The Autobiography of Malcolm X Book Club, Part 1
The book club starts today, with future segments every two weeks. Breakdown:
Part #1: Malcolm’s Childhood and Entry-Level Jobs (Chapters 1-5)
Part #2: Malcolm’s Life of Crime (Chapters 6-10)
Part #3: Malcolm and the Nation of Islam (Chapters 11-15)
Part #4: Malcolm’s Purge, Second Thoughts, and Murder (Chapters 16-19, plus Haley’s Epilogue)
Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little in 1925, was the son of a black “back to Africa” Baptist minister, and a half-black, half-white West Indian woman. Malcolm begins his story by recounting the many acts of violence whites perpetrated against his family. Malcolm’s mother was the product of rape, three of his uncles were murdered by whites, and his father was (apparently) murdered by whites. Malcolm summarizes his father’s ideology thusly:
He believed, as did Marcus Garvey, that freedom, independence, and self-respect could never be achieved by the Negro in America, and that therefore the Negro should leave America to the white man and return to his African land of origin.
Malcolm grew up in Lansing, Michigan, a “town with a higher percentage of complacent and misguided so-called ‘middle-class’ Negroes – the typical status-symbol-oriented, integration-seeking type of Negros.” His family was relatively well-off until his father’s murder, but this tragedy put the Little family on a downward spiral that left the children in foster care and the mother in a mental hospital.
At the age of thirteen, Malcolm is sentenced to reform school for his bad behavior. But he does so well in his detention home that he gets to attend Mason Junior High School – the first time a ward from his institution has ever done so. He does very well in school despite his teachers’ casual racism: “Though some, including the teachers, called me ‘n****r,’ it was easy to see that they didn’t mean any more harm by it than [the people running his reform school].”
Mason is virtually an all-white school, but Malcolm is elected class president in 7th grade. He explains:
My grades were among the highest in the school. I was unique in my class, like a pink poodle… I didn’t really have much feeling about being a Negro, because I was trying so hard, in every way, to be white.
Malcolm tells a sympathetic teacher he wants to be a lawyer, but the teacher gently objects that that isn’t a realistic goal for a black – and suggests carpentry instead. Malcolm grows disgruntled. When he finishes eighth grade, he is released from his detention home and takes a bus to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella. In hindsight, he says, “All praise is due to Allah that I went to Boston when I did.” Otherwise:
…I might have become one of those state capitol building shoeshine boys, or a Lansing Country Club waiter, or gotten one of the other menial jobs which… would have been considered “successful” – or even become a carpenter.
When Malcolm X arrives in Boston, he is a self-admitted “hick.” His sister is well-off and encourages him to tour around the city before finding a job. Ella wants to groom Malcolm for Boston’s black elite, but…
Despite her advice, I began going down into the town ghetto section. That world of grocery stores, walk-up flats, cheap restaurants, poolrooms, bars, storefront churches, and pawnshops seemed to hold a natural lure for me.
Malcolm soon makes friends with Shorty, a musician and hustler, who introduces Malcolm to Boston’s semi-legal underworld. Shorty gets Malcolm a job (a.k.a. a “slave”) shining shoes at the Roseland State Ballroom, giving Malcolm the chance to hear a long list of musical legends first hand. Before long, Malcolm is drinking, smoking, gambling, drug-dealing, pimping, and conking his hair:
It hadn’t taken me long on the job to find out that Freddie [his shoeshine predecessor] had done less shoeshining and towel-hustling than selling liquor and reefers, and putting white “Johns” in touch with Negro whores.
Malcolm quits shoeshining and gets a job as a soda fountain clerk, where he meets and starts going out with Laura, a straight-laced, studious black girl. After exposing her to his hip lifestyle, he dumps her for Sophia, a loose white woman. Malcolm partially blames himself for the fact that Laura later becomes a prostitute. Malcolm then gets a job as a busboy.
Before long, World War II breaks out. Malcolm is only 16, so he isn’t eligible for the draft. But Sophia, who seriously overestimates his age, encourages him to get a draft-exempt job on the railroad. Malcolm likes the idea because it gives him a chance to see the country – especially New York. He takes to selling sandwiches on the train like a fish to water:
I went bellowing up and down those train aisles. I sold sandwiches, coffee, candy, cake, and ice cream as fast as the railroad’s commissary department could supply them. It didn’t take me a week to learn that all you had to do was give white people a show and they’d buy anything you offered them… The dining car waiters and Pullman porters knew it too, and they faked their Uncle Tomming to get bigger tips… [W]hite people will pay liberally, even dearly, for the impression of being catered to and entertained.
In Harlem, Malcolm X rubs shoulders with the giants of jazz. He gets fired for bad behavior, but easily finds work on another railroad. He soon loses that job as well, so he starts working as a waiter for Small’s Paradise. He excels:
I learned very quickly dozens of little things that could really ingratiate a new waiter with the cooks and bartenders. Both of these, depending on how they liked the waiter, could make his job miserable or pleasant – and I meant to become indispensable. Inside of a week, I had succeeded with both. And the customers… couldn’t have been more friendly. And I couldn’t have been more solicitous.
“Another drink?… Right away, sir… Would you like dinner?… It’s very good… Could I get you a menu, sir?… Well, maybe a sandwich?”
Wherever he works, though, Malcolm is never far away from the world of crime – his next big career move:
Every day I listened raptly to customers who felt like talking, and it all added to my education… I was thus schooled well, by experts in such hustles as the numbers, pimping, con games of many kinds, peddling dope, and thievery of all sorts, including armed robbery.
The early pages of Malcolm X’s autobiography lead you to expect an non-stop tale of violence and victimization. But that simply isn’t the story he tells. Violence makes Malcolm an orphan, but his subsequent experiences are surprisingly pleasant. He repeatedly meets genuinely nice people – some white – who take him under their wings and provide opportunities.
Modern audiences will no doubt be horrified by the casual racism young Malcolm endures. But even he admits that the racism was usually thoughtless rather than malevolent. His worst memories are of snubbing, not cruelty. Particularly striking: Despite his conversion to Islam, he apparently continues to see a life of crime as somehow better than a life of honest menial labor.
The most striking fact about Malcolm’s life is how early it begins. By fourteen, he’s a grown man with a job. By eighteen, he’s traveled the Eastern seaboard, personally met many of the legends of jazz, lived in Boston and New York, and had a series of girlfriends. Despite his eighth-grade education, he has no trouble mastering new occupations – and making decent money – in a matter of weeks.
Malcolm often demeans his success on the job as “hustling.” As we’ll see later in the book, Malcolm tends to see only two alternatives in life: predation and philanthropy. The “middle way” of honest industry is almost invisible to him. For Malcolm, the main difference between charming customers for tips and pickpocketing is that charming customers is humiliating.
We should remember that when Malcolm enters the labor market, he’s only fourteen. We should expect him to be a bit immature. But it’s still shocking to tally how much money he blows on alcohol, drugs, gambling, and the like. His half-sister Ella probably would have let him live with her rent-free if he just behaved himself. The upshot: If Malcolm had simply managed his money prudently, he could easily have amassed enough to pursue advanced education or open a business. He often talks as if he had no good options. But he would have had far better options if he’d been careful with his money.
Modern readers will naturally emphasize all the options that blacks didn’t have in Malcolm X’s day. But don’t ignore the many options that they clearly did have. At least in Boston and New York, blacks in the 30s and 40s worked in a wide range of occupations, owned businesses, and created timeless art. All this happened despite black’s extraordinary rates of substance abuse, gambling, and worse. Imagine the trajectory of black success if they had been sober, frugal, and puritanical.
Actually, you don’t have to imagine this trajectory. Just keep reading the book. You’ll soon discover what happens to Malcolm and many other blacks after they embrace the ultra-puritanical ethos of the Nation of Islam.