The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Quotes


Even though they appeared to have opened the door, it was still closed.

Malcolm X, Chapter 2

At the detention home in Mason, Michigan, the white couple, Mr. and Mrs. Swerlin, accept Malcolm and treat him with kindness. But Malcolm eventually realizes they do not accept him as a human being; they think of him as a pet. They feel comfortable around Malcolm and they talk about whatever is on their mind, including black people. "Niggers are just that way," says Mrs. Swerlin casually, as though Malcolm were not there. Malcolm finds the other white people also treat him as a pet or mascot who can't understand what they're saying. "Thus they never did really see me," Malcolm says. This early disillusionment with white acceptance may have contributed to Malcolm's scorn for the goal of integration.


A lawyer—that's no realistic goal for a nigger.

Mr. Ostrowski, Chapter 2

Mr. Ostrowski was Malcolm's English teacher in junior high school who also acted as an informal guidance counselor. He encouraged unexceptional white students to make the most of themselves. But when Malcolm, an exceptional student, expresses an interest in becoming a lawyer, Mr. Ostrowski tells him he should become a carpenter instead. Mr. Ostrowski's comment shows what Malcolm was up against. The system is so thoroughly designed to keep black students in their place by accepting lowly positions that white teachers cannot imagine any other realistic careers for them.


I was ... one of the most depraved parasitical hustlers among New York's eight million people.

Malcolm X, Chapter 5

Malcolm has been describing the night of his first visit to Harlem. He is amazed by the hustlers on Lenox Avenue, who offer "Hundred-dollar ring, man" and other merchandise. Then he tells readers that within two years he himself would be a hustler who could give the other hustlers lessons. Malcolm analyzes New York this way: There are eight million people in New York. Four million of them work for a living. The other four million live off them, parasitically. Given the choice between being a working chump and a high-living parasite, Malcolm knows which he'd rather be. But he increasingly resents having to make such a stark choice.


I couldn't have whipped that white man as badly with a club as I had with my mind.

Malcolm X, Chapter 5

When he works on the train Malcolm occasionally has trouble with drunk or obnoxious white customers. In this instance an angry white man threatens to beat Malcolm. Taking advantage of the man's drunkenness, Malcolm tells him he'd be glad to fight except the man is too heavily dressed. He persuades the man to undress entirely, so he wins by humiliating the white man instead of hitting him. Malcolm recalls this as a life lesson his hustling days taught him. He still uses his intelligence to triumph over enemies in his later life.


I was really a clown, but my ignorance made me think I was "sharp."

Malcolm X, Chapter 5

Malcolm is shuttling between Roxbury and New York, working on the train as a way to visit New York. In his off hours he dresses in the height of black fashion at the time. He wears a zoot suit with wide lapels and ballooning, jodhpur-like trousers. His pointed shoes have knobs on the tips. And his straightened hair—his "conk"—is dyed to accentuate its natural reddish color. The "ignorance" Malcolm refers to has to do with imitating white people. Although Malcolm quickly masters the code of how a hustler should dress, he doesn't realize he is actually imitating white people, to his detriment.


Only squares kept on believing they could ever get anything by slaving.

Malcolm X, Chapter 9

Malcolm is trying to talk Shorty into joining his burglary ring. "Slaving" means working at a job, for a wage, but it is also a reference to the fact that whites remain in economic power long after blacks were emancipated. Malcolm's assessment is pessimistic but not entirely wrong. It is difficult to drastically increase one's wealth by working, particularly at the kind of jobs open to Shorty and Malcolm. In comparison, robbing, burgling, and drug dealing offer ways to obtain large sums of money.

In another way Malcolm is wrong, and he knows it. In his first visits to Small's Paradise in Harlem he saw the pathetic old hustler named Fewclothes. He realizes that hustling only ends in prison, in hopeless fights against rising young rivals, or in the misery of a man like Fewclothes, reduced to begging in bars. The hustler is no more free than the "slaving" worker. But then again, where can freedom be found for a black man in a white America?


In any organization, someone must be the boss.

Malcolm X, Chapter 9

Malcolm is referring to his burglary ring in Boston. He can imagine no other ways for people to work together. Someone has to be the boss, and it will be him. However, this kind of structure will be a problem for him in the next phase of his life when he converts to the Nation of Islam. He accepts that Elijah Muhammad is the one man in charge of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm has no problem submitting to Allah, or to the man who seems to be his representative, Elijah Muhammad. But the only way for Elijah Muhammad to hold that much power is to be divine rather than human. When Malcolm finds out Muhammad has human failings and is too cowardly to confess them to his flock, Malcolm is thrown into a spiritual crisis.


I had gotten to the point where I was walking on my own coffin.

Malcolm X, Chapter 9

Malcolm is commenting on the time when he was still a burglar. He was becoming increasingly reckless in his defiance of police detective Turner. By this phrase, he means he was inviting death. He defied the police to the point of foolhardiness, putting his life at risk.

The phrase resonates with the later part of his life. He defied white people and he told the truth in a way that made everyone uncomfortable, white and black. He also defied the Nation of Islam. However, in contrast to his days of robbing houses, his later defiance had a higher aim. As he later said about martyrs: "If I'm to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood."


Shorty had turned as atheist as I had been to start with.

Malcolm X, Chapter 10

Malcolm is referring to Shorty's reaction to hearing his sentence read in court. He does not know the word "concurrently," so he does not understand all his eight-to-ten-year sentences will be served at the same time. On the advice of his mother Shorty had prayed for a good outcome to the trial. When he hears the sentences he becomes an atheist, Malcolm claims. He also adds it took Shorty "eight to ten seconds" to become an atheist, a reference to how long it took for Shorty to add up all the eight-to-ten-year sentences.

The mention of atheism has another purpose. This is the chapter called "Satan," in which Malcolm shows himself a fierce critic of religion, especially of Christianity. This is also the chapter in which Reginald tells Malcolm about the Nation of Islam. In his comment on Shorty, Malcolm claims he is a life-long atheist. This remark increases the tension of the chapter: Will Malcolm accept the offered religion when he has always been an atheist?


He enjoys his heaven right here ... on this earth ... in this life.

Malcolm X, Chapter 12

Malcolm says this during his first address to the congregation at Temple One in Detroit. He is making a criticism of Christianity. He says the white man uses Christianity to keep black people focused on the afterlife. In heaven black people will have justice; meanwhile, the white has what he wants "on this earth ... in this life." All of his anger toward Christianity now has a focus; now that he has joined "the black man's natural religion." When he was nicknamed Satan in prison, Malcolm raged against Christianity, but that was an unfocused rage, a way Malcolm passed the time. Bimbi talked to him about his atheism, and he put Malcolm's atheism in a philosophical context. That stopped his ranting for a while. With the belief in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm is no longer an atheist, but he is an even more implacable critic of Christianity.


We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters—Plymouth Rock landed on us!

Malcolm X, Chapter 12

These words are an example of Malcolm's preaching as an assistant minister at the temple in Detroit. This brief declaration also illustrates why Malcolm was such as effective orator. The passage is memorable because it uses repetition and inversion. The first part of the sentence invites his listeners to feel part of a family ("brothers and sisters") who were shut out of the narrative of Pilgrim settlement of the United States. The second part of the sentence repeats many of the words, but inverts them. The result is a striking, sensory metaphor for the burden of living in a racist society.


Snakes couldn't have turned on me faster than the liberal.

Malcolm X, Chapter 15

Malcolm criticizes black and white Freedom Riders from the North. The Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who traveled to the South to desegregate public transportation. Malcolm points out there is segregation in the North. He even claims the segregation is worse in the North because it is overseen by smiling, hypocritical white people. This is why the liberals turned against him, he says.

Malcolm points out that his own life is an example of this hypocrisy. He grew up in the North, where there are no laws against school integration and no laws about riding in the back of the bus. But there were unspoken customs, and breaking them could have violent consequences. His father, a fiercely independent man and black nationalist, saw his house burned down by the white supremacist group the Black Legion. The Klan raided Malcolm's family's house when his mother was pregnant with him. Malcolm was shunted from school to a quasi-prison. He was told what a black student should hope for in a career—something manual. But when he points this out the white Northern liberals turn against him.


To us, the Nation of Islam was Mr. Muhammad.

Malcolm X, Chapter 16

Malcolm is referring to Elijah Muhammad's worsening illness. The decline in Muhammad's health is a crisis for the Nation of Islam because Muhammad is so thoroughly identified with it. This also means worshippers cannot separate their belief in Muhammad from their belief in religious doctrine. Malcolm, too, initially treats Muhammad as if he were divine, as if he had no human failings. This idolization of a human being is not sustainable. It falls apart when Elijah Muhammad fails. Then the only choices for believers are to leave the Nation of Islam, as Malcolm does, or defend it with violence, as Malcolm says some members do. The violence punishes outsiders who tell the truth about Muhammad so that the believer does not have to confront that truth. All these problems come from identifying the man with the religion.


You name the city ... the black man's anger is there, fermenting.

Malcolm X, Chapter 16

Malcolm is talking about the explosive potential for black people to bring about rapid and perhaps violent social change in the near future. He has been discussing the "long hot summer" of 1964 in "Harlem, in Rochester and other cities." These cities saw riots in 1964, but Malcolm says the cities of the United States hold the potential for much more violence.


My whole life had been a chronology of—changes.

Malcolm X, Chapter 17

Malcolm tells Haley that even he himself was astounded by the letter he wrote from Mecca. The letter contains so many radically different views, so unlike the things he used to believe, that he himself is surprised. But there has been precedent, he says. He has made dramatic changes in his life before. This can be seen in his move from Michigan to Boston. He went from being Malcolm Little, the junior high mascot, to "Red" the hustler. Later he changed from Red to Satan, the raving anti-Christian, and from there to Malcolm X. So the change from Malcolm X to El-Hajj El-Malik El-Shabazz is part of the "chronology of changes."

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