COMMENTARY: Believing that books really matter

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The person who never reads lives only one.” — George R.R. Martin

In the 1950s and ’60s, I grew up in Kettering in an all-white neighborhood and attended homogeneous Catholic schools for 12 years, receiving a fairly solid academic and religious education. When I went off to college in September 1969, my whole world opened up at Ohio University in Athens, where for the first time I lived and studied not only with Caucasians, but also with African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and agnostics.

Reading became more important to me as I considered a career in education. A mentor-friend recommended a few titles, including “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” co-written by Alex Haley. I was at once drawn in by the compelling personal narrative of a man whose preacher-father was murdered before he was born, whose mother struggled with mental illness while trying to raise several children in poverty, and whose innate intelligence and personal development were squandered by some of the negative influences of life in rural Michigan and later the ghettos of Detroit, Boston and New York.

After being convicted of robbery, Malcolm began a new life — in prison. Not only did he teach himself to read and write by studying and memorizing words out of a dictionary, he found the Black Muslims, led by Elijah Muhammed, or they found him, and learned a new lifestyle of faith, self-reliance, family cohesion and civil rights within the black community. I recalled clearly that Mr. Bill Truxell, a high school teacher, had exposed us to Malcolm X through tapes of his speeches, along with those of Martin Luther King.

The last part of Malcolm’s life is both inspiring and tragic. After serving as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam for a few years, he had a falling out with Elijah Muhammad. During a probationary period, Malcolm decided to go to Mecca, where he experienced first-hand the core beliefs and practices of the Muslim faith, which led to an epiphany: “There are Muslims of all colors and ranks here in Mecca from all parts of this earth. During the past seven days of this holy pilgrimage, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, slept on the same bed or rug, while praying to the same God — not only with some of this earth’s kings and religious rulers — but also with fellow-Muslims whose skin was the whitest of white, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, and whose hair was the blondest of blond. Their belief in the Oneness of God had actually removed the ‘white’ from their minds, which automatically shaped their attitude and behaviour toward people of other colors.”

He returned to the U.S. infused with a broader vision for African-Americans. The tragedy is that Malcolm X was murdered shortly thereafter. What could he have accomplished?

I learned from this book that many people in our country grow up under difficult conditions but overcome obstacles. I learned that through reading, education, and interaction with the right people, it is possible to reframe one’s attitude, worldview and lifestyle. Finally, in my quest to become a teacher, I learned the value of placing books in young people’s hands with the intention that they might learn empathy.

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Jim Brooks, a teacher and coach, is a regular contributor.