The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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Chapters Fourteen, Fifteen & Sixteen

Summary Chapters Fourteen, Fifteen & Sixteen

Malcolm hears rumors of a warrant out for his death, and one of his assistants at the New York temple confesses that the Nation has ordered him to kill Malcolm. To distance himself from the Nation of Islam and absorb the shock of the symbolic divorce, Malcolm accepts the invitation of boxer Cassius Clay for Malcolm and his family to stay in Florida while Clay prepares for his fight against Sonny Liston. The sight of Clay, who has Islamic leanings, defeating a fighter who is physically stronger through a combination of will, cleverness, and training strengthens Malcolm’s faith in Allah. Clay announces his Muslim affiliation after the fight, taking the name “Muhammad Ali.”

Once Malcolm accepts his estrangement from the Nation of Islam, he thinks about how he can continue to serve the political and economic interests of black people. He decides to use his celebrity status to found an organization called “Muslim Mosque, Inc.” in Harlem. Malcolm envisions the organization as more inclusive and more active than the Nation of Islam in its pursuit of black political and economic independence. Before things really get going, however, Malcolm decides that it is time for him to make his pilgrimage to the Islamic holy city of Mecca. Cut off from his sole source of income, the Nation, Malcolm asks Ella for money for the trip, and she obliges.

Analysis—Chapters Fourteen, Fifteen & Sixteen

Malcolm makes use of what he learns early in life as a hustler to gain and maintain prominence in the Nation of Islam. While he does not condone the hustler’s life, his comments imply a respect for the hustler’s code of ethics. The street rules—“be suspicious,” “know your enemy,” and “image is everything”—are as well suited to Malcolm’s outspoken public life as to his petty hustling life. By never trusting anyone outside his close circle of friends, Malcolm keeps the growing network of mosques across America under his direct control as he expands the reach of the Nation of Islam. His occasional failure to follow these rules illustrates how important they are. Malcolm puts his faith in Elijah Muhammad after the scandal breaks that Elijah Muhammad slept with his secretaries, and Elijah Muhammad repays Malcolm by silencing him, exiling him, and repeatedly trying to have him killed. When Malcolm trusts Elijah Muhammad too much and thereby breaks one of the hustler’s rules, he experiences grave consequences.

Like a hustler, Malcolm tries to understand his enemy’s psychology in order to guard against danger and tries to develop a strong public image to inspire fear. As Malcolm deals with the resistance of the police and the white press to his political activities, he never loses sight of the necessity of knowing how they work in order to be able to challenge them effectively. For instance, after visiting a Los Angeles newspaper for a week, Malcolm becomes ready to launch an informed counterattack, in the form of his own Muslim newspaper, Muhammad Speaks. Furthermore, as an activist Malcolm carefully shapes his public image, just as he does earlier as a hustler. While his obsession with defending his image leads Malcolm to near-death in a duel with West Indian Archie, it allows him to deal effectively with the white press. Not afraid to ignore questions or answer questions that are different from the ones the press poses him, Malcolm uses his smooth-talking skill to fine-tune his public image to his advantage. His understanding of the similarity between hustling individuals and hustling the public enables him to stay out of the way, temporarily, of the dangerous intentions that his ideas provoke.

The skills Malcolm acquires as a hustler in Harlem also help him turn his ambitions for the expansion of the Nation of Islam into a reality. As Malcolm rapidly rises through the Nation’s ranks, a religious fervor for recruitment drives him, and he eventually crosses the country to found temples in Boston, Harlem, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. His experience as a quick judge of character helps him run the new temples smoothly, and his knowledge of street psychology and slang makes him more persuasive than his Christian competitors to many young black city-dwellers. Still, with all his credibility, he finds the majority unreachable, plagued by social, spiritual, economic, and political problems. The most important part of Malcolm’s Harlem experience is the knowledge that blacks must be aggressive about helping themselves if they want to improve their situation.

Although Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad both fight for black rights, they differ in their estimation of how the struggle for these rights should be carried out. While Elijah Muhammad wants American blacks to adopt an Asian identity and speak Arabic, Malcolm continues to believe in a version of his father’s pan-Africanism, inspired by Marcus Garvey. While Elijah Muhammad wants American blacks to be their own kind of middle-class Americans in conservative suits, Malcolm remains more interested in the plight of the poor. Both men agree that the correct response to segregation is not integration but cultural and economic separation. However, they could not disagree more on how to achieve these goals: while Elijah Muhammad wants to keep his organization wholly apart from politics, Malcolm often wants to be engaged in action for racial justice. That there are such differences of opinion between two leaders within the same group illustrates the complexity of the race issue in America.