The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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Summary

Malcolm writes to Elijah Muhammad, and in so doing realizes his handwriting is barely legible; he is ashamed of his grammar and spelling. Mr. Muhammad writes back to him, sending wisdom, lessons, and small amounts of cash. Soon Malcolm is corresponding daily with his siblings and with Muhammad. He also writes to politicians and his hustler friends in New York and Boston. He tells the politicians, "the white man's society was responsible for the black man's condition."

Back at Charlestown Prison a prisoner named Bimbi had encouraged Malcolm to read, but with his limited vocabulary, Malcolm was "going through only book-reading motions." To improve his vocabulary Malcolm studies the dictionary closely. Then he turns to the books in the prison library. The mental engagement of reading and writing is liberating. "I never had been so truly free in my life," he remarks.

Part of Islam is daily prayer. In this the Nation of Islam is similar to traditional Islam. Malcolm struggles to prostrate himself and pray. As a life-long atheist he finds prayer humbling and difficult.

Malcolm's wide reading is guided by Elijah Muhammad. Mr. Muhammad does not select the books, but Malcolm reads to confirm his teachings. Mr. Muhammad taught that "history had been 'whitened' ... the black man simply had been left out." He reads Gregor Mendel's work on genetics, confirming Yacub's History. He reads Sex and Race by Jamaican historian J.A. Rogers, who wrote about "race-mixing before Christ's time." Malcolm also reads widely in history and philosophy. His wide reading confirms the devilry of the white man. History shows Malcolm "the collective white man had been actually nothing but a piratical opportunist" who used Christianity as the "initial wedge in criminal conquests." He reads for the first time in detail about the slave trade: "Over 115 million African blacks ... were murdered or enslaved during the slave trade." The slave trade is followed by the colonization of Africa by Europe.

Malcolm tries to convert his fellow "brainwashed" black prisoners. He also joins the weekly debates in the school building at Norfolk Prison Colony. In the debates he tries to advance the cause of the Nation of Islam. He takes advantage of historical connections to turn the topic to colonization or slavery.

Reginald visits and begins "to speak ill of Elijah Muhammad." Reginald had been suspended for "carrying on improper relations with the then secretary of the New York Temple." Reginald begins to have mental problems and is put in a psychiatric hospital. At the time Malcolm sees Reginald's mental illness as "the chastisement of Allah." Malcolm then reflects from his present-day perspective. Elijah Muhammad "was later accused as a very immoral man," he says. After that Malcolm no longer saw Reginald's suffering as Allah's punishment. Instead Reginald suffered when his family turned away from him.

Malcolm spends the final year of his prison sentence back in Charlestown. It does not have the same amenities as Norfolk, but there are classes. He speaks up in a class on divinity, pointing out that St. Paul and Jesus must have been black. The Charlestown convicts are impressed.

Analysis

In his new-found enthusiasm for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm views everything in its light. He is eager to spread the new truth to everyone, from politicians to hustlers. He also represents himself as nearly illiterate when he first writes to Elijah Muhammad. In fact his self-education began in Charlestown prison, under the influence of fellow prisoner Bimbi. In Charlestown Malcolm took correspondence courses in English and Latin, but now he feels shame about his poor literacy skills and claims he was only going through the motions of reading before. It is as though he wanted to credit Elijah Muhammad, or Islam, with his education. Whatever the case, he dedicates himself anew to reading, starting with the dictionary. It is also an example of a fresh start in his life, how his conversion made him so new that even words were foreign to him.

His path through knowledge is somewhat erratic. He has a liking for conspiracy, such as the issue of who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. He reads about the history of the African slave trade and the experiences of slaves in the United States. After his conversion to the Nation of Islam he has an agenda for his reading. This research agenda helps him; now there is a point to his reading.

Malcolm says "right there in prison" he decides to "devote the rest of my life to telling the white man about himself—or die." It is strange he does not say he decided to devote himself to telling the black man the truth about the white man. After all, he sees the hustlers with the conked hair and the bourgeois blacks with their snooty airs as brainwashed. But in this moment he puts the emphasis on confronting white people with their collective crimes. This is entirely reasonable; someone oppressed cannot be indifferent to his oppressor. But this remark of Malcolm's highlights a difference between himself and Elijah Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad spread the word to black people; Malcolm did that and he excoriated white people with their collective guilt. Under three decades of Elijah Muhammad's rule, the Nation of Islam remained basically unknown to white people. Within a few years of Malcolm's conversion, the Nation of Islam was widely publicized to the white-owned media. The notoriety of the Nation of Islam is not solely due to Malcolm. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s had caused white media to take an interest in black organizations. But Malcolm would be a fiery adversary, mainly because of this decision he made in prison "to tell the white man about himself."

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