Introduction to The Autobiography of Malcolm X
The Autobiography of Malcolm X was written by Alex Haley in collaboration with Malcolm X the central character of the autobiography. It was released in 1965 in the United States and soon became a global bestseller. Halley accompanied in all interviews he conducted with Malcolm X until his assassination. The story, thus narrated, not only presents Malcolm X’s real character but also highlights his views about African American heritage and the role of the white race in demeaning the African American community through its physical and material exploitation. Despite the popularity of the book, it is considered that Haley is behind the creation of suspense and drama in the autobiography. The book has won applause around the world for its rhetorical pathos and logos.
Summary of The Autobiography of Malcolm X
The autobiography starts with Malcolm X’s hometown of Omaha where he was born amid anti-African American discrimination and violence. Unable to face this racial onslaught, the family moves to the African American quarters of Michigan but again faces the same racial discrimination and threats. Meanwhile, his patient and tolerant preaching father is killed during an attack by the supremacist after which his mother experiences mental bouts and is sent to a mental asylum.
Meanwhile, Malcolm X is sent to a detention home in Michigan where he completes his 8th grade and moves to Boston to live with, Ella, his half-sister. However, instead of coming of the age, Malcolm X finds himself mired in the urban lifestyle of that time, almost marring every other chance of his being a gentleman. He becomes stylish in fashion and also gets addicted to drinking and gambling, including dating, Sophia, a white woman much older than him. Finally, not seeing the future in this game, he joins the railway as a porter and moves to the city of New York to see better prospects. There, Malcolm X soon finds himself as a hustler in Harlem, the popular African American suburb in New York, and starts doing odd jobs including selling drugs and doing work as a pimp for African American prostitutes. At that time, he was also involved in armed robberies, inviting risks to his life.
Unsatisfied with his type of life, he soon returns to Boston where he takes up house burglary as a new job and faces arrest. When he is thrown behind the bars, he comes to his senses, and seeing no way out of this blind alley of committing crimes and playing hide and seek with the police, he embraces Islam, joining his siblings. Eventually, he stops drugs and starts praying during this time, studying Latin and English, and joining the debates in the prison. Demonstrating exemplary behavior, the prison officials release him on parole after which he moves in with his brother Wilfred and becomes active in preaching Islam in Detroit.
A change in his name also occurs when he drops the last name given by the former owner of his ancestors and uses “X” to signify his African American heritage. Following this, he meets Elijah Muhammad, the Muslim leader, and soon becomes the minister in the organization sheer by his passion and hard work. Becoming popular as the new convert among the Muslim circles in the United States, he starts preaching peace and Islam despite his suspension from the organization after his advocacy of violence and African American unity.
After his suspension, he starts facing threats to his life which leads him to give up his membership of the organization of Islam to start his own, Muslim Mosque and preach Islam. He becomes more passionate about his preaching after his tour to the Middle East and Africa where he comes to know the differences in different versions of Islam. He realizes what true Islam is and understands that he has been preaching the wrong version till now. Following his iconic rise, he faces continuous death threats. Finally in an assassination attempt; he is shot to death in 1965.
Major Themes in The Autobiography of Malcolm X
- Perception: Perception building about the African American and specifically about the author, Malcolm X, is the main thematic strand of the autobiography due to the hatred against the oppression and racial discrimination under which the African American community was undergoing at that time. However, Malcolm has presented two perceptions about his heritage; the first one is that they have lower or inferior status within the American social setting and that the white population thinks about granting their due status. The other is his Islamic conversion which has brought him to the point where the white and the African American must cohabit with each other, granting equality instead of just equal rights. The murder of his father and later his differences with Elijah Muhammad also contribute to sharpening this wedge in his perception about these two different realms. It continues to widen until his assassination in 1965.
- Religion: The theme of religion in this autobiography forcefully emerges when Malcolm converts to Islam in the prison and starts its preaching and teaching. Malcolm’s religious father, Rev. Earl Little, who cultivated a patient personality through his Baptist ministerial career, does not fit into his shoes. Sadly, he is killed, and later his family is expelled from Michigan. Therefore, when Malcolm joins the Nation of Islam, he also adopts “X” to add to his name and later gives up his membership of the organization when comes to know that Elijah Muhammad is using the organization for his own interests. He, then, establishes his own organization and starts preaching religion from his perspective.
- Survival: During the turbulent period of his life until his death, Malcolm seems to narrate the story of his survival against the heavy odds of racism and racial violence in the United States. Even when his father becomes a Baptist minister, he sees him mercilessly shot down in Michigan after which he turns to the world of crimes, drugs, and imprisonment. He does not find enough space to breathe which pulls him towards Islam. Even this platform proves discomforting when he sees the Nation of Islam and its head exploiting circumstances and people to their own ends. Therefore, he sees his survival in teaching the true religion of Islam and finally dies in the same brawl.
- Perspectives: Through his autobiography, Malcolm X shows the changing public perspectives about racialism and its growth or decline in the United States. When he is born in Michigan, he sees his father preaching Christianity and getting killed by the same audience. He sees the contradiction in the society about the preaching and teaching about human equality where the African Americans are always at the receiving ends. He turns to Islam but again sees the same selfish interest involved in the religion and perspectives.
- Success: Success in life despite fighting heavy odds is another theme of the autobiography. Malcolm X reviews his entire life from the world of crimes to his imprisonment, hustling to drug pedaling, and then taking to Islam to succeed. However, when he sees that all are using different sources and platforms for personal successes, he charts his own course and uses his Harlem experience to win success in the world. Malcolm’s violent methods or philosophy places him opposite Martin Luther King Jr, who preferred peace over violence.
- Humanity: The Autobiography of Malcolm X is also a lesson in humanity in that it highlights the dehumanization of African Americans in the United States through racial discrimination. The treatment that he gets in Michigan, in the jail, and out of jail shows him that the white segment of the population does not consider them human beings and treats them differently from other people. Although some people become to treat African Americans with equality, it is just to show their unprejudicial approach to demonstrate that they are a higher race. Although he himself treats Sophia differently yet he acknowledges the humanity of individuals when he visits Mecca.
- Family: The theme of family in The Autobiography of Malcolm is significant in that it shows how Malcolm considers family as extending beyond biological relations through his acceptance of Islam. Despite his own upbringing in an extended family having many relations, Malcolm faces the worst discrimination in that his father is murdered and his mother is mentally ill. This destruction of his family and family life haunts him throughout his life until he starts his own family with the help of his teacher, Shorty. His acceptance of Islam, relations with Elijah, and then the action of forsaking the organization point to his desire of forming a family and living in that setup.
- Class: The story of Malcolm X also demonstrates that class and class consciousness cause the worst to human beings. His upbringing in Michigan makes him aware of the raging poverty among the African Americans, the increased welfare burden, the ghettoization of their settlements, and their exploitation for jobs. This has left deep scars on his mind about his class and his moves to create consciousness about class differences and their worst impacts on the lives of individuals. His notion to create this awareness in the white society wins currency later. His act of joining Islam shows his attempt to abolish class differences but it doesn’t prove right.
Major Characters The Autobiography of Malcolm X
- Malcolm X: The Autobiography of Malcolm X presents Malcolm going through different phases of his life, ranging from Malcolm as Detroit Red to Malcolm as Satan, Malcolm X, and Malcolm Al-Haj. All of these phases show him in different characters. In the first phase, he is sent to a juvenile center after the murder of his father after which he becomes a hustler engaged in excessive boozing and gambling, winning the nickname of “Detroit Red.” This soon leads to his arrest and transformation into Satan for his foul temperament and imprisonment. However, he works on his self-edification and finally jumps into the fold of Islam to show his true character of being a good man. After meeting Elijah Muhammad, he joins the Nation of Islam which he later leaves because of his differences with Muhammad but he does not leave his personal beliefs.
- Alex Haley: Although Alex is not a character of the Autobiography in the true sense like Malcolm X, he is still considered a partner or a co-author in the writing venture. He remains in the background and writing after the epilogue in which he shares about himself. He highlights the rigors of interviewing Malcolm X at odd times, taking up more than two years of his life. Although Malcolm does not truly trust him in the initial encounters, later he becomes his close confidante so much so that he reaches out to Alex for emotional support.
- Elijah Muhammad: A very significant character in the latter part of Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad heads the Nation of Islam, an organization, working for the better of American Muslims. When Malcolm embraces Islam, Elijah teaches him the truths about Islam. The inspiration of Elijah proves for him a beacon of light in the initial stages of his journey toward Islam. However, later, he develops serious differences with him and leaves the Nation of Islam to lay the foundation of his own organization. Muhammad also causes his flight after his sexual escapades surface in the media.
- Sister Betty: As the wife, Sister Betty proves the strength and power of her character during low moments in his life. Although the book does not show her role in the true sense, still her supportive character as the housemaker, soul mate of Malcolm and her secretary shows that she has played a significant role in his entire life after their marriage. Despite having traveled miles with him, she becomes the mother of Malcolm’s five children and remains faithful until his death.
- Shorty: A musician by profession, Shorty has been a chum of Malcolm when he stayed in Boston. Although he tries his best to lead Malcolm but soon follows him in the world of crimes and almost proves his foil. Despite following him on his heels, he does not adopt his hustling style. He is almost surprised to find Malcolm’s aggressive and belligerent behavior.
- Ella Little: Malcolm’s half-sister, Ella proves a source of great strength and pride for him during his dark hours when he touches his adolescence period. Within the book, it seems that she is a source of familial unity. Whenever Malcolm finds himself going low, he always seeks her support and contacts her even during his pilgrimage to Mecca.
- Earl Little: Earl’s character in the course of the autobiography is significant in that he is a faithful Christian, a preacher, and also works for the African American unity. His outspokenness, however, takes its toll on him when he is assassinated for preaching Garvey’s ideas.
- Louise Little: Louise is Malcolm’s mother. Her charm and strength lie in her being able to survive the Great Depression. Although she is sent to a mental asylum after her husband is murdered, and Malcolm regularly visits her to seek her love.
- Sophia: Sophia represents the white public reception of the African American community when she marries Malcolm. In fact, none of them loves the other. They only manipulate each other to get ahead in life. Her emptiness is clear from her cynic romance with Malcolm.
- Laura: Laura is Malcolm’s first love and she is an African American background. She is abandoned by Malcolm as he starts dating Sophia. Sadly, after that, she loses interest in life and takes to drugs and prostitution. She rather becomes a victim of Malcolm’s stardom obsession with high society.
Writing Style of The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Alex Haley used excessive foreshadowing in the autobiography to make it more interesting for the readers. It has served two purposes in showing its writing style; the first is quick anticipation of the turbulent life of Malcolm X and the second is continued reading by the readers until its end. The sentence structure and phrases are very simple and direct. Written in freestyle, the autobiography shows that the author used similes and metaphors along with personifications and epigrams to highlight the major theme of the rise of a star and racial prejudice prevalent in the United States.
Analysis of the Literary Devices in The Autobiography of Malcolm X
- Action: The main action of the autobiography comprises the whole life and growth of Malcolm X to an adult until his assassination in 1965. The falling action occurs when Malcolm X leaves the Nation of Islam to inaugurate his own organization. The rising action, however, occurs when he becomes popular after witnessing low moments of his life.
- Anaphora: The autobiography shows examples of anaphora as given below,
i. He’s a professional gambler; he has all the cards and the odds stacked on his side, and he has always dealt to our people from the bottom of the deck. (Chapter-I)
ii. It seemed that the white boys felt that I, being a Negro, just naturally knew more about “romance,” or sex, than they did—that I instinctively knew more about what to do and say with their own girls. (Chapter-2)
These examples show the repetitious use of “he has” and “knew more.”
- Allusion: The autobiography shows good use of different allusions as given in the below examples,
i. And a big percentage of the Hill dwellers were in Ella’s category—Southern strivers and scramblers, and West Indian Negroes, whom both the New Englanders and the Southerners called “Black Jews.” (Chapter-3)
ii. And every time Joe Louis won a fight against a white
opponent, big front-page pictures in the Negro newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier and the Afro-American showed a sea of Harlem Negroes cheering and waving and the Brown Bomber waving back at them from the balcony of Harlem’s Theresa Hotel. (Chapter-4)
iii. As a “fish” (prison slang for a new inmate) at Charlestown, I was physically miserable and as evil-tempered as a snake, being suddenly without drugs. The cells didn’t have running water. The prison had been built in 1805—in Napoleon’s day—and was even styled after the Bastille. In the dirty, cramped cell, I could lie on my cot and touch both walls. (Chapter-10)
The first example shows the reference to places and ethnicities, the second to newspapers, and the third again to places and personalities.
- Antagonist: At first, Elijah Muhammad appears as the main antagonist of the autobiography. However, according to Malcolm X, the white race is the main culprit, which embeds in his mind, when talking about the opposition. Therefore, both Elijah and racism are the antagonists at different points in his life.
- Conflict: The autobiography shows both external and internal conflicts. The external conflict is going on between the African Americans and the white Americans. However, the internal conflict is going on in the mind of Malcolm X about his ethnicity, his race, his religion, and his place in society.
- Characters: The book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, shows both static as well as dynamic characters. Malcolm X is a dynamic character as he shows a considerable transformation in his behavior and conduct by the end when he faces his assassin. Along with him, Laura and Elijah, too, are dynamic characters, though, some others are static characters like his brothers, sisters, Ela, and his father.
- Climax: The climax in the autobiography occurs when Malcolm X embraces Islam in the prison and starts studying it. Since then, he starts rising in his life.
- Foreshadowing: The autobiography shows many instances of foreshadows as given in the examples below,
i. When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. (Chapter-1)
ii. On June twenty-seventh of that year, nineteen thirty-seven, Joe Louis knocked out James J. Braddock to become the heavyweight champion of the world. And all the Negroes in Lansing, like Negroes everywhere, went wildly happy with the greatest celebration of race pride our generation had ever known. (Chapter-2)
The mention of the Ku Klux Klan, guns, and then African Americans show that Malcolm X is going to tell horrifying tales of his life in the worst racial discrimination in history. , resistance and nightmare show that the times for Jane are going to be very difficult.
- Hyperbole: The autobiography shows various examples of hyperboles as given below,
i. “Them,” he said. “The white man is the devil.” He told me that all whites knew they were devils—“especially Masons.” (Chapter-11)
ii. But in the arena of dealing with human beings, the white man’s working intelligence is hobbled. His intelligence will fail him altogether if the humans happen to be non-white. (Chapter-15)
Both of these examples exaggerate the white man in the argument that Malcolm X makes in his book.
- Metaphor: The Autobiography of Malcolm X shows good use of various metaphors as given in the examples below,
i. They were as vicious as vultures. They had no feelings, understanding, compassion, or respect for my mother. (Chapter-I)
ii. Human history’s greatest crime was the traffic in black flesh when the devil white man went into Africa and murdered and kidnapped to bring to the West in chains, in slave ships, millions of black men, women, and children, who were worked and beaten and tortured as slaves. (Chapter-10)
iii. That’s a powerful combination for a man who has been existing in the mud of society. In fact, once he is motivated no one can change more completely than the man who has been at the bottom. I call myself the best example of that. (Chapter-12)
These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the book such as the first shows people compared to vultures, the second shows white people compared to devils, and the third shows society compared to a moorland.
- Mood: The book shows various moods; it starts with a somber and bitter mood but turns out to be exciting at places and becomes tragic when it ends.
- Motif: Most important motifs of the book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, are race, killing, discrimination, and Harlem.
- Narrator: The book is narrated from the first-person point of view, who happens to be Malcolm X himself.
- Pathos: The author used pathos in the book as given in the example below,
i. When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children and that my father was away, preaching, in Milwaukee. (Chapter-1)
ii. He says Uncle Tom Negroes had tipped off the devil white man to his teachings, and he was charged by this devil white man with draft-dodging, although he was too old for military service. He was sentenced to five years in prison. (Chapter-12)
Both of these examples show that Malcolm is trying to evoke the emotions of his readers, showing situations that require compassion and thoughtfulness.
- Personification: The autobiography shows examples of personifications as given below,
i. My shine rag popped with the rhythm of those great bands rocking the ballroom. White customers on the shine stand, especially, would laugh to see my feet suddenly break loose on their own and cut a few steps. Whites are correct in thinking that black people are natural dancers. (Chapter-4)
ii. The more hate was permitted to lash out when there were ways it could have been checked, the more bold the hate became—until at last it was flaring out at even the white man’s own kind, including his own leaders. (Chapter-18)
iii. My car took me to participate in special prayers at Mt. Arafat, and at Mina. The roads offered the wildest drives that I had ever known: nightmare traffic, brakes squealing, skidding cars, and horns blowing. (Chapter-19)
These examples show as if the shine, hate, car, and roads have life and emotions of their own.
- Rhetorical Questions: The autobiography shows good use of rhetorical questions at several places as given in the examples below,
i. “Baby, wanna have some fun?” The pimps would sidle up close, stage-whispering, “All kinds of women, Jack—want a white woman?” (Chapter-5)
ii. Was West Indian Archie, I began to wonder, bluffing a hype on me? To make fun of me? (Chapter-9)
This example shows the use of rhetorical questions posed but different characters not to elicit answers but to stress upon the underlined idea.
- Setting: The setting of the book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, is Michigan, Boston, Harlem in New York, Saudi Arabia, and other places that Malcolm X visited.
- Simile: The book shows excellent use of various similes as given in the examples below,
i. I couldn’t get over marveling at how their hair was straight and shiny like white men’s hair; Ella told me this was called a “conk.” (Chapter-3)
ii. Moving swiftly, like shadows, we would lift clothes, watches, wallets, handbags, and jewelry boxes. (Chapter-9)
I would pace for hours like a caged leopard, viciously cursing aloud to myself. (Chapter-10)
These are similes as the use of the word “like” shows the comparison between different things.