Last Updated on May 17, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464
Malcolm Little: the narrator and main character
Louise Little: Malcolm’s mother
The Reverend Earl Little: Malcolm’s father, a Baptist minister
Yvonne: Malcolm’s youngest sister
Robert: Malcolm’s younger brother
Philbert: Malcolm’s older brother
Wilfred: Malcolm’s older brother
Hilda: Malcolm’s older sister
Reginald: Malcolm’s younger brother
Wesley: Malcolm’s younger brother
The Gohannas: a family with whom the young Malcolm goes to live
Big Boy: the Gohannas’ nephew
Mrs. Adcock: a woman who lived with the Gohannas
The first chapter begins in 1926 and chronicles the first eleven years of Malcolm’s life with his hard-working parents and seven siblings. It describes the tragic murder of his father, Malcolm’s first brush with petty crime, and the eventual break-up of the Little family when his mother is institutionalized.
Malcolm’s memories of his childhood are brutally honest. His father’s unwavering belief in the importance of self-reliance and his willingness to risk his life preaching revolutionary, back-to-Africa sermons had a profound influence on young Malcolm. In addition, he learns an important life lesson during his rabbit-hunting expedition with Mr. Gohannas and his friends. Malcolm’s strategizes and shoots many more rabbits than his companions. He concludes, “Anytime you find someone more successful than you are, especially when you’re both engaged in the same business—you know they’re doing something that you aren’t.” The title of the chapter, “Nightmare,” conjures up a dark and forboding image. It forewarns the reader that something evil is about to happen. Indeed, in the first sentence, the narrator, Malcolm, gives a chilling description of “hooded Ku Klux Klan riders” who “galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night.” Later on, Malcolm’s mother has a premonition about her husband’s impending murder, but she is powerless to prevent it. The final nightmare in the chapter occurs when, in Malcolm’s words, “our family was destroyed.” Here, Malcolm is distraught because his mother has been committed to a state mental hospital, and the Little family is separated.
Paradoxically, the style Malcolm uses to describe his childhood tragedies is straightforward and surprisingly dispassionate. As Malcolm recounts his father’s vicious murder, for example, he reports, “My father’s skull, on one side, was crushed in. ... His body was cut almost in half. He lived two and a half hours in that condition. Negroes then were stronger than they are now, especially Georgia Negroes.” Here, although Malcolm is grief-stricken, he has emotionally distanced himself from this early trauma.
This first chapter sets the mood and tone for the rest of the autobiography. The reader can presume that Malcolm’s innocent and carefree days have been lost forever. His inner confict, the choice between leading a life of crime or following in the footsteps of his illustrious father, recurs throughout the book.
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