The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Chapter 3 : "Homeboy" | Summary

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Summary

Malcolm says he looked like a country hick when he first showed up in Boston. His green suit fit badly, and his naturally kinky red hair was not straightened.

His half-sister Ella gives him a room in her home in Roxbury, the black section of Boston. She encourages him to explore Boston before he ties himself down to a job. Malcolm explores "the Hill," the "snooty-black neighborhood." Its residents look down on new arrivals from the South and those from the West Indies. Southerners are despised as "strivers" and the West Indians as "Black Jews" because they own rental property. The "Hill Negroes" are proud that their jobs bring them close to white wealth and power, but Malcolm suspects these black people who claim to work in banking and finance are only "bank janitors and bond-house messengers."

Malcolm sees the Roseland Ballroom, with a sign announcing performances by Glenn Miller. The musicians whose records Malcolm listened to in Michigan perform in Boston. He also explores other areas of Roxbury, including the "town ghetto section" with its "cheap restaurants, poolrooms, bars, storefront churches, and pawnshops." He finds the residents here are "their natural selves," in contrast to the hypocritical airs and graces of the Hill's residents. Malcolm observes the lingo and style of the "sharp-dressed young 'cats.'" He is impressed by the men's straightened hair, a style Ella tells him is called a "conk."

Malcolm approaches a man in a pool hall about a job. The man, Shorty, becomes very friendly when he discovers he and Malcolm are both from Lansing. Shorty aspires to be a jazz musician. Instead of getting Malcolm a "slave"—a job—he gives Malcolm a tip on a job with opportunities for hustling. As the shoeshine boy at the Roseland Ballroom, Malcolm can sell condoms, liquor, and marijuana, and he can steer white male customers to black prostitutes. Initially, the innocent Malcolm is advised to just sell condoms, "until you can dig who's a cop."

The Roseland holds separate dances for white and black customers on different nights. Malcolm watches both. The black dancers seem freer: "nobody in the world could have choreographed the way they did whatever they felt." He especially enjoys "showtime" at the black dances, when a small number of the best dancers compete.

Malcolm begins to drink alcohol and smoke "reefers." He buys a zoot suit on credit. Stylish zoot suits had broad shoulders; their trousers ballooned above the knee and narrowed below the knee. Shorty "conks" Malcolm's hair; the process burns but leaves his hair "as straight as any white man's." From his present-day perspective in the 1960s, Malcolm reflects, "This was my first really big step toward self-degradation." In straightening his hair he was acting "ridiculous" and imitating white people, he reflects. A black man with straightened hair, he says, is displaying "the emblem of his shame that he is black."

Analysis

In the Hill, Malcolm sees a world of hierarchy and distinctions. The Hill residents look down on newcomers from the South and the West Indies. The woman who so inspires Malcolm, Ella, is also looked down on as a striving black Southerner and rental property owner. In contrast, the people in the "town ghetto" seem unaffected and free of pretentious airs to the young Malcolm. But the ghetto will soon reveal itself as a world of hierarchy. Malcolm will also see through the imitation of whiteness in the ghetto "conk" hairstyle. However, the ghetto offers him a new perspective on the life of an ambitious black man. Seen from the bottom-most rung of society, there is not much difference between working at a job and being a slave. Both are relationships of domination and exploitation. Both offer no future but endless toil. Thus the ghetto's slang word for job is "slave."

Even as he tells his story, Malcolm is conscious of a need to educate his listeners and readers. Just as American dockworker killed during the Boston massacre (1770) Crispus Attucks was new to Malcolm, Malcolm imagines his readers also need to know there were black heroes in Colonial America. Just in case those lessons aren't clear, he states the lesson at the end, lecturing his readers, preaching to them about how to attain some "race pride" and stop imitating white people.

Malcolm offers himself as the primary example of imitating white people. He is telling his own conversion story, from being lost in white imitation to being free in "the black man's" natural religion, the Nation of Islam. But Malcolm is also preparing readers to convert. Part of that is in offering readers elements of black life they can recognize. He doesn't just talk about what hair styles black people should have. Instead, he admonishes black people to "give the brains in their heads" some of the attention they've wasted on their hair. In Chapter 1 Malcolm claims he was never moved by church sermons. But in these lecturing, sermonizing moments of his autobiography, Malcolm shows himself to be his father's son.

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