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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
Malcolm’s changing views of America’s racial problems
reflect the development of his character. When, as a child, he sees
both of his parents destroyed by white society, he feels despair
about the plight of blacks. His attitude changes, however, after
his experiences in the black ghettos of Boston and New York develop
in him the philosophy that black people should not accept help from
white people. The teachings of the Nation of Islam that he receives
in prison effect a further change in both Malcolm’s character and
his view of white people. He simultaneously abandons his wild past
and embraces a systematic hatred of whites. His later travels in
the Middle East cause another profound change; his break from the
American Nation of Islam coincides with his newfound belief that
blacks will be successful in their struggle for equal rights only
if they identify with oppressed peoples across the globe. His attitude
at the end of the work contrasts with his previous beliefs in that
he now supports white participation in the struggle for black emancipation,
whereas he earlier does not. Only after passing through so many
phases and seeing the race problem from so many different perspectives
is Malcolm able to settle on a philosophy in which he truly believes.
Though Malcolm gives up gambling, smoking, and crime while
in prison, his experience as an evangelist after prison is similar
in ways to his earlier experience as a hustler. Malcolm retains
insights, skills, and values from his years as a hustler that serve
him in his later role as a religious authority and media personality.
For example, Malcolm uses the knowledge he gains in Harlem—to distrust
people, to know his enemies, and to craft his public image carefully—in
his dealings with the Nation of Islam and with the press. Near the
end of his life, Malcolm jokes to a university audience that he
took his bachelor’s degree on the streets of Harlem. This comment
emphasizes the usefulness of the skills that he gained while living
a life of hustling. Though he now condemns his former lifestyle,
his words show that he appreciates what that lifestyle taught him
about how to interact with people effectively. The skills Malcolm
uses as a hustler and later as an activist are not developed with
these future roles in mind, but rather are built upon the necessary
survival skills that Malcolm learned at a young age, emphasizing
that life is a matter of survival for the urban black man. Though
Malcolm’s young life is very different from his adult life, his
ability to fight for survival in America’s racist culture is equally
important at both stages of his life.
In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm
focuses on how racism against blacks dehumanizes them. The white
people around Malcolm often view him as something less than human,
and Malcolm’s desire to correct this perception drives his fight
for racial equality. He experiences subtle racism in his youth from
his family and school, who treat him differently from others because
he is black. Though his foster parents and some of the people he
encounters in school are nice to him, Malcolm thinks these people
treat him nicely in order to show how unprejudiced they are. He
feels that they are using him because he is different, as though
he were a “pink poodle.” Malcolm in turn dehumanizes certain white
people as revenge for his own subjugation. In Boston, he displays
his white girlfriend Sophia as a status symbol, viewing her less
as a person than as an enviable object that he owns. However, when
after many years of anti–white rhetoric in the Nation of Islam,
Malcolm meets white-skinned people in Mecca who treat him as an
equal, he begins to acknowledge the humanity of individual whites.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Autobiography of Malcolm X!