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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Autobiography of Malcolm X!