When Malcolm Little’s mother is pregnant with Malcolm, hooded Ku Klux Klan members break the windows of his family’s house in Omaha, Nebraska. The white supremacists’ target is Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, a tall, black Baptist preacher from Georgia, because he works for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which supports the return of American blacks to Africa. Malcolm is Earl’s seventh and lightest-skinned child. He is the only son who escapes Earl’s beatings and gets to follow his father to UNIA meetings. Malcolm’s mother, Louise Little, is a fair-skinned, educated woman from the island of Grenada. She was conceived when her father, a white man she never knew, raped her mother. Though Louise is able to get domestic work in town by passing as white, she stays at home to cook and clean for her family.
When the family moves to Lansing, Michigan, in 1929, another white supremacist group burns down their house. Malcolm says that watching his house burn taught him one of many early lessons about being black in America. He sees that success for blacks in Lansing means waiting tables or shining shoes rather than working in a respected profession and that the majority of black people are poor and jobless. After a white boy cheats Malcolm out of a hard-earned dollar, Malcolm realizes that the odds are stacked against blacks. However, Malcolm also learns some positive lessons. After making a fuss at home gets him extra biscuits, Malcolm concludes that the way to get something is to ask for it.
When Malcolm is six, white men who oppose Earl’s black nationalist work kill him. Earl’s life insurance company refuses to pay what it owes the family, claiming that Earl’s death was a suicide. The Great Depression is on, and with only dandelions to eat, the Little family is forced to rely on welfare. When Malcolm steals food from stores, welfare agents blame Louise. They call her crazy for rejecting free pork because she wants to adhere to Seventh Day Adventist dietary restrictions. When social workers send Louise to a mental hospital, the kids split up and all but the eldest two go to foster homes. Malcolm blames the state welfare agency for robbing his mother of her dignity and breaking apart his family.
In 1937 Malcolm moves in with the Swerlins, a white foster family in Lansing. He accepts their generosity, but feels more like a “mascot” or a pet than a human being equal to those around him. Malcolm is first in his class at Mason Junior High, but he does not feel comfortable at school. Though he is proud when the students elect him class president, he feels like a “pink poodle”—more of an oddity than a human being. In history class Malcolm finds only one paragraph on black history in the textbook. The teacher laughs as he tells Malcolm’s class that though the slaves have been freed, black people are still lazy and dumb. Malcolm tells his English teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, that he wants to become a lawyer. Though Mr. Ostrowski supports the professional aspirations of white students who are less intelligent than Malcolm, he tells Malcolm to become a carpenter. Malcolm comes to resent his white school and home, and realizes that even well-meaning white people do not see black people as their equals.
Malcolm grows up quickly, and racial barriers often frustrate him. He bristles when people call him “coon” and “nigger” on the basketball court. He gets a job washing dishes, and he sometimes visits his mother at the mental hospital. He also visits his brothers and sisters, who live in different cities. On weekends, he dances to swing music at bars, where he sees interracial romances that cannot occur openly in Lansing. White boys pressure Malcolm to ask out white girls, but he realizes they just want a dirty secret to hold over the girls’ heads.
Malcolm spends the summer of 1940 in Boston, visiting his half-sister, Ella. She is a strong black woman with a deep sense of family loyalty. Frustrated by how he has been treated at school and at home, Malcolm decides to move to Boston. The Swerlins do not understand why Malcolm wants to leave, and Malcolm is not able to explain his motivation to them. He moves into an upstairs room in Ella’s house in Roxbury, a wealthy black neighborhood in Boston. He is glad to move away, later speculating that if he had stayed in Lansing, he would have gotten a menial job or become a complacent middle-class lawyer. Though only fifteen, he can pass for several years older, and he begins to look for a job.
Malcolm’s experience of racial prejudice from both white and black people shows the extent to which racism is ingrained in society. Malcolm’s father, Earl, who spends his days working to help black people support themselves and return to Africa, is one of the last people we would expect to hold racist views. But he treats Malcolm better than he treats his other sons because Malcolm has the lightest skin. Malcolm learns by witnessing his parents’ fates that racist double standards are a serious problem in his society. His father is killed by a group of whites for promoting a strong, independent black community, and his mother is driven crazy by a white welfare agency that does not trust her to take care of her children because she is black. Although Malcolm’s light skin makes it possible for him to be accepted by the Swerlins and elected class president of Mason Junior High, he continues to experience discrimination. The Swerlins treat him like a pet, and his school discourages him from pursuing his dream to be a lawyer. Malcolm cannot escape the atmosphere of racial prejudice, as it pervades everything from the welfare agencies and his school to his family relationships.
Earl Little struggles against a moral double standard that illustrates the hypocrisy of white society in the 1930s. White society of this time allows blacks to succeed so long as their success doesn’t affect white America. The fact that Earl meets no resistance in his career as a Christian preacher shows that whites consider him harmless to their society. Though the Midwest generally respects religious figures such as preachers, Earl’s success does not indicate that white people look to him for moral guidance. Rather, they allow him to succeed only because he is professing mainstream Christian views. As soon as Earl espouses Marcus Garvey’s separatist ideals and thereby goes against mainstream society, white people turn against him, breaking his windows, burning down his house, and ultimately killing him. Earl’s fate shows that white society allows black people to succeed, but only so long as they do not challenge the established order.
The experiences of Malcolm’s mother, Louise, illustrate the problems that arise when an individual does not fit neatly into established social categories. Louise’s light skin allows her to pass as black or white, but she is not fully comfortable in either world. We might think that Louise’s ability to pass as white would give her a social advantage, but while she can get housework jobs in town, her employers fire her when they discover that she is black. Although the housework jobs allow her to support her family, in order to maintain these jobs Louise must deny her black heritage, and she loses her jobs anyway. Once her husband is murdered, she has no choice but to accept the assistance that the white welfare agencies offer and to endure the loss of self-respect and control that goes with receiving such assistance. In many ways, Louise’s light skin makes her life harder rather than easier. Her dual heritage makes her an outsider to both of her cultures.
For Malcolm, growing up means learning to navigate the paradoxes that being black in a racist society creates for him. As the lightest-skinned of his siblings, he finds that some doors are open to him, as they are for his mother, but that many more remain closed. As a young boy, he can shoot raccoons, play basketball, and work as a dishwasher. Though he experiences some freedom, the nature of these activities shows that white society still considers him an inferior. On the street, white boys encourage him to ask out white girls, but he knows that if he touches them, he may be lynched. The illusion that he is able to choose any girlfriend he wishes is crushed by his knowledge that society considers mixed-race relationships taboo. Similarly, that Malcolm earns the number one rank in his class and becomes class president shows that the school system allows him to succeed to an extent. But his English teacher’s comment that Malcolm should become a carpenter rather than a lawyer demonstrates that whites are willing to allow black success only to a certain point. The school allows Malcolm to become class president largely because it wants to avoid the appearance of being openly racist. Malcolm comes to understand, however, that white society bestows privilege on him only when doing so doesn’t threaten the established order of white society.
Malcolm’s comment that he feels like a “pink poodle” expresses his feeling of being excluded from mainstream society, which sees him as a cute, harmless, and ultimately expendable being. A single black student in a mostly white school is like a poodle in a human family: a tame, obedient creature that represents no real threat to anyone. Society views Malcolm as a novelty rather than as a real person with real goals, and it wants him to obey his masters—whites—like a poodle. A black student achieving well in school is seen simply as a rarer breed of poodle. That Malcolm sees himself as a pink poodle reinforces his feelings of emasculation; white oppression strips him of the power and independence he would normally feel as a man. Malcolm realizes that no level of achievement or popularity will break down the fundamental barrier to his acceptance and success in society: his race. In his foster family, just as in school, Malcolm is able to fit in as a “mascot,” but not as a person. He is paraded as white society’s ideal for how blacks should behave, but white society does not consider him a human being in his own right.