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The Autobiography of Malcolm X

by Malcolm X, Alex Haley

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Do you agree with the teacher's reaction to Malcolm X wearing a hat in class?

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In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the author recounts his decision to wear a hat in the classroom of his school, a calculated act of defiance that results in his being exiled to a reform school. However, the wearing of the hat is only part of the cycle of events that gets Malcolm exiled, and the nature of the story, combined with both the details we have and the details that are denied us, makes it difficult to determine precisely whether Malcolm's teacher was justified in his decision to oust the student.

In the Autobiography, Malcolm makes it clear that his decision to wear the hat was a deliberate one. He confesses that he was acting in direct defiance of school policy and his teacher's orders. He also makes it plain through the remainder of the story that it is not the hat-wearing that is the principle reason for his expulsion. First of all, as punishment for his hat-wearing, Malcolm is forced by the teacher to walk around the classroom until he is told to stop, so, the teacher says, "'everyone can see you.'" While he is doing so, the teacher continues writing on the blackboard, and while his back is turned, Malcolm, on his round-the-room circuit, plants a tack on the teacher's chair. By the time the educator returns to his seat, Malcolm, still walking around the room, is far away from the "scene of the crime." The teacher sits on the tack, and Malcolm sees him "spraddling up" as he runs out of the room, implicating himself for the planting of the tack. Even then, it's not merely the tack-planting, or even the wearing of the hat, that gets Malcolm expelled. He admits that the decision, after this incident, to send him to the reform school was not surprising to him "with my deportment record." This clearly suggests that Malcolm's exile is not punishment for wearing a hat in class, or for planting a tack on the teacher's chair. It's the culmination of a long record of such incidents, done deliberately and with calculated desire to cause trouble, that causes the teacher to send Malcolm on his way.

However, it is difficult to be certain that the teacher's actions in the Autobiography are just due to several mitigating circumstances. First of all, this is a literary work that takes as one of its central themes the balance of injustice in the way black men are treated versus white men. Throughout the book, there are numerous instances of black men being punished all out of proportion to their crimes (both real and supposed) for reasons that have more to do with the color of their skin than with the content of their characters. This culminates in Malcolm, grown up, out of school, and living "like an animal" by robbing and stealing, being given a prison sentence for burglary that is far higher than that normally given for the crimes he committed. He speculates openly in the book that the stiff sentence was not in fact for the house robberies, but for the fact that he and his partner in crime were at the time engaged in sexual relationships with white women, which was indeed still illegal in numerous parts of the country. So the entire book generates an atmosphere in which black men suffer far fiercer consequences for their crimes than white men do, even if the crimes of the whites exceed those of their black counterparts.

Therefore, in order to determine whether or not the teacher's behavior was just, we would need to answer one question: what would happen to a white student in similar circumstances? Since we do not get to see a white student engaging in the same behavior and being disciplined for it, we cannot for certain say that the teacher is acting outside the bounds of classroom justice, or from motivations that are less than pure or in defiance of the rules his position sets forth for him. But by positioning this anecdote within a story steeped in disproportionate white-on-black punishment, it is strongly inferred that Malcolm's punishment outweighs the consequences a white student would have received for the same infractions. So, based purely on the evidence of the story itself, Malcolm's punishment may seem acceptable in some lights. But placed in the context of a world in which whites routinely mete out disproportionate judgment to blacks for the "crimes" they commit, one can only assume that Malcolm's punishment is based as much on his complexion as on his crime.

Of course, the Autobiography is a work of non-fiction, so Malcolm is commenting as much on the reality of white-on-black injustice in the real world as in the "story" he has chosen to tell. These situations do indeed find numerous common parallels in life today. It is also worth noting that Malcolm's statement that his expulsion and reformatory incarceration are based as much on his "deportment record" as on the hat-wearing and tack-planting also has contemporary parallels. The significant number of fatal shootings of unarmed black men by police officers has raised questions about the responses of the media, the police, and society as a whole. Recent shootings have provoked a number of attempts to find evidence of past crimes as a means to "justify" police use of deadly force. The suggestion would be that, just like Malcolm, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were punished for their "deportment records"—not the incidents that immediately preceded their deaths.

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