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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Chapter 2 : Mascot | Summary



This chapter begins with Malcolm X's recollection of the Louis vs. Braddock boxing match in 1937 in which the black boxer, Joe Louis, became world heavyweight champion by defeating the white James J. Braddock. Malcolm remarks that black people throughout the United States think of "the Brown Bomber" as their hero.

Malcolm rebels at school, first by wearing a hat indoors and then by placing a tack on his teacher's chair. Not surprisingly, he is expelled, but what does surprise him is he is hauled into court where it is decided the 13-year-old Malcolm will leave the Gohannas family and go to reform school. But first he will stay in a detention home in Mason, Michigan. The couple in charge of the home, Mr. and Mrs. Swerlin, take a liking to Malcolm, and they keep him with them, rather than sending him on to reform school. The Swerlins and other white people in Mason accept Malcolm, but only as "a mascot, I know now." The Swerlins casually discuss "niggers" in Malcolm's presence. Malcolm draws an analogy between this experience in his childhood and the "kindly condescension" of white people in the 1960s, at the time of his interviews with Alex Haley. He says no matter how nice the white person is to a black person, he rarely "see[s] you as he sees himself, as he sees his own kind."

Malcolm is attracted to girls but doesn't connect with them. Besides, he cannot dance and doesn't see spending his little money on them. The Swerlins keep him at the detention home long after he should have been sent to the harsh reform school; he is grateful for their intervention. Mrs. Swerlin arranges for Malcolm to attend Mason Junior High School. He becomes popular there: "As the 'nigger' of my class, I was in fact extremely popular." Mr. Swerlin gets Malcolm an after-school job washing dishes, and Malcolm enjoys having his own money. Malcolm experiences racism in Mason where his white peers call him "nigger," although without any particular animosity. His white schoolmates offer him their sisters and girlfriends, expecting him to know about romance and sex. Malcolm is elected class president in seventh grade, and he is proud of his success and his grades. He realizes now that he was "trying to be white" and says integration is a waste of time.

Ella Little, Malcolm's half-sister who lives in Boston, visits Lansing. Malcolm describes her as "the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life." Ella is a success in Boston and owns some property. In the summer of 1940 Malcolm visits Ella in Boston. He is surprised and gladdened by black urban life in Roxbury, the black section of Boston: "Neon lights, nightclubs, poolhalls, bars, the cars they drove!" The black churches in Roxbury also impress him as finer than the white ones in Mason. Malcolm also meets his other half-siblings, Mary Little and Earl Little.

On his return to Mason, Malcolm is no longer happy with his unsophisticated life among small-town white people. People around him notice the change. Malcolm's disaffection increases during an encounter with his English teacher, Mr. Ostrowski. Mr. Ostrowski likes to advise students on life goals, and he asks Malcolm what he plans to do; Malcolm answers he might like to be a lawyer. Mr. Ostrowski tries to talk Malcolm into lowering his expectations. He says, "A lawyer—that's no realistic goal for a nigger." He advises Malcolm to think instead about being "something you can be." He suggests Malcolm become a carpenter. Malcolm notices Mr. Ostrowski encourages the ambitions of white students. "It was then that I began to change—inside."

Malcolm goes through the motions at school, with the Swerlins, and at work. But inside he "drew away from white people." Malcolm writes to Ella repeatedly, pleading to be allowed to live with her in Boston. Finally, when she agrees and arranges to take custody of Malcolm, he moves to Boston. Malcolm remarks "all praise is due to Allah" for this move and its effects on its life. He says that if he had stayed in Mason, he might have become a "shoeshine boy" in the state capitol building, or a waiter at the Lansing country club. He is grateful he did not remain a "brainwashed black Christian."


The Louis vs. Braddock boxing match is everything that Malcolm's life in Mason is not. In the ring the better man wins, regardless of skin color. In junior high in Mason, Malcolm wins—but only on white terms, as a mascot or "pink poodle," a novelty without any real power. Malcolm's future in Mason, too, appears as a rigged contest. Mr. Ostrowski advises white students of less intelligence than Malcolm to follow their dream of a profession. The ring of Mason is not a level playing field, and Mr. Ostrowski advises Malcolm to squeeze his hopes into the small range of possibilities for a black man in Mason. Become a carpenter, not a lawyer, Mr. Ostrowski advises. "People like you as a person," Mr. Ostrowski adds. "You'll get all kinds of work." The popularity Malcolm was so proud of will be worth next to nothing; it will only assure him of low-wage work in a small town. His popularity at his previous school did not save him from entering the school-to-prison pipeline at 13 when a court sends him to a detention home.

The older Malcolm, looking back, scorns his success in Mason's junior high. In becoming class president, he was only imitating white people. However, it is possible the success still mattered to him: he learned he could be effective in the world and be recognized. In Boston, however, Malcolm sees another world, the world he wants recognition in. Later, he will realize that the elegant black men and women he saw in Roxbury were just another version of Mason's smug black janitors and cooks. Later still he will scorn the success he earned in the criminal underworld.

Joe Louis the boxing hero is paralleled by Ella Little, hero to the Little siblings. Ella displays levels of autonomy and success Malcolm hadn't known were possible for black women. Unfortunately, after meeting Ella, Malcolm appears to not change his opinion of women in general. Her success, confidence, and pride make her almost a "pink poodle," a novelty, just as Malcolm was to his Mason classmates.

Even though he is only in junior high school, Malcolm already encounters a strange phenomenon of the color line. His white peers are eager for a certain kind of interaction with him, partly sexual, partly emotional. His fellow male students offer him their sisters and girlfriends. They seem to think Malcolm, because he is black, is sexual in some way they themselves are not. Malcolm later comes to a somewhat elaborate interpretation involving blackmail. The situation may have been simpler than that, though still repellent. The white students may have expected Malcolm to embody qualities they could not admit to; they may have wanted him to be sexual in their place, for them.

The mention of sibling incest brings up a theme that will be pervasive in Malcolm's account of his years in the underworld: the sexual and moral depravity of white people that they feel free to express in the company of blacks. In Roxbury, and later in Harlem, Malcolm operates in segregated black subcultures that white people are free to visit. The white people at Roseland Ballroom in Boston or at Small's in New York are seeking what the boys in Mason sought: something of themselves, which they imagine black people have.

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