Meditations on Malcolm & the Dictionary

“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” —Malcolm X

Today is the commemoration of Malcolm X’s assassination in New York. We cannot erase the past, nor rewrite it to suit our tastes, but we can, as Brother Malcolm tells us—prepare for the future.

The crisis of our time is that coherency is in short supply. We are complicit with every human motivation to consume more, to reach Mars, to end War, to create machines that can think for us, and yet these are often at odds with one another. We have some of the greatest minds on the planet in our country--producing fantastic innovations across a vast array of technologies, but we must also confront the dilution of purpose and passion for the education of children. The result is a population of citizens who are increasingly unable to think beyond base needs, a few who are motivated by can-do but a vast majority who will never. What has never made sense to me is how we could ever lose sight of the importance of education, or more poignantly—reading. Reading continues to be a wonderful salve for troubled minds.

Malcolm X became the dynamic civil rights leader we remember today; because he was a reader.

As simple as it might seem—Malcolm Little became Malcolm X because he was a reader, letter writer, and autodidact. This was not always so. His ability to read was severely hampered by the unjust treatment of African Americans in the school system. But in prison, he “stumbled upon starting to acquire some homemade education... I had been the most articulate hustler out there... trying to write simple English, I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional.”

“But every book I picked up had few sentences which didn't contain anywhere from one to nearly all of the words that might as well have been in Chinese.”

Malcolm skipped he did not know and admitted that he had little sense of what ideas were meant to be conveyed. Does this sound familiar to anyone? How many words have you skipped over today?

Painstakingly, he copied every entry from the dictionary. It took him one whole day to do the first page. He would copy every word, then read back aloud what he had written. His prison education forced him to reconsider everything in his life.

Malcolm regarded the dictionary as an encyclopedia. He learned about zoology, law, history, politics and science. He learned about people and animals, about places and history, philosophy and ethics. Malcolm became a philosopher—faithful to the word itself, Philo-Sofia: the “love of wisdom.”

Imagine. It took one book to make one of the greatest civil rights leaders in our history—and last year, 28% of adults polled said they had not read one single book.

“From then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading in my bunk. You could not have gotten me out of a book with a wedge.”

I can relate to this. I am a writer because my family is full of avid readers, especially the women. My grandmother, aunts and my mother all consumed books with enthusiasm and passion. Because of these women, I have the tremendous fortune of a life-long acquaintance with books. They enrolled me in a weekly book club by the time I was four and was reading at a high school level when I was only six. Perhaps this is the extent of any giftedness in me. When asked how I write, or why I write, my answer is uniform.

I read too.

When I was living in a small neighborhood in New York and met a new person, they would say, “Yeah, I know you, you are the guy with a book under his arm all the time.” I cannot tell you how much that delights me to this day.

Our minds are obliged nowadays to entertain all manner of banality and superficiality, from which pop star is lately degrading themselves to which rhetoric justifies the latest round of questionable "facts". Meanwhile, another fundamentalist group claims (or reclaims) a portion of the planet for its twisted ideals.

We observe Malcolm reading and writing every word from a dictionary in his prison cell. This simple act gave him the foundation to transcend his circumstances and to lead the fight in the struggle for equal rights. Not everyone need agree with how he led and transcended the narrative of the day—but in this country, right now today—we must admire that he came from nothing, but he did something about his situation. Moreover, he sought to serve his people, and eventually to serve all people by speaking up and speaking out.

Can we hold up ourselves and our leadership to Malcolm’s life—his education, his faults, his transitions, his ideas?

We must reignite the passion for learning in our children.

The pulverization of meaning in our lives is so utterly complete that a legend like Malcolm X recedes from us. Truth becomes more distant and more confused. We are told to ignore or forget. All of us—black, white, green or yellow, should remember that one, singular and wonderful human being reading and writing every word from a dictionary while in prison, bettering himself, teaching himself all the words and ideas and philosophies that would propel him into history.

The most serious problem facing humanity is not war—it is ignorance, be it local, colonial, American or jihadist. To destroy war, we must first wage one against ignorance. However, to destroy ignorance, it is first necessary to produce the conviction that it is evil; that is and will be hard to do. The ignorant do not value education, nor do they value words, ideas, or critical thinking. Convincing such a person will prove to be a tough task.

When we tell children that war is an evil perpetrated by sick people, the child believes us, does she not? Why do we not teach our children that ignorance is a greater, deeper and more awful evil, with more profound and disastrous consequences?

Some among us say there is a no problem. They proclaim that we are a wealthy country, that we are a powerful country with the greatest minds and industries and technologies at our disposal. We are a country on the rise again. We are the best of the best.

The United States currently ranks 17th in the world in educational standards. Why does the world’s “greatest” country not also have the most excellent education system? This proximity to ignorance and mediocrity should disturb us. It is not that we have the lack of resources. It is that we lack the will. ‘To whom much is given, much should be required,' and we are remiss in passing on a love of learning to our children.

Perhaps we should have gratitude today, for the mere fact stands that one man can read and write every word in the dictionary, and change much. That means we can change even more.

Today I want to express gratitude to Brother Malcolm, and to you, the reader.

The best way to show your gratitude is to pass it on. Pick up a book today and read it with your child. When they ask what certain words mean, get out the dictionary. Teach them how to use that single, incredible book, and join with them in the excitement as new ideas emerge for you both.

Start with the word "Aardvark."