Just after the New Year, I picked up my first pair of reading glasses at the Family Dollar around the block from my house. It wasn’t part of a New Year’s resolution; in fact, it was a long time coming. Although I have always had good eyesight and have never worn glasses, I scheduled an appointment with an eye doctor three-plus years ago because I had persistent, concerning redness in my eyes. And, truth be told, because my eyes were starting to strain a little bit when reading. The doctor said it might be a good idea to pick up some “readers.” When I was young, I thought it would be cool to wear glasses, that if you looked “smart,” you would be smart. But as an adult? I wasn’t ready to face the facts.
I am not a vain person, nor am I in denial about the fact that, well, yes, I’m getting older (we all are, right?). I’m 46 but still physically active and so far my body hasn’t deteriorated too much. Several years ago, I broke my big toe while playing soccer. An Urgent Care visit confirmed the break and pointed me in the direction of an orthopedic clinic. The doctor at the clinic asked how I hurt myself. When I told him, he said, “What are you doing playing soccer at your age?” I wanted to beat the shit out of him, but since I try to get doctors to give me information and decent treatment, I bit my tongue.
It has taken me several years to get my head around the fact that maybe some reading glasses would help me see the words on the pages a bit better. Foolishly, I justified this hesitancy by thinking that once I gave in, my eyes would just regress further and further. Not long ago, I tried on my partner’s reading glasses. She has worn glasses or contact lenses to correct her near-sightedness since she was five, and these days she sometimes wears readers on top of her bifocal contacts. Wearing her readers was a revelation, really. I knew it was time. Still, I held off just a little longer, not wanting my grown children to see me wearing reading glasses and know their dad was getting old. Our 24-year-old daughter was visiting for a few days after Christmas, and our 21-year-old son had been home with us for a few weeks. I didn’t want them to know that my eyes were straining while reading The New York Times, which I’ve been bringing home from work since we’re not supposed to put newspapers out at the library now because of COVID.
In the end, I decided to get the glasses. I had a few days off and was spending them happily reading, and I knew my blessed time with books would be more enjoyable if I wasn’t straining my eyes so much. Our daughter had left, but my son was still home and he walked with my partner, me and our dog to the Family Dollar. (He and the dog waited outside.) I tested out a couple pairs and chose the lowest grade available, +1.25. They cost six dollars, but this was a monumental purchase for me. I was facing the facts: that undefeated champion, Time, is getting the best of me.
Although the Family Dollar did not have a wide selection of reading glasses, I was glad to pick out glasses with a thick black frame. It’s not that I have much style at all, but these seemed right. Plus, the book I would be returning to while wearing these glasses for the first time was The Dead Are Arising, the new biography of Malcolm X. Nobody rocked a pair of black glasses better than El Hajj Malik El Shabazz!
When I arrived home with my new readers, I was excited to dive back into the book. The biography was the life project of Les Payne, a journalist who died in 2018 before the book was complete. His daughter, Tamara Payne, finished the book, and it was published in October 2020. I have to say, whenever I read about or read the words of Malcolm, I get a bit awestruck, starry-eyed even. His life, all 39 years of it, was just so amazing and inspires such admiration: the well-documented, incredible transformation and Muslim conversion he made while in prison only to be exceeded by the even more extraordinary, if all-too-short-lived transformation to revolutionary internationalist he made after he was exiled from the Nation of Islam. Sadly, though, the Paynes’ book does not quite do Malcolm justice, although it has its merits.
I felt the same way about Manning Marable’s bio Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011) back when I read it. This is not a Hard Crackers book review (really, it’s not!), and I am certainly not a Malcolm X expert, but I felt underwhelmed by both books. It may be that such a figure as Malcolm really requires a magisterial volume by an author who is unafraid to paint with broad brush strokes and be comfortable narrating the minutiae of his life. Les Payne clearly had a great admiration for Malcolm—hence embarking on a project that lasted for well over 25 years—but he perhaps was mired in seeing the world merely as a journalist. He and his daughter enchant the reader with an extensive investigation into Malcolm’s family and his youth, but they spend scant time taking stock of Malcolm’s legacy and meaning, which, when talking about Malcolm, is at least half the point. Marable clearly had an agenda to resurrect Malcolm in his own social democratic image, trying to freeze him for all time and belying the fluid course of Malcolm’s politics in his last two years. (Unfortunately, after working on the biography for years, Marable died not long after his book was published.)
Again, both books have their merit, but I wish someone would write a modern book about Malcolm that is similar in scope to a book about another “hero”—I use that word very sparingly—of mine, the Wobbly bard Joe Hill. Franklin Rosemont’s excellent Joe Hill and the Making of a Revolutionary Working Class Counterculture (2003) helps the reader understand why the itinerant songwriter best memorialized in song by the great baritone Paul Robeson matters. Yes, of course, there is far less extant biographical information on the Swedish immigrant than on the former Malcolm Little. The 1972 book From the Dead Level: Malcolm X and Me by Hakim Jamal checks some political boxes, but it’s a slim volume and it’s from before I was born, and we’ve already established that was a long time ago. Perhaps in the future someone will write a biography that fully meets the challenge that Malcolm presents, narrating the details of his life, warts and all, while also truly demonstrating his vast influence both in his time and in afterlife.
With all of that being said, I was still satisfied as I donned my new, first-ever reading glasses and devoured the final third of The Dead Are Arising on the second day of 2021. I had just enough leisure in these terrible, COVID-filled days to read about the life of one of the most extraordinary and influential humans to live in the 20th century, and perhaps the most quintessential American of all—and I could actually see the words! Clearly! I certainly could not complain. Taking the steps to get the glasses, eschewing vanity and the terror one feels when hesitantly acknowledging the encroachments of aging, was my own very small, very personal transformation.