By Humanities teacher Nathan Sokol-Margolis
When I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I was 18 years old in a high school elective called Reading and Writing Human Values. It was X’s anger that appealed to me. Trying to wrap my head around America’s injustices while studying the average history class’s non-violence mantra of the Civil Rights Movement was always too difficult. As a result, I often did not do the work that was assigned in that context. But Malcolm X rang true. His anger and frustration reflected my own, even if I, as a white male, am a perpetrator of the structures he condemns.
Because it was such a powerful experience for me, I especially enjoy reading this book with students in our American Historiography class. However, this class focuses not only on X’s racial struggle, but also on the truthfulness of his account. Asking questions about a writer’s goal in telling a story leads to conversations about what elements of the text may have been bent to fit the intended message. This is especially fascinating in that journalist Alex Haley -- and not X himself -- wrote this particular text. In his exhaustive biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manning Marable writes about Haley’s and X’s relationship and how their objectives in creating the autobiography were often at odds. This element deepens the class’s conversations around facts, truth, and choice.
With all of this in mind, one can imagine my excitement upon hearing that the city of Boston planned to conduct an archeological dig at Ella Little’s house in Roxbury, where X resided for a time in Boston. Here was an opportunity for students to see how historical truth is formed at the foundation of a story (pun intended). I contacted Joe Bagley, Boston’s resident archeologist, and he kindly invited us to the dig. During our afternoon there, we were not only able to speak with X’s nephew and grand niece, but we also had the opportunity to pull up the ground, sift through the dirt, and examine the shards of ceramics, glass, and other material that we found. The archaeologists explained that much of this came from far before Malcolm X’s time. This was perhaps the most exciting part: we got to be agents of history. Instead of the importance of a single house and its connection with a single historical figure, we were given the opportunity to understand the scope of history. Malcolm X’s story was only the first few inches of dirt in the yard; beneath were many others waiting to be explored, discussed, and told.