Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Malcolm’s changing views of America’s racial problems reflect the development of his character. When, as a child, he sees both of his parents destroyed by white society, he feels despair about the plight of blacks. His attitude changes, however, after his experiences in the black ghettos of Boston and New York develop in him the philosophy that black people should not accept help from white people. The teachings of the Nation of Islam that he receives in prison effect a further change in both Malcolm’s character and his view of white people. He simultaneously abandons his wild past and embraces a systematic hatred of whites. His later travels in the Middle East cause another profound change; his break from the American Nation of Islam coincides with his newfound belief that blacks will be successful in their struggle for equal rights only if they identify with oppressed peoples across the globe. His attitude at the end of the work contrasts with his previous beliefs in that he now supports white participation in the struggle for black emancipation, whereas he earlier does not. Only after passing through so many phases and seeing the race problem from so many different perspectives is Malcolm able to settle on a philosophy in which he truly believes.
Though Malcolm gives up gambling, smoking, and crime while in prison, his experience as an evangelist after prison is similar in ways to his earlier experience as a hustler. Malcolm retains insights, skills, and values from his years as a hustler that serve him in his later role as a religious authority and media personality. For example, Malcolm uses the knowledge he gains in Harlem—to distrust people, to know his enemies, and to craft his public image carefully—in his dealings with the Nation of Islam and with the press. Near the end of his life, Malcolm jokes to a university audience that he took his bachelor’s degree on the streets of Harlem. This comment emphasizes the usefulness of the skills that he gained while living a life of hustling. Though he now condemns his former lifestyle, his words show that he appreciates what that lifestyle taught him about how to interact with people effectively. The skills Malcolm uses as a hustler and later as an activist are not developed with these future roles in mind, but rather are built upon the necessary survival skills that Malcolm learned at a young age, emphasizing that life is a matter of survival for the urban black man. Though Malcolm’s young life is very different from his adult life, his ability to fight for survival in America’s racist culture is equally important at both stages of his life.
In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm focuses on how racism against blacks dehumanizes them. The white people around Malcolm often view him as something less than human, and Malcolm’s desire to correct this perception drives his fight for racial equality. He experiences subtle racism in his youth from his family and school, who treat him differently from others because he is black. Though his foster parents and some of the people he encounters in school are nice to him, Malcolm thinks these people treat him nicely in order to show how unprejudiced they are. He feels that they are using him because he is different, as though he were a “pink poodle.” Malcolm in turn dehumanizes certain white people as revenge for his own subjugation. In Boston, he displays his white girlfriend Sophia as a status symbol, viewing her less as a person than as an enviable object that he owns. However, when after many years of anti–white rhetoric in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm meets white-skinned people in Mecca who treat him as an equal, he begins to acknowledge the humanity of individual whites.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, characters often associate with other people just to be seen with them, treating them like objects rather than human beings. The autobiography points out this habit to show how society’s hierarchy of status determines our identities and sense of self-worth. Malcolm first experiences this hierarchy when he gets special treatment from his father because he is the lightest-skinned of his siblings. His father’s preferential treatment illustrates how Malcolm’s superficial traits, rather than his personality, give him priority within the hierarchy of his family. When Malcolm’s Michigan foster family treats him as special and his school elects him class president, Malcolm is at first proud but later resentful of being a “mascot” for white ideals of how blacks should behave. Neither his school nor his foster family recognizes Malcolm as a person. Rather, they use Malcolm’s skin color to demonstrate their apparent tolerance and broadmindedness, and thereby gain status for themselves. Malcolm himself uses his white girlfriend Sophia as just such a status symbol, parading her like a new car for his jealous and gawking friends at Boston bars. Much later, Elijah Muhammad uses Malcolm X as a symbol of the Nation of Islam’s vitality as well as a strategic resource in growing his organization. In each case a person is degraded to the status of an object in the service of someone else’s social advancement.
The autobiography links instances of travel and transformation to show the simultaneous physical and spiritual aspects of Malcolm’s changes. Malcolm undergoes several quick and total conversions, and each involves first traveling to a distant, confusing place. In his travels, Malcolm is searching for both a home and a philosophy. When he moves to Boston, he quickly absorbs the activities of those around him, taking up lavish street-style zoot suits, marijuana, jazz, gambling, and petty crime. Similarly, in prison he begins to emulate intelligent and reflective prisoners, such as Bibi, and eventually reinvents himself as a worldly individual and devoted Muslim. When he is expelled from the Nation of Islam and makes the pilgrimage to Mecca, not knowing Arabic or local customs, Malcolm greatly broadens his perspective on race in America by incorporating the wisdom he gains from his experiences into his philosophy. The period of travel that always precedes Malcolm’s major conversions shows the influence of Malcolm’s environment on his worldview and his eagerness for his views to be as informed as possible.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The conk, a popular hairstyle that involves straightening out nappy hair with a host of caustic chemicals, is an emblem of black self-denial. Blacks conk their hair in an attempt to look more like white people, and their willingness to alter a feature of their body violently underscores how much they want to conceal their blackness. The conk is popular with rich and poor blacks alike, showing how blacks of all classes experience self-hatred. Though Malcolm conks his hair when he first moves to Boston, in prison he realizes how much mental energy he has been wasting on trying to conform to an impossible image of white good looks. Later, as an orator canvassing on the street, Malcolm criticizes American blacks for trying to change their African features. He sees the conk as one item in a long list, including faith in Christian religion and obsession with white women, of counterproductive black imitations of white culture.
The wristwatch, suitcase, and eyeglasses that Malcolm purchases upon his release from prison symbolize his commitment as a free man to a career of efficient work, frequent travel to spread the message of Islam, and constant study and reflection. The watch represents Malcolm’s industriousness, as he becomes extremely conscious of his daily schedule and organizes his life carefully. The suitcase, which Malcolm begins using in his professional life, represents Malcolm’s sacrifice of his personal life to his aspirations in the Nation of Islam. The glasses represent his ongoing commitment to the further development of his views as well as his broad vision for the future of black people in America.