Chapter One of The Autobiography of Malcolm X describes Malcolm’s first twelve years of life, a time he remembers as a “nightmare.” Indeed, the main events of the chapter are all scenes from a nightmare: the Ku Klux Klan attack in Omaha; the burning of the family’s home in Lansing; the many fights of his parents and their harsh treatment of the children; the violent death of Malcolm’s father; the harassment of the family by welfare officials; the transfer of Malcolm to the custody of another family; and Mrs. Little’s breakdown and committal to the mental hospital.
Many of Malcolm’s later ideas and attitudes are foreshadowed in this chapter, as are most of the major themes of the book. His father’s involvement with Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association anticipates Malcolm’s later militancy; and his father’s attitudes toward Africa prepare the way for Malcolm’s “internationalism” and “Pan-Africanism” in the last year of his life. Mrs. Little’s taboos about food anticipate the dietary restrictions of the Black Muslims and of orthodox Islam. The hypocritical snooping of the welfare officials illustrates Malcolm’s charges of the “institutional racism” of American society; the encounters with these officials anticipate Malcolm’s later confrontation with white authority, first as a criminal, then as a political figure. In fact, Malcolm’s career in crime has its earliest beginnings when he steals food which the family is too poor to buy.
Even before Malcolm was born, it seemed destined that he would become involved with racial causes. The Little home in Omaha, Nebraska, was attacked by Ku Klux Klan nightriders one night in early 1925, when Malcolm’s mother was pregnant with him. The attack was probably due to Malcolm’s father’s activities as an organizer for the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The UNIA had, at times, been tolerated by the Klan because it taught separation of the races. But its rejection of black humility and submissiveness was another matter, and such vocal organizers as Reverend Little were often attacked as troublemakers. This incident probably figured heavily in the family’s decision to move after Malcolm’s birth, first to Milwaukee, then to Lansing, Michigan. Yet Malcolm never fully understood the reasons for the move, for his father was not a “frightened Negro.”
Among Malcolm’s most vivid childhood memories is an incident which occurred when he was about four years old. The Little home in Lansing was burned to the ground by a white racist group called the “Black Legionnaires,” who had been threatening Reverend Little because he wanted to own a store and live outside the black district. Malcolm charges that the white police and firemen who arrived at the scene simply stood by and watched the house burn.
Since blacks were not permitted to live within East Lansing itself, the family eventually moved to a farm two miles outside of town, where Reverend Little built a four-room house. The move to the farm was economically advantageous since the family could now raise their own food.
Many of Malcolm’s memories of his father concern his friction with the rest of the family. His parents apparently had conflicting views about everything. Mrs. Little had more education than her husband and had a tendency to correct him. Also, Mrs. Little had a very strict notion of what should and should not be eaten; she did not approve of such “soul-food” staples as pork and rabbit, which her husband loved. This led to frequent conflict. Reverend Little was quite harsh in his treatment of his wife, and of all the children except Malcolm. Malcolm attributes being his father’s favorite to the fact that he was the lightest-skinned of the children; despite his father’s professed pride in his blackness, he too had apparently been brainwashed on the issue of color. Malcolm’s mother, on the other hand, seemed to prefer the darker-skinned children, despite her own almost-white color. Her grandfather had been a white West Indian; she considered him to have been a rapist and a shame to the family.
Although his father was a minister, Christianity was never an important factor in Malcolm’s life. He focuses, rather, on Reverend Little’s militancy, which often found expression in his preaching. His favorite sermon was “That little Black train is comin’ and you better get your business right.” Originally a folk expression advising the congregation to prepare to meet the Lord, in Reverend Little’s usage, this phrase became a prediction of the return of the black people of the world to power and dignity. Reverend Little sometimes took Malcolm with him to UNIA meetings, where Africa was discussed as the dwelling place of a “mighty race,” and as the “Garden of Eden” — a strong contrast to the stereotyped image of a land of naked savages, which Malcolm himself secretly held at this time.
When Malcolm’s father was killed, his family and friends believed that he had been attacked by the Black Legionnaires and his body laid across the streetcar tracks to be run over, but it was officially considered to be an accidental death. Earlier that day, Louise Little had had a vision of her husband’s death, which she later described to Malcolm. Malcolm believes that this capacity for premonition and vision was passed on to her children, and occasional incidents of extra-sensory knowledge figure in his later life.
The close relationship between Malcolm and Reginald resulted from certain events following the death of Earl Little. He had two insurance policies, but only the smaller paid off — the other company claimed that he had committed suicide. Thus, the family had to take on all sorts of odd jobs, and it was Malcolm’s responsibility to take charge of Reginald. This forcing together of the two brothers because of financial necessity created a bond that lasted throughout Malcolm’s lifetime.
Malcolm was constantly made aware of the prejudice against skin color. Because of her light complexion, Mrs. Little was able to take sewing and household work with white families in Lansing, but she was usually fired when the families discovered that she was black. She began to buy necessities on credit and was finally forced to go on welfare. The combination of financial need and injured pride led to a severe deterioration within the family. As the financial situation worsened, Mrs. Little’s mind seemed to fail, and she began to lose control of the children.
Malcolm’s first trouble with the authorities came at this time: he began to steal food and occasionally would be caught. The welfare agents reported this and suggested that Malcolm be given to the custody of another family. Fearful of losing him, Mrs. Little attempted to discipline him with frequent whippings. But, because of Malcolm’s independence, this only made matters worse.
Finally, Malcolm was sent by the welfare agents to live with the Gohannas, who had a son his age.
Shortly afterward, Mrs. Little suffered a complete mental breakdown and was sent to the State Mental Hospital at Kalamazoo, where she remained until 1963.
Malcolm never forgave the white authorities for the torments his mother went through. He felt that she had been the victim of forces beyond her control, of a white bureaucracy which treated its black subjects as things to be controlled rather than as people to be helped. Her attempts to salvage her pride by fighting back had resulted only in the disintegration of her family and the collapse of her mental stability.
Chapter Two deals with Malcolm’s first close relationship with white people, at the county detention home in Mason, Michigan, where he was sent after his expulsion from school in 1938. The white couple who kept the home treated him well, but like the welfare people, they refused to consider him a human being. Rather, they looked upon him as a mascot, a pet. He uses animal imagery to characterize white attitudes toward him throughout the chapter: to the whites, he is like a “pink poodle,” a “pet canary,” a “fine colt, or a pedigreed pup.” In discussing this experience, he expresses the fundamental reason for his opposition to integration: white Americans are unwilling to think of blacks as human beings; they will accept blacks only if blacks are willing to be treated as inferiors.
The detention home episode is preceded by a comic interlude describing Malcolm’s brief career as a boxer. When Joe Louis won the heavyweight championship in 1937, Philbert, like many young blacks around the country, took up boxing. He was successful in his early fights, and Malcolm began to fear that he was becoming a serious rival for Reginald’s admiration; so Malcolm also decided to become a boxer. His career lasted through only two fights, both of them against a white boy named Bill Peterson. Malcolm was soundly defeated in the first fight, but to save face with Reginald, he had to try again. The second fight lasted only ten seconds; Malcolm was knocked out by the first punch. This was the end of his boxing career. Malcolm, however, observes that it was Allah’s way of keeping him from becoming punchy. The comment is not entirely serious, but it does illustrate his belief in predestination, in the direct presence of Allah in his life. The incident also illustrates the strong emotional dependence Malcolm had upon his family, especially Reginald, at this stage of his life.
Malcolm did well at the detention home. The keepers of the home, Mr. and Mrs. Swerlin, were kind to him, and he developed a much more positive attitude toward school. The high point of his career was being elected class president in the seventh grade. This was a real accomplishment in the eyes of the Swerlins because Malcolm was learning to succeed in terms negotiated by white society. During this period, Malcolm learned to be a submissive, well-behaved black male, but he was still unable to adapt fully to this situation.
Near the end of Malcolm’s first semester in the eighth grade, an incident occurred which became one of the major turning-points of his life. He was talking with his English teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, about future plans. When Malcolm told him that he would like to become a lawyer, Mr. Ostrowski said that that was “no realistic goal for a nigger,” and advised him, instead, to try to become a carpenter — something more suitable to the station in life in which his color placed him. This advice upset Malcolm, particularly because Mr. Ostrowski had encouraged poorer students than himself to enter difficult professions. Malcolm began to realize that he was being judged on the basis of his color rather than his capabilities. After this, he began to notice when people called him “nigger,” and began reacting to it. He became withdrawn and quiet, and his behavior began to upset the Swerlins and Mr. Allen, the state welfare agent who had charge of him.
Malcolm’s half-sister Ella had visited him in the detention home. She was socially and financially successful in Boston, and had been instrumental in bringing other family members to the city. Malcolm had visited her once in Boston and had been impressed with what he saw. Now he decided that life would be better there than in Mason, and eventually he was transferred to Ella’s custody.
Malcolm considered the move to Boston the most significant event of his early life. If he had remained in Mason, he would undoubtedly have become part of the black society of small-town Michigan and would have become “a brainwashed black Christian.” Even if he had become a lawyer, he would have been a member of the “black bourgoisie,” complacent and content with the life which white society allowed. Again, unknown to him, Allah was shaping his destiny.
Malcolm’s early days in Boston marked his introduction to ghetto life and the initial steps toward his becoming a “hustler.” Despite his age (fifteen) and his rural background, he made the transition to the ghetto easily, with the help of his newfound friend Shorty. His sister Ella also unwillingly helped in the transition; she gave him a place to stay while he was learning the ways of the city, but found that she could not direct him into the “respectable” life she had planned for him.
Socially, Ella was in the upper class of Boston black society. She lived in the “Hill” section of Roxbury, the part of Boston in which blacks were permitted to live. There was a sharp social distinction between the successful, middle-class “Hill Negroes” of Ella’s neighborhood and the lower-class people of the ghetto, the “Town” section. Actually, the social standing of the Hill Negroes generally depended upon menial jobs, but they attached a great deal of self-importance to these jobs. Bank janitors referred to themselves as being “in finance”; household servants were “with an old family.” Malcolm saw this identification of social status by occupation as an aping of the white social structure, on a lower scale.
Another borrowing from white society was the snobbery of the native New England blacks toward the outsiders, mostly Southerners and West Indians. The New Englanders generally considered themselves socially superior to these other blacks, despite the fact that the outsiders (like Ella) were frequently better off financially.
Ella encouraged Malcolm to take his time in finding a job; she felt he should become acquainted with the city first. He spent much of his time roaming through the city but was increasingly drawn to the town section. The openness of life in the ghetto was a revelation to him — especially the number of interracial couples in public places. Also, the people in the ghetto did not seem as affected as Ella’s friends.
The strongest influence on Malcolm at this time was a person named Shorty, who was from Lansing, Michigan — Malcolm’s “homeboy.” Their common background formed an immediate bond between them. Shorty began tutoring Malcolm in ghetto ways and also found him a job shining shoes at the Roseland Ballroom.
Malcolm’s attitude toward life as a “hustler” was formulated here. The man whom he was replacing taught Malcolm about shining shoes, then about the other hustles a shoeshine boy could use to increase his income. He learned, first of all, to shame customers into tipping him by offering them towels as they left the washroom. Freddie also suggested that he sell contraceptives, and then, when he could identify policemen more easily, liquor and reefers. His parting advice to Malcolm was to remember that “everything in the world is a hustle,” an attitude which was to shape Malcolm’s life for years to come.
Dances at Roseland were segregated, and most of them were for whites only. Another hustle that Malcolm soon learned was that there was money to be made by giving white men tips about getting a black prostitute. On the other hand, the black dances were always well attended by white women interested in picking up black men. It was at this time that Malcolm began to formulate his attitude about the “cesspool morals” of whites.
After work, Malcolm began to meet with Shorty and his friends, who introduced him to drinking, smoking marijuana, and gambling. At this time, Malcolm bought his first “zoot suit,” the outlandish outfit worn by the “hipsters” of the time; at Shorty’s suggestion, he bought it on credit. By now, his father’s warnings against credit buying were the furthest thing from his mind. Shorty also gave Malcolm his first “conk,” a process by which the hair is straightened to look like a white man’s. Malcolm describes this episode humorously, but in reflecting upon it, he comments that it was his “first really big step toward self-degradation”: he had endured actual physical torture in order to look more like a white man. He further discusses the conk as a symbol of the black man’s self-hatred, as well as of his admiration for anything the white man has or does. But he is careful to point out that he is, after all, the prime example of what he is criticizing.