The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Chapter 1 : Nightmare | Summary



Malcolm X's story begins before he was born, with a Ku Klux Klan raid on his family home in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925. His mother, Louise Little, was pregnant with him at the time. Malcolm's father, Earl Little, was an organizer for Marcus Garvey's Back to Africa movement. Garvey believed American black people would find liberation only in a separate state, in Africa rather than in the United States. Garvey's message was potentially disturbing to white people, who might be forced to confront the oppression of black people. According to Malcom the Klan in Omaha "were not going to stand for my father's 'spreading trouble' among the 'good' Negroes of Omaha." The Klansmen surrounded the Littles' house, shouting threats.

As soon as Malcolm is born the family moves to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then to Lansing, Michigan. Malcolm's father wants to own a store and grow his family's own food. The Littles run afoul of the rules for black people in Lansing, as well. "Stupid local Uncle Tom Negroes" tell white people about Earl's ideas. One night in 1929 a racist hate group attacks the Littles' home and sets it on fire. This "nightmare" is Malcolm's earliest vivid memory. He remembers, the "white police and firemen came and stood around watching as the house burned down."

Earl builds a new house, slightly farther out of town. Earl and Louise quarrel, and Earl beats her. Malcolm thinks the beatings were set off by Louise flaunting her superior education.

Earl continues to spread the word about Garvey, meeting in private homes to discuss the movement. He sometimes brings Malcolm on his trips. Malcolm is impressed by the gravity and intensity of his father and the other black people in these meetings. Malcolm's mother treats him harshly because he is her lightest-skinned child, but his father favors him for the same reason. Malcolm learns to get his way by yelling in protest. One day after a bitter fight with Louise, Earl walks out of the house. Louise has a terrible premonition of Earl's death. She runs outside, calling him back, but Earl only waves and walks on. That night Earl is found injured on the streetcar tracks. The streetcar crushed him, almost cutting his body in half. Malcolm reports Earl that "lived two and a half hours in that condition." The family believes the racist group the Black Legion murdered Earl.

Louise is "hysterical" at the funeral. Gradually their circumstances become financially difficult, and then dire. Earl had two life insurance policies. The smaller policy pays up, but the company that holds the larger policy refuses, claiming Earl committed suicide. To help support the family, Malcom's oldest brother, Wilfred, leaves school and looks for work. His oldest sister, Hilda, takes over some of the duties of mothering. Louise looks for work and is often hired by whites who take Louise for white. When her employers find out she's not, they fire her. Louise gets state welfare checks; welfare investigators begin visiting the Little home and asking questions. Their aim is to resettle the Little children in foster homes.

In 1934 the family is hit by "some kind of psychological deterioration." Malcolm supposes it is the ongoing strain of their poverty, and the shame of being "on relief." The "Welfare people" begin insinuating Louise is "crazy." Louise has a boyfriend for a time, but after a year or so he drops her abruptly and vanishes. After the break-up Louise becomes increasingly unhinged. She begins to talk to herself, and the home falls into disorder. The welfare investigators intervene, and Malcolm is the first to be removes; he is sent to live with the Gohannases, a family he knows and has often visited. Louise then has a breakdown and is sent to a mental hospital 70 miles away in Kalamazoo. Most of the other children are farmed out to different families. Wilfred and Hilda, the oldest, are allowed to remain home.

Malcolm recalls Louise lived in the mental hospital until 1963, when she went to live with Malcolm's brother Philbert and his family. He also recalls his final visit to Louise in the hospital in 1952. She does not recognize him. Malcolm reflects on the welfare people who treated her as less than human and on the society "that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight."


The "nightmare" of the chapter title refers mainly to the murder of Malcolm X's father. However, the narrative is arranged in a way that shows the nightmare of racist violence that pervaded Malcolm's childhood from the moment of his birth. That the Klan made their threats while Louise was pregnant with Malcolm makes it seem as though Malcolm was destined for a confrontation with white supremacy. His "earliest vivid memory" is of racists burning down his family's house. Even his ancestry, in his light-skinned West Indian mother, carries the mark of racist violence–"that white rapist's blood."

Malcolm X himself strikes a note of fate when he remarks, early on, saying "It has always been my belief that I, too, will die by violence." The words cannot help but sound eerie, since Malcolm had been assassinated by the time the book was published.

The metaphor of a nightmare also suggests something from which one can awaken. The autobiography is narrated by the older Malcolm, the one who has awoken. This older version of himself repeatedly tries to give similarly trapped people clues about the system that holds them down. With the benefit of his current perspective he remarks on the "'successful' Lansing Negroes" who are only "waiters and bootblacks." He lectures readers on the insanity of believing a pale complexion is "some kind of status symbol." He tells readers the lessons he learned while in the process of waking from the nightmare: Crying out in protest can get you what you want. If someone keeps winning in a betting game, he's cheating. These lessons are even sometimes in the second person, directly addressing the readers: "Anytime you find someone more successful than you are ... they're doing something that you aren't."

Malcolm X lost his parents while he was still quite young: his father died and his mother was committed to a mental hospital. Nevertheless, his later life seems very much to bear their stamp. Malcolm quotes his father spreading the message of Marcus Garvey: "No one knows when the hour of Africa's redemption cometh .... It is coming." The words resonate with Malcolm's later interest in Pan-African Unity. Like his father, Malcolm dedicated himself to a project of black liberation. Already as a child he was impressed by the "intense ... intelligent" bearing of the black men at the Garvey meetings. Malcolm's mother had a conflicted relationship with her pale skin. According to Malcolm she saw it as a source of shame because it was a visible reminder of the rape of her enslaved forebears. As Malcolm reports, she "never ... let me become afflicted with a sense of color-superiority."

Malcolm is upset by his parents' quarreling and by his father beating his mother. However, he appears to blame his mother for the beatings. She was educated and couldn't avoid "the temptation to correct an uneducated man." His father beat her in response to her "put[ting] those smooth words on him." Malcolm shows his loyalty to his mother in the way he narrates and analyzes her mental illness. The "Welfare people" start saying she is "crazy" before she shows any symptoms. Looking back, Malcolm points to the ways a racist society drove his mother mad. Rather than attributing her mental illness only to her, or to grief, Malcolm indicts the society that crushes people.

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