Chapter Eight covers the two days immediately following the end of Chapter Seven. During this time, Malcolm’s life was in constant danger; he was trapped, through no fault of his own, in a web of circumstances. But just when he thought he had no choice but to be killed — or to kill someone else and be sent to prison — Sammy and Shorty came to his rescue.
West Indian Archie found Malcolm at Shorty’s that evening and threatened him with a gun. He believed Malcolm had cheated him on the numbers transaction and demanded his three hundred dollars back by noon the next day. Malcolm was in a bad situation: he could not return the money to Archie without damaging his reputation. And, since word had spread that he had cheated Archie, Archie could not afford to lose his sense of honor. To the hustler, reputation is everything. Later, Malcolm encountered Archie in a bar and was threatened again. The next day, he slept until past Archie’s deadline, but Archie did not find him. However, he got in a fight with another hustler, who also threatened to kill him. Now he had gangsters investigating the robbery after him, he had Archie after him, and he had made another enemy. His situation looked hopeless. But he was rescued at the last moment: Sammy called Shorty in Boston and Shorty came for Malcolm. They picked up Malcolm’s possessions and set out immediately for Boston.
Running away was probably the only solution for Malcolm’s dilemma; he certainly could not have defeated all his enemies. But in running, he ruined his reputation in Harlem. He could not return, even after the danger had passed. Having sacrificed his honor by running, he could never command the respect required of a hustler again. His career was next resumed in Boston — where he was caught by the police.
Both Ella and Shorty were amazed at the change in Malcolm. He was profane, cynical, and atheistic; he describes himself as being “like a predatory animal.” He stayed high on drugs for some time, but eventually decided to return to hustling.
He resumed his affair with Sophia and arranged for her seventeen-year-old sister to date Shorty. These four, with a light-skinned black male named Rudy, organized a burglary ring; Malcolm was their undisputed leader. He demonstrated his leadership by playing “Russian roulette” — putting one bullet in the cylinder of a revolver, twirling the cylinder, and snapping the trigger while pointing the gun at his head.
(He later admitted to Alex Haley that he checked to see that the bullet was not coming up before he pulled the trigger.) This was only one example of his “crazy” behavior at this time. He was continually high on drugs and carried a gun with him at all times. Because of his wild behavior, it was obviously only a matter of time until Malcolm was caught: a detective named Turner began to suspect him and seemed to be following him; next, he had an encounter with a friend of Sophia’s husband one night. Once again, circumstances were closing in on him. Finally, his luck ran out; he was arrested while trying to pick up a stolen watch which he had left for repairs. He implicated Shorty and the girls, and the four of them were tried.
Malcolm observes, however, that he and Shorty seemed to be on trial for their relationship with Sophia and her sister rather than for burglary. They had committed the unpardonable sin of being involved with white women, and their sentences reflected how society felt about this. The average sentence for burglary was two years; they were sentenced to ten. Once again, the inequality of the American system toward black people had been witnessed by Malcolm.
At the conclusion of this chapter, Malcolm comments on the shame he feels about the hustler phase of his life. It is difficult for him to admit that he was so depraved, but he feels that he can be understood only through his past, so the telling is necessary. At this time, he says, he was at the lowest depths of the American white man’s society. Shortly afterward, he found Allah, who raised him into a new world.
Malcolm’s attitude toward the early part of his life is that it was an initiatory period, preparing him for the religious conversion which awaited him in prison. All the events of his life, his self-hatred and degradation, had been prepared by Allah to give him a proper sense of humility when he was finally saved.
Malcolm was twenty-one years old when he entered prison; he was to serve a total of seven years. Early in this period, he earned the nickname “Satan” for his wild, obscene attacks on God and religion. But during his time in prison, he underwent the most important transformation of his life. First, he regained some respect for education and began to read and study again. Then, at his family’s urging, he became interested in the religion which was to vault him to national prominence as its foremost spokesman — the Nation of Islam, or “Black Muslims.”
The most important influence upon Malcolm at this time was Bimbi, another inmate. Bimbi was an educated man, who could talk at length on almost any subject; he would frequently lecture his fellow prisoners on various topics. Bimbi persuaded Malcolm to learn to read and write again, and Malcolm began to use his spare time working on a correspondence course in English. After about a year of study, he could write well; then he began a course in Latin, influenced by Bimbi’s talk about the origins of English words.
During this time, Malcolm began receiving letters from his family, telling him about “the natural religion for the black man,” the Nation of Islam. But he was still wild and atheistic and his replies were blasphemous and insulting. Finally Reginald, who understood Malcolm better than the rest of the family, tried an indirect approach. Rather than mentioning religion, he told Malcolm that he could get out of prison if he quit eating pork and quit smoking cigarettes. Malcolm did not understand this plan, but, because he trusted Reginald, he decided to try it. This was his first step toward becoming a Black Muslim. Reginald came to visit him later and began telling Malcolm about the doctrines of the Nation of Islam. Now, too, the rest of the family began writing Malcolm about their religion. As he read Elijah Muhammad’s teachings on history, Malcolm became more receptive toward the religion.
A large section of this chapter is spent in relating the central myth of the Black Muslim faith, “Yacub’s History.” This story relates the origins of man, who was black. The fall of man takes place when Yacub, an evil scientist, creates a race of white devils. These white men eventually seize power and enslave the black race. But it was prophesied that in six thousand years — in the twentieth century — the black race would rise up and regain control of the world.
Malcolm also relates the myth of Wallace D. Fard, the founder of the Nation of Islam, who was supposedly a prophet of Allah, a divinity on earth. In the concluding passage of the chapter, written after his separation from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm criticizes this belief from the point-of-view of orthodox Islam, and he denounces Elijah Muhammad. It should be remembered that this book was written over the course of two years and that during part of this time, Malcolm was still a Black Muslim minister. For this reason, his statements about the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad are frequently contradictory. They represent remarks made at different times, when his relationship with the organization had changed.
Chapter Eleven deals with the latter part of Malcolm’s prison term, during which he was converted to the Nation of Islam. His conversion began with a letter to Elijah Muhammad. In his reply, the “Messenger” personally welcomed Malcolm to the faith and explained how white society forced black men into lives of crime by keeping them ignorant and destitute. Prisons were one of the main sources of recruits for the Black Muslims, and Elijah Muhammad was especially effective in recruiting from this source because he could rely upon his own prison background as a common bond with the men he contacted.
Malcolm continued his process of self-education, reading widely in history. He concentrated especially upon books dealing with slavery and with the history of the black in North America. Here he found compelling evidence for the truth of Elijah Muhammad’s teachings. All world history, of the East as well as the West, confirmed to him that the white man had acted as a devil. He had destroyed whatever he had found in Africa and Asia and had subdued the non-white peoples of the world in his own self-interest. The histories of non-Western civilizations confirmed Malcolm’s newfound pride in his blackness.
Malcolm then began what was to become his primary work for most of his remaining life — attempting to find new converts to the Nation of Islam. He found that black convicts are especially receptive to the Muslims’ teaching that “the white man is the devil”; the lives of black criminals have conditioned them to readily accept this idea. This is, of course, why the Muslims emphasize the prisons as a source of new converts; the inequality of the white system of law and justice has prepared the way for them.
Malcolm also gained his first experience as a public speaker at this time. In the prison debating program, he began to develop the distinctive speaking style that became his characteristic: he would anticipate his opponent’s arguments and discredit them before they could be developed.
While Malcolm was still in prison, Reginald had a dispute with the Nation of Islam. Malcolm and the rest of the family tried to reconcile his disbelief, but it did no good. He accused Elijah Muhammad of adultery — the major issue which was eventually to lead to Malcolm’s “divorce” from the religion. Eventually Reginald went insane and was committed to an institution. Malcolm gives two interpretations of the event which characterize his thinking before and after his own rift with the Muslims. As a member of the Nation of Islam, he observes that Reginald was being punished by Allah for his attacks upon Elijah Muhammad. In a later statement, Malcolm expresses the belief that Reginald was an instrument of Allah’s will — that is, he played a major role in Malcolm’s conversion. At another time, he attributes Reginald’s insanity to his rejection by the family. This latter judgment was made by Malcolm at a time when his brothers Wilfred and Philbert had repudiated him after his own expulsion from the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm’s years in prison mark the major turning-point of his career. He went to prison an illiterate, atheistic criminal; he came out an educated, self-confident, zealously religious man.
Chapter Twelve discusses Malcolm’s early days as a Black Muslim and the beginnings of his personal relationship with his “savior,” Elijah Muhammad. From the first, Malcolm’s intelligence and devotion to the Nation of Islam attracted Elijah Muhammad’s attention, and he quickly rose to a position as one of his most trusted lieutenants.
Malcolm was paroled to the custody of his brother Wilfred, who lived in Detroit. His first purchases after leaving prison were a pair of glasses, a suitcase, and a wristwatch. He suggests that these items symbolize his new life. His reading in prison had damaged his eyes, but the price was worth his new character. His future life would consist of almost-perpetual travel from one place to another, with a great consciousness of time and his schedule.
Malcolm lived with Wilfred and his family in Detroit and worked in a furniture store which his brother managed. He was impressed with Muslim family life and with the attitudes of brotherhood among members of the faith, but from the beginning he was dissatisfied with the inactivity of the Muslims, especially their laxity in recruiting new members. He had always been an activist, and he felt that a little more effort could increase enrollment in the temple. He was to become the most effective organizer and recruiter in the Nation of Islam; but, to the end, he remained impatient and dissatisfied with the Muslims’ lack of activist programs for the betterment of the black people’s condition.
Malcolm met Elijah Muhammad personally on a pilgrimage to Chicago and had an opportunity to talk with him at some length. Shortly thereafter, he dropped his “slave name,” Little, and took the new name by which he was to become famous — Malcolm X. The “X” denotes an unknown quantity, an original African name. He became personally active in recruitment and, as a reward for his zeal, was eventually appointed minister of the Detroit temple.
The last part of this chapter recounts a history of Elijah Muhammad, who had been personally appointed by the founder of the Nation of Islam, W. D. Fard, to head the religion after Fard’s disappearance. This passage is narrated mostly in tones of admiration for Elijah Muhammad; it was written before Malcolm’s disagreement with him. But toward the end of the chapter, there are later assessments. Malcolm notes that he probably believed in Elijah Muhammad more strongly than Elijah himself did, for he never suspected until the very end that his leader was a conscious fraud.