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Malcolm finds a job washing dishes on a Boston–Washington
train line and then selling sandwiches as a porter on a Boston–New
York train line. He is dazzled by the wealth and energy of New York, especially
Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom and Apollo Theater. After being fired for
taking the aggressive performances he uses to sell sandwiches too
far, he is thrilled to work as a day waiter at a Harlem bar called
Small’s Paradise. Malcolm makes a good impression on the customers
and on his employers, and learns various hustling techniques, the
etiquette of the Harlem underworld, and the history of the neighborhood.
With his tips, Malcolm begins to invest a lot of money in the numbers
racket, the popular unofficial lottery in Harlem. He learns the
names and faces of the young numbers runners as well as those of
the “old heads,” black gangsters left over from the 1920s
and 1930s. Malcolm also meets an assortment
of pimps, including one known as Sammy the Pimp, who soon becomes
his best friend and sole Harlem confidant.
All of us . . . were, instead, black
victims of the white man’s American social system.
See Important Quotations Explained
All of us . . . were, instead, black
victims of the white man’s American social system.
With permanent employment, Malcolm moves to a rooming
house run by prostitutes. Malcolm befriends the women and learns
a great deal about the psychology of men from them. Sophia, who
has married a white man, visits Malcolm regularly. At first, she
balks at Malcolm’s living situation, but she soon befriends the
prostitutes. Malcolm’s friends begin calling him “Detroit Red” because
his hair is bright red. After referring an undercover military agent
to a prostitute, Malcolm loses his job and can no longer visit Small’s.
With the help of Sammy the Pimp, Malcolm begins to sell marijuana
to New York’s jazz musicians. At first, the business is a success,
but soon the local narcotics squad comes after Malcolm, and he begins to
lose time and money trying to avoid them. Eventually, Malcolm has
to move weekly to avoid being arrested on planted evidence. He becomes
addicted to the drugs he is supposed to be selling, and sometimes
has to borrow money from Sammy just to eat. Sammy suggests that
Malcolm use his old train-worker’s identification to peddle marijuana
up and down the East Coast.
Malcolm makes a trip to Boston, where Shorty is trying
to get his band off the ground. During this visit, Malcolm’s rendezvous
with Sophia is more discreet than their previous encounters, partly because
she is married and partly because World War II’s toll on the United
States’ white population has increased popular fears about interracial
romance. The draft board summons Malcolm. By dressing extravagantly
and telling the army psychiatrist that he wishes to lead Southern
blacks in murdering Southern whites, Malcolm evades the draft. The
railroad company permanently blacklists Malcolm after he pulls a
gun on a fellow gambler during a card game in the lower level of
Grand Central Station in New York. The narcotics squad
in Harlem knows Malcolm too well for him to resume his drug-dealing
there, so he begins a series of robberies. Malcolm also begins trafficking
guns and starts using harder drugs, primarily cocaine, to prepare
for jobs and to deal with the stress they cause him.
When Malcolm’s brother Reginald comes to stay with him
in Harlem, Malcolm rents his first real apartment to ensure that
he and his brother have a home. Malcolm also sets up Reginald with
a hustle he claims is safe, in which Reginald pretends defective
goods are stolen and sells them on the street for much more than
what he pays. Conditions in Harlem begin worsening. The city government
shuts down the Savoy Ballroom, and Harlem residents suspect that
this measure is designed to stop single white women from dancing
with black men. Two riots almost completely stop the flow of white
tourists. Profits dry up for the nightlife industry, and hustlers
and prostitutes begin to take on legitimate work. Malcolm has a
falling out with Sammy the Pimp after Sammy pulls a gun on him for
slapping one of Sammy’s women. Eventually, Malcolm and Sammy make
up, but they no longer fully trust each other. Malcolm begins to
depend increasingly on Reginald, whom he describes as lazy but sensible.
Malcolm’s firmly held belief that white people, and not
black people, are to blame for the desperate conditions of the black
underclass makes him lenient in his moral evaluation of the Harlem
ghetto. Though Malcolm does blame some black people for their actions, most
notably the middle-class, Civil Rights leaders, and himself, he tends
to forgive residents of the black ghetto for their misdeeds and points
instead to the conditions created by white society. In describing
the Harlem ghetto, Malcolm blames his bosses in the numbers lottery
system for draining the black ghetto of wealth. Whenever Malcolm
describes the white pleasure-seekers that patronize the Harlem underworld
of forbidden music, drugs, and women, he shows that these people
make Harlem life harder by creating a demand for destructive activities
like pimping and gambling, and by treating black people as objects.
Though he does not spend much time making an explicit argument about
moral responsibility, Malcolm’s descriptions make it clear that
he places the blame for the harshness of Harlem life on white New
York and white America.
Malcolm believes that wealthy white people not only exploit poor
blacks on a daily basis, but also contribute to the profound lack
of opportunity in Harlem. In talking about the unrealized professional
potential of his intelligent black friends, Malcolm implies that
white society is to blame for driving them into the spiral of crime,
drugs, deceit, and poverty, giving them no other option than the
hustler’s life. For instance, Sammy the Pimp’s entrepreneurial drive
might have made him a shrewd businessman, but in Harlem his skills
are best suited for pimping, which eventually leads him to ruin.
Later in the autobiography, Malcolm discusses his friend West Indian
Archie’s photographic memory and quick math skills, pointing out
that these skills could have served him well in school, but Archie
is instead locked into defending his gambling territory and his
reputation, which eventually gets him killed. Even Malcolm’s younger
brother Reginald, a bright and gentle young man, needs to deceive
his fellow Harlemites with a hustle in order to make ends meet.
Malcolm’s comparison of Harlem to a jungle in which only the fittest
survive takes the weight of moral responsibility off of Harlem residents
by showing that they are forced to engage in illegal and immoral
acts by their harsh environment.
Although Malcolm strongly believes that white society
is to blame for black America’s problems, starting with slavery
and continuing through segregation, his commentary in these chapters
foreshadows his later belief that if blacks want a better life,
it is up to them, and only them, to improve their situation. Malcolm’s
taking the blame for ruining Laura’s life is an instance of the
black community holding itself responsible for its failures. While
Malcolm could easily blame white society and thereby ease his conscience
and that of the black community in general, doing so would deny
blacks power over lives such as Laura’s. In blaming himself for
Laura’s downfall and thereby accepting responsibility for it, Malcolm shows
his belief that he had the power to protect her from harmful influences.
While Malcolm readily acknowledges that whites may be the source
of such harmful influences, he feels it is necessary for other blacks
to adopt a self-empowering attitude like his if they want to improve
Malcolm includes most of the details in these chapters
to expose us to the tough side of the ghetto. However, the moments
in which Malcolm portrays Harlem life in a positive light imply
that there is an alternative to the white welfare state that offers
to help the black people whom it simultaneously oppresses. Malcolm’s
feeling of kinship with the patrons of Small’s Paradise shows that
Harlem contains a network of people who are a source of community
in a cruel world. Though money is tight, the black community prefers
to help its own rather than receive assistance from a government
institution, as with an elderly beggar named Fewclothes, whom the
black community always given free meals. This presentation of an
informal social safety net contrasts with the demeaning white welfare agencies
that earlier divide Malcolm’s family. In this instance, Malcolm
shows that even people pushed to the brink of survival can form
their own creative solutions to social problems.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Autobiography of Malcolm X!