RI Center for the Book

Letters About Literature 2013 – Elena Serrano

Level 2 State Winner Elena Serrano from Barrington Middle School reads her letter to Malcolm X about the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Dear Malcolm X,

I keep my text books on a neat shelf in a neat house in a neat suburb.  Last year, I did the same.   The text book was colorful and laid information out plain and simple – information like you, a fifty-word paragraph on a page too far into the hundreds to remember.  American history from Washington to Bush Junior, independence to civil rights was laid out on its straightforward pages.

For me, history classes and their accorded books had driven home the horror of war and oppression.  Death and destruction were laid out as if part of a horrific buffet, on an educational platter; we were shown cruelty without rose-colored glasses.  The brutal poignancy of slavery and struggle were laid out in speeches on educational websites’ videos and in images on our classroom’s pull-down projector screen.  I saw a slave’s back, ratcheted with whip scars and open sores – an image I will never forget.  I immortalized it, Mr. X; placing it in my head on a timeline of crystallized moments in an attempt to capture the horror.  That man I saw had no name to me, and not even a face, but the cruelty of hatred etched permanently across his back, resting on his shoulders.

It wasn’t until I read your book that I realized how warped my thinking was.  I had come, inadvertently but undeniably, to see the horrors of history as not something real, but something more like a movie – a well-done, gut-wrenching movie, indeed, but not more in my reality than Jaws or Juliet.  My life simply hadn’t encompassed any of my textbooks words.  I had built for myself a bubble of reality that kept my school, my home, and my family inside but left a lens that turned truth to semi-believable fiction through which I could see the rest of the world.  In my neat house on my neat street, I read my neat textbook in which you were one of thousands of characters, nothing more.  History could be terrible and could be meaningful, but was never personal or real.  The slave’s scarred back was a snapshot that I glued to my personal retelling of this longstanding story, and his back was part of the narrative.  I never thought that he might have a name, a face, or thoughts in his time.  I never thought he had a life.

Your life was incredible and undeniable, Mr. X.  I read of your childhood and saw you as my own age and your opinions thereof, which I think is what first allowed me to view you as person.  As you grew, I saw what led to your experiences, your reflections on them, and the experiences themselves, which were so far out of my little bubble that it popped.


The scope of your life confounded my worldview.  The fact that your experience contained so much, from a young adulthood of drugs and illegality to religious enlightenment and your controversial racial views, made me realize that the “characters” I dealt with weren’t confined to one side of the good-evil rift like the cinematic icons.  They were people with views that shifted and evolved, like mine have and will continue to do.  I put down your book and looked to my shelf, where I started to see the historical figures in my textbook come to life and become people that lived the same reality that I did.  I thought about the slave and his scarred shoulders, and, for the first time, wondered what his name was.

Your book did more, however, than allowing me to see history in a different, real light.  I started to form my own opinions the values that you showed.  I couldn’t disagree more with some of the Nation of Islam’s opinions about race, opinions which you yourself adopted and held onto until you neared the end of your life.  I found myself reading your book and countering your arguments in my head.  You tended to slip out of your chronology at points and share that which you found to be universally true, letting me accept my own truths in the process.  I could see your opinions form as mine did, and as you started to argue them I found myself ready and able to argue right back.  I don’t agree with you, Mr. X – far from it.  Your book changed my opinions by letting me change them myself, which I found infinitely more useful than adopting premade or prepackaged thought.

The image of the slave’s back will never leave my mind.  After I turned the last page of your autobiography, I did some research of my own to see if I could find some of the man’s story.  I emerged empty-handed, but with a heart full of sorrow as I realized that this man had a life as, if not more, full of turmoil as yours.  It was a life that started as a baby, perhaps in Michigan, like yourself, perhaps in Louisiana, perhaps on the shores of another country, and grew into adolescence and adulthood like yours and mine.  His life held an evil so deep that it could leave such painful scars.  He is anonymous, faceless, but he is a man:  a man with a story and a collection of moments that go further than any photograph could.

For this realization, and for changing my world, I thank you, Mr. X.

Thank you.

Elena Serrono

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