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Malcolm takes on a variety of odd jobs in Harlem. For
six months he transports betting slips for the numbers lottery system.
Then, after working in a gambling parlor, Malcolm works for a madam, steering
white people from downtown to the various places where their elaborate
sexual fantasies can be fulfilled. In 1945 Malcolm
is accused of robbing a craps game run by Italian racketeers. He
begins to feel tense just walking the streets of Harlem. He quits
his steering job and begins importing bootlegged liquor from Long
Island for a Jewish businessman. He likes the work and his boss,
but his boss disappears mysteriously after a scandal involving the
Malcolm himself plays the numbers more and more heavily,
placing bets with West Indian Archie, an “old head” known for his
photographic memory, which enables him not to have to write down any
of the bets he takes. Malcolm hits a low point when West Indian Archie
accuses him of collecting winnings on a bet he had not actually
placed. Malcolm insists he has remembered correctly, and according
to the code of the street, neither can back down. West Indian Archie
gives Malcolm until the next day to return the money. Malcolm gets
high on various drugs and wakes up long after the deadline. He returns
to Harlem, where he runs into West Indian Archie at a bar. West
Indian Archie humiliates Malcolm but does not shoot him, and a confrontation
looms. The next day Malcolm punches a young hustler in the face,
is almost stabbed, and is searched by the police. Now the cops,
the Italian racketeers, the hustler Malcolm has just punched, and
West Indian Archie are all out for Malcolm’s blood, and he feels
more threatened than ever. Just as Malcolm thinks he is going to
get shot, Shorty picks him up and takes him to Boston.
In Boston, Shorty and Ella marvel at the transformed Malcolm,
now edgy and foulmouthed from hustling. Malcolm takes a few weeks
to unwind from the tension of his situation in Harlem, at first
only sleeping, smoking marijuana, and playing records. Malcolm begins to
do cocaine again and talks excessively to Shorty and Sophia about
future plans. He remains close to Sophia, depending on
her for money and marveling at how much abuse she takes. Sophia’s
husband is often on the road on business, which enables Malcolm
to see a lot of Sophia. Shorty begins seeing Sophia’s seventeen-year-old
To make ends meet, Malcolm decides to find a new hustle.
Using his reputation as ruthless and trigger-happy, he puts together
a burglary ring consisting of himself, Shorty, and a local black
Italian man named Rudy. They include Sophia and her sister to scope
out white neighborhoods without arousing suspicion. Usually, the women
visit a home as pollsters or salespeople and entice the housewife
to give a tour. They then describe what they see in the house to the
men, who go to the house at night. Shorty and Malcolm do the actual
burglary, while Rudy mans the getaway car.
One day, while high on cocaine, Malcolm sees Sophia and
her sister in a black bar with a white man who is a friend of Sophia’s
husband. Malcolm saunters over and addresses the women intimately, blowing
Sophia’s cover. The friend and then Sophia’s husband himself later
go on the hunt for him. When police arrest Malcolm in a pawn shop,
he gives himself up peacefully. In court his conviction for stealing
is due as much to his relationship with a white woman as it is to
his burglary. Malcolm notes that the police cross-examine him on
the origin and nature of his relationships with the women instead
of on the crime of burglary with which he is charged. The judge
sentences him to ten years in state prison.
In these chapters, Malcolm shows us the depths to which
he sinks in Harlem so that we can understand the dramatic nature
of the education and conversion he subsequently undergoes in prison.
His statement that “[a]ll of our experiences fuse into our personality” reflects
his belief that he must understand his past to understand his present.
Malcolm’s education allows him to reevaluate the forms of racism
he experienced earlier in his life. Whereas before his time in prison
he responds to individual encounters of prejudice as separate instances
of personal attacks, his new, more fully developed perspective on
race relations leads him to see them as part of a single problem.
His conversion to Islam similarly leads him to a more expanded understanding
of racial problems. He now understands them on both a national and
international level: white America has mistreated black America
from slavery through segregation, and Western societies have historically
used and abused nonwhites. Just as his conversion to Islam offers
him the possibility of redemption under Allah, his process of self-discovery
offers him the possibility of a more productive, though still limited,
place in society.
The changes in Malcolm’s philosophies about race connect directly
to his changing understanding of racism. Throughout his youth Malcolm
sees himself primarily as a victim of unfair discrimination: white
society murders his father, divides his family, treats him as inferior,
and discourages him from success. He interprets this racism as a
direct attack on him personally rather than as an attack on his
race. As Malcolm develops his understanding of race relations in
prison, however, he interprets his early experience of racism in
the context of American history and society. He begins to see black
people in general, rather than just himself, as victims of racism.
Malcolm now understands that the lifestyles and goals of his peers
in Roxbury Hill and Harlem and the jobs and schools available to
them are heavily influenced by his peers’ inhabiting the slums of
a white city. With this realization, Malcolm comes to view
racism not as a personal attack on an individual but as a blind
attack on blackness in general. This changing attitude toward racism
influences his later espousal of anti–white rhetoric and militant
Malcolm’s conversion to Islam allows him to interpret
his years of crime as an experience that, while negative, is necessary
for personal growth. After Malcolm converts to Islam, he views these
years as a descent to the bottom of white society that prepares
him to accept the religion’s cleansing message. The cleansing message
of the religion has a powerful impact on him because he has led
such a sinful life. Though Malcolm admits the destructive nature
of his wild youth and condemns the activities in which he engaged,
he is nonetheless unashamed of having been a ruthless, violent criminal. He
believes that the will of Allah has brought him to the righteous path
by first putting him through suffering and sin. Islam simultaneously
humbles and affirms Malcolm; as by showing him the error of his
ways it also shows him the path to redemption.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Autobiography of Malcolm X!