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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 8 : Trapped | Summary



This chapter begins in medias res, that is "in the middle of things." Sammy and Malcolm are doing drugs in Sammy's apartment when West Indian Archie knocks at the door. West Indian Archie enters, pointing a gun at Malcolm, and accuses Malcolm of cheating. Malcolm tries to talk him down, but West Indian Archie says Malcolm has until noon the next day to pay up.

The disagreement arose because Malcolm believes he "combinated" his numbers bet with West Indian Archie, but West Indian Archie thought he had not. In numbers betting, "combinate" means to bet on every permutation of a three-digit number. "The number 840, combinated, would include 840, 804, 048, 084, 408, and 480," as Malcolm explains in Chapter 6. Malcolm collects his payout in Chapter 7, but now West Indian Archie says Malcolm lied; Malcolm bet on only one number. West Indian Archie claims he has betting slips that show Malcolm cheated. Malcolm explains to readers it is matter of honor, not money. "No hustler could have it known that he'd been 'hyped,'" or outsmarted or made a fool of. Honor also demands Malcolm cannot back down from a threat of violence.

Malcolm is high on cocaine and all worked up about West Indian Archie and he borrows a pistol from Sammy. Inwardly he begins to doubt himself and wonders whether he is mistaken about the bet. He goes to a nightclub, the Onyx, where West Indian Archie enters and waves a gun at Malcolm, yelling threats. Inwardly Malcolm resolves to kill him. West Indian Archie then quietly tells Malcolm he has nothing to lose: He is old and unafraid of jail. Malcolm on the other hand is young and a life sentence in jail would be long. They are in a stand-off. Friends of West Indian Archie's surround him and pull him away, breaking the stand-off. The next morning Malcolm does a lot of drugs. He delivers some reefers to a hotel and then passes out there. When he wakes up in the evening it is well past West Indian Archie's noontime deadline. Nothing happens that evening, or the next day.

In a bar that day "intuition" tells Malcolm to get rid of his gun. As soon as he does a policeman questions him. The police have heard rumors that Malcolm is armed. The policeman tells Malcolm he should leave town. "Everything was building up, closing in on me," Malcolm tells readers. Malcolm's friend and mentor from Boston, Shorty, arrives. Sammy had called him and explained Malcolm's troubles. Malcolm happily rides back to Boston with Shorty.


The Harlem hustlers operate within an honor culture. Anthropologists define this culture as one in which honor is won or lost. Someone wins honor if they prove they are willing to violently defend their honor. They lose honor if they are unwilling to violently defend it. The hustlers' honor culture traps both West Indian Archie and Malcolm. Neither man can back down without losing honor. However, there are also conventional ways to back down without losing honor. When West Indian Archie's friends hold him back, they provide West Indian Archie with an alibi. He would have killed Malcolm, but his friends prevented him. Sammy also intervenes, taking Shorty to New York. The entire episode with West Indian Archie reveals how unstable and short-lived honor can be.

For Malcolm, who has been searching for a way to get ahead, to gain status and wealth in black culture, the lifestyle of a hustler running numbers and doing drugs appealed to him. It is a power position that provides him with risk, glamor, and money. But it also unstable, and it pits him violently against his fellow black man.

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