The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Chapter 9 : Caught | Summary

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Summary

The chapter begins with Malcom moving in with Shorty. Ella and Shorty are surprised at how Malcolm has changed. Shorty, in particular, cannot believe how much marijuana Malcolm smokes. After a few weeks of rest Malcolm starts doing cocaine and staying up late. Malcolm reveals a new facet of his relationship with Sophia: "Sophia always had given me money." Sophia is married now. Malcolm comments that knowing a white woman is "going with a black man" is an "automatic red murder flag to the white man."

Malcolm's Harlem reputation gets him in to a poker game with John Hughes, a high-status gambler. Malcolm plays well and earns Hughes's respect. Malcolm looks back on this period and remarks, "I really was at least slightly out of my mind." He took a lot of drugs and always went about armed.

By this time Shorty is having success as a musician but he still needs money, and Malcolm decides on a hustle to help both himself and Shorty: house burglary. Shorty brings in a friend, Rudy, who waits tables at fancy houses for a catering company. He also caters to the sexual tastes of a wealthy old man. The man has a fetish for being sprinkled with talcum powder. Rudy can be the group's "finder," the one who finds houses to burgle. Sophia and her 17-year-old sister are also brought in as finders. Malcolm is the ringleader. He says that "in any organization, someone must be the boss." Malcolm establishes his authority by playing Russian roulette in front of the group. He puts one bullet in a revolver, spins the chamber, and pulls the trigger two times. He tells the group, "Never cross a man not afraid to die ... now, let's get to work!"

Malcolm and his burglary ring start with the house of Rudy's wealthy old client and pull off a perfect job. They continue with night-time house burglaries and are successful. One time they have a close call with the police, but Malcolm saves them with his tactic of advancing toward the police and asking them for help. Nevertheless, a black police detective named Turner is growing suspicious of Malcolm. They confront each other in a bar where Malcolm says if Turner "plays" with him, Turner "will go down in history" because he will have to kill Malcolm. Malcolm tells his readers that now he was inviting death; "I had gotten to the point where I was walking on my own coffin."

One evening Malcolm runs into Sophia, her sister, and a white man at a Roxbury nightclub. He knows he should pretend not to know Sophia. Instead Malcolm walks up to the table and addresses the women as "Baby." The women turn pale and the man turns red; the white man is Sophia's husband's friend. That night the man enters Malcolm's apartment, and Malcolm hides under the bed. But then the two confront each other, but say little. The white man has seen Sophia's clothes in the apartment.

Malcolm takes a stolen watch to a repair shop. The watch's owner, however, has put out the word with Boston jewelers, and a detective named Slack confronts Malcolm when he goes to pick up the watch. Another black man enters the store just then. Detective Slack turns to speak to him, which gives Malcolm a chance to shoot him, and Malcolm now thanks Allah he did not do it. Malcolm is arrested, and the police question him but do not beat him. Malcolm believes they were lenient because he did not try to shoot Detective Slack.

Malcolm's accomplices are arrested, too: Shorty, Sophia, and her sister. Only Rudy escapes by fleeing Boston. Bail is set. For the white women it is low, but for the black men it is high, so Shorty and Malcolm must remain in jail awaiting trial. When social workers are brought in to talk to Malcolm and Shorty, the social workers want to talk only about their relationship with the white women. When the trial begins, the court clerks, bailiff, and even Malcolm's own lawyer are scandalized by Malcolm's and Shorty's relationships with white women. "We seem to be getting sentenced because of those girls," Malcolm tells his lawyer. An average sentence for a first burglary offense is two years. He and Shorty "weren't going to get the average—not for our crime."

Malcolm tells readers he is not bragging when he reveals the details of his "sordid past." He is not proud of "how bad, how evil" he was. He says people always want to know why he is the way he is. "To understand that of any person, his whole life, from birth, must be reviewed." So it is necessary for Malcolm to tell the whole story to show he "had sunk to the very bottom of the American white man's society." But all was not lost with his sentencing to prison because in prison "I found Allah." Finding Allah and Islam "completely transformed" his life, Malcolm says.

Analysis

Chapter 9 shows the benefits and risks of the hustling life. As Malcolm says to Reginald, "only squares kept on believing they could ever get anything by slaving" (working on a job). Malcolm implies you can get somewhere by hustling. However, as his experience in Harlem showed, hustling has high costs, and in Chapter 9, he shows hustling is also a grind. Malcolm earns only enough to buy food and drugs, and he holds this up as a principle of safe hustling—he avoids greed. But low earnings mean he can never get off the hustling treadmill. He will have to keep stealing. Chapter 9 also shows the limits to his hustling. He sets up his burglary ring as carefully as possible, but he and his colleagues cannot rob the houses of the rich and get away with it forever. The anecdote about Sophia's husband's friend also shows another limit to hustling: If the law had not caught up with Malcolm, a jealous husband would have.

Malcolm shows the hypocrisy of the legal system in the different treatment given to Malcolm and Shorty compared to their white accomplices. He also compares his sentence to that of an average sentence for burglary, which he says is two years. He and Shorty are punished for their relationships with white women, not for burglary. The court officials who question Malcolm and Shorty about their relationships are acting like Malcolm's white "specialty" clients in Harlem. Just as his white clients were willing to pay to watch a black man and a white woman, the court officials are willing to take up court time asking questions about Malcolm's sex life. However, Malcolm is perhaps less than honest with readers about his attraction to white women. He is always noting how other black men are crazy about white women. When he brings Sophia and her sister to nightclubs, "Negroes showed thirty-two teeth apiece as soon as they saw the white girls." But Malcolm is the one with the "white girls" on his arm. Shorty is "so obsessed with the white girl" he will pull up his window shade at night so he can "see that white flesh" by the light of the streetlamp outside. But Malcolm is the one obsessed with tracking other black men's obsessions.

When Malcolm later converts to Islam he leaves most of his hustling life behind. He no longer goes out with white women or tries to make a living by hustling. However, Chapter 9 also shows that some beliefs stay with Malcolm, even after his conversion. In running his gang of burglars, Malcolm says that "in any organization, someone must be the boss." This belief remains as Malcolm joins the hierarchical Nation of Islam, which is strictly ruled by one man, Elijah Muhammad. When he breaks with the Nation of Islam he founds another one-leader organization, Mosque, Inc. Malcolm also plays Russian roulette in front of his band of burglars to impress on them that he is unafraid to die. In the epilogue Alex Haley reveals Malcolm was hyping them; he actually palmed the bullet and played with an unloaded revolver. (Malcolm asked Haley not to reveal that detail in the book.) Similarly, in his time as a black nationalist leader Malcolm draws power from his expressed willingness to die.

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