Malcolm X writes in his autobiography that he was the most articulate hustler on the block; a few hundred words were all he knew and needed to work the street. But once imprisoned, and motivated to write a letter to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, he was embarrassed to discover that not only did he not have the vocabulary to express his thoughts, he couldn't even read his own writing. Frustration with his handicap turned into powerful motivation, and he transformed his incarceration into a crash course in literacy: copying the entire dictionary, joining the prison debate team, and reading so many books that he permanently impaired his eyesight. Gradually he liberated the voice that was imprisoned inside of him, and he liberated himself from prison three years before serving his ten-year sentence. In the course of time, he became a formidable voice for the Nation of Islam in the United States and ultimately used his vocabulary and writing skills to craft his renowned autobiography.
If Malcolm X had not aggressively sought and exercised his voice, both orally and in writing, he might have languished in obscurity in prison with only a couple of mug shots in a file cabinet folder instead of the two by three foot poster on my bulletin board capturing him dressed in a suit and tie, making a dynamic speech into the bank of microphones before him. Printed across the top of the poster, referring to the right of African Americans to be respected as human beings and to be given the rights of a human being in this society, is his famous mantra: "By any means necessary." If anyone had told the hustler, Malcolm (Red) Little when he had his mug shots taken for prison that he would discover the eloquent and riveting voice of the man who later became Malcolm X, he would have laughed at them and probably called them some of the four letter words in his limited three-hundred word vocabulary.
Ironically, Malcolm X had to go to prison to liberate the power of the voice inside him. I am adopting his mantra, "By any means necessary," in this unit that focuses on a diversity of voices in literature. It is designed for my high school students, many of whom feel imprisoned in school, in the 'hood, in themselves, within the limits of their street language, within the limits of their writing skills, and their futures. I will teach it with the optimism that in
the voices in this literature, they will begin to explore, experiment with and hear the range of their own powerful and amazing voices.