I have less patience with someone who doesn’t wear a watch than with anyone else, for this type is not time-conscious. In all our deeds, the proper value and respect for time determines success or failure. — Malcolm X
Wristwatches played an interesting and important role in the life of Malcolm X. The above quote (told to Alex Haley for The Autobiography of Malcolm X) shows how deeply he respected time, appreciated others who understood its significance, and viewed the watch as an identifier for such people.
Malcolm X’s life can be viewed in three phases–his life before prison, life in prison, and life after prison. Before changing his name to Malcolm X, young Malcolm Little was known in his Harlem circle as “Detroit Red”–a nickname that referenced his previous hometown and his hair’s natural tint. Detroit Red was a professional pimp, drug dealer, gambler, racketeer, pickpocket, and burglar. He risked his life with drug abuse, Russian roulette, conning and crossing other criminals, and daring police officers to kill him. As fate would have it, his undoing (which eventually led to his salvation) was a wristwatch.
Malcolm X’s Wristwatch
“I had put a stolen watch into a jewelry shop to replace a broken crystal. It was about two days later, when I went to pick up the watch, that things fell apart. As I have said, a gun was as much a part of my dress as a necktie. I had my gun in a shoulder holster, under my coat. The loser of the watch, the person from whom it had been stolen by us, I later found, had described the repair that it needed. It was a very expensive watch, that’s why I had kept it for myself.
And all of the jewelers in Boston had been alerted. The [jeweler] waited until I had paid him before he laid the watch on the counter. He gave his signal and this other fellow suddenly appeared, from the back, walking toward me. One hand was in his pocket. I knew he was a cop. He said, quietly, “Step into the back.” … And out from where they had been concealed walked two other detectives. They’d had me covered. One false move, I’d have been dead. I was going to have a long time in prison to think about that.”
The Prison Years
Malcolm spent the next seven years in prison, where he was transformed and reformed through Allah, the Nation of Islam, and his self-education. A fellow black prisoner, known as Bimbi encouraged Malcolm to take advantage of the resources offered by the prison library. Bimbi was well-read and well-respected, even by the prison guards
His sister Hilda, who grew tired of reading his ignorant and barely legible letters, suggested he work on his English and penmanship. She, along with his brothers Philbert and Reginald, introduced him to the “natural religion for the black man,” the Nation of Islam, and the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm devoted as much of his time in prison as he could to learning about the Nation of Islam from family and fellow Muslims. He read any book, particularly those on the subjects of history, philosophy, and religion, he could get his hands on. Malcolm Little left prison with a new stock of knowledge, a new religion, a new set of priorities, and a new name–Malcolm X.
His sister gave him some money when he left prison and entered the real world as a free and rehabilitated man. He bought three things–a new pair of eyeglasses, a suitcase, and a wristwatch. These are the only three worldly possessions Malcolm mentions in his Autobiography following his conversion to the Nation of Islam.
Before prison, he found pride in superficial objects like flashy suits, flashy cars, and flashy women. After prison, he placed importance only on practical things that could aid him in his mission to convert others to his religion and to fight for civil rights for black Americans. With his life’s new purpose, every second mattered for Malcolm X.
“You won’t find anybody more time-conscious than I am. I live by my watch, keeping appointments. Even when I’m using my car, I drive by my watch, not my speedometer. Time is more important to me than distance.”
Post-prison, the symbolic and practical nature of Malcolm X’s wristwatch overshadowed its monetary value post-prison. Even the suitcase he bought represented the importance on making the most of his time. He’d keep a suitcase packed and ready to travel at a moment’s notice.
After a falling out with Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X rejected the Nation of Islam. During a trip to Mecca he discovered true Muslim brotherhood. And then tragically, in 1965, Thomas Hagan assassinated Malcolm X.
Though he and his life’s mission evolved throughout his life, Malcolm X retained his profound respect for every second.
“Anything I do today, I regard as urgent. No man is given but so much time to accomplish whatever is his life’s work. My life in particular never has stayed fixed in one position for very long. You have seen how throughout my life, I have often known unexpected drastic changes.”