In the face of escalating cultural divisions and systemic crises, such as the resurgence of identity politics, climate change, and rising racial tensions, the urgency for us to learn how to effectively manage personal and societal transformation has never been greater. The life journey of Malcolm X, a prominent civil rights figure, offers a powerful prism through which we can examine this process. His personal evolution, closely mirroring the seismic societal shifts of his era, sheds light on the complex dynamics of transformative change, both on an individual and collective scale.
The formative period of Malcolm X’s life was marked by much hardship and tragedy, drawing him into a life of crime in his early years. This part of his life was followed by a profound spiritual and ideological awakening that transformed him into a powerful advocate for racial equality and justice. In this essay, we will employ the ‘Blue Pill’, ‘Red Pill’, and ‘Grey Pill’, or the ‘3 Pill Framework’, as outlined in an earlier essay, ‘The Grey Pill: How to Overcome the Desire for Certainty and Embrace the Unknown’, to dissect the distinct stages of Malcolm’s transformative journey.
The notion of ‘Blue Pill’ and ‘Red Pill’ originates from the cultural lexicon of The Matrix movie franchise and represents different stages of awareness and responses to reality. The concept, expanded by writer and blogger Venkatesh Rao, introduced a third dimension, the ‘Grey Pill’. While the Blue Pill symbolises conformity and acceptance of the status quo, the Red Pill represents a sudden awakening to harsh truths. The Grey Pill, however, embodies a phase of continual growth and understanding, marking an acceptance of uncertainty and complexity.
This so-called ‘3 Pill Framework’ provides a unique lens through which to view and analyse Malcolm X’s remarkable life and legacy. As we delve into Malcolm X’s transformative journey, we might ask ourselves: How might his experiences guide us in navigating the pressing issues of our time?
Blue Pill Stage: Malcolm Little’s Struggle
The ‘Blue Pill’ stage is characterised by subscribing to the unquestioned consensus reality we have been socialised into our entire lives. A continuity of the current state of affairs, i.e. living life without knowing its real meaning or running away from the truth to continue living life in the ways we have always known or are expected to live.
Malcolm X’s early life is a stark example of such a perspective on the world. Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925, he was the fourth of seven children. His father, Earl Little, was a Baptist speaker and a local leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Earl was unreserved in his opinions, which did not endear him to the local white community. When Malcolm was around a year old, the Little family was attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, who burned down their house. Later his father was murdered by the Klan, and his mother was incarcerated in a mental asylum. These early encounters with racism and tragedy marked Malcolm’s life from the very beginning.
As a young man, Malcolm moved to Boston and later New York, immersing himself in the criminal underworld to survive. During this time, he remained largely oblivious to the systemic forces shaping his life and those around him, focusing on immediate gratification through illicit activities. He even adopted ‘the conk’ hairstyle, an emblem of self-denial, where black people straighten their naturally curly hair with a host of caustic chemicals to resemble the hair texture of white people. This practice emphatically underscored his desire for assimilation and acceptance.
In the context of our current era, the ‘Blue Pill’ stage can be seen in our collective indifference and denial towards systemic issues. For example, our handling of the climate crisis, where despite dire warnings, many continue with lifestyle choices that contribute to the problem, focusing instead on immediate gratification, echoes, somewhat, Malcolm’s perspectives during this stage.
Red Pill Stage: Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam
The transition from the ‘Blue Pill’ to the ‘Red Pill’ stage represents a brutal awakening to harsh realities and becoming aware of information that awakens us to a new world and reveals the invisible lies and boundaries of what we thought we knew. In Malcolm’s case, this awakening was initiated during his imprisonment, where he was introduced to the teachings of the Nation of Islam under the tutelage of the organisation’s founder, Elijah Muhammad. Here, he discovered a narrative that gave meaning to his experiences, attributing his personal and racial struggles to a broader context of systemic oppression.
As a member of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm became a staunch advocate for black separatism, reflecting the ‘Red Pill’ state of an extreme reaction to newly perceived injustices. His speeches from this time, like the famous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, were filled with fiery rhetoric against the white establishment.
His radicalism even extended to his views of other civil rights leaders. He saw the nonviolent approach of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. as ineffective and referred to them disparagingly as ‘Uncle Toms’, perpetuating a system he believed was inherently biased against black people. He preached that the black community could never achieve freedom, justice, and equality in a white-dominated society while demonising white people as evil, referring to them as “devils”. He preached separatist nationalism as a way to restore dignity to black people. As such, a radical ideological shift and a combative stance against perceived enemies marked Malcolm’s ‘Red Pill’ stage.
Today, ‘Red Pill’ moments are happening globally as millions of individuals and numerous societies awaken to systemic injustices. We see this in movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and Extinction Rebellion. These movements are characterised by a heightened awareness of systemic problems and, often, a radical approach to achieving justice.
However, just as Malcolm X’s ‘Red Pill’ stage was marked by extreme rhetoric and a dismissive attitude towards different strategies for achieving racial justice, these contemporary movements can also exhibit similar tendencies. For instance, within these movements, there can be a tendency to dismiss or vilify those who propose different strategies or who advocate for a more moderate approach. In some instances, this has led to internal divisions or to public backlash against the movements.
Grey Pill Stage: A New Malcolm
The ‘Grey Pill’ stage signifies a move towards accepting complexity, nuance, and uncertainty. Malcolm’s transition to this stage was catalysed by his pilgrimage to Mecca, which followed his acrimonious split with Elijah Mohammad and the Nation of Islam, where he observed Muslims of all races worshipping together. This experience taught Malcolm that people of different races could co-exist.
After this decisive encounter with a universal ethos, Malcolm (who had by then begun calling himself El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) sought to balance his Afro-centric political worldview with his belief in a universal Islam. In his letter from Mecca, he wrote:
“The colour-blindness of the Muslim world’s religious society and the colour-blindness of the Muslim world’s human society: these two influences had each day been making a greater impact and an increasing persuasion against my previous way of thinking.”Haley, A. (1965). ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’. Random House.
This experience profoundly challenged his previously rigid beliefs about race. Malcolm’s speeches and interviews reflected a significant ideological shift upon his return. He began to emphasise the importance of common humanity over racial divides. Even though he was still engaged in the struggle for the liberation of black people, his angry racial rhetoric and posturing were replaced with a universal quest for justice.
During this ‘Grey Pill’ stage, Malcolm also exhibited greater openness to other civil rights leaders. He met with Martin Luther King Jr. in a cordial encounter, signalling a softening of his earlier critique. He also expressed a willingness to collaborate with civil rights groups and other organisations fighting for racial equality.
This ‘Grey Pill’ stage saw Malcolm becoming less dogmatic and more open-minded, reflecting an acceptance of the world’s inherent complexity. He recognised the error in sweeping generalisations about any racial or ethnic group and began advocating for racial harmony and universal human rights. He now believed he could partner with non-Muslims and white people to construct an America and a world free from racial hatred and domination.
Conclusion: Embracing Uncertainty in a Divided World
Tragically cut short, Malcolm X’s life leaves us to ponder the greater changes he might have inspired had he lived longer. Yet, his transformation remains a testament to the possibility and necessity of change, demonstrating our potential to transition from certainty to uncertainty, from dogmatism to open-mindedness.
In light of the question posed at the beginning of this essay, Malcolm X’s experiences reflect our collective journey. His life illustrates how we can awaken to systemic challenges, react and adapt, and ultimately embrace complexity, nuance, and uncertainty in striving for a more equitable and sustainable world. His transformation invites us to ask ourselves what type of world we could create if we followed his example of continual growth and evolution. As we confront our present-day crises, we can draw inspiration from Malcolm X’s legacy to navigate our own paths toward individual and societal change.