Form and Content (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is an interesting and exciting book. Although it is based on fact, it reads like a novel. It tells the story of a young African American who inherits the gifts of courage and self-reliance from his father and mother and rises to international prominence despite overwhelming odds. As a child, Malcolm often went hungry. His father, an itinerant preacher, was constantly moving because of threats from white bigots who resented his espousal of the back-to-Africa program of Marcus Garvey. Malcolm’s worldview was forever affected by his memories of late-night raids by the Ku Klux Klan and his father’s murder by members of another white supremacist organization called the Black Legion. His widowed mother eventually suffered a nervous breakdown under the strain of trying to rear eight children on welfare, and she had to be institutionalized. Malcolm became a virtual orphan and a ward of the state.
Along with his remarkable strength of character, the young African American child was exceptionally intelligent and got outstanding grades in the nearly all-white schools he attended. His academic success motivated him to achieve financial success, but he soon realized that most doors were shut to African Americans at that time. Eventually, he drifted into a life of crime. His book is full of interesting, often shocking, anecdotes, and many of these have to do with his adventures as a con artist, pimp, gigolo, drug peddler, rapist, burglar, and armed robber. In 1946, he was sentenced to ten years in Charlestown State Prison in Massachusetts for a series of burglaries.
Malcolm’s autobiography reads like an exciting novel comparable to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) or Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), with one important difference. Malcolm writes about his early years from a mature perspective. He constantly interrupts his narrative to interject observations about how his life experiences mirrored the experiences of countless African Americans of his time. He stresses the fact that the majority of African Americans had consciously or unconsciously adopted white values and were hoping somehow to achieve the impossible feat of becoming white.
Malcolm was attracted to white women and describes many of his affairs with them. Telling about these affairs in retrospect, he philosophizes that his attraction was only another symptom of African Americans’ adoption of white values and their own feelings of inferiority that are a natural consequence.
One of the most striking anecdotes in the novel describes the time when Malcolm was “conking” his hair—that is, using a mixture of lye, eggs, and potatoes to make his hair straight—and found that the water had been shut off. The lye was burning his scalp; in desperation he stuck his head into the toilet to wash it out. To him, this incident symbolized the humiliating position of the African American who had accepted the belief that white features were desirable while...
(The entire section is 1233 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written in conjunction with Alex Haley, Malcolm X reveals his early life as a big-city hustler, defends his view of the white man as “the devil” and his conversion to Islam, and explains his eventual abandonment of the black separatist movement (which in its most extreme mode called for the United States Congress to grant land for a black state) in favor of a “Human Family,” a “Human Society” united under the one God and the one moral code of Islam. His purpose, simply put, was to invoke social change in America: “I have given to this book so much of whatever time I have because I feel, and I hope, that if I honestly and fully tell my life’s account, read objectively it might prove to be a testimony of some social value.”
At midpoint in the work, Malcolm states that his whole life “had been a chronology of—changes,” and his autobiography is an attempt to chronicle and explain these changes. The nineteen chapters of the autobiography can be thematically grouped into three parts. The first nine chapters chronicle Malcolm’s youth and adolescence in the Midwest, focusing on the strength of family relationships and hardships suffered from conflicts with the white community. Chapters 10 through 16 are devoted to his conversion to Islam and his rise and fall from power within the organization led by Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam. In chapters 17 and 18, Malcolm recounts his trip to Mecca (referred to as his hajj) and the change it effected on his early extremist views of whites. The final chapter, titled “1965,” the year of Malcolm’s assassination, serves as a sort of epilogue in which he outlines his newly discovered sense of the need for international, interracial solutions to racism.
Malcolm was born in Omaha, Nebraska, but moved at an early age with his family to Wisconsin, then Michigan. Born Malcolm Little, son of a preacher and organizer for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, he was a gifted student, popular among his many white classmates, and apparently destined for success. Then one day a teacher told him that despite his obvious intelligence he should pursue a career more appropriate for a black boy, that of a carpenter. Suddenly faced with the odds against his success in a white man’s world, Malcolm set off to the big city. He moved first to Boston to live with his elder sister, Ella, then to New York where he worked on the railroad before succumbing to drugs and crime.
In chapters 10 through 16, Malcolm relates his life in prison and his salvation through Islam. Arrested and incarcerated for robbery in 1946 at the age of twenty, he spent six years at Charleston State Prison and the Norfolk Massachusetts Prison Colony, where, influenced by his brother’s letters introducing him to Elijah Muhammad, he converted to Islam. While still in prison, he developed a passion for black history...
(The entire section is 1198 words.)
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)
In nineteen chapters, The Autobiography of Malcolm X traces his life from his birth as Malcolm Little in Omaha to his troubled youth and eventual imprisonment to his ultimate emergence as one of the most important and powerful voices for social change and black rights in the 1950’s and 1960’s. An introduction by M. S. Handler and an epilogue by Malcolm’s collaborator, Alex Haley, furnish perspectives on Malcolm as well as on the events leading up to and following his assassination in 1965. The book ends with a brief tribute to Malcolm by actor Ossie Davis, who delivered the eulogy at Malcolm’s funeral.
The first half of the autobiography outlines Malcolm’s youth, the breakup of his family, and his life on the streets. At age six, Malcolm lost his father, who was presumably murdered by white supremacists angered at Earl Little’s preaching of Marcus Garvey’s “back-to-Africa” philosophy. Six years later, Malcolm’s mother was placed in a mental institution, where she remained for twenty-six years, and her eight children were separated and sent to various foster homes. At fourteen, Malcolm quit school and went to live with his half sister Ella in Boston. Eventually moving to Harlem, Malcolm became a hustler, drug dealer, and finally leader of a burglary ring.
It was during six years of imprisonment for robbery that Malcolm’s life irrevocably changed. Introduced to the religion of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm began...
(The entire section is 451 words.)
Chapter 1: Nightmare
1. Where were Malcolm’s parents from?
2. What was the Black Legion?
3. Where did Reverend Little keep his pistol?
4. Why did Malcolm think that his father favored him over his other children?
5. Why was the Little family “better off” than most black families in East Lansing, Michigan?
6. Why did one insurance company refuse to pay off the life insurance policy of Reverend Little?
7. What strategic lesson did Malcolm learn from his rabbit-hunting expedition?
8. Why did Malcolm like to visit the Gohannas family?
9. How did Malcolm feel about his older sister Hilda?
10. How long did Louise...
(The entire section is 297 words.)
Chapter 2: Mascot
1. What was the outcome of Malcolm’s boxing matches with Bill Peterson?
2. Why was Malcolm expelled from school?
3. In what extracurricular activities did Malcolm participate in Mason Junior High School?
4. Where did Malcolm work after school?
5. What were Malcolm’s favorite subjects in school?
6. What did Malcolm think was unique about his half-sister Ella?
7. How did Ella become financially successful?
8. How did Malcolm feel after Ella’s suggestion about the Little family visiting their mother? Why?
9. What professions did Mr. Ostrowski encourage Malcolm’s classmates to pursue?
(The entire section is 237 words.)
Chapter 3: “Homeboy”
1. What does Ella want Malcolm to do when he arrives in Boston?
2. Who was Crispus Attucks?
3. What instrument does Shorty play?
4. What is a “slave”?
5. What was Malcolm’s first job in Boston?
6. Name four famous black jazz musicians who performed at Roseland.
7. What type of car does Freddie drive?
8. What is the first item that Malcolm buys on credit?
9. What is a “conk”?
10. What ingredients are necessary in order to conk one’s hair?
1. Ella wants Malcolm to get to know the city by walking around and traveling through it.
(The entire section is 235 words.)
Chapter 4: Laura
1. How does Ella feel when Malcolm quits his shoe-shining job? Why?
2. What is Shorty’s career goal?
3. What does Malcolm do the day after he quits his shoe-shining job?
4. Where does Malcolm work as a soda fountain clerk?
5. Where do Malcolm and Laura go on their first date?
6. What band is playing the second time Laura and Malcolm go to Roseland?
7. Where do Sophia and Malcolm go on dates?
8. What is a “rubber”?
9. How does Shorty feel about Sophia?
10. How does Ella feel about Sophia?
1. Ella is glad when Malcolm quits his shoe-shining job because she...
(The entire section is 208 words.)
Chapter 5: Harlemite
1. Why does Ella recommend Malcolm for the railroad job?
2. Why does Malcolm want the railroad job?
3. What is surprising to Malcolm when he visits Washington, DC?
4. Where does Malcolm stay on his first visit to Harlem?
5. What is Malcolm’s favorite drink?
6. Why isn’t Malcolm worried after being fired by the railroad company?
7. Whom does Malcolm visit in Kalamazoo, Michigan?
8. What is Malcolm’s first job when he moves to New York in 1942?
9. When did Harlem’s Cotton Club open?
10. Where does the “Lindy Hop” get its name?
1. Ella recommends Malcolm...
(The entire section is 251 words.)
Chapter 6: Detroit Red and Chapter 7: Hustler
1. How did the burglar, “Jumpsteady,” get his name?
2. Why is Malcolm fired from Small’s Paradise?
3. How old is Malcolm when he becomes a drug peddler?
4. Why is Malcolm wary of taking Sophia out to Roxbury clubs?
5. Why does Malcolm begin traveling on railroad lines?
6. What caused the 1945 riot in Harlem?
7. What is West Indian Archie’s unique ability?
8. Why does Malcolm visit his brother, Philbert, in Michigan?
9. Who is Branch Rickey? Why are people in Harlem excited about Rickey’s recent decision?
10. What is Malcolm’s main job when he works for Hymie?
(The entire section is 311 words.)
Chapter 8: Trapped and Chapter 9: Caught
1. What is Billie Holiday’s nickname?
2. Why does Shorty come to New York?
3. Why is Ella shocked when she sees Malcolm after he has moved back to Boston?
4. How much money does Malcolm’s cocaine habit cost him daily?
5. What is a “finder”?
6. Why does Malcolm decide to include white girls in his burglary operation?
7. Why does Malcolm often go to the Savoy nightclub after burglarizing homes?
8. How does Sophia’s husband find out about her relationship with Malcolm?
9. At the time Malcolm is arrested, who is at his apartment?
10. What is the attitude of Malcolm’s lawyer toward his...
(The entire section is 275 words.)
Chapter 10: Satan
1. Where were Sophia and her sister sent?
2. When was the Charlestown prison built?
3. Who is Malcolm’s first visitor in prison?
4. What subjects does Malcolm study in his correspondence courses?
5. What is the reaction of the other inmates to Malcolm’s refusal to eat pork?
6. How many inmates does the Norfolk Prison Colony have?
7. Where was Elijah Muhammad born?
8. Where does Elijah Muhammad stay when he visits Detroit?
9. According to Elijah Muhammad’s teachings, from what tribe do America’s blacks descend?
10. Who was Master W.D. Fard?
1. Sophia and her...
(The entire section is 188 words.)
Chapter 11: Saved and Chapter 12: Savior
1. Who was Nat Turner?
2. In addition to the United States, Malcolm names two countries whose non-white citizens have suffered as a result of white people. Name these countries.
3. What does the five-pointed Islamic star stand for?
4. Why does Malcolm begin to wear glasses?
5. What did Shorty do while he was in prison?
6. What does Malcolm buy when he is released from prison?
7. What are Elijah Muhammad’s recommendations to Malcolm about how to increase membership in the Nation of Islam?
8. Malcolm compares his visits with Elijah Muhammad with “Socrates on the steps of the Athens market place.” Explain the...
(The entire section is 291 words.)
Chapter 13: Minister Malcolm X
1. How long does it take Ella to decide to convert to Islam?
2. What does Shorty do for a living?
3. What is the City of Brotherly Love?
4. What is the Muslims’ strict moral code?
5. When Malcolm conducts a funeral service, he explains that no tears are shed, and there are no flowers, singing, or organ-playing. What explanation does he offer for this?
6. What is the Muslim Temple’s Unity Night?
7. Describe the problem Betty X has with her foster parents.
8. Where do Malcolm and Betty get married?
9. How many children do Malcolm and Betty have? Name them.
10. What is the outcome of Brother...
(The entire section is 323 words.)
Chapter 14: Black Muslims
1. As Muhammad’s emissary, what African countries does Malcolm visit in 1959?
2. What is the name of the television documentary that profiles the Nation of Islam?
3. What “demagogues” does Malcolm compare Muhammad to? Name three.
4. What national magazines run stories about the Nation of Islam?
5. Who coined the name “Black Muslims”?
6. According to Malcolm, what do America’s law enforcement agencies do to keep track of the Nation of Islam?
7. Aside from health concerns, why is Malcolm so adamantly against smoking?
8. What will the proposed Islamic Center in Chicago contain?
9. What type of health...
(The entire section is 273 words.)
Chapter 15: Icarus
1. Who was Rosa Parks?
2. Why does Malcolm say it is “ridiculous” for Northern white and black Freedom Riders to demonstrate in the South?
3. What ethnic or religious groups does Malcolm use as examples of the problems with “assimilation”?
4. Who originally suggested having a March on Washington?
5. What song was sung during the 1963 Civil Rights’ March on Washington?
6. What two publications increased Malcolm’s popularity?
7. What situation does Malcolm cite to prove that Jewish people exploit black people?
8. Who does a New York Times poll indicate to be “the second most sought after” speaker at...
(The entire section is 339 words.)
Chapter 16: Out
1. Why does Betty have an argument with Malcolm?
2. In 1962, Malcolm refers to a “climate of hate” in the United States. What specific incidents is he speaking about?
3. Where do Malcolm and Muhammad make their last public appearance together?
4. How did Elijah Muhammad allegedly betray the Nation of Islam’s strict moral code?
5. What does Malcolm do to find out the truth about Elijah Muhammad’s alleged misconduct?
6. What directives are Muslim ministers given in response to the assassination of President John Kennedy?
7. How does Malcolm respond when asked his opinion about President Kennedy’s assassination?
(The entire section is 346 words.)
Chapter 17: Mecca
1. What does Dr. Shawarbi give Malcolm before his departure to Mecca?
2. The first city Malcolm visits in the Middle East is Cairo. Describe this city.
3. What is the literal meaning of Hajj in Arabic?
4. Malcolm learns that rugs play an important role in the Muslim culture. Name the five ways Muslims use these rugs.
5. What important ritual do Muslims practice before prayer?
6. Where does Malcolm stay when he is in Jedda?
7. Why is Malcolm amazed by the hospitality of Dr. Azzam and his family?
8. At the conclusion of Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca, where do he and his fellow pilgrims go?
(The entire section is 310 words.)
Chapter 18: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz
1. What daily customs and routines does Malcolm begin to follow?
2. After his experiences, what recommendations does Malcolm have for African-American leaders?
3. Malcolm names two American authors who have “helped to spread and intensify the concern for the American black man.” Who are they?
4. Why does Malcolm voice suspicion when he finds out the United States’ State Department official, G. Mennen Williams, is visiting Africa?
5. In Lagos, Nigeria, Malcolm is given a new name by the Muslim Students’ Society. What is that name? Explain its significance.
6. What African country’s wealth and natural beauty impresses Malcolm the most?...
(The entire section is 381 words.)
Chapter 19: 1965
1. Where does Malcolm hold many of his public meetings?
2. Malcolm cites two countries as having had a “revolution” to overthrow their old systems of leadership. What countries does he cite?
3. From where does the city of St. Augustine, Florida, get its name?
4. According to orthodox Muslim law, who was Muhammad ibn Adbullah?
5. While Malcolm is abroad in 1964, there is a campaign going on in the United States for President. Who are the two major candidates in that election?
6. What shocking F.B.I. statistic does Malcolm cite regarding crime in America?
7. What does Malcolm regret about his past?
8. What languages...
(The entire section is 314 words.)
Epilogue by Alex Haley
1. In what national publications do articles about Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam first appear?
2. What was Malcolm’s first reaction to Alex Haley’s proposal about the publication of his life story?
3. What does Haley first ask Malcolm about that induces Malcolm to reveal intimate details about his life?
4. Next to college, where does Malcolm think is “the best place for a man to go if he needs to do some thinking”?
5. According to Haley, what is Malcolm’s opinion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?
6. By Malcolm’s calculations, what was the Nation of Islam’s membership before he joined? What was the membership 12 years later?...
(The entire section is 444 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bassey, Magnus O. Malcolm X and African American Self-Consciousness. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005. Detailed study of Malcolm X’s effects upon racial identity and self-understanding in the United States.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Alex Haley and Malcolm X’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” New York: Chelsea House, 1996. Compilation of essays by leading scholars analyzing Malcolm’s autobiography.
Evanzz, Karl. The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1992. The author accuses the federal government of harassing Malcolm X and suggests that...
(The entire section is 534 words.)