Malcolm is the only major character in the autobiography. Though many characters play a role in the development of Malcolm’s beliefs and career, the autobiography does not explore these characters in depth. This lack of attention to other characters is not surprising, as an autobiography always focuses primarily on one person. Malcolm, however, changes frequently during his lifetime. The various names by which he goes—Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, Satan, Malcolm X, and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz—correspond to the various phases of his life.
Malcolm Little passively endures the experiences that motivate his later obsession with racial politics in America. He encounters open racism when whites murder his father and subtle racism when white welfare agents institutionalize his mother. Though Malcolm endures this racism quietly, it leads to his later development of anti–white views. He ambitiously attempts to integrate himself into his predominantly white junior high school, but his white teachers’ and classmates’ racism thwarts his development. Attempting to flee the racist Midwest, Malcolm moves to Boston but finds racist dynamics exaggerated in the large coastal cities. These early frustrations at the hands of a society unwilling to accept his efforts to fit in build a separatist fervor in Malcolm.
The lifestyle of Detroit Red, the name Malcolm adopts as a hustler, illuminates the moral decay plaguing the ghetto. Fresh from Michigan, young Malcolm Little quickly adopts zoot suits, slang, drugs, and gambling, showing how easy it is to be seduced by fast-paced nightlife. Earning the nickname “Detroit Red” for his bright red hair, he learns to conduct business and ruthlessly fend for himself, laying the ground for his later argument that living in the ghetto encourages deceit and destruction. Detroit Red has few ethical restraints but many social insights. His philosophy requires that he trust no one, know his enemy well, and carefully defend his public image. Detroit Red represents the fact that many black people struggle just to survive.
In prison, after earning the nickname “Satan” for his foul temper and preference for solitary confinement, Malcolm starts educating himself and turns his outlook around. His transformation begins when he gives himself up peacefully to a Boston detective, letting five years of street hustling catch up with him. This episode demonstrates the ideal of submission to moral authority, which Malcolm later embraces in a Muslim context to justify his willing subordination to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. His embracing of Islam transforms him from a hustler interested in earning money any way he can into a responsible individual interested in educating and enriching himself. Malcolm’s time in prison thus represents the transition between his early years of suffering and deceit and his later years of faith and activism.
As Minister Malcolm X, Malcolm develops confidence and credibility as a religious leader and media personality. Malcolm carefully shapes the identity and significance of this persona. As he rises in the ranks of the Nation of Islam to take over from the ailing Elijah Muhammad, the press pays close attention to his philosophies, allowing him to disseminate his message widely. Although his public statements do not initially depart from the Nation of Islam’s party line, Malcolm eventually begins to broaden his message to address white America. As the shock-value media personality Malcolm X, he calls for a more active approach to domestic racial politics, and his influence in American society shows the effectiveness with which he has shaped his persona. After a trip to Africa, Malcolm X counsels blacks to align themselves with the nonwhite majority internationally, illustrating his general tendency to let the wisdom he gains from his experiences influence his attitudes.
When Malcolm leaves the Nation of Islam, he adopts the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and begins arguing for worldwide racial tolerance. Though Malcolm, as El-Shabazz, claims that his rapid turnaround to racial tolerance in Mecca is due to the “colorblindness” of the Muslim societies of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the events in the autobiography foreshadow Malcolm’s change of heart. Even as Malcolm X, Malcolm begins to question the extremist message of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm’s decision to take the title El-Hajj after making the pilgrimage to Mecca (a religious duty called “hajj” in Arabic) symbolizes his faith in international Islam. Additionally, his calls for white groups to work for racial justice and his attempts to integrate the struggles of black Americans with the struggles of oppressed nonwhite peoples everywhere reveal how his perspective on race relations has matured. Whereas Malcolm’s earlier political activism, such as his militant advocacy of black separatism, is marked by hostility, his later activism seeks to create racial harmony.