Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography (Andrew Helfer)

Morgan Freeman once chided the idea of Black History Month, since American history, as he saw it, is black history just as much as white history. Still, it's difficult to find a good biography on a black person from before the last twenty years that doesn't have to do with race relations. It's a sad reality, but reality no less.

Helfer's Malcolm X is sober, and a sobering tale.

Skimping on subjectivity, Helfer sticks to the facts as he sees them. The result is a low-key, friendly marriage of race relations and time document. By keeping unwaveringly to Malcolm's story, the book avoids minimizing or compartmentalizing his role in the liberation movement, or the liberation movement itself.

The book also avoids making judgments or suppositions, a difficult task for any biographer. Helfer sticks to a omniscient narrative, entering in quotations that are either factual or irrelevant if inaccurate.

The book is text-heavy, but somehow it flits by. The illustrations are inventive in their arrangement without being senselessly artistic, and the picture content features a nice balance of mundane and horrifying. The drama, and the background necessary to understand the drama, is presented starkly, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

There's a shirt now that reads, "Rosa sat, Martin walked, Barack ran" and while that's an awesome sentiment, and nicely put, I think it belies our desire to see the liberation movement as a thoroughly peaceful one on the part of those fighting for their freedom. It's pleasant to think that everyone was as peaceful as Martin Luther King and Ghandi. It's not as pleasant, or inspiring, to think that the 'freedom-fighters' required leaders that inspired violent responses, and that perhaps that violence was justified.

Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography shows how one man, almost destroyed in his youth by various vices, rose to a position of power, and impassioned his people to respect, trust, and defend themselves by any means necessary. He flipped from being an absentee father to his people, to being their protective, militant mother. Like a cowboy, he was forced to ride alone, terrorized by infighting, ousted by his friends and followers and loved ones. Yet, in a country that loves nothing better than a good cowboy he was treated like a madman, a zealot, and a criminal.


Essential reading for anyone interested in race relations, racism, and American history.

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