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Malcolm finds a job washing dishes on a Boston–Washington train line and then selling sandwiches as a porter on a Boston–New York train line. He is dazzled by the wealth and energy of New York, especially Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom and Apollo Theater. After being fired for taking the aggressive performances he uses to sell sandwiches too far, he is thrilled to work as a day waiter at a Harlem bar called Small’s Paradise. Malcolm makes a good impression on the customers and on his employers, and learns various hustling techniques, the etiquette of the Harlem underworld, and the history of the neighborhood. With his tips, Malcolm begins to invest a lot of money in the numbers racket, the popular unofficial lottery in Harlem. He learns the names and faces of the young numbers runners as well as those of the “old heads,” black gangsters left over from the 1920s and 1930s. Malcolm also meets an assortment of pimps, including one known as Sammy the Pimp, who soon becomes his best friend and sole Harlem confidant.
All of us . . . were, instead, black victims of the white man’s American social system.
With permanent employment, Malcolm moves to a rooming house run by prostitutes. Malcolm befriends the women and learns a great deal about the psychology of men from them. Sophia, who has married a white man, visits Malcolm regularly. At first, she balks at Malcolm’s living situation, but she soon befriends the prostitutes. Malcolm’s friends begin calling him “Detroit Red” because his hair is bright red. After referring an undercover military agent to a prostitute, Malcolm loses his job and can no longer visit Small’s. With the help of Sammy the Pimp, Malcolm begins to sell marijuana to New York’s jazz musicians. At first, the business is a success, but soon the local narcotics squad comes after Malcolm, and he begins to lose time and money trying to avoid them. Eventually, Malcolm has to move weekly to avoid being arrested on planted evidence. He becomes addicted to the drugs he is supposed to be selling, and sometimes has to borrow money from Sammy just to eat. Sammy suggests that Malcolm use his old train-worker’s identification to peddle marijuana up and down the East Coast.
Malcolm makes a trip to Boston, where Shorty is trying to get his band off the ground. During this visit, Malcolm’s rendezvous with Sophia is more discreet than their previous encounters, partly because she is married and partly because World War II’s toll on the United States’ white population has increased popular fears about interracial romance. The draft board summons Malcolm. By dressing extravagantly and telling the army psychiatrist that he wishes to lead Southern blacks in murdering Southern whites, Malcolm evades the draft. The railroad company permanently blacklists Malcolm after he pulls a gun on a fellow gambler during a card game in the lower level of Grand Central Station in New York. The narcotics squad in Harlem knows Malcolm too well for him to resume his drug-dealing there, so he begins a series of robberies. Malcolm also begins trafficking guns and starts using harder drugs, primarily cocaine, to prepare for jobs and to deal with the stress they cause him.
When Malcolm’s brother Reginald comes to stay with him in Harlem, Malcolm rents his first real apartment to ensure that he and his brother have a home. Malcolm also sets up Reginald with a hustle he claims is safe, in which Reginald pretends defective goods are stolen and sells them on the street for much more than what he pays. Conditions in Harlem begin worsening. The city government shuts down the Savoy Ballroom, and Harlem residents suspect that this measure is designed to stop single white women from dancing with black men. Two riots almost completely stop the flow of white tourists. Profits dry up for the nightlife industry, and hustlers and prostitutes begin to take on legitimate work. Malcolm has a falling out with Sammy the Pimp after Sammy pulls a gun on him for slapping one of Sammy’s women. Eventually, Malcolm and Sammy make up, but they no longer fully trust each other. Malcolm begins to depend increasingly on Reginald, whom he describes as lazy but sensible.
Malcolm’s firmly held belief that white people, and not black people, are to blame for the desperate conditions of the black underclass makes him lenient in his moral evaluation of the Harlem ghetto. Though Malcolm does blame some black people for their actions, most notably the middle-class, Civil Rights leaders, and himself, he tends to forgive residents of the black ghetto for their misdeeds and points instead to the conditions created by white society. In describing the Harlem ghetto, Malcolm blames his bosses in the numbers lottery system for draining the black ghetto of wealth. Whenever Malcolm describes the white pleasure-seekers that patronize the Harlem underworld of forbidden music, drugs, and women, he shows that these people make Harlem life harder by creating a demand for destructive activities like pimping and gambling, and by treating black people as objects. Though he does not spend much time making an explicit argument about moral responsibility, Malcolm’s descriptions make it clear that he places the blame for the harshness of Harlem life on white New York and white America.
Malcolm believes that wealthy white people not only exploit poor blacks on a daily basis, but also contribute to the profound lack of opportunity in Harlem. In talking about the unrealized professional potential of his intelligent black friends, Malcolm implies that white society is to blame for driving them into the spiral of crime, drugs, deceit, and poverty, giving them no other option than the hustler’s life. For instance, Sammy the Pimp’s entrepreneurial drive might have made him a shrewd businessman, but in Harlem his skills are best suited for pimping, which eventually leads him to ruin. Later in the autobiography, Malcolm discusses his friend West Indian Archie’s photographic memory and quick math skills, pointing out that these skills could have served him well in school, but Archie is instead locked into defending his gambling territory and his reputation, which eventually gets him killed. Even Malcolm’s younger brother Reginald, a bright and gentle young man, needs to deceive his fellow Harlemites with a hustle in order to make ends meet. Malcolm’s comparison of Harlem to a jungle in which only the fittest survive takes the weight of moral responsibility off of Harlem residents by showing that they are forced to engage in illegal and immoral acts by their harsh environment.