Dear Mr. Bush,
When I was a kid, my family would go on vacation in northern Wisconsin. We would spend a week in a cabin, fishing and playing cards and taking drives into the wilderness. As a child, it was something I looked forward to every year; by the time I was a teenager, as you might expect, I could think of better things to do with my summers.
By the time my family took our annual trek when I was 16, I was at the height of teenage indifference; I was listening to punk rock, was trying to go vegetarian, and was a voracious reader of anything that seemed out of the mainstream. I brought a backpack of books with me, and was content with the idea of simply spending the week sitting inside reading. My plan went a little too well, truth be told, as I ran out of books with an eight hour car ride left.
The day before we left, we drove to a flea market in town. I walked through the aisles, rolling my eyes at the fishing lures and deer antlers for sale. I stopped at a booth laden with books, hoping to find something for the long ride back to Chicago. I dug through the piles of Harliquin romances, pulp detective novels, and fishing guides not expecting to find anything. Just as I had given up, however, a block of cover text jumped out at me from the bottom of a box: "He rose from hoodlum, theif, and dope peddler...to become the most dynamic leader of the Black Revolution," the text read. "He said he would be murdered before this book appeared."
It was an extraordinary thing to read in the context of this lilly-white town in rural Wisconsin, and I was curious enough to grab hold of it. I picked up the tattered, yellowed book and walked over to the old woman running the cash box. She took the book, glanced at the cover, and then looked me over carefully as she asked for a quarter. I paid up and she handed the bruised copy of the Autobiography of Malcom X
back to me.
I don't remember the car ride home from that trip, Mr. Bush. I couldn't tell you if we stopped for lunch or if we drove straight through; I can't tell you if it rained or if the sun beat down through our Toyota's windows. What I can tell you is that I read the book straight through in one sitting and when I got home, I started over and read it again.
I've read Malcolm's book probably a dozen times since, the urge striking at very random moments in my life. Each time I go back to it, I find something new, something challenging, something extraordinary. It is not an easy book, nor was he an easy man. But reading the book again recently, it struck me just how contemporary much of it still was; how much his message of self-sufficiency and self-reliance still feels vital to any marginalized community nowadays.
And today, 40 years to the day after he was gunned down in Harlem, his life cut short in the midst of a dramatic re-thinking of his philosophies, I can't help but feel mournful for what could have been.