The Autobiography of Malcolm X

by Malcolm X, Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X Themes

The main themes in The Autobiography of Malcolm X are oppression and slavery, religious conversion, and leadership.
  • Oppression and slavery: Malcolm X's activism was inspired by the history of American slavery and the oppression he faced.
  • Religious conversion: Malcolm X's memoir details his conversion to Islam, which became a foundational part of his philosophy.
  • Leadership: The memoir tells of how Malcolm learned how to be a leader from his mentor's strengths and weaknesses.


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Last Updated on August 17, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 874

Oppression and Slavery

One of Malcolm X's greatest desires was to open other African Americans' eyes to the history of black oppression and slavery in the United States and the world. The book's opening chapter immediately presents Malcolm's mother pregnant with him, struggling to save her family and home as white men threaten to harm them. By the end of the same chapter, the family's house has been burned down, and Malcolm's father has been murdered by a gang of white supremacists. Malcolm X's life has been defined by the oppression of his family and friends. His own abilities are ignored by a school counselor who dismisses young Malcolm's desire to become a lawyer or some other professional.

As an adult member of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X uses the violent history of slavery and oppression in the United States to shock those he tried to reach with his preaching. "I wouldn't waste any time to start opening their eyes about the devil white man,'' he remembers. "The dramatization of slavery never failed intensely to arouse Negroes hearing its horrors spelled out for the first time.’’ Even after he is expelled from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X continues to tell the story of how poorly blacks have been treated in the United States, reminding his listeners that the poor treatment did not end when slavery was abolished. He tells fellow dinner guests in Ghana that racial violence in the United States is not unexpected, since "black men had been living packed like animals and treated like lepers.’’

Religious Conversion

Much of The Autobiography of Malcolm X is devoted to the author's conversion to Islam. Malcolm's conversion experience is classic in that he had fallen to the depths of depravity just before he embraced Islam through Elijah Muhammad and his Nation of Islam. His conversion takes place in prison, a place in which Malcolm has enough time and solitude to study and think. Malcolm leaves prison with all the fervor and energy of a new convert, impatient to spread his new awareness among his fellow blacks. To signify even further his separation from his old life, he takes a new name, Malcolm X.

Malcolm X later experiences a second conversion, to that which he calls in his book ‘‘the true Islam.’’ After his expulsion from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X travels to Mecca on a religious pilgrimage, or hajj. On this hajj he has his second conversion after seeing the various skin colors of the Muslims around him during prayers. His political ideals change, and he decides that, while black people must work together on a global basis to change their condition, his earlier blanket condemnation of the white man was wrong. He writes a letter, in fact, to his followers back in the United States explaining that he has been ‘‘blessed by Allah with a new insight into the true religion of Islam and a better understanding of America's entire racial dilemma.’’


One of the reasons for Malcolm X's split from the Nation of Islam is his disagreement with Elijah Muhammad about the style of leadership undertaken by the organization. Throughout the book, Malcolm X notes that he is a man of action. "All of my life, as you know, I had been an activist, I had been impatient,’’ he says when remembering how he almost couldn't sit still in his eagerness to bring more converts to the Nation of Islam.

Muhammad's style is less assertive. After Malcolm X assumes a more involved role within the Nation, he expresses concerns about these differences. Malcolm X...

(This entire section contains 874 words.)

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recalls, "If I harbored any disappointment whatsoever, it was that privately I was convinced that our Nation of Islam could be an even greater force ... if we engaged in moreaction.'' Malcolm X is a more forceful leader than his mentor, able of capturing the minds and hearts of diverse crowds of people. Many believe that this prompted the jealousy that developed between the two great men's supporters, ending in Malcolm X's ejection from the Nation and, ultimately, his death.

Self-Discovery through Education

The years in prison give Malcolm X the chance to contemplate who he is as well as what he can make of himself. He is aided by a surprisingly good library in jail, of which Malcolm X takes full advantage. As well, he takes correspondence courses in a variety of subjects—even Latin! It's in prison that he also learns about the Nation of Islam and decides to change his life through Elijah Muhammad's organization.

But for Malcolm X, the learning and self-discovery does not stop once he converts to Islam and leaves prison. Almost literally, he sits at the feet of his mentor, Muhammad, and learns the critical pieces of history that will help form his theories about race relations and politics. Malcolm X fervently believes all that Muhammad tells him, which, of course, makes it just that much harder when he discovers the suspect nature of Muhammad's interpretation of history, as well as his moral failings. This sets Malcolm X up for another phase of self-discovery, in which he seems to get even closer to his true self—out on his own, ejected from the Nation of Islam.


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