The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Chapter 10 : Satan | Summary

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Summary

Malcolm and Shorty are each sentenced to 8 to 10 years on multiple counts, with the sentences to run concurrently. Not knowing what concurrently means, Shorty thinks he has to serve "probably over a hundred years." Shorty "had turned as atheist as I had been to start with," Malcolm says. The two white women receive one to five years.

When he reaches Charlestown prison Malcolm is cut off from his usual drug supplies and becomes a bad-tempered, uncooperative prisoner. His rants against religion cause the other prisoners to call him Satan. He is often put in solitary confinement. To obtain his drugs, Malcolm establishes connections with guards, who sell him marijuana and amphetamines. A well-read prisoner named Bimbi has a positive effect on him. He tells Malcolm he should use his intelligence and take correspondence courses in prison. Malcolm takes English and Latin. Philbert writes to Malcolm, saying he has converted to "the natural religion of the black man," the Nation of Islam. Philbert tells Malcolm he should pray to Allah; Malcolm replies with scorn.

Malcolm is transferred to Concord Prison, where he receives a letter from Reginald, who tells Malcolm he knows how Malcolm can get out of prison. Malcolm is eager to know Reginald's way out of prison: to start with Malcolm needs stop eating pork and smoking cigarettes. Malcolm complies with the restrictions. Later Malcolm reflects on how his quitting shows the truth of a Muslim teaching: "If you will take one step toward Allah—Allah will take two steps toward you." With the exception of his half-sibling Ella, Malcolm's brothers and sisters have all converted to Islam. She gets Malcolm transferred to a prison colony in Norfolk, Massachusetts. The Colony is more lenient and humane than Malcolm's previous prisons. Each prisoner has their own room, with a door rather than bars. Reading, intellectual discussion, and debating are popular with prisoners at the Colony.

Reginald visits Malcolm and tells him, "God is a man ... His real name is Allah." Reginald adds that Allah has "360 degrees of knowledge ... the sum total of knowledge." In comparison, he continued, the devil has only 33 degrees of knowledge. The devil's knowledge is called Masonry. (Masons or Freemasons are a fraternal order, similar to a fraternity, and have a hierarchy with 33 levels or ranks called "degrees.") Malcolm is stunned and a bit confused by the 360-versus-33 comparison. Reginald then says God made himself known to a man, Elijah, "a black man, like us." The devil is also a man, but he "is the white man." Malcolm thinks about all the white men he has known, and he asks if there can be an exception for Hymie, the Jewish man real estate speculator. Reginald says no. Reginald's visit leaves Malcolm reeling. He is not immediately convinced, perhaps, but he says he was stunned and confused. "I couldn't make of it head, or tail, or middle," he says. He asks a prisoner who is a Mason, John, to tell him why Masons have only 33 degrees. John has no answer.

Reginald returns and talks for "two solid hours about 'the devil white man' and 'the brainwashed black man.'" Reginald tells him, "You don't even know who you are." The white devil has concealed from Malcolm and all other black men that they are of "a race of people of ancient civilizations and riches in gold and kings." Reginald then goes on to explain more about his religion, which is called the Nation of Islam. It is led by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, also called the Messenger of Allah. Elijah had met "God in person," a man named "Mr. Wallace D. Fard." Fard gave Muhammad "Allah's message for the black people who were 'the Lost-Found Nation of Islam.'"

Malcolm's siblings all tell him he should "accept the teachings of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad." He also learns that "the key to a Muslim is submission, the attunement of one toward Allah." His siblings write him long letters that give him religious instruction in Islam. They call this instruction "the true knowledge of the black man." Malcolm recounts the substance of the letters. The black man, "original man," built great civilizations. "The devil white man," throughout history, "had pillaged, murdered, raped, and exploited every race of man not white." The white man also committed "human history's greatest crime," the "traffic in black flesh." The white man cut the enslaved Africans off from knowledge of their language or culture. Malcolm recalls what the letters told him about how black people are educated. The white man teaches that Africa is populated by "heathen, black savages." The white man converted black people to Christianity, a religion that offered enslaved black people a vision of heaven after death, "while right here on earth the slave-master white man enjoyed his heaven." According to the letters, Christianity taught black people to despise themselves. Malcolm says he was "struck numb" by the content of the letters. He compares his experience to the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, when the truth of Christianity came to him.

Hilda visits Malcolm in prison. She tells him the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is often a guest in Wilfred's home. She tells him the "key lesson" of Elijah Muhammad is a teaching called Yacub's History. In this history, "the first humans, Original Man, were a black people," who founded the Holy City of Mecca. This race of Original Man had 24 scientists, who created the tribe of Shabazz, who would later be enslaved in America. A dissatisfied "Mr. Yacub" was born. He was very smart and was known as "the big-headed scientist." On the island of Patmos the big-headed scientist bred a race of people with pale skin. This breeding process took many generations. After 200 years it produced "the intended bleached-out white race of devils." Yacub did not live to see it; his descendants accomplished his work. Along the way the breeding process produced the red and yellow races.

According to the teachings, white people were then returned to Africa where they ruined everything. The white devils "turned what had been a peaceful heaven on earth into a hell torn by quarreling and fighting." The black Africans put the white people in chains and marched them into Europe, expelling them from Africa. Elijah Muhammad's Islam prophecies say the white race will rule for 6,000 years, "down to our time." Then the black original race will "give birth to [a race] whose wisdom, knowledge, and power [will] be infinite." Some of the black original people would be brought to North America as slaves to better understand the nature of the white man. Elijah Muhammad was taught these things by Mr. W.D. Fard, who was "half black and half white." Malcolm says he later learned these teachings "infuriated the Muslims of the East." Malcolm says he replied to these Muslims that they should have taught the West more about Islam. The vacuum they left enabled "any religious faker" to step in "and mislead our people."

Analysis

Malcolm's conversion to the Nation of Islam is both sudden and gradual. Chapter 10 narrates the sudden part, his stunning confrontation with Yacub's History and other elements of the Nation of Islam's doctrine.

Much of what Reginald tells Malcolm may strike some readers as hard to believe. For example, the talk about "degrees" sounds like the patter in a game of three-card monte, a betting game in which the dealer talks quickly and repeats words so as to distract the bettor. Reginald tells Malcolm God has 360 degrees of knowledge. That can only be a metaphor. There are 360 degrees in a circle, so 360 degrees of knowledge is a metaphor for total knowledge. But Reginald encourages Malcolm to take the metaphor literally. Reginald compares God's 360 metaphorical degrees of knowledge to the actual 33 degrees of rank in the Masonic hierarchy. This is an apples-to-oranges comparison; knowledge and rank are so unalike that the comparison is meaningless. The comparison also leaves unexamined Reginald's claim that the devil rules the world "by masonry." But the comparison has the ring of truth for Malcolm. Masons have less knowledge than God, which is the triumphant conclusion. In other words, the white man's knowledge is limited. Malcolm can now side with God's unlimited knowledge through the person of Elijah Muhammad. Reginald's rickety explanation of God's 360 degrees of knowledge offers the believer power.

Likewise hard to believe is Yacub's History. However, debunking the details of Yacub's History does not explain why the story is appealing. In Yacub's History white people originate in Africa, then they move to the island of Patmos and from there to Europe. Along the way they become paler, wicked, and less civilized. The sequence of Africa to Patmos to Europe is like the historical sequence of Egypt to Greece to Europe. (Patmos is a Greek island. Egypt is in North Africa.) Thus Yacub's History is a distorted version of the traditional history of Western civilization. However, instead of reaching a pinnacle of civilization in Europe, the white people in Yacub's History are brutes who live in caves. Yacub's History offers the believer a chance to see white people's power diminished.

The "demonology" of the Nation of Islam is simple, and therefore it has enormous explanatory power. As Reginald explains to Malcolm, white people are the spoilers of an otherwise happy humanity. When the white "devil race" returns from Patmos to Africa it turns "a peaceful heaven on earth into a hell." This accords with Malcolm's experience of life. White people burst onto his father's property and burned the house down. White people drove his grieving mother crazy. White people have controlled every vital aspect of Malcolm's life. As Malcolm listens to Reginald, images of all the white people he has known flash before him. This is the new religion's selling point—it can explain everything. What seems rickety or thin or poorly thought out through from the outside is exactly what makes the doctrine useful and appealing.

Malcolm ends the chapter with a comment from another perspective. Although he converted to the Nation of Islam in prison, he later broke with Elijah Muhammad and learned more about Islam. From the perspective of Islam, Elijah Muhammad's stories about Yacub and Masonry are "tales." Malcolm makes one of his strongest statements against Elijah Muhammad when he implies Elijah Muhammad is a "religious faker." He says that the lack of information about Islam in the West "left a vacuum into which any religious faker could step and mislead our people." Malcolm's trajectory makes the story of his conversion unusual. On the one hand he is narrating the story of how he was stunned by a revelation, like Paul on the road to Damascus. On the other hand he later learned the revelations were faulty and distorted and his leader flawed.

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