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.