”
- Gregor Mendel: “Findings in Genetics”
- Frederick Olmsted: book about slavery, probably “Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom” (1861)
- Fanny Kemble: “Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839″ (1863)
- Harriet Beecher Stowe: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
- Abolitionist Anti-Slavery Society of New England: pamphlets
- read about Nat Turner
- read about Herodotus
- Mahatma Gandhi: his account of driving the British out of India
- histories of India, China and other nations
- Oriental philosophy
- Occidental philosophy
He read everything about black and African history that he could get his hands on. He also read about Asian history, paying particular attention to the rise and fall of white power:
Book after book showed me how the white man had brought upon the world’s black, brown, red and yellow peoples every variety of the sufferings of exploitation.
He was interested in Schopenhauer, Kant and Nietzsche because he had heard they laid the groundwork for Fascist and Nazi philosophy. He did not think much of them.
He read Mendel over and over again:
[It] helped me to understand that if you started with a black man, a white man could be produced; but starting with a white man, you never could produce a black man – because the white gene is recessive.
He was glad he went to prison: it is unlikely he would have read all this stuff at university. First, because he would not have been as serious about his reading. Second, no one in those days would have made him read that much black history since few black professors back then knew much about it.