If you are interested in the writings of Malcolm X, George Jackson, Huey Newton, Rap Brown and Assata Shakur, then “From the Bottom of the Heap” will be essential reading for you.
The early stage of the book takes the reader through 1950s and 60s America, a land of plenty; a land of equality, freedom, opportunity, laughter and joy – unless your skin is a shade of brown or black, that is, in which case, your life is a series of violent encounters, beatings at the hands of whites and fellow struggling blacks, arrests, humiliations and defeats. ‘Walking while black’ was a crime, ‘driving while black’ is a crime, hell, even ‘having fun while black’ seems to have been a crime. And the author got it in the neck at every turn – beaten by the police, beaten by his peers, beaten by his family, beaten by his teachers – it was a claustrophobic world with few avenues of escape.
Not that the author took it all meekly – far from it – King stood up like a courageous revolutionary, and he gave as good as he got.
In the early days, we see the author simply reacting blindly, and fighting back, blow for blow, but as he gets older, he develops a revolutionary consciousness and an intellectual awareness of what is going on, and he works out and understands the path from the shores of Africa, to the slave ships, to the plantations – and ultimately, into modern day prison cells.
And then he works out the paths to mental and physical liberation.
My favourite parts of the book are the author's descriptions of his life as a teenager and young man – the reader is offered a deeper insight into how it really was for a struggler, a black man, living at the bottom of the ghetto, lost in the alleyways and streets, with limitations hemming you in at every turn.
We learn about the music he heard on the streets, the ‘hip cats’ he met on the road (both black and white by the way, the authors is not racist), the girls he loved, the righteous brothers and politically aware guiding lights he befriended in jail, aswell as learning about the people he was forced to fight and the demons he had to overcome.
My only complaint is that, whilst the book is thorough, revealing and detailed when describing the years from the 1950s to the 1970s, it is lacking in substance when describing the crucial years from the 80s onwards until his release. I found that disappointing when the rest of the book describes each stage of his life and experience so well and offers valuable insights and reflections.
Besides that, the book is essential reading. If you want to understand how power really operates in our ‘civlised democratic world’ when your skin is not white and when you are not wealthy, then you would do well to listen to the message of men like King.
King’s book is another valuable part of the jigsaw for those of us driven to work out the true story. King was just an ordinary, everyday man -- like most of us, he was flawed and imperfect, and like most of us, he wanted to live a life in which he could enjoy his freedoms and better his chances.
But he was born black. And really, that was his real ‘crime.’
And if you look at the papers and watch the television every day, and if you look at the constant robbery of the immense riches and resources of Africa, and the constant ghettoisation and humiliation of black men, the poor education and poor health care, the poor diets in the slums and poor neighbourhoods, the prison industrial complex, the hiding away of the Native Indians in reservations, and the humiliation of aboriginal peoples everywhere -- it is pretty clear that to be ‘born while being black’ is still a crime.