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The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Malcolm X & Alex Haley

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

How does Malcolm X’s understanding of racial identity change over the course of his life? Consider the different phases of Malcolm’s life.

During his life, Malcolm has as many attitudes toward his identity as he has names, and he experiences a significant transformation over the course of the autobiography. Early on, Malcolm learns that there is no way to escape his black identity. As a child he is called “nigger” so often that he believes it is his given name. At school in Lansing, he finds a social barrier between himself and white girls. Even as Malcolm earns top grades and is elected class president, a teacher discourages him from becoming a lawyer, because Malcolm is black, and teaches him racist propaganda. Malcolm leaves Michigan because he knows that he cannot escape the limiting racial identity that society imposes on him. In the Harlem underworld, Malcolm remakes himself in the lawless and isolated image of the black hustler. His few interactions with whites are shallow and exploitative: he uses his white girlfriend Sophia for status, just as she uses him; he bootlegs liquor for a Jewish nightclub owner; and he guides white men to black prostitutes.

After years of study in prison, Malcolm reconsiders his racial identity in the light of history and philosophy, and discovers answers to his questions about race in the pro-black rhetoric of the Nation of Islam. His acceptance of the Nation’s belief that black people are an original and good people, and whites an aberration meant to spread evil in the world, reverses Malcolm’s understanding of blacks and whites. Later, in Mecca, Malcolm learns to see beyond America’s race problems even as he digs more firmly into his black identity. Feeling brotherhood with white-skinned Muslims, he returns to the United States with a message of racial tolerance and an impartial commitment to truth and justice. Still, he believes the most promising allies of American blacks are the oppressed, nonwhite peoples of the world, not American whites. Nevertheless, he has developed, by the end of his life, a broader perspective on racism. Though he initially interprets the hatred that whites direct toward him as a personal attack that he must fend off for himself, he now understands that racism is a worldwide force that all must unite to combat.

2.

How does Malcolm X’s view of white people change over the course of his life, and why? Consider the different phases of Malcolm’s life.

When Malcolm is a child, his parents teach him not to take abuse from white people. Although he is briefly happy while staying with the Swerlins, his white foster family, he is not content being their “mascot.” When Malcolm moves to Boston, his sole significant contact with white people is Sophia, whom he never acknowledges as anything more than an object. Once he leaves Boston, Malcolm treats white people as they have always treated him: inhumanly. By the time Malcolm reaches prison, this impulse to treat white people as inhuman has been so reinforced by his experiences that he readily accepts Elijah Muhammad’s teachings that the white man is the devil. When Malcolm reviews the white people he has known, he can think of only one, his Jewish boss, who treated him with any decency at all. From his moment of conversion to Islam until his falling out with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm upholds the party line that all whites are devils. On his trip to Mecca, however, Malcolm meets unprejudiced white Muslims and reconsiders the views he has held for so many years against whites. Malcolm comes to see white racism as the unfortunate product of particular circumstances rather than as an indication that white people are inherently evil.

3.

What role do women play in the autobiography of malcolm x?

Several women provide Malcolm crucial support in his endeavors, and he is grateful for their support of him. Malcolm remembers his mother, Louise, constantly cooking and caring for her children. She sacrifices much to provide for them and is driven mad in the end by her inability to do so. Malcolm’s conscientious visits to her in the mental hospital show that he appreciates her commitment to him. Similarly, Ella, Malcolm’s half-sister, often supports Malcolm at her own expense. After putting him up and finding him a job in Boston, for example, she later finances his trip to Mecca. Finally, though Malcolm’s view of his wife, Betty, can seem unemotional at times, he appreciates her quiet strength.

However, many critics have claimed that the Malcolm X portrayed in the work is a misogynistic figure, and Malcolm’s remarks on women provide ample evidence for this view. His claim to trust most women only twenty-five percent suggests that he subscribes to an unfair stereotype about women in the same way that many whites subscribe to unfair stereotypes about blacks. Malcolm treats the women he meets in his early adulthood, such as Laura and Sophia, as objects. After starting a promising relationship with Laura, who is black, Malcolm leaves her abruptly for an attractive white woman, Sophia. This act is more than simply a headstrong act of teenage disloyalty. It is a reflection of Malcolm’s hunger for the status that goes along with being seen around town with a white woman. Malcolm’s strong interest in fighting racial inequality does not translate into a strong interest in fighting gender inequality.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Why does Malcolm go into the details of his early life in Michigan, Boston, and New York?

2. How do the lessons and skills of Malcolm’s life on the street influence his demeanor as a political leader?

3. What, in Malcolm’s experiences, draws him to an activism more militant than the nonviolent activism of Martin Luther King, Jr.?

4. In one speech about the need for blacks to identify with the nonwhite peoples of the world Malcolm X says, “You can’t hate Africa and not hate yourself.” What experiences lead him to make this statement?

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