Malcom X at the nature center. Malcom X at a National Park. These don’t seem to go together, do they? Well, why not? There isn’t a way to answer without including some aspect of racism. The cultural forces of the past 50, 100, even 200 years have shaped “nature” in the US to be catered to a culturally white space. Where there is land ownership, decision making, and wealth, there is power. In the US today, that power rests predominately in the networks of white folks. To understand how this power works, let’s look to Malcom X’s autobiography. Although Malcom X is a common historical figure to look to in the topic of race, let’s look a little deeper for an insight to the land. After all, he did say that “to understand that of any person, his whole life, from birth, must be reviewed. All of our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that ever happened to us is an ingredient” (p.153).
There are four situations, or “ingredients” in Malcom X’s autobiography that I’ll highlight which pertain to the natural world and his relationship with it. After that though, we’ll be better able to re-frame our sense of place -both in the US and beyond- towards a reflection of a diverse, democratic humanity.
- The Family Garden: As a kid, Malcom Little grew up in rural Michigan, outside of Kalamazoo. He grew up with 3 brothers and a sister, with hard working parents that struggled against poverty and racism. His family relocated twice because of the KKK, who at one point surrounded their house bashing windows with rifles. His father a Baptist reverend active in civil rights and his mother a home maker working various jobs, his family also worked together to raise rabbits and garden for sustenance. He describes in his autobiography that his mother gave him his own plot in the family garden: “I loved it and took care of it well. I loved especially to grow peas. I was proud when we had them on our table. I would pull out the grass in my garden by hand when the first blades came up. I would patrol the rows on my hands and knees looking for worms and bugs and I would kill and bury them. And sometimes when I had everything straight and clean for my things to grow, I would lie down on my back between two rows, and I would gaze up in the blue sky at the clouds moving and think all kinds of things” (p.8). Whatever opportunities Malcom X had to utilize the outdoors as a reflective, safe place were heavily hampered by the harsh realities of racism. Between the racial murder of his Father, “knowing your place” statements from school teachers, and the systemic racism that divided his family apart through social workers and Later in his youth he moved to Detroit, Boston, then to Harlem.
- The Wilderness of North America: As Malcom X caught his first bus to Boston with his sister Ella, he wrote in his autobiography that “From my seat in-you guessed it- the back of the bus, I gawked out of the window at white man’s America rolling past for what seemed a month, but must have been only a day and a half” (p.36). Rural towns, cities, and even the landscape itself were presented to Malcom X as places that ascribed only conditional value to him, and granted him little to no sense of belonging. Many years later when Malcom became affiliated with the Nation of Islam, he and Elijah Muhammad, the religion’s leader, often referred to the US as “the wilderness of North America”. Unlike the US Wilderness Act that was signed into law in 1964 to protect America’s wilderness, the black perspective saw wilderness as a place of danger and turmoil. As most of the Black population lived in cities (sounds familiar today, too), they lacked the privileges to see and experience nature as something inspiring, reflective and beautiful. Readers of Malcom X’s autobiography can see a clear, vivid and up-close description of the mindset and struggle of the daily hustle that focuses on immediate survival in the ghetto. A place for belonging, according to Elijah Muhammad and Malcom X, was assigned instead to the African homeland.
- Meeting Betty X: When Malcom X began courting his to-be wife, they took a trip to a Natural History Museum to learn about evolution. After a few chapters of associating the landscape of the US as a treacherous wilderness, this visit to the natural history museum takes a shift. At this time in Malcom X’s career, the Nation of Islam, of which he worked tirelessly to promote, was growing under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad. With this community forming, and with an established identity in Islam, re-approaching one’s sense of place, one’s sense of belonging in the grand cosmos, is again possible. They took what they had learned at the museum and applied it in the classes held at their Islamic temples, to teach others and eventually use it to help establish a collective sense of belonging in the black community.
- Pilgrimage to Mecca: On page 347 of his autobiography, Malcom X describes his pilgramage to Meccas as a time when “what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to re-arrange much of my thought patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous convictions”. Malcom X’s holy pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca turned his world around. Prior to the pilgrimage, he was indeed harsh and critical of white people in the US’ social structure of racism (which if this structure seems vague, he unveils clearly in his autobiography). What Malcom X didn’t expect however, was to be treated with deep brotherhood and love by his fellow Muslims of a wide range of complexions. He describes dining, praying, conversing, and learning with his brethren all along the way, including on Mount Arafat. A staple of the Hajj, this is the mountain in which Mohamed gave the farewell sermon. Here is where a connection to the landscape of the Holy Land comes in: when love, community and brotherhood are established, a connection to place follows.
- Malcom X explains drinking from the well of ZamZam, and describes the mountains as “the crudest looking mountains I’d ever seen, they seem to be made of the slag of a blast furnace. No vegetation is on them at all” (p. 344). Here in this place of stark rock and barren hills we find such divine inspiration. With this landscape as a symbol of clarity and focus, Malcom X’s statements and summaries of this point in the Hajj are some of the most enticing, all-encompassing, far-reaching and even beautiful statements of the whole autobiography. The sense of belonging, acceptance, love and family that he had been seeking through out his life had holistically been made into a reality,from the land to the people. To signify this further, on page 372 Malcom X describes laying to sleep surrounded by his fellow Muslims on the pilgrimage, and thinking back to when he was eight or nine, laying out in the grass in rural Michigan. “Out behind our house, out in the country farm in Lansing, MI, there was an old grassy ‘Hector’s Hill’, we called it. I remembered there in the Holy World how I used to lie on the top of Hector’s Hill, and look up at the sky, and the clouds moving over me, and daydream, all kinds of things”.
Malcom X’s realization and embrace of the oneness of humanity was heavily focused on Islam. Taking his story now and applying it to the current outdoor culture of the US, we know that the National Parks and environmental educators won’t advocate for any particular religion. However, the history and lived experience of Malcom X still applies, and we still have another potential point of congregation besides religion… our sense of place! Our prairies, hills, forests, lakes and rivers! As was demonstrated here, the natural world may not be commonly associated with Malcom X, but it is a real and crucial element in the story of this beloved hero in American History.
Which brings me now to my closing remarks: we know that systemic racism is present in the US and beyond, we know that it influences our friendships, economy, privileges, and therefore recreation. We know nature is predominately approachable in culturally white settings, and we know we want to change it. But perhaps it’s more complicated than simply bringing diverse groups of non-white folks into nature. Perhaps it also includes re-envisioning nature itself. Re-envisioning nature to reflect our heroes, our history, struggle for peace, and struggle for justice. After all, we all know that the serene mountain-top experience surrounded by trees is an image of peace, harmony, and accomplishment. And what an accomplishment it would be to create a community that embraces one another’s full humanity while all skin complexions and cultures are present. How much more alive our parks, mountains, rivers, and prairies would be.
So how do we re-envision to guide us toward this accomplishment? Well, this isn’t exactly a new idea, it’s happening now! Check out this great video from Yosemite National Park, highlighting the work of interpretive guide Shelton Johnson. Here Shelton explains (paraphrased), “There’s nothing more democratic than a National Park… so why should only part of the population have that sense of wonder, and that experience, that sense of discovery? … that is part of the experience of being an American, it belongs to everyone”.
The Autobiography of Malcom X (1999). Ballantine Books: New York