The Autobiography of Malcolm X Summary

Malcolm X, Alex Haley

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X Summary

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley begins with Malcolm’s tumultuous childhood. His father, Earl Little, a Baptist preacher who believes in the “Back to Africa” philosophy, is murdered. Before that, their house was twice damaged by groups of white men, who, in one of those instances, burned their home down. After Earl’s death, Malcolm’s mother, Louise, initially fights to keep their family together when the state welfare agency wants to split them apart. However, she is committed to a mental asylum when caring for her children on her own becomes too much of a burden. Malcolm and his siblings are separated, sent to different area foster homes.

At the age of thirteen, Malcolm is expelled from school. He is sent to a detention home, where he reflects on how he felt like a mascot at school. He spends the summer in Boston with his half-sister, Ella; this visit opens his eyes to the wider world. When he returns to school, he wants to become a lawyer, but his counselor tells him not to because he is black. When Ella invites him to move to Boston, he takes her up on her offer. There, he meets Shorty, who becomes his friend and gets him a job shining shoes. This friendship also leads to Malcolm conking, or straightening his hair, which he later realizes was self-degradation—an attempt to look more like a white man.

He goes from shining shoes to working in an ice cream parlor, where he meets Laura. They attend dance together. At the same time, Sophia, a rich white woman, who gives Malcolm money, is pursuing him. He moves to Harlem after he gets a job as a dishwasher on the train between Boston and New York. In the 1940s, Harlem is the center of black culture in America. He changes jobs again, working as a waiter at his favorite bar—Small’s Paradise. However, he is barred from there after he tries to offer a prostitute to an undercover cop. His friend, Sammy the Pimp, gets him work selling marijuana to his contacts in the music industry.

He and Sammy start robbing people to make money, but their friendship wanes when Sammy pulls a gun on him. Malcolm begins to use cocaine, and in the wider world, racial tensions are continuing to build. Malcolm’s drug use becomes worse, so Sammy calls on Shorty to bring Malcolm back to Boston. There, he gets a gang together to engage in burglaries. They are successful until he is caught trying to get a stolen watch fixed at a repair shop. He is twenty years old when he is sentenced to jail. There, he meets a man called Bimbi, who inspires Malcolm to value learning. When members of his family start converting to the Nation of Islam, he begins his own conversion process, which includes his contempt for blacks that want integration with whites.

Released from prison in 1952, he moves to Detroit, where the Nation of Islam is growing. He recruits new members and becomes the assistant minister of Temple Number One. Malcolm changes his last name to X in light of the fact that when blacks were brought into slavery in the US, they lost their real names. He is sent to New York City, where he meets and marries Sister Betty X. By 1960, Malcolm is appearing on television and radio, speaking against integration of the races. At home, Elijah Muhammad falls ill and gives Malcolm X more leadership responsibilities in running the Nation of Islam.

The year 1961 is a tumultuous time for Malcolm. As Muhammad’s health continues to decline, Malcolm learns about Muhammad’s many illegitimate children. As Malcolm becomes more active, he starts receiving death threats. Ultimately, he breaks from the Nation of Islam to start his own organization—which he intends should welcome blacks of any faith. After making hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm, moved by the equal respect given to people of all races there, shifts his views on integration. He also takes the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, visiting many nations as a Muslim dignitary.

He hopes that his organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, started in 1965, will be one of equality and welcome. At the same time, he is beginning to worry that he will be assassinated. Finally, in an epilogue, Malcolm’s collaborator on the autobiography, Alex Haley, details the difficulty in amassing the necessary information after Malcolm’s murder, and describes how the book came to be.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X has been favorably received. In addition to its sales record, the book was adapted into the 1992 film,Malcolm X, directed by Spike Lee and based on a screenplay by James Baldwin and Arnold Perl. That screenplay was originally conceptualized in 1968.