Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Status Symbols

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.

Travel and Transformation

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.