When Malcolm Little’s mother is pregnant with Malcolm, hooded Ku Klux Klan members break the windows of his family’s house in Omaha, Nebraska. The white supremacists’ target is Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, a tall, black Baptist preacher from Georgia, because he works for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which supports the return of American blacks to Africa. Malcolm is Earl’s seventh and lightest-skinned child. He is the only son who escapes Earl’s beatings and gets to follow his father to UNIA meetings. Malcolm’s mother, Louise Little, is a fair-skinned, educated woman from the island of Grenada. She was conceived when her father, a white man she never knew, raped her mother. Though Louise is able to get domestic work in town by passing as white, she stays at home to cook and clean for her family.
When the family moves to Lansing, Michigan, in 1929, another white supremacist group burns down their house. Malcolm says that watching his house burn taught him one of many early lessons about being black in America. He sees that success for blacks in Lansing means waiting tables or shining shoes rather than working in a respected profession and that the majority of black people are poor and jobless. After a white boy cheats Malcolm out of a hard-earned dollar, Malcolm realizes that the odds are stacked against blacks. However, Malcolm also learns some positive lessons. After making a fuss at home gets him extra biscuits, Malcolm concludes that the way to get something is to ask for it.
When Malcolm is six, white men who oppose Earl’s black nationalist work kill him. Earl’s life insurance company refuses to pay what it owes the family, claiming that Earl’s death was a suicide. The Great Depression is on, and with only dandelions to eat, the Little family is forced to rely on welfare. When Malcolm steals food from stores, welfare agents blame Louise. They call her crazy for rejecting free pork because she wants to adhere to Seventh Day Adventist dietary restrictions. When social workers send Louise to a mental hospital, the kids split up and all but the eldest two go to foster homes. Malcolm blames the state welfare agency for robbing his mother of her dignity and breaking apart his family.
In 1937 Malcolm moves in with the Swerlins, a white foster family in Lansing. He accepts their generosity, but feels more like a “mascot” or a pet than a human being equal to those around him. Malcolm is first in his class at Mason Junior High, but he does not feel comfortable at school. Though he is proud when the students elect him class president, he feels like a “pink poodle”—more of an oddity than a human being. In history class Malcolm finds only one paragraph on black history in the textbook. The teacher laughs as he tells Malcolm’s class that though the slaves have been freed, black people are still lazy and dumb. Malcolm tells his English teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, that he wants to become a lawyer. Though Mr. Ostrowski supports the professional aspirations of white students who are less intelligent than Malcolm, he tells Malcolm to become a carpenter. Malcolm comes to resent his white school and home, and realizes that even well-meaning white people do not see black people as their equals.
Malcolm grows up quickly, and racial barriers often frustrate him. He bristles when people call him “coon” and “nigger” on the basketball court. He gets a job washing dishes, and he sometimes visits his mother at the mental hospital. He also visits his brothers and sisters, who live in different cities. On weekends, he dances to swing music at bars, where he sees interracial romances that cannot occur openly in Lansing. White boys pressure Malcolm to ask out white girls, but he realizes they just want a dirty secret to hold over the girls’ heads.
Malcolm spends the summer of 1940 in Boston, visiting his half-sister, Ella. She is a strong black woman with a deep sense of family loyalty. Frustrated by how he has been treated at school and at home, Malcolm decides to move to Boston. The Swerlins do not understand why Malcolm wants to leave, and Malcolm is not able to explain his motivation to them. He moves into an upstairs room in Ella’s house in Roxbury, a wealthy black neighborhood in Boston. He is glad to move away, later speculating that if he had stayed in Lansing, he would have gotten a menial job or become a complacent middle-class lawyer. Though only fifteen, he can pass for several years older, and he begins to look for a job.