The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Chapter 6 : Detroit Red | Summary

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Summary

Malcolm explains the numbers game as an illicit gambling game; people choose a three-digit number and bet on it. Bettors win if their number matches the last three digits of the New York Stock Exchange's "daily total of U.S. domestic and foreign sales." The payouts are relatively small, but the winner gets a chance to buy luxury items or treat their friends to drinks. Malcolm plays the numbers every day.

Malcolm learns who's who in the hustling world by observing life at Small's Paradise. He learns some black hustlers are connected to the white gangster Dutch Schultz. White gangsters take a share of the numbers racket. Malcolm learns about Harlem's black cops and its pimps. Among the pimps are Sammy the Pimp and Dollarbill. He meets a burglar named Jumpsteady and sees a former pickpocket nicknamed Fewclothes, a man now too old and feeble to be a master criminal. Malcolm considers all of them victims, himself included, "bonded together in seeking security and warmth and comfort from each other." Instead of becoming scientists or explorers, they are all "black victims of the white man's American social system."

Malcolm moves into a building populated by criminals and hustlers. The sex workers there, he says, taught him "more about women than I ever [learned] in any other single place." For example he learns "domineering, complaining, demanding" women drive their husbands into the arms of other women. Also he learns "all women, by their nature, are fragile and weak." The sex workers had bonds of sisterhood, unlike church women. He also learns about "the cesspool morals of the white man from the best possible source, from his own women." Malcolm progresses in his "life of evil," eventually leading white men to "the sick things" they wanted.

Sophia sometimes visits from Boston. The musicians make a fuss over her; they are "white-woman crazy." White people visit Small's at night, unable to get enough of "Negro 'atmosphere' and "Negro soul." White men who excessively imitate black styles are called "hippies"; Malcolm and his friends cannot stand them. A hippie of Malcolm's acquaintance reveals his racism to Sophia, asking her why she wastes herself on "a spade." Malcolm thinks about why a white woman would be with a black man. The black man makes only a quarter of a white man's salary, if that, Malcolm says, so the white woman must be driven by either love or lust.

Malcolm earns the nickname "Detroit Red," to distinguish him from other black men nicknamed "Red." People don't know where Lansing, Michigan, is so Malcolm has begun telling people he's from Detroit.

One evening in 1943 Malcolm sees a black soldier at Small's. Malcolm offers him a woman. The police strictly guard the "morals" of American servicemen, so pimping is a serious offense. It is also against the rules at Small's. Malcolm confesses to Charlie, the bar's manager. A police detective takes him to the station for questioning. He is not charged, but he is fired from Small's and barred from ever returning.

Malcolm considers how to make a living hustling. Numbers running requires time to build a clientele, and pimping requires skills he lacks. Malcolm and Sammy the Pimp agree he should sell "reefers," marijuana cigarettes. Malcolm starts carrying a gun. He gets in the habit of surreptitiously dropping his dope stash, in doorways or on corners, to evade arrest, but dope smokers soon catch on and start stealing from him. The reefer trade is "a world of animals and vultures." The narcotics detectives are suspicious of Malcolm; to evade them he rides the trains with his railroad worker's pass. He starts selling reefers as he travels, usually to touring musicians he knows from his days at the Roseland.

Reginald visits Harlem and Malcolm shows him around. Malcolm encourages him to move to Harlem when he gets out of the merchant marine.

Malcolm worries about being drafted to fight in World War II. When he is called to the draft board, he acts eager to serve but crazy. In an interview with the military psychiatrist, he says he wants to "organize them nigger soldiers .... Steal us some guns, and kill us crackers!" This statement clinches his 4-F status, and he is not drafted into the Army.

Analysis

In the midst of describing the hustlers of Harlem, Malcolm has a surprisingly touching insight. Starting in Roxbury he has chiefly described charismatic black people who possess status and power. Then Malcolm sees Fewclothes, a shambling, ruined old hustler. Instead of distancing himself from Fewclothes, Malcolm moves closer to him emotionally. He shows how all the hustlers were really like Fewclothes at heart. They "bonded together in seeking security and warmth and comfort from each other."

Malcolm shows himself to be a brilliant tactician in this chapter. For example, to avoid service in World War II, he talks excitedly about joining the U.S. Army so he can "organize them nigger soldiers," steal guns, and kill white people. Malcolm's tactic is clever. He moves toward what he wants to evade, acting with such eagerness he gets rejected. In Chapter 7 he uses a version of this same tactic with the police. When a squad car arrives, hunting suspects, Malcolm walks toward it and the police wave him away. These are tactics he will use later in the civil rights movement as he walks into the heart of the battle and subverts the white power structures to his own ends.

Malcolm's joke about organizing "nigger soldiers" cuts close to the bone. Many white people would later see "Black Muslims" as a hate group. Malcolm countered by saying they misunderstood black independence as hatred of white people. However, Malcolm did go on to organize black people, so the joke he makes to the draft board in part comes true. Malcolm recalls in Chapter 1 what someone said to his father after a Garvey meeting. A woman tells Malcolm's father, "You're scaring these white folks to death!" Malcolm is proud of his father in that moment. Similarly, at the draft board Malcolm knows exactly what to say to scare the white psychiatrist. Armed black men bent on revenge scare the white psychiatrist. In this joking, theatrical form Malcolm the radical "Black Muslim" makes his first appearance.

Malcolm has a complicated view of white and black morality that he never fully articulates, perhaps not even to himself, but that is implied at moments in the text such as in this chapter. He sees white people drawn to black culture where they indulge in ways that would be unthinkable in white society, and he implies that they do so not because black culture is exotic and intriguing but because white people are morally deficient, even sick. The reader may then infer that black people only indulge in such vices to satisfy the moral depravity of white people. It's unclear whether Malcolm ever drew this conclusion himself or intended the reader to do so.

This chapter also raises questions about Malcolm's treatment of women and his opinion of white people's morals in relation to black people. Malcolm's comments about women perpetuate a stereotype of femininity that is demeaning and one-dimensional. This is ironic given the ways he embraces a plurality of definitions for the black man and shows the narrowness of his civil rights vision when compared the broader national movement, which included civil rights for women.

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