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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 | Themes


Racism and Prejudice

Malcolm's childhood and early years are shadowed by racism. Racist hate groups hound the Little family in Nebraska and Michigan, and while Malcolm is still a child, his family's house is burned down by a white supremacist group called the Black Legion. The term racism describes a belief that human beings are divided into separate, biologically determined races and that some races are superior to others. These ideas are reflected in racist practices, such as segregated schools and housing or limited access to jobs or elected offices.

When racist institutions are in place, it is not necessary for members of the dominant group to be personally invested in racist ideas and yet still benefit from it. For example, a white person might get better housing, schools, and jobs than black people without actually thinking about racial superiority. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X Ossie Davis comments, ""every white man in America profits directly or indirectly from his position vis-a-vis Negroes." For this reason a distinction is often drawn between racism and prejudice. Racism refers to the ideas, institutions, and practices that prop up the dominant group's superiority. Prejudice refers to the conscious or unconscious beliefs a group or person might have about another group.

Malcolm sometimes appeals to his readers' prejudices about white people such as when he makes particular mention of smell and taste. He recalls his childhood experience of discovering "the lack of enough seasoning in [white people's] food, and the different way that white people smelled." Later when he has converted to the Nation of Islam, he promotes the idea the races are naturally inclined to stay separate. He says black men are not attracted to white women and quotes a black man as saying, "You ever smell one of them wet?" Sensory details are persuasive, in speech and writing. There is something fundamental about smell and taste, which suggests race too is a fundamental natural category. After his trip to Mecca Malcolm no longer mentions such details.

Separatism and Unity

The Nation of Islam promotes the separation of black and white races. Malcolm learns during his conversion that the Nation of Islam teaches that white people were bred to be a race of devils. At its best, separatism enables black believers to learn to appreciate their own community and their own people. For this reason Malcolm bristles at the portrayal of the Nation of Islam as professing hatred of white people. Instead, he regards the Nation of Islam as trying to restore a lost pride and an erased history to black people. However, the Nation of Islam's separatism leaves Malcolm unable to see any contribution a white person could make to overcoming racism. When a white student asks him, "What can I do?" Malcolm replies, "Nothing." Separatism leaves Malcolm unable to imagine any bonds between white and black people, with the exception of exploitation.

During his pilgrimage to Mecca Malcolm sees people of different nationalities and skin colors harmoniously traveling together and praying together. He believes Islam is the reason for this harmony. He also experiences what it is like to interact with white people apart from the racism of the United States. He returns home to New York with a new sense that unity is possible between people of different races.

Conversion and Reinvention

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a spiritual autobiography or conversion narrative. "Spiritual autobiography" and "conversion narrative" are two names for one genre of autobiography. Popular among Protestants in 17th-century England, a conversion narrative tells how the narrator was lost in sin and then saved by faith in God. The first conversion narrative is often said to be Saint Augustine's Confessions, written in the 4th century in Latin. (Augustine was born in what is now Algeria. Malcolm X notes with bitterness that "a city named for the black African saint who saved Catholicism from heresy [St. Augustine, Florida]—was recently the scene of bloody race riots.") Although the word "confession" in Augustine's title can refer to confessing sins, the purpose of the genre is also to confess one's faith. In keeping with this genre convention, long passages of The Autobiography of Malcolm X focus on the teachings of Islam and how Malcolm X came to understand them.

Malcolm X and Haley's book fits the conversion narrative genre by also focusing on sin, which in Malcom X's worldview means abiding by the white man's power structures. At the beginning of the book Malcolm is lost in the white man's world. He tries to break out of the role white society prepares for him: he rejects the advice of his teacher Mr. Ostrowski, who told him to become a carpenter; he rejects Ella's advice to get a job, and instead he starts "hustling" or stealing and conning. But even in his attempt at freedom, he finds himself ensnared in the system of white domination and black subservience. He imitates white people, straightening his hair and parading around with a white woman. Even worse, the freedom he thinks he finds in hustling and getting high is just a trap leading him to prison.

The "savior" in The Autobiography of Malcolm X turns out to be another weak, sinning man who is trapped in the white man's world, trying to overcome it from within. Discovering Elijah Muhammad's sins leads Malcolm to a second conversion. He learns there is an older faith—Islam as it is practiced in the Middle East and elsewhere. This Islam has nothing to do with some of W.D. Fard's and Elijah Muhammad's teachings, such as their stories of a 6,000-year reign of white devils bred by the "big-headed scientist." At the same as time Malcolm learns new teachings on his pilgrimage to Mecca, he also has a new experience of being seen as a human being. Only by escaping the white man's power structure in America can Malcolm experience true salvation and conversion.

Malcolm X's conversion narrative absolutely rejects his earlier state of sin in Roxbury and Harlem. Of the men with conked hair he once so admired he says, "They're all more ridiculous than a slapstick comedy." He regrets having chased after a white woman. He believes without Islam he would have ended up "a dead criminal in a grave" or "a flint-hard, bitter ... convict in some penitentiary, or insane asylum" or even "an old, fading Detroit Red." Although he absolutely rejects his life of sin he does not completely reject his first faith, the Nation of Islam, or its leader, Elijah Muhammad. Even in its distorted form, Islam is what came to Malcolm in prison, he believes. He is only sorry that its existence in white man's land perverts it beyond understanding.

After his discovery about Elijah Muhammad he declines to rewrite his story, letting his statements of admiration and faith stand. Even knowing Elijah Muhammad ordered his death Malcolm still professes to find something worthy in him. "Mr. Muhammad and I are not together today only because of envy and jealousy," Malcolm says. There is a continuity for Malcolm between the Nation of Islam and Islam as such. So his second conversion is perhaps not a change of faith. Instead it is the resolution to "a psychological and spiritual crisis," in Malcolm X's words, which makes room for new ideas.


From its first chapter The Autobiography of Malcolm X hints at the possibility that Malcolm may face an early, violent death—the book was published shortly after Malcolm X was shot to death at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem in 1965. In Chapter 1 Malcolm mentions his father's brothers dying by violence, one of them by lynching. Malcolm says, "It has always been my belief that I, too, will die by violence." Every time Malcolm alludes to his own death the words take on the appearance of an eerie ability to see the future. It did not take a clairvoyant to see life was dangerous for a black man in 20th-century America. However, the Klan raid while Malcolm's gestates in his mother's womb seems like a sign of destiny.

At the end of the book Alex Haley reports that Malcolm alluded to his martyrdom just days before his murder, saying that if he is one, it will be in "the cause of brotherhood." A martyr is someone who is willing to die rather than betray his or her beliefs. Malcolm's conversion meant he was no longer willing to die for the Nation of Islam and its black separatism, but he was willing to die for a common unity of humanity he called "brotherhood."

Suspicion and Idealism

As a child Malcolm learns how to survive by being suspicious, and he further develops this habit of mind on the streets, in prison, and in the service of the Nation of Islam. He finally gets out of the prison of white supremacy, briefly, by visiting other countries. With that pressure lifted, Malcolm harbors some idealism for the first time in his life.

For most of his life Malcolm sees through people's words to their real motives. Welfare people say they are there to help, but they break up the family. Teachers say they like Malcolm, but they think he should accept a job appropriate to a "nigger." The Swerlins are nice to Malcolm, but they also discuss "niggers" in front of him, as if he were not there. Malcolm can also turn his suspicion on black people. Respectable black people might say they work "in finance," but Malcolm believes they are actually only "bank janitors and bond-house messengers." An activity might be called a job, but Malcolm is not fooled—to him waged work is little better than slavery.

This suspicion makes Malcolm a good candidate for the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam's doctrines preach that things are the opposite of what they seem. White people seem to be on top, but they are a race of devils destined to fall at the end of a 6,000-year period. Black people might seem to have come from a wilderness, but this is only because white history has erased black contributions. The real wilderness for the black man, according to the Nation of Islam, is North America.

Malcolm's suspicion serves him well in understanding black-white relations. He sees through the "Negro firsts," the first black person in a particular job or school or government post. He believes that such small, limited advances by subservient people only help to maintain the status quo. Black people try so hard to convince their white bosses that they are better, more capable than "other" black people that they do not see that "they are only helping the white man to keep his low opinion of all Negroes." He is also suspicious of civil rights advances. He makes a comparison: it is as if the white man had stabbed the black man with a foot-long knife, and then wiggled the blade out part-way. The partially withdrawn knife is still harmful. Malcolm is equally suspicious of the law doing anything to advance black people's rights. Of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that integrated public schools, he says it "told Negroes they were desegregated—Hooray! Hooray!" At the same time the decision's message for white people was "Here are your loopholes."

Malcolm's suspicion is part of what makes him a good orator. He shows people how the surface is only part of the picture, and this ability makes him persuasive. His suspicion, combined with his gift for paradox, results in memorable lines in his speeches, such "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters—Plymouth Rock landed on us!" This saying is a powerful reminder that many black people were forcibly brought to the United States, and the weight of an unjust system still burdens black people.

When Malcolm turns to idealism for the first time later in his life, he is no longer always such a firebrand. After Mecca and just days before his murder, he tells a reporter he is "man enough" to admit he doesn't know exactly what his philosophy is now. "But I'm flexible," he adds. "I'm flexible" is not a quote for the ages. It's not clever rhetoric like the saying about Plymouth Rock. But he had a powerful mind, and for the first time he could afford to be open-minded. The time after Mecca was fruitful even though it was disorganized. It is impossible to know what else Malcolm might have achieved.

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