The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Chapter 4 : Laura | Summary

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Summary

Malcolm gives impression of the hip lingo of the time. He recalls listening to jazz records while drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. With his inhibitions lowered he learns to dance. "Whites are correct in thinking that black people are natural dancers," Malcolm says. He soon attracts attention as a highly skilled dancer. Malcolm quits his shoeshine job so he can have more time to dance. He buys a second zoot suit, on credit, along with a hat and fancy shoes, and he gets his hair conked at a barber shop.

Ella gets Malcolm a new job, running the soda fountain at a drugstore in the Hill neighborhood. There he meets Laura, a demure, hardworking high school student who lives with her grandmother. Laura encourages him in his former dream of being a lawyer, and she asks him to take her dancing. At first she lies to her grandmother about where she is going. Laura turns out to be a surprisingly good dancer, "like some blurring ballet—beautiful! And her lightness, like a shadow!" Malcolm does not expect her to be strong enough for "showtime," but she excels in it.

Laura asks Malcolm to take her dancing again. This time she tells her grandmother and has Malcolm pick her up at home. Her grandmother despises what Malcolm's clothes stand for: a man on the make. Laura tells Malcolm that she and her grandmother quarreled about the dance. At the dance Laura and Malcolm attract attention during showtime, and afterward they are "mobbed" by admirers. A white woman named Sophia asks Malcolm to dance with her. She is not a good dancer, but Malcolm likes having a white woman on his arm. He takes Laura home and rushes back to be with Sophia. Malcolm starts going out with Sophia several nights a week: "I paraded her. The Negro men loved her." Because Shorty "schooled" Malcolm on how to be hip, Malcolm's new white girlfriend also raises Shorty's status. Sophia, in turn, is a higher-status white girlfriend than Shorty has ever had. Shorty has only had sex workers and factory girls as his white girlfriends.

When Malcolm next sees Laura, she is "a wreck of a woman, notorious around black Roxbury, in and out of jail." Her trouble started with "defying her grandmother," which led her to drugs and sex work. Sex work leads her to "hate the men who bought her," so she becomes a lesbian. Malcolm says to readers that "I blame myself for all of this." He also regrets how he "treated her as I did for a white woman."

Malcolm quits his job at the drugstore and takes a new job as a busboy at a restaurant called the Parker House. One day he is late and expects to be fired but finds that the kitchen crew is distracted by the news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed by Japanese forces. The United States is about to enter World War II.

Analysis

Black people are "natural dancers," Malcolm claims. He agrees with white people on this point, he says. Malcolm is on the look-out for unique elements of black life, for things black people can claim as their own. Therefore he comments in Chapter 1 on the flavor of black people's food, which is seasoned with pork, and he comments in Chapter 4 on black people's "natural" ability as dancers. Food and dancing offer Malcolm evidence of independent black life. They are also potentially part of the everyday experience of some of Malcolm's black readers, which makes Malcolm's conversion story convincing. The more at home readers can feel in Malcolm's world, the more sympathetic they can be to his conversion.

Malcolm rejected the Hill because of its status seekers, but much of Malcolm's life in the Roxbury ghetto is about status. In some of the book's richest sensory passages, Malcolm describes the joys and creativity of dancing. But dancing is also caught up in the hierarchies of ghetto life: there is the ordinary part of the evening at the Roseland and then there is showtime, with its superior dancers. Among the superior dancers at showtime, the best of them shine and are "mobbed" by admirers afterward. There is nothing inherently terrible about this. To judge aesthetically in common with others is a pleasure in life. It is a joy to say, "This is the best music, those two are the best dancers." But there is a cruelty in the way hierarchies are enforced in Malcolm's new world. This cruelty is evident in the incident with Laura and Sophia.

Malcolm discusses Sophia as a shared, visible status object more than as someone he spoke to or spent time alone with. He "parades" her in front of other black men and revels in other men's desire for her. Sharing Sophia is not so different than the way Malcolm's classmates in Mason wanted him to act. They wanted him to make his conquests of white women (or girls) into a shared social event, an affair between men. Malcolm rejected that role then, but he enjoys it at the Roseland. There is all the difference in the world, for Malcolm, between helping his white classmates feel like big men and making a mark himself as a black man in Roxbury.

The person who pays the price of Malcolm's success in Roxbury is Laura. Malcolm's treatment of both Laura and Sophia is self-centered and insensitive, even in retrospect. He expresses his guilt over the way he treated her, but he still does not see anything but two paths for women. They can be demure and studious and obey their grandmothers, or they can become "wrecks," drugs addicts, prostitutes, and lesbians.

Malcolm claims to take total responsibility for Laura's downfall, denying her any responsibility for her own choices. At the same time, he tells her story in a way that shows it was not his fault. He begins the account of her downfall into drugs and lesbianism by saying she "defied her grandmother." Her fate was sealed as soon as she disobeyed. In other words her fate was sealed long before Malcolm rejected her in favor of a white woman. Malcolm emphasizes this was Laura's fate because of something inside her. He repeats some wisdom from Sammy the pimp: When a woman becomes "carried away while dancing, what she truly is ... will surface and show on her face."

He also appears to regret that he didn't see in her more of an opportunity to hustle. His friend Sammy is a pimp, and he remarks of Laura that, "I'm not suggesting that a lady-of-easy-virtue look danced to the surface in Laura," implying by suggesting that of course, it did. He then goes on to say he lacked Sammy's skill, which, if he had, he "might have spotted in Laura then some of the subsurface potential, destined to become real." It seems that even after his conversion he regrets, not her dissolution, but his failure to recognize and capitalize on it.

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