The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Chapter 5 : Harlemite | Summary



Malcolm takes a job as a dishwasher on a rail line that goes to New York. After he sees black life in New York, Boston seems small and unsophisticated. He visits a famous bar in Harlem, Small's Paradise, and "within the first five minutes in Small's," Malcolm says, "I had left Boston and Roxbury forever." Malcolm learns about the hustles in New York, the criminal and semi-criminal ways people make a living without working a regular job. He begins to play the numbers, a daily illicit gambling game, and he rents a cheap room in Harlem where people call him Red, because of his skin tone and hair.

At his train job, Malcolm moves up from dishwasher to "sandwich man," selling refreshments in the aisle. He is enthusiastic and makes a lot of sales. However, he is sometimes reckless in how he treats customers, cursing and mocking them, and he soon gets fired.

Malcolm uses his free train miles to visit his family and friends in Mason, Michigan. They are amazed by the hip new man he has become. Mrs. Swerlin is uncomfortable with the new Malcolm, but he is in high spirits, although a visit to his mother at the state hospital takes some of the joy out of the trip.

Back in New York, Malcolm gets a new railroad job, on a New York to Miami line, but it doesn't last long. He then gets a job as a bartender at Small's. The man who hires him tells him the rules, which include "no kind of hustling off any customers, especially men in uniform." Malcolm agrees and is hired; he is 17.

Malcolm next describes the history of Harlem. It had started as a Dutch settlement, and it successively became home to Germans, Irish, Italians, and Jews. As each new immigrant group arrived, the previous group moved out. Black people had lived in the Wall Street area, then Greenwich Village, then above 52nd Street. In 1910 a real estate broker moved "two or three Negro families" into the then-Jewish neighborhood of Harlem. "In a short time," Malcolm reports, "Harlem was like it still is today—virtually all black." In the 1920s, Malcolm explains, the entertainment industry flourished in Harlem. Although Harlem provided segregated housing for black people, it provided music and theater for the whole city. "Blacktown crawled with white people," Malcolm remarks. The stock market crash and the Great Depression brought an end to Harlem's glory days. However, at the time Malcolm takes the job at Small's, in 1942, white people still come to Harlem for entertainment and illicit pleasure.


Like the shoeshine job, Malcolm's job as a sandwich man is a performance for white people. Just as white people at the Roseland enjoyed Malcolm snapping his shoeshine rag, he finds "all you had to do was give white people a show and they'd buy anything." Malcolm is willing to play the part of loud and funny "Negro" for his own ends. He goes "bellowing up and down those train aisles."

At the same time Malcom is earning money putting on his show, he is observing the power of quiet black men at Small's Paradise Bar. The first time Malcolm walks into Small's it is afternoon, and the only patrons are powerful hustlers and gangsters, men with no daytime job in the usual sense. Malcolm is struck by "their conservative clothes and manners." He considers that "ten Boston Negroes—let alone Lansing Negroes" would make a lot of noise drinking. The men in Small's, on the other hand, only make a "low murmur of sound." Finally Malcolm praises the Harlemites in the same terms he once reserved for black men in the Roxbury ghetto: "Their manners seemed natural; they were not putting on any airs." Now it is the men of Roxbury who seem loud and affected to Malcolm. The quiet men of Harlem in their conservative suits are the natural ones.

Once again Malcolm is impressed with a different caste of black people, and once again he is proved wrong. The contrast between loud Boston and quiet, powerful New York turns out to be false. At night the men and women with day jobs show up at Small's. They are as loud and flashily dressed as anyone in Roxbury. But this one lesson stays with Malcolm. He has seen into another hierarchy, the quiet, powerful men who run Harlem, men who sit outside the white power structure. He starts to emulate them, and he succeeds.

The historical sketch of Harlem is very literary. It is less conversational than Malcolm's reminiscences, and it was probably embellished heavily by Haley. However, it also adds historical depth to his descriptions of Harlem. By pointing out that black people in New York have not always lived in Harlem, Malcolm opens the possibility of other ways of living.

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