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Malcolm’s time in Massachusetts state prison is a period of intellectual growth and religious upheaval. Suffering from drug withdrawal and a fierce temper, he is placed in solitary confinement and nicknamed “Satan.” He meets Bimbi, a confident Black prisoner whose speech commands the respect of guards and inmates alike. Under Bimbi’s instruction, Malcolm begins to think outside the hustler mindset of his youth. He makes use of the small prison library, refines his English, and channels his rage into reasoned argument. In 1948 Malcolm moves to Norfolk Prison Colony, where there is less violence and inmates may study and debate freely. At the huge library there, he immerses himself in subject after subject, including history, religion, literature, biology, and linguistics.
Malcolm first hears about the Nation of Islam from his family. He gives up pork at his brother Reginald’s request, later seeing this decision as his first step toward becoming a Muslim. Reginald tells him about the Nation of Islam’s spiritual leader, Elijah Muhammad, whose central teaching is that all white men are devils. While deciding whether to convert, Malcolm thinks of all the white people he has ever known. He remembers the social workers who split up his family, the teacher who discouraged him from becoming a lawyer, and his customers when he worked as a porter and a pimp. He also considers the white policemen, judge, and guards who have conspired to lock him away. Every one of these people, he reflects, has done him harm. He begins to undergo an overwhelming change and to feel that the sin and guilt of his past have prepared him to accept the truth of Islam.
Malcolm accepts the Nation of Islam’s principles. According to Elijah Muhammad, the first humans were Black, living peacefully under Allah in Mecca. Then, a mad scientist named Mr. Yacub unleashed an evil race of white people on Europe who conspired to abuse nonwhites for 6,000 years. Elijah Muhammad teaches that Black people were stolen from Africa, sold into bondage, and finally brainwashed. White people forced them to adopt the names, customs, myths, and god of their masters. Now, however, white civilization is destroying itself. Malcolm writes to Elijah Muhammad every day and begins to pray.
To improve his writing skills, Malcolm slowly copies out the whole dictionary longhand, starting with the word “aardvark.” With an expanded vocabulary, he begins to read voraciously, staying up half the night to study in his cell. He says that reading awakens his “long dormant craving to be mentally alive.” Malcolm soon develops a system of beliefs that has Africa at its center. From reputable sources he learns that the first men and the great early civilizations were African, that the pharaohs were Africans, and that the great Western storyteller Aesop was an African. The horror of slavery and the bold nineteenth-century revolts of Nat Turner and John Brown impact him deeply. Studying the anti-British resistance of India and China, he also discovers that colonial exploitation, and opposition to it, was not limited to Africa.
The prison’s debate program introduces Malcolm to public speaking. He almost always finds a way to work the idea of race into his arguments, whether they are about military service or Shakespeare. Debate teaches him rhetorical skills he later uses to earn converts to the Nation of Islam. He is thrilled by his success in making a white minister publicly admit that Jesus was not white. He resolves to devote the rest of his life to telling the white man about himself or to die trying. Soon, Reginald is suspended from the Nation of Islam for sleeping with a secretary. After Elijah Muhammad appears to Malcolm in a silent vision, Malcolm disowns Reginald and for the first time feels a stronger bond to his faith than to his family. Reginald goes insane, and Malcolm comes to believe that Allah is punishing Reginald for his sins. Malcolm continues to seek converts to Islam among his fellow prisoners.
The language that Malcolm uses in telling his story shows how his perspective has changed since the time of the events that he describes. The younger Malcolm views his life in terms of absolute good and evil. Accordingly, he uses strongly opposing terms, such as “white” and “Black” and “good” and “bad,” in his descriptions. He sees the world according to these rigid pairs, and thus too simply. The language he uses to interpret his life contains only these sorts of absolute terms, and he ignores the parts of his previous life that do not’ fit with the principles he has accepted from Elijah Muhammad. For example, he has known many white people, including his foster parents, his Jewish former boss, and his lover Sophia, who have treated him decently. But because Malcolm longs for moral clarity, he associates all that is good, original, and pure with the term “Black” and all that is evil, derivative, and tainted with the term “white.”
The voice that Malcolm uses in telling the story of his youth, on the other hand, shows that he has developed a more complex view of good and evil as an adult. His mention of “the entire spectrum of white people I had ever known” illustrates his more mature understanding of his early experiences. The word “spectrum” denotes a range of things, such as colors, that differ from each other in varying degrees. Malcolm’s use of this word shows that he has by now abandoned his earlier, simplistic view of the world. He no longer thinks of people as strictly white, and thus bad, or strictly Black, and thus good. He has recognized that within the category of “white” there is a whole spectrum of individual human personalities to judge. He is able to see that some white people may be bad, while others may be good, just as some Black people may be good, while others may be bad. In choosing the word “spectrum,” the older and wiser Malcolm conveys his understanding that his early attitudes toward race were not consistent with his early life experience.
The anti–white prejudice that Malcolm adopts upon converting to the Nation of Islam differed from much twentieth-century American prejudice. Unlike prejudices against various ethnic, racial, or political minorities, anti–white prejudice was not the social norm. Since the end of slavery, whites had accused Black people of taking their jobs, corrupting their schools, and degrading their neighborhoods. Whites’ fear of Black people was a major factor in the creation of racist laws and segregation. Similarly, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, many Americans became very suspicious of people of Japanese descent and confined them to internment camps. Finally, in the 1950s, widespread paranoia about suspected communists produced a rash of trials and executions known as McCarthyism. However, Elijah Muhammad’s rhetoric of “blue-eyed devils” and “original people” is different from prejudice against Black people, Japanese, and suspected communists. The Nation of Islam was the movement of a separatist minority with a very small following. In contrast, racism against Black people, anti-Japanese hysteria, and McCarthyism were mainstream movements attracting millions of Americans and encompassing many institutions, both private and public.
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