Book Review

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Thesis

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the result of collaboration between Malcolm X and journalist Alex Haley. Over a period of several years, Malcolm X told Haley his life story in a series of lengthy interviews. Haley wrote down and arranged the material in the first person, and Malcolm X edited and approved every chapter. Thus, though Haley actually did the writing, it is reasonable to consider the work an autobiography. The work is one of the most important nonfiction books of the twentieth century, as it offers valuable insight into the mind of a key figure on a core issue of twentieth-century America. In 1965, a New York reviewer wrote of Malcolm X, “No man has better expressed his people’s trapped anguish.” The autobiography continues to be relevant to efforts to combat racism. Descriptive Chapter Overview

Chapter One: Nightmare

When Malcolm Little’s mother is pregnant with Malcolm, hooded Ku Klux Klan members break the windows of his family’s house in Omaha, Nebraska. The white supremacists’ target is Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, a tall, black Baptist preacher from Georgia, because he works for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which supports the return of American blacks to Africa. Malcolm is Earl’s seventh and lightest-skinned child and he was the only son who escaped Earl’s beatings and is allowed to follow his father to UNIA meetings. Malcolm’s mother, Louise Little, is a fair-skinned, educated woman from the island of Grenada. She was conceived when her father, a white man she never knew, raped her mother. Though Louise is able to get domestic work in town by passing as white, she stays at home to cook and clean for her family. When the family moves to Lansing, Michigan, in1929, another white supremacist group burns down their house. Malcolm says that watching his house burn taught him one of many early lessons about being black in America. He sees that success for blacks in Lansing means waiting tables or shining shoes rather than working in a respected profession and that the majority of black people are poor and jobless. However, Malcolm also learns some positive lessons. After making a fuss at home gets him extra biscuits, Malcolm concludes that the way to get something is to ask for it. When Malcolm is six, white men who oppose Earl’s Black Nationalist work kill him.

Chapter Two: Mascot

In 1937 Malcolm moves in with the Swerlins, a white foster family in Lansing. He accepts their generosity, but feels more like a “mascot” or a pet than a human being equal to those around him. Malcolm is first in his class at Mason Junior High, but he does not feel comfortable at school. Though he is proud when the students elect him class president, he feels more of an oddity than a human being. In history class Malcolm finds only one paragraph on black history in the textbook. The teacher laughs as he tells Malcolm’s class that though the slaves have been freed, black people are still lazy and dumb. Malcolm tells his English teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, that he wants to become a lawyer. Though Mr. Ostrowski supports the professional aspirations of white students who are less intelligent than Malcolm, he tells Malcolm to become a carpenter. Malcolm comes to resent his white school and home, and realizes that even well-meaning white people do not see black people as their equals. Malcolm grows up quickly, and racial barriers often frustrate him. He bristles when people call him “coon” and “nigger” on the basketball court. He gets a job washing dishes, and he sometimes visits his mother at the mental hospital. He also visits his brothers and sisters, who live in different cities. On weekends, he dances to swing music at bars, where he sees interracial romances that cannot occur openly in Lansing. White boys pressure Malcolm to ask out white girls, but he realizes they just want a dirty secret to hold over the girls’ heads. Malcolm spends the summer of 1940 in...